A reminder of this post on two local cultural workers in the heady days of fieldwork on ritual in the early years after the collapse of the Maoist commune system: early encounters with liturgists and temple fairs in rural Hebei, and our introduction to the ritual associations of Gaoluo.
Yuan Jingfang documenting the ritual music of Chengde, 1987. My photo.
At the Central Conservatoire of Music (CCM) in Beijing, Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 is the most influential pedagogue, fieldworker, and theorist of traditional Chinese instrumental music, whose work bears major relevance for the study of ritual.
Having been an errant student of Yuan Jingfang in 1987 (see e.g. Buddhist ritual of Chengde), in May 2016 I attended a major conference at the CCM for her 80th birthday (see here, under “The reform era”). Now a collection of related articles has been published in her honour (nice succinct title—brace yourselves for the subtitle!):
- Chu Li 褚历 (ed.), Jiwang kailai: Zhongguo chuantong yinyue lilunde jicheng yu chuangxin/Yuan Jingfang jiaoshou 80 huadan xueshu yantaohui lunwenji [Carrying on from the past: transmission and innovation in the theory of traditional Chinese music/Collected articles from the scholarly conference for the 80th birthday of Professor Yuan Jingfang] 继往开来：中国传统音乐理论的继承与创新/袁静芳教授80华诞学术研讨会论文集 (2020, 497 pp.).
Yuan Jingfang (right) with Chen Yu.
In 1951, aged 15, Yuan Jingfang joined the Public Security division of the PLA, taking part in musical propaganda work. She studied at the CCM from 1956. Already having a background in the erhu, after studying briefly with Jiang Fengzhi she focused on the yangqin dulcimer. She also studied the shifan luogu ensemble of the Wuxi Daoists with the great Yang Yinliu, and later (before and after the Cultural Revolution) with the Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu.
Yang Yinliu was a major inspiration for Yuan Jingfang—she recalls his laments about conservatoire musicians’ arrangements of folk material. Among the cultured masters teaching at Beijing music schools of the day, she was influenced by Lan Yusong 蓝玉崧 (1925–96)—also a noted calligrapher.
Yuan Jingfang’s research has always been based in musical analysis. In her classic 1987 book Minzu qiyue 民族器乐 [Chinese instrumental music] she expanded her remit from solo genres to folk instrumental ensembles, and thence to ritual music—notably the Buddhist temple music of old Beijing, as well as folk Daoist traditions such as those of Shaanbei and south Hebei, documenting ritual sequences in fine detail, including the texts and melodic contours of vocal liturgy. Her book provided valuable material for my own Folk music of China (1995).
By now Yuan Jingfang was codifying her influential system of “music-genre studies” (yuezhong xue 乐种学), enshrined notably in her 1999 book of that name. Her pervasive methodology includes aspects such as scales, fingerings, notation, form (including suites), material components (instruments, iconography, notation, and so on)—and fieldwork. While stopping short of ethnomusicological “participant observation”, she stresses the importance of instrumental technique.
As a major editor for the instrumental volumes of the Anthology, guiding nationwide fieldwork, her methods were widely adopted (see Chen Yu’s interview, §4). While her main domain is instrumental music, in her book Zhongguo chuantong yinyue gailun 中国传统音乐概论 (2000) she also encompassed vocal genres.
The new volume includes contributions from many of the foremost Chinese musicologists, her cohorts and students. Several authors (including Chen Yingshi, Fan Zuyin, Wang Yaohua, and Wu Guodong) offer paeans to her system of “music-genre studies”; others to her research on Buddhist music (as well as one on Daoist music). Various scholars describe her inspirational teaching, such as the volume’s editor Chu Li, and the sanxian performer Tan Longjian, who reflects on her studies with Yuan Jingfang—including their work on the chamber ensemble of the Manchu-Mongol elite.
Some caveats. Her template can seem rigid if applied without imagination; like the projects of scholars on southern Daoism, it tends to reify, downplaying the changing social context. Thus she refrains from documenting the lives of musicians and ritual specialists through the turbulent times of the 20th century (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.365). Indeed, in interview her own reservation about more anthropologically-minded approaches is merely their considerable difficulty (by which she’s not referring to political sensitivity). Anyway, such methods should incorporate her more technical system: both are indeed challenging.
Indeed, the volume also contains contributions from some scholars whose more social ethnographic bent complements their studies of music and history, like Zhang Zhentao and Xiao Mei; and in my own essay I show Yuan Jingfang’s influence on my analyses of the soundscapes of Gaoluo, the Hua family shawm band, and the Li family Daoists.
So while Yuan Jingfang’s output may have more to offer to musicologists than to anthropologists, her work is essential to our studies, underlining the importance of soundscape in traditional Chinese culture.
“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”
Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.
- Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).
—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. 
* * *
Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.
The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.
Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.
At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.
Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.
The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.
Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).
At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).
Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.
At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.
After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.
Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).
The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. 
The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced
- Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. 
In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.
For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.
Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.
Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.
In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.
In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:
The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.
In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.
With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.
The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.
Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. 
And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh!  Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. 
How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:
In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.
One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. 
Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:
We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs.
What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).
Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). 
Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.
Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.
But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.
And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.
Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.
Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.
So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the Chinese guest. While we should indeed document the perspectives of patrons and aficionados, it should only be a supplement to working with musicians themselves. But the ideology of “becoming at one with the masses” only went so far. Given the obligatory stress on the music of the labouring classes, it may seem ironic that Mao Jizeng’s main topic was a genre patronised by the old aristocrats, and that he chose to study it with one of them rather than with a lowly “folk artist”. He justifies his studies by observing his mentor’s warm relations with the common folk. He doesn’t say, but perhaps Amir and other musicians also took part in some sessions at Horkhang’s house—in which case it would have made an ideal setting.
By contrast with the distinctive soundscapes of the monasteries and lha-mo opera, nangma’s heterophony of flute, plucked and bowed strings, and hammer dulcimer, however “authentic”, often sounds disconcertingly like Chinese silk-and-bamboo, as you can hear in this playlist— sadly not annotated, but apparently containing tracks both from exile and within the PRC:
Indeed, as with the dodar ceremonial ensemble of Amdo monasteries, the Chinese influence goes back to the 18th century. This doubtless enhanced its appeal for Mao Jizeng; and like silk-and-bamboo, it was to make nangma–töshe a suitable basis for the state song-and-dance troupes. Woeser gives short shrift to modern incarnations of nangma in her wonderful story Garpon-la’s offerings (n.9 below).
So Horkhang Sonam Palbar was Mao Jizeng’s main source for the two slim volumes that he also published in 1959,
- Xizang gudian gewu: nangma 西藏古典歌舞——囊玛 [Tibetan classical song and dance: nangma]
- Xizang minjian gewu: duixie 西藏民间歌舞——堆谢 [Tibetan folk song and dance: töshe].
Even the enlightened Music Research Institute was anxious about publishing Mao’s afterword acknowledging a Tibetan aristocrat.
According to Mao Jizeng’s 2007 tribute, Horkhang told him that he survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. This fiction may result both from people’s general reluctance to remember trauma and from the limitations of their relationship—we learn a very different story from Woeser’s Forbidden memory.
Horkhang Sonam Palbar (centre) paraded with his wife and father-in-law at a thamzing struggle-session, August 1966. Forbidden memory, fig.80.
As Woeser explains, the Red Guards dressed him in a fur coat and hat that they found in his home, to denote his official rank in the former Tibetan government and his “dream of restoring the feudal serf system”.
Woeser goes on to describe how among the “crimes” of which Horkhang was accused was his friendship with the famous writer and scholar Gendun Chöphel (1903–51). Horkhang had helped him through times of adversity, and before Gendun Chöphel died he entrusted many of his manuscripts to Horkhang; these were now confiscated and destroyed by the activists. Still, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Horkhang assembled what he could find of Gendun Chöphel’s work, eventually publishing a three-volume set of his writings that became an authoritative work.
By contrast with the entertainment music of nangma-töshe, in his 1959 article Mao Jizeng also gives a brief introduction to gar, the ceremonial “palace music” of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, having worked on the genre “in some depth” in the winter of 1956–57, he compiled a third monograph on it, but realised it was too sensitive a topic for publication, and it was lost during the Cultural Revolution.
Gar seems to have been in decline even before the Chinese occupation, though details on its life through the 1940s and 50s are elusive. The little section in Mao Jizeng’s article is characteristically headed “The dark system is a stumbling block to the development of music”; his main purpose here is to decry the former feudal society’s cruel exploitation of the teenage boys who served as dancers—actually an interesting angle, however tendentious Mao’s approach.
Mao Jizeng, liner notes for CD 5 of Xizang yinyue jishi (n.9 below).
Right, gar dancers, 1950s, provenance unclear.
The main instrumental ensemble for gar consisted of loud shawms and kettle-drums, of Ladakhi origin (cf. related bands in Xinjiang, Iran, and India)—formerly, at least, with the halo of a mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs (cf. Chinese yunluo).  A brief scene (from 5.50) of this silent footage from 1945 shows the gong frame on procession with two shawms:
But a subsidiary chamber instrumentation, closer to that of nangma, included the rgyud-mang dulcimer—and as a gift from the MRI, Mao Jizeng presented the musicians with a Chinese yangqin, which must have made an unwieldy part of Mao Jizeng’s luggage on the arduous journey.
He doesn’t cite a source for this section, so it’s unclear who the musicians he consulted were; the Dalai Lama, whom they served, was still in Lhasa, and by 1956 the performers were still at liberty. But following the 1959 rebellion, when the Dalai Lama had to flee, they were deported en masse to the Gormo “reform through labour” camp at Golmud in Qinghai, over a thousand kilometres distant—part of a network of such camps in the vast, desolate region (cf. China: commemorating trauma). There they were to spend over twenty years; conscripted to work on constructing the new railway and highway, singing and dancing can hardly have been part of their regime.
Mao Jizeng ends his 1959 article with a brief section on “New developments since the Peaceful Liberation [sic] of Tibet”—the formation of professional troupes, and the creation of new folk-songs in praise of Chairman Mao; also, of course, themes worthy of study. Encapsulating the fatuity of Chinese propaganda, his final formulaic paragraph is just the kind of flapdoodle we have to wade through:
With the defeat of the former local Tibetan government and the reactionary upper-class elements, traitors to their country, the great mountain weighing down on the hearts of the Tibetan people was overturned, providing more profitable conditions for the development of their ethnic music. The way ahead for Tibetan music is limitlessly broad. It will shine radiantly forth in the ranks of the music of the Chinese nationalities.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies only a few years later, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Selflessly, I have read Mao Jizeng’s article so that you won’t have to.
Back in Beijing, and the reform era
Mao Jizeng may have largely ignored the fraught social conditions of the time, but one has to admire his persistence in remaining in Lhasa for ten months. Even by the 1990s, Chinese fieldworkers, and most foreign scholars, still tended to find brief “hit-and-run” missions more practicable, albeit over an extended period (cf. here).
Between 1956, when Mao Jizeng set off for Tibet, and the publication of his report in 1959, the political climate deteriorated severely in Beijing too. From 1957, music scholars were among countless intellectuals and cadres demoted or imprisoned during the Anti-Rightist campaign, not to be rehabilitated until the late 1970s; and the 1958 Great Leap Backward soon led to severe famine and destruction. Chinese people had to deal with their own devastating sufferings, without worrying about distant Tibet.
Even so, in 1960 Yang Yinliu managed to publish the Hunan survey that he had led, also in 1956; its 618 pages (as well as a separate study on the Confucian ritual!) make a stark contrast with the paltry material resulting from the hampered Tibetan expedition. * I wonder if his original fieldnotes have survived.
Disturbingly, the misleading clichés of Mao Jizeng’s article still continue to recur in more recent PRC scholarship. There, forty years since liberalisation, no frank reflections on the conditions of fieldwork among minority peoples in the 1950s seem to have been published—and amidst ever-tighter limits on academic freedom, such work is becoming even less likely.
Nonetheless, along with the widespread revival of tradition in the 1980s, more extensive study developed. For the major Anthology project Tibetan and Chinese cultural workers were no longer so cautious about documenting elite and religious genres. They now collected much material—with hefty volumes for TAR, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan on folk-song, opera, narrative-singing, instrumental music, and dance. For the historian, the monographs on opera and narrative-singing (xiqu zhi 戏曲志, quyi zhi 曲艺志) are particularly useful. As with Han Chinese traditions, much of this research focused on the cultures that had been impoverished under Maoism, rather than the process of impoverishment.
From early in the 1980s, in both Dharamsala and Lhasa, gar court music was recreated under the guidance of Pa-sangs Don-grub (1918–98), the last gar-dpon master to have served under a ruling Dalai Lama in Tibet (and like Horkhang, a pupil of Gendun Chöphel), as well as the former gar-pa dancer Rigdzin Dorje. In Dharamsala it began to serve the ceremonies of the Dalai Lama again, whereas in Lhasa it was performed only in concert.
Though we don’t know how many inmates of the Gormo camp survived, Pa-sangs Don-grub was at last able to return to Lhasa by 1982, literally scarred by two decades of hard labour. The precise timeline seems unclear, but in Woeser’s plausible interpretation, he only overcame his reluctance to accept the Chinese request for him to lead a revival of the genre when, in a brief rapprochement, he was given the opportunity to pay homage to his revered former master the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala through training performers at TIPA—and only on the Dalai Lama’s advice did he return to Lhasa to teach it there too.
The 1980s’ revival of gar. Photos: Willie Robson.
In July 1987, while I was still seeking folk ritual bands in China, the enterprising Willie Robson (with whom I later worked to bring a Buddhist group from Wutaishan to the UK) put together the Music from the Royal Courts festival at the South Bank for BBC Radio 3—a grand enterprise the like of which would hardly be possible to organise today. It included groups from Africa and India, Ottoman and Thai music, the Heike biwa epic from Japan, nanguan from Taiwan, Uyghur muqam, the Chinese qin zither—and, remarkably, a combined group from Lhasa, performing both gar and nangma-töshe.
Moved by Pa-sangs Don-grub’s 1985 book in her father’s collection, Woeser encapsulates our task in reading PRC documents:
Even a short introduction in a book can reveal a lot of information. This was the case with Songs and dances for offerings, with its brief introduction to the 14th Dalai Lama’s eleven-member dance troupe. After a few pages, only bits of information about the troupe emerged, such as the number of members and their ages. There wasn’t a lot, but at the time it probably wasn’t safe to write much more. The introduction seemed to be quite ordinary, even mediocre. Nevertheless, much information was hidden between the lines. These nuances could only be understood by another Tibetan, who would discern from just a glance what was really being said, what happened when and where. Many Tibetan readers experienced the hardship and torment the troupe endured before they had at last survived the disasters in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t experienced similar torments will find it hard to read between the lines of the writing and know what the men went through. That’s why a narrator like me is needed, who is at some distance from the incidents but is sympathetic to their reality and able to retell the story.
Also in the 1980s, Mao Jizeng’s former mentor Horkhang Sonam Palbar, having endured his own tribulations in the Cultural Revolution, was once again showered with high-ranking official titles in the Chinese apparatus—in a common pattern, serving as “décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies”, as Woeser observes in Forbidden memory.
Meanwhile, from 1983 Mao Jizeng was finally able to visit regions of the TAR that were out of bounds to him in 1956; and after the convulsive events of the 60s and 70s, on his trips to Lhasa he was able to meet up again with Horkhang.
Horkhang Sonam Palbar leading a study team to a village of the Lhoba minority people,
Mainling county, southeast TAR 1987 (cf. here, n.1).
Blissfully oblivious to all the evidence, Mao Jizeng still constantly parroted the cliché of the warm fraternal feelings between Han Chinese and Tibetans, and his own rapport with the latter, including Horkhang (for more subtle views on rapport, see the excellent Bruce Jackson; and here I develop Nigel Barley’s characterisation of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot” into “harmful idiot”).
In his 2003 tribute to Horkhang, Mao tells a story that inadvertently suggests a less rosy picture—revealing both Tibetan resentment and the insidious hierarchical power dynamics among Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese:
In Lhasa in 1988—during yet another period of serious unrest, by the way—Mao Jizeng was having problems mustering the recalcitrant Shöl Tibetan Opera Troupe to perform Sukyi Nima for him to record. Rather shooting himself in the foot, he even lists some of their excuses: some actors hadn’t showed up, the troupe was out of money, they couldn’t find the drum… * It was only when the illustrious Horkhang stepped in to cajole them that they finally had to play ball.
And widespread unrest has continued in Tibetan areas. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods. For eleven Tibetan singers imprisoned since 2012, click here. 
* * *
As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology abounds with scholars who come from a society that oppresses the culture in question; and around the world there are plenty of accounts of fieldwork projects that fell short of their ambition. The limitations of Mao Jizeng’s ten-month sojourn in the tense, turbulent Lhasa of 1956, and even his inability to reflect on the issues involved, may not be such an exceptional case.
As another kind of outsider, only able to read Chinese and English but not Tibetan sources, such are the slender clues that I can offer.
So much for “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”. Meretricious (and a Happy New Monlam).
With thanks to Robbie Barnett
 Since the present or past tense is not necessarily specified in Chinese, one might almost be tempted to read it as “There was singing everywhere in Tibet [until we barged in and broke it all up]”—or perhaps as an optative, like “Britannia rule the waves”?!).
 By the way, “singing” is a very broad, um, church. Both singing and dancing on stage are only the tip of the iceberg; they lead us to folk festivities, notably calendrical and life-cycle rituals. Though “revolutionary songs” were an obligatory component of Chinese collecting throughout the PRC (if anyone remembers songs of resistance sung by the Tibetan rebels from 1956, people certainly weren’t going to sing them for Chinese fieldworkers—who anyway wouldn’t want, or dare, to listen), their main interest was the traditional soundscape (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”). Tibetan and Chinese pop music only came to play a major part in the Tibetan soundscape after the 1980s’ reforms.
Even today in a (Chinese) region like Shaanbei, famed for its folk-songs, it would be misleading to claim that singing is everywhere, harking back to the romantic image of Yellow earth. Sure, folk-songs are still heard quite often there, but often in rowdy restaurants rather than by shepherds on picturesque hillsides (cf. One belt, one road).
 For yet more detail, see Melvyn Goldstein’s multi-volume A history of modern Tibet—for this period, vol.3: The storm clouds descend, 1955–1957 and vol.4: In the eye of the storm, 1957–1959. There’s also extensive research unpacking the representation of ethnic minorities in the PRC, from Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell and onwards. For the changing physical and mental landscape of Lhasa, note Robert Barnett’s sophisticated book Lhasa: streets with memory (2006).
 Naturally, Mao Jizeng rendered Tibetan terms in Chinese characters, just as Western visitors devised systems to render it in their alphabet. Later, as the variants of the Wylie system became standard for international publications, Chinese transcription was acknowledged to be inadequate—though it still works for the Chinese… I’ve tried to give Wylie versions of Mao Jizeng’s Chinese terms.
 For Tibetan folk-song, see §9 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s Western-language bibliography—including this detailed ethnography of a family in Amdo, yet another impressive publication from Kevin Stuart’s team; Sangye Dondhup’s list for sources in Chinese and Tibetan; and the folk-song volumes of the Anthology.
 The first such project is usually dated to 1956; even then, the airport didn’t become operational until 1965. Perhaps the 1954 labourers, too exhausted by singing and dancing, and too demoralised at being forbidden to do so, were unable to complete the job?
 See Melvyn Goldstein, “Lhasa street songs: political and social satire in traditional Tibet”, Tibet journal 7.1–2 (1982), based on material collected among exile communities. For Sitting Bull’s ingenious speech in Sioux for assembled white dignitaries, cursing them with impunity, see n.1 here.
 For nangma–töshe, see the bibliographies cited in n.5 above, as well as the Anthology for TAR. For the work of Geoffrey Samuel, apart from his chapter in Jamyang Norbu (ed.), Zlos-gar (1986), see “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976)—including an Appendix referring to fifteen 78s recorded in Lhasa between 1943 and 1945 by the British Mission under Sir Basil Gould, which one would love to compare with later versions!
The writings of Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (Zhol-khang bSod-nams Dar-rgyas) feature in Sangye Dondhup’s list of Tibetan sources; he is included among the biographical entries for Tibetan musicians in the New Grove dictionary (handily assembled here; main article on Tibetan music here). For the role of female performers before 1959, see the fine article Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Women in the performing arts: portraits of six contemporary singers”, pp.204–207.
In search of Ajo Namgyel, I found the fascinating article by Jamyang Norbu “The Lhasa Ripper“, on the “dark underbelly” of pre-occupation Lhasa: crime, prostitution, beggars. For nangma bars since the 1990s, see e.g. Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004), and her “Modernity, power, and the reconstruction of dance in post-1950s Tibet”, Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (2007).
 A useful introduction to gar before the occupation, and then from exile, is Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup, “A preliminary study of gar, the court dance and music of Tibet”, in Zlos-gar. See also Mark Trewin, “On the history and origin of ‘gar’: the court ceremonial music of Tibet”, CHIME 8 (1995). As well as the entry for Pa-sangs Don-grub in the New Grove (with a list of his publications), do read Woeser‘s story “Garpon La’s offerings“, Manoa 24.2 (2012). Dates given for the gar-pa Rigdzin Dorje differ: 1915–83 apud Zlos-gar, 1927–84 according to Grove. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa gong-frame is mentioned in the Zlos-gar chapter and the Grove section on gar.
Within TAR the fortunes of gar are documented in the Anthology; and Mao Jizeng’s six-CD anthology of Tibetan music in TAR, Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind Records, 1994), recorded since the 1980s, features both nangma-töshe (CDs 3 and 5) and gar (CD 5, ##3–4), despite the nugatory liner notes; see Mireille Helffer’s review. In the absence of Mao Jizeng’s monograph, all I can find of his notes on gar is on pp.38–42 of this trite overview of Tibetan music.
* In another age, he might have returned with gifts emblazoned “My mate went to Lhasa and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.
In my second post on Women of Yanggao I gave a brief introduction to studies of gender in Chinese religious life. Within this ever-growing scholarly field, here I’d like to introduce two substantial recent discussions, by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi.
Focusing on prescriptive tracts by educated commentators, both authors highlight the “double blindness” between women’s studies and religious studies, revisiting the elite dichotomy between religious reformists and “superstition” in the first half of the 20th century, the influence of Christianity, the May Fourth movement, and Communist rhetoric. Kang further pursues the story into the Maoist and reform eras.
Throughout Chinese history until the 1950s, the vast majority of women were illiterate; the reliance of our portrayals on elite perspectives is an unfortunate limitation in historical scholarship generally, all the more so when we consider gender. While much research focuses on the discursive aspect of religion (canonical texts, and so on), among the fruits of fieldwork since the 1980s is that it reveals the importance of women’s religious activities—a view that appears only dimly for earlier periods.
* * *
- Elena Valussi, “Men built religion, and women made it superstitious: gender and superstition in Republican China”, Journal of Chinese religions [currently free access!] 48.1 (2020).
As she observes:
Until quite recently, histories of the May Fourth movement (1919) and of the Republican period (1912–1949) generally did not include women/gender issues. More recent histories which include a gender perspective do not discuss religion. There has been substantial research on the birth of feminism in China, on the rise of a female collective consciousness and of the “new woman” and discussion of the methodological hurdles in integrating a gender perspective into the study of the Republican period. However, scholarship about women and modernity does not generally include the powerful connection between women and religion, and certainly not the connection between women and superstition.
Religion in 20th-century China was reorganised according to new, modern, and scientific paradigms; in this novel definition, which excluded many communal experiences deemed superstitious, religion came to be identified more with personal practice and individual beliefs, understood as self-strengthening and self-improvement, and was to be one of the responses against Western Imperialism and Japanese occupation. Women had always been seen as closely involved with religious practices, but at this time they were identified as intrinsically and powerfully superstitious, and their religiosity was used as a necessary site of symbolic transformation for the nation. Numerous examples of the deleterious effect of superstition on women, their children, the family, and society were described, and modern and scientific education was seen as the antidote to this seemingly intractable problem.
The noble, elusive goal of reformists was to eliminate male Confucian power over women as part of a general attack on religion. Valussi introduces The Woman’s Bell (Nüjie zhong 女界鐘, 1903), an early “feminist manifesto” by the male author Jin Tianhe 金天翮advocating the liberation of women by eliminating “the four great obstructions” for women: foot-binding, decorative clothing, superstition, and restrictions on movement.
But such pundits often gendered “religion” as male and “superstition” as female. As Jin Tianhe commented:
Superstition is an inauspicious thing. Nuns, witches, geomancers, and astrologers are inauspicious people.
Indeed, more generally one finds a similar dilemma facing pundits writing about the reform of (mostly male) folk musical groups: while admiring their music, they fretted that their performing contexts were inseparable from “superstition”.
Valussi goes on to cite newspapers, magazines, gazetteers, and novels from the Republican era—such as Hu Ruilan 胡瑞蘭, a writer from the Gansu female teachers’ academy:
Gentlemen have refined their bodies and corrected their minds, they are intelligent and honest, and cannot be deluded by ghosts and spirits [Yeah, right—SJ]. My female compatriots are ignorant folk. They should strive to be like gentlemen, respect morals, be upright in character and diligent in self-cultivation, establish their hearts on behalf of heaven and earth, set their destiny in service of people and things. (In this way) they would not be deluded by evil talk that would make them lose their true nature.
As Valussi observes:
Younger and more educated women, seeing themselves as part of a modern collective identity, are urging older, rural, and uneducated women to also join this “imagined sisterhood.” Narratives imply or state clearly that peasant/uneducated women are more likely to be superstitious and in need of rescuing. […] However, we do not often hear the voices of the older and rural women, we only see their actions described.
So such lofty exhortations effectively penalised women’s behaviour.
Canons, liturgy, and hierarchical structures, described by Katz as acceptable and non-superstitious elements of religion, as well as Confucian philosophy, also acceptable if not linked to oppressive and restrictive practices, were typically the purview of males. […]
What is progress, modernity, and a secular religiosity is often attached to male behaviours, and what is excluded from it, superstition, often is more directly and strongly attached to women’s own nature, beliefs, spaces, and practices.
But as Chau suggests, this speaks to the dominance of elite perspectives in the discourse, not to the situation on the ground.
Valussi discusses women’s activities in temples (including burning incense, and the harmful economic costs of women’s religious practices), in the family, and in urban and rural religious organisations. Female spirit mediums, often described as tricksters swindling other women, are particular objects of criticism from the reformists. Now, since male and female mediums coexist in some regions (cf. the self-mortifying male mediums of south Fujian and Amdo), while one gender predominates in others, I’d like to learn more about how they are treated differently, then and now—in the literature, by the authorities, and by their local clientele.
In her Conclusion Valussi comments astutely:
But is there an actual shift in the position and role of women? A question that arose in the context of critically engaging with these sources was: are we actually talking about women here? Or rather, are women’s religious practices used, in popular newspapers, as a foil that stands in for the inability of the government and of intellectuals to eradicate practices deemed backwards? Are women, perceived as particularly superstitious because of their lack of education and access to the outside world, only a symbol of the inability of China to rid itself of these practices? A symbol of China’s backwardness and inability to move forward? There is a remarkable continuity in the period that goes from the early to mid-twentieth century in terms of the calls against female superstition. However, nothing much seems to change, except a certain heightened force and violence in the message, inspired by the increase in the forcefulness of the anti-superstition campaigns in general. […]
The calls for change, often from young educated women, could be seen as a genuine attempt at changing women’s lives. On a more metaphorical level, however, we see both male and female educated intellectuals inveighing against practices that mar China’s very essence and its ability to move forward.
While Valussi only takes the story as far as the eve of the Communist revolution, even during the Maoist era the manifestations of “superstition” (both male and female) that had so concerned intellectuals became muted, but were not erased. And from the perspective of women since the 1980s’ reforms, modern education and “superstition” don’t entirely seem mutually exclusive. For both men and women, opportunities are always greater in urban areas; for both, religious (and superstitious) activities remain popular in the countryside. Of course such discourses are never gender-neutral; but while we should detail all the kinds of religious behaviour of both men and women, and refrain from belittling female activity, the rhetoric of idealistic pundits, as Valussi observes, doesn’t tally with grass-roots practice.
* * *
Among the extensive literature that Valussi cites is
- Kang Xiaofei, “Women and the religious question in modern China”, in Vincent Goossaert, Jan Kiely, and John Lagerwey (eds), Modern Chinese religion II, 1850–2015 (2016),
which further pursues the story after 1949. Kang’s nine sections examine the challenges and changes brought by the arrival of Christianity the May Fourth movement; rural and urban women, and the early role of left-wing feminists; political uses of religion, women, and gender in the Communist revolution; women and religion in the religious revival since the collapse of Maoism; and thoughts on further integrating women, gender, and religion in a globalizing era.
Like Valussi, Kang notes that
intrinsic elements of Chinese religious practices and rituals, such as incense burning, paper offerings, communal worship, ghost pacification, demon exorcism, fortune-telling and spirit possession, were all denounced as “superstition” and hence a hindrance to modernity.
But as she explains, rejection and suppression don’t tell the whole story.
The century-long mass mobilisation for gender equality and women’s liberation has also brought women out of domestic confinement and empowered women in various realms, including that of religion. Since Republican times, women have participated in public religious life and have assumed leadership in different religious organisations. At times they have also used religion to defy officially-prescribed gender roles, to negotiate with state authorities, and to create social spaces of their own.
Still, the participation of women that we can now find through fieldwork can’t be attributed solely to such official “mobilisation”; rather, it may seem like a belated revelation of a longer-term involvement that was previously hidden to us.
Kang pays attention to women’s role in both institutional and folk religious activity, including the ubiquitous spirit mediums—on whom, apart from the sources that Kang cites (notably, for the Hakka, Xu Xiaoying 徐霄鹰, Gechang yu jingshen 歌唱与敬神, 2006), I’d also mention fine ethnographers such as Xiao Mei and Mayfair Yang.
Indeed, the very informality of the status of such women may have helped them to keep practising under Maoism, as Kang suggests:
First, compared to the male dominated textual and institutional traditions of religion, women’s religious practices are more personal, oral, and informal. This lack of institutional and doctrinal attachment has been a main reason that women’s religious activities have often been condemned as superstition, but it has also made them less threatening targets and more resilient in the Maoist campaigns against religion. “A few old women” here and there kept religions and ritual traditions alive in one way or another during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution. Second, the revolution’s advocacy of economic contribution to society has had the effect of bringing women out of domestic confinement. As women’s employment outside the home in both urban and rural settings has become widely accepted, women face much less constraint and prejudice than their late imperial counterparts did when venturing into the public space of religion. […]Third, the revolution has also effectively destroyed the traditional power structure in local society and eliminated the Confucian gentry elite who once collaborated with state officials and monopolised the ritual life of local communities.
Discussing the age-range of religious women, she observes:
Either as lay believers or spirit mediums, the middle aged and elder women are neither victims of superstition nor obstacles to modernity. For many, religious practices are not simply to revive the pre-revolutionary past. They ingeniously construct female religiosity with the traditional and modern resources—including Maoist teachings—at their disposal. They are well aware of the social and political stigma [risks, I might say] of conducting “superstitious” activities, and they adopt different strategies to legitimise their activities.
Their religious authority is defined by “social skills, marketing strategies, moral qualities, and in certain cases female charisma”.
* * *
Plunging into rural fieldwork as I did in the 1980s without being conditioned by elite discourses, I found the simple public–private dichotomy in religious activity revealed in the male domination among public performers such as ritual specialists and shawm bands; yet I came to realise that while women rarely occupy such formal roles, they do play a major part in religious life—notably as mediums and sectarians. The background provided by Valussi and Kang makes valuable preparation for fieldworkers.
FWIW, among my own sketches of the lives of rural women, see Women of Gaoluo; nuns of rural Hebei; and my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here. In my survey of ethnographic films I cite the documentary Under goddesses’ shelter, about a Hakka nun. These, along with some of my other posts on gender in China and elsewhere, are listed here.
Lastly, a bold, nay revolutionary, idea: I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?! Notwithstanding the role of women in the latter manifestations, such a reversal would also entail a far greater recognition of their fundamental importance in Chinese religious life. One can but dream…
For an important book on mediums in Henan, see here.
Research on the sectarian “precious scrolls” (baojuan 宝卷) continues apace. I look forward to reading
- Pu Wenqi 濮文起 and Li Yongping 李永平 (eds), Baojuan yanjiu 宝卷研究 (2019; contents here).
For other related recent volumes, see the work of Cao Xinyu (e.g. here), and a collection edited by Hou Chong. Also on this blog, see under Houshan and Houtu ( for Yixian and Laishui counties in Hebei), and Ritual groups in Jinghai, Tianjin.
The new collection of articles (most of which already published elsewhere) is based both on textual studies and fieldwork (ndeed, many sectarian scriptures continue to be discovered in the course of fieldwork), and also considers performance practice. While it includes reports from south China—south Jiangsu ( cf. here, n.1) south Jiangxi, and chapters on the Luo sect—the earlier sectarian precious scrolls are mainly found in north China. Hence we find chapters on Hebei (Yin Hubin 尹虎彬), Jiexiu in Shanxi (Sun Hongliang 孙鸿亮), Gansu (Li Guisheng 李贵生 and Wang Mingbo 王明博; Cheng Guojun 程国君; Liu Yonghong 刘永红)—and more.
I’m glad to learn of the research of Liang Jingzhi 梁景之, furthering studies of the Way of Yellow Heaven (Huangtian dao 黃天道) sect in Hebei and Shanxi, which began with Li Shiyu in the 1940s and have continued with Cao Xinyu (for my own brief encounters, see under Tianzhen, Yanggao, and Xinzhou in Shanxi). Here’s another article by Liang, and his discovery of related temple murals is also fascinating (several links here; cf. the sites of Hannibal Taubes).
The new volume also includes useful overviews of the history of baojuan studies.
To help those interested in ritual to navigate around this labyrinthine site:
apart from the numerous posts (under MY BLOG), the menu at the top also contains pages, of which I’d like to draw attention to the many detailed field reports on local ritual under the Themes menu:
and there’s more if you keep scrolling down that sub-menu!
Most of them refer to household ritual groups in particular counties of Shanxi and Hebei, with further notes from elsewhere around north China—outlining their histories, artefacts, and ritual sequences for funerals and temple fairs. You can also explore the sidebar for the various categories (albeit voluminous) and tags. But these field reports under local ritual are a basic resource.
Also in the menu is the Playlist—with commentary on the tracks contained in the Music player as you scroll down in the sidebar beneath the categories. The other pages to the right of the menu are worth exploring too, like the other material under Themes, and the Other publications and WAM sub-menus. And then, in the sidebar, there’s always the searchbox…
Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public
In recent years several overviews of the diverse manifestations of religious activity in changing modern China have been published, such as those of Goossaert and Palmer (The religious question in modern China), Adam Yuet Chau, and Ian Johnson. Now we have a substantial collection of essays,
As Feuchtwang observes in his thoughtful introduction, the many expectations raised by the word “religion” are misleading. While there are indeed institutions and “churches”, most religious life takes place in the context of folk life-cycle and calendrical events (“diffused”, by C.K. Yang’s definition), not conforming to any doctrine or any one textual tradition.
Feuchtwang considers the role of religion under the secular state of the PRC:
we have as everywhere to understand how religions and ritual practices and associations have been adapted to the growth of capitalist economy, participation in commercial enterprise, to dwelling in cities, and to different nationalisms, secular governments, and systems of mass schooling and the teaching of history, geography, and mathematized empirical sciences. All entail the new temporality of national narratives and the project of modernization.
Reflecting on rising prosperity and urbanization since the 1980s, he notes:
Urban planning and development, including the urbanization of villages, has transformed most dwellings into apartments, with less space for domestic altars and banquets, and turned most neighbourhood temples into dust under property developments of housing, headquarters, industrial and commercial districts. Banquets for life passage ritual occasions have become more widespread, but in professional catering establishments. Diviners, some using statues of seities, provide services independently. The bigger Daoist or Buddhist temples and their monks and nuns look after lamps for the souls of the dead; churches and mosques outside Xinjiang perform services for their dead. Most ritual services are performed in homes and they have been shortened as the tastes of the young have changed. But the disciplines of self-cultivation brought into the present through transmission of the various ritual traditions in China have flourished, have become global in their reach, alongside academic interest in them, and have been nurtured by new masters.
The nineteen essays are arranged in four sections:
- State policies, civic society and cultural revival
- Revitalized and modernizing traditions
- Daoism, Buddhism, Tibet, the Naxi
- Islam and Christianity.
Thus the survey deserves to be widely read. It’s designed to be accessible, like the surveys of Johnson and Chau. But whereas the latter volumes appear in affordable paperback editions, the new handbook’s price of £155 will deter not just individuals but cash-strapped libraries too: one might reasonably expect its 472 pages to be illuminated in gold (cf. The Golden-Character Scripture, a staple of north Chinese ritual ensembles). And it doesn’t even include any photos. Still, it’s another useful introduction to a complex topic.
Following on from my posts on conductors, and their fortunes under Nazism, another conductor who contributed greatly to the “maestro myth” was Sergiu Celibidache (1912–96; see here, wiki, and many articles, e.g. here).
In his chapter on “The mavericks” in Norman Lebrecht’s stimulating book The maestro myth, he compares Celibidache—revered as “an idiosyncratic idealist, almost a musical saint”—somewhat unfavourably with Karlos Kleiber and Klaus Tennstedt. While some of my own comments here may seem less than reverent, the intensity of Celibidache’s vision made a welcome antidote to the blandness of many identikit maestros.
A Romanian, he trained in Berlin under the Reich from 1936. After the defeat of Germany, the Berlin Phil (“never a Nazi orchestra”—see this detailed article, on a useful site), struggled to revive in a city devastated by the war. Leo Borchard was temporarily appointed as chief conductor; but when he was accidentally shot dead by an American sentry at a checkpoint on 23rd August 1945, and with other local conductors tainted by their links with the Nazi regime, the young, inexperienced Celibidache, as an “untainted neutral citizen”, was soon chosen to take charge.
From 1947, when the great Furtwängler was deemed sufficiently de-Nazified to return to the stage, they worked harmoniously together, although Celibidache’s efforts to remould the orchestra met with resistance.
His last concert with them was the Brahms Requiem on 29th November 1954—the day before Furtwängler died. Karajan, a streamlined corporate prospect (cf. Stravinsky’s reported comment on his Rite of Spring) despite his well-attested links with Nazism, was chosen to take over as chief conductor, whereupon Celibidache flounced off in a 38-year huff. He went on to work with several orchestras, notably the Munich Phil from 1979—a fruitful relationship marred by the ignoble episode of his dismissal of the trombonist Abbie Conant.
The Celibidache myth was cunningly burnished by his refusal to make commercial recordings after 1950 (“listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot”. Discuss)—though a lot of his performances have since surfaced. Lebrecht’s conclusion is typically reserved:
He is a showman, pure and simple, with an eccentric, though effective, mode of self-projection.
* * *
From 1939, in the unlikely context of the Nazi regime, Celibidache had learned about Zen under the influence of his guru Martin Steinke (Daojun 道峻)—cf. other early Western Zen devotees such as R.H. Blyth, Eugen Herrigel (the latter a genuine Nazi supporter), and J.D. Salinger, and later worthies like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. Perhaps pundits made more of Celibidache’s interest in Zen than he did.
Apparently in Japan, 1980s? Source here—anyone know more about this image?
Celibidache was among several fine conductors who performed from memory. Here he is with the Munich Phil in Brahms St Anthony variations—a wonderful piece:
and while we’re about it, here’s Furtwängler’s version with the Berlin Phil in 1954, shortly before he died:
Passing over Celibidache’s rare excursions into the baroque, such as Bach’s 2nd orchestral suite (here) and the opening of the B minor mass (here), he favoured slow tempi for the romantic repertoire too—his rendition of the first movement of Tchaik 6 lasts no less than 25 minutes:
Bruckner 7 was perfect for him (cf. this article by Tom Service, as well as my post Trauma, including Furtwängler conducting the Adagio in 1942 and my own memories of playing it in the NYO under Rudolf Schwarz). Along with many treasures such as the Rattle–Sellars–Padmore staged Matthew Passion, another boon of the Digital Concert Hall site (currently offering free access for a month) is Celibidache performing the symphony in 1992 on his return to the Berlin Phil after an absence of 38 years.
On the same site, do watch this documentary, featuring interesting comments from the musicians on Celibidache’s relationship with the orchestra following the war—with archive footage such as Menuhin rehearsing the Brahms concerto in 1946 (more here). But the core of the film is Celi’s detailed rehearsing of Bruckner 7 for the 1992 concert; in extreme contrast to the great Rozhdestvensky (and, you might suppose, to Zen), he demanded a lot of rehearsal time. *
Call Me Old-Fashioned, but Celibidache’s laborious approach to achieving a “transcendent experience” made a novel take on Zen and the Art of Rehearsal that the Tang masters would hardly have recognised. S-Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2002, adopted a very different style of working with musicians; click here for their Bruckner 7 at a 2014 concert in memory of his predecessor the great Claudio Abbado.
* OK, now I’m going to don my Jaded London Muso hat (indeed, here it is )—German musicians may be more accustomed to lengthy rehearsals than we Brits (Celi’s relationship with the LSO was not always smooth, a possible source for one of musos’ favourite maestro-baiting stories). Still, in the Bruckner rehearsal, as he goes over and over the opening few bars of the symphony, one can almost see them muttering to each other, “FFS, at this rate it’s gonna take us another 38 years just to get to the end of the movement…” (cf. this story).
Celibidache’s interminable instructions (sometimes evocative, sometimes less so) are just the kind of thing that orchestral players resent, helpless captives of a monologue. With a London orchestra such verbosity may lead to passive resistance. Small and Nettl have likened orchestras to factories or plantations in their unquestioning submission to an all-powerful boss in the service of a Higher Cause.
As conducting has come to be considered a less dictatorial, more collegiate task, nowadays many conductors try to work out how to achieve the result they envisage by relying more on their own gestures rather than on words; when the whole object is to achieve rapport, didactic cajoling can be alienating. It’s as if some conductors keep having to stop to tell musos how to play because they can’t manage to express it by conducting effectively. It doesn’t seem like a good way for a conductor to endear himself to them—
or maybe Celibidache was just exacting his revenge on them for having chosen Karajan instead of him…
Still, it’s good that he made an effort to get them to control their vibrato (film, from 25.08). And the concert sounds great—the orchestra must have been so relieved that they could finally just play the piece without constant interruptions from the maestro.
Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.
Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate
- Paul Katz, “Writing a place for rites: the value of “old customs” in modern Wenzhou”, Journal of Chinese Religions, 2015.
The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the
- Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]
on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.
Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).
Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui 神仙會), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,
China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.
Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:
- 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 時)
- 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan 農諺)
- 3) Birth (shengzi 生子)
- 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
- 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou 生日、祝十和祝壽)
- 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang 喪葬)
- 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
- 8) Miscellany (zazu 雜俎),
with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.
But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county  Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.
As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes.  Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.
* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.
- Yang Yinliu and projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing (also here), including ritual traditions of Beijing, Shanxi (here, here), Shaanxi, Hunan (here, here and here), and Fujian
- A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956
- Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing
- A 1958 article on the Buddhist ritual music of Shenyang.
- Doing fieldwork in China.
A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kite, evoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.
 On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).
 Further to Mayfair Yang’s article “Shamanism & Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity”, I also look forward to reading her Re-enchanting modernity (2020).
As part of my extensive series on local ritual, I’ve just added a page about an early salvage project on the shengguan wind ensemble of Buddhist temples in Chengde in northeast Hebei, summer retreat of the Qing emperors—where I made a little fieldtrip in 1987, with comments inspired by a passage from Bruce Jackson’s wonderful book Fieldwork.
Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.
Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
Begob! You had me there.
I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:
To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).
* * *
The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to
How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?
In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps
Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?
Dare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.
Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.
* * *
Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.
Via the splendid community website bongopas.com, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):
Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):
Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.
Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.
Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):
And some more choral songs:
So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.
Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.
Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:
Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):
The research for this project was not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.
** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.
*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.
The film footage of Harry Caldwell
Fujian province in southeast China remains one of the most vibrant regions for folk religious activity (see this introduction).
Harry Caldwell (1876–1970), a Methodist missionary from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, first travelled to China in 1900, inspired by his brother’s missionary work there, making a base in Fujian with his family until 1944. An avid hunter and naturalist, in his book Blue tiger (1924) he showed how hunting with the locals for man-killing tigers paved the way for effective missionary work [file under fieldwork techniques—SJ], and he discussed the delicate diplomacy required to negotiate peace between soldiers and bandits in his attempts to spare villagers caught amidst the fighting (cf. the Italian Catholic mission in Gaoluo).
Apart from filming agricultural, military, and daily scenes in Fujian, he also paid extensive attention to local religious life there—and now, in an enterprising project (click here) by the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) under the direction of Megan Bryson, ten clips on religious ritual that Caldwell filmed in the 1930s have been restored and made available online, with extensive annotations by UTK students.
The evocative clips (alas silent!) comprise:
- an opulent deity procession
- a divination session, with a Buddhist monk presiding
- a fertility ritual, with Daoist masters wielding ritual swords and horns at an elaborate altar
- a Daoist healing ritual to protect children (cf. Crossing the Passes, e.g. Gansu and Shaanxi), with exuberant ritual dancing and the burning of a paper boat
- an apotropaic ritual: pasting a talisman, a fishing net, and cacti at the family lintel
- a Bathing the Buddha procession, and women offering at small shrines
- Methodist church activities—including the distribution of baby chicks to the congregation
- “Hell puppets”
- plague-dispelling rituals, with paper boats sent off
- a grand Buddhist funeral at the Yongquan si temple in Gushan.
Watching such footage, one always wonders what became of all these people over the turbulent decades to come. While the project offers precious glimpses of ritual life in Fujian before the 1949 revolution, all such practices still thrive in the region; with the addition of colour and sound, one might almost suppose many of these clips to come from Ken Dean’s wonderful 2010 film Bored in heaven (among many films listed here). I hope to see comments on Caldwell’s footage from scholars working on ritual life in Fujian—perhaps providing some more precise locations.
Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article
- Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄,  “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.
As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.
I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang Shixiang, Chang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.
* * *
From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.
Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, maintaining sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.
Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.
Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting.  In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.
The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):
- xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
- luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
- cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).
As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.
Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:
Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.
An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for lü 绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing,  but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.
Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:
Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.
But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.
Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.
 By this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”
 Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).
 As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.
Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.
For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/
Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.
The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.
To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.
Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.
Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.
My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau (and now a volume edited by Stephan Feuchtwang) reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:
- C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).
The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.
Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.
This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?
Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuan “precious scrolls”:
During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.
Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”
However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.
While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.
Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.
In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.
In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.
Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.
As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.
Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.
In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:
C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.
Yang’s chapter concludes:
The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.
See also the festschrift
- Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).
In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.
In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:
On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.
Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.
Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):
It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.
Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.
Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that
it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.
His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:
Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.
* * *
Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.
But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.
This recent Guardian headline encapsulates my feelings about the whole heritage shtick. The heritage tag on this blog is voluminous, covering many local genres in China and elsewhere.
The starter, citing thoughtful research on the Intangible Cultural Heritage system around the world, is
John Butt offers useful perspectives in
Also basic is this page on the Li family Daoists:
Another relevant post is
- Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi
- Buddhist ritual in south Shaanxi
- Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong.
While some scholars observe how local dwellers mould the state programme to their own agendas, I often note that its effects are either negative or inconsequential. And I’m not alone.
I’ve long been inspired by the work of Adam Yuet Chau on religion in China. His recent book
distils his wisdom, based both on his own fieldwork (notably in Shaanbei) and on his readings of a wide literature, along with his experience of editing volumes on the topic—notably Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008).
As he explains in his opening salvo “Why are you reading this book?”, Religion in China is aimed at a broad audience, including students taking courses on Chinese and East Asian religions, or on religious studies; seekers of spiritual wisdom, tourists, missionaries; and China-watchers concerned about human rights and politics.
Chau seeks to change the way we understand religion in China and the wider world, disputing the confessional model that produces so much misunderstanding, both in China and abroad.
Another equally prevalent approach is to view religion in China primarily in terms of philosophical and religious ideas, as sources of “Oriental spiritual wisdom”, useful antidotes to an allegedly overly materialist and rationalist West.
Instead, he advocates study of ways of “doing religion”, and a “relational approach”.
There is no need for us to identify and share the beliefs informing these religious practices. […] Having a personal religious or spiritual orientation in whatever form might potentially aid one’s understanding of other people’s religious practices […]. But it could equally well hinder one’s understanding because one might too easily identify the familiar and overlook the radically different, or one might feel threatened by practices that are radically different from one’s own, bringing into doubt the validity of one’s faith or spiritual pursuit. On the other hand, being an atheist also has its advantages and disadvantages in the cross-cultural study of religion.
He takes material primarily from mainland China, but also from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He reminds us of the dangers of statistics that are modeled on a confessional-affiliational understanding of mutually exclusive religious membership.
He discusses the different approaches to religion in China. By contrast with religious studies, which tend to focus on texts, doctrines, concepts, religious thinkers, and schools of thought, he stresses social interaction, history, sociology, political science, and anthropology offer alternative models. For a gendered approach, with a final bold suggestion, see here.
In Chapter 1 Chau presents his “five modalities of doing religion”, expounded in his previous work—a most useful framework, sidestepping the “conceptual fetishes” of “Buddhism”, “Daoism”, and “Confucianism”:
As he observes, such “internal diversity” is actually common to Christianity and the other major world religions.
A further question that is worth bearing in mind is whether or not you believe that religious diversity is intrinsically a good thing.
Whereas a religious-pluralist position
treats religion not just as an empirical fact but as a policy goal, Christian missionaries and other kinds of believers in any ultimate religious Truth would prefer to see their own religion triumph over all the others. And staunch atheists would want to see a completely secularized world with no religions at all.
However, religious diversity as a concept is alien to most Chinese people because their approach to religion is primarily instrumental and occasion-based (what can be called an efficacity-based religiosity) rather than confessionally-based, and their experience of religious diversity is embodied in the employment of different religious service providers on various occasions rather than abstract systems of religious doctrines and teachings.
what happens on the ground “religiously” is very much a congruence of local customs, historical accidents, social environment, personal temperaments, configurations of modalities of doing religion, and the makeup of the local ritual market.
He goes on to give instance of the five modalities in turn, noting that they may overlap.
At any one time in any locale of the vast late imperial Chinese empire—and to some extent today as well as in the larger Chinese world—all of these modalities of doing religion were in most probability available to be adopted by individuals or social groups, though factors such as class, gender, literacy level, accidents of birth and residence, position within different social networks, temperament, local convention, and the configuration of various modalities might channel some people towards certain modalities and not others. Most peasants in China have traditionally adopted a combination of the relational and the immediate-practical modalities into their religiosity; sometimes they adopt the liturgical modality and hire religious specialists when the occasion requires them, such as funerals and communal exorcisms. Illiteracy and lack of leisure would preclude them from most of the discursive and personal-cultivational modalities. The traditional educated elite tended to adopt a combination of the discursive and the personal-cultivational modalities, but they, too, often needed the services of the liturgical specialists.
However, it is the discursive/scriptural modality, with its high level of literacy and its penchant for philosophical and “theological” thinking, that holds a particular allure for many in the West (and indeed for the Chinese state), at the expense of the other forms.
The vast majority of the world’s population who “do” religion in other ways are thus silenced.
My own work focuses on the liturgical modality, while taking into account those further down the list (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.1).
Chapter 2, “Interacting with gods, ghosts, and ancestors” opens with a cross-cultural reminder about deities:
We have to ignore the saint cults in Catholicism, the Sufi saint cults in Islam, the belief in angles and holy persons, etc., in order to preserve the monotheism illusion.
Chau points out that new deities have constantly been produced, at both elite and popular levels. He highlights the importance of ling “spiritual efficacity”, and the gods’ response to the problems of worshippers—which gave him the title for his book Miraculous response. As ever, he stresses
Whether or not we accept the possibility of real divine power, we need to understand ling as a sociocultural construct.
Many Chinese people have a practical approach to deity belief. […] One should not not believe, nor should one believe everything”; “If you worship him, the deity will be there; if you don’t worship him, he won’t mind”.
After listing the basic ways of worshipping deities, including offering incense, divination, and so on, he discusses appeasing “hungry ghosts” and ancestor worship. He considers the household as the basic unit of religious engagement (by contrast with Christianity), and stresses “hosting”—for both humans and deities—and “red-hot sociality”.
Chapter 3 discusses festivals and pilgrimages, with examples from both north and south China. Far from the dry portrayals of scholars who focus narrowly on the discursive meanings of ritual texts, Chau stresses the sensory stimulation of such “red and fiery” events—noises, sights, smells, tastes, and ambient sensations. He explains the temple associations that organize festivals, again stressing social relationships. On pilgrimages such as those of Mazu in Taiwan and southeast China, networks are consolidated as deities visit other deities. He broadens the scope by introducing New Age spirit mediumism in Taiwan, as well as the Hajj of Chinese Muslims, and ends by offering the concept of “mutual capturing” through cultural forms.
Chapter 4 unpacks the variety of ritual service providers and their clients. The former—again, engaged with a view to efficacy—include geomancers, occupational household Daoist and Buddhist groups, devotional sects, and spirit mediums. Different types of specialists may be invited for the same event: “ritual polytrophy”. He gives vignettes of a yinyang master in Shaanbei, a group of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanxi (none other than the Li family!) serving the funeral market, and a Daoist jiao Offering ritual in Taiwan. He introduces the handling of troublesome spirit ties by means of exorcism. He’s ever alert to the social context—I like his description of the spirit medium’s home as
the rural equivalent of a hair salon, where people gather, information and gossip is spread, and there is plenty of red-hot sociality.
Chau contrasts this whole “efficacy-based” tradition with the more “dharma-based” religiosity common elsewhere in Asia.
He goes on to unpack the common lament of “rampant commodification”, revealing its long history.
Many people (including many Chinese) might think that the commodification of religion is somehow not right and therefore is a deplorable trend. However, this value judgment is out of place for observers who wish to understand the cultural logic behind native practices rather than passing judgment on these practices. The view that religion should somehow be a pure, spiritual pursuit freed from such “ugliness” as monetary transactions and “vile” desires is a fundamentalist, elitist, and/or modernist/reformist position that itself needs critical deconstruction.
Given that many fieldworkers may have their minds on higher pursuits, he goes on to prescribe a fine questionnaire pertaining to price-lists for all kinds of religious expenditure, from temple renovation and sponsoring opera performances to fees for minor domestic rituals, the costs of incense and paper money, and banqetting (pp.130–31). Finally he returns to the close relationship between providers and consumers of ritual services, and the benefits of the household idiom.
Having stressed the general paucity of confessional religious identities, Chapter 5, “Communities and networks”, gives some instances where they do indeed come into play. Notwithstanding all the instances that Chau has given to show the enduring vitality of communal and household ritual life,
In many locales in contemporary China there is a definite trend towards the atomization of society, where few people are organizing any collective or communal activities and people spend a large amount of time watching television in the comfort of increasingly nuclearized homes. People seem to be happy that they are no longer being forced to participate in collective labor, collective political study [discuss…], or mass campaign rallies, all prevalent features of Maoist collectivist life. Yet there is also ample evidence to suggest that people in many parts of China have revived pre-Maoist forms of communal social life, sometimes even borrowing techniques of Maoist mobilization and social organization to good effect. […]
both historically and in today’s China, there are a significant number of people who do have a strong and definite religious identity (e.g. being a Buddhist, Daoist, or Christian; belonging to a sect). Even though small in numerical terms (but still in the millions), they are very important in the Chinese religious landscape.
He gives examples of monastic communities and networks, the remarkably resilient Christian congregational communities, qigong groups (including Falungong), and lay Buddhist confessional groups like Foguangshan and Ciji. He ends by considering the impact of new technologies on religious transmission.
Chapter 6, “State-religion relations” unpacks issues in a popular theme. Chau observes that the Maoist antipathy towards religious institutions was part of a general intolerance of any social institution outside the orbit of the party-state, as well as an assault on their status as property owners. While household-based ritual specialists were also persecuted, the attacks on them were far less thorough when compared to those on temples, lineages, and major cult centres. Again, the “household idiom” of religious service provision was a key to survival.
He outlines the official regulatory framework, noting the further complexities of the recent Intangible Cultural Heritage and the fuzzy “religion sphere”. He chooses this translation rather than “religious sphere” to avoid any misunderstanding:
Not only is the religion sphere not religious in nature, its existence is constitutive of the overall construction of secularity.
Returning to the discursive-scriptural modality, Chau observes that its rise is also propounded by the secular state—by contrast with the vast majority of providers and consumers of religious services. And after observing a broad local tolerance towards the practice of “superstition”, he outlines recent reforms in funerary and burial practices.
In “Conclusions” he surveys the major theme: the religious revival, once again debunking a reified approach to tradition.
It would be easier to understand this continuity if we understood religious traditions as complex, dynamic, ever-changing clusters of institutions, practitioners, and consumers, knowledge and practices, sociopolitical relations and hierarchies, fully amenable to innovations, inventions, and reinventions all the time. Religious traditions are not static.
Finally Chau stresses the centrality of relationality in doing religion, far beyond mere texts. University courses on Buddhism and Daoism
are often presented as “Oriental thought”, emphasizing ideas at the expense of practice. Presenting a non-Abrahamic religious tradition “systematically” might seem a respectful thing to do, as if granting equal dignity to these traditions that only a century ago were considered unworthy pagan superstitions. This kind of scholarly and pedagogical systemizing owes its inspiration to the Christian tradition of systematic theology, which attempts to formulate Christian doctrines as a coherent whole (but of course ordinary Christians do not necessarily practice their Christianity “coherently”). We might not be able to readily throw off this intellectual baggage, but we must always be aware of such epistemological habits (or “habits of the mind”) when we try to understand any religious tradition.
In a succinct three-page list of basic sources in English, Chau includes John Lagerwey’s China: a religious state, a largely historical overview, and The religious question of modern China edited by Goossaert and Palmer. I might also mention C.K. Yang’s Religion in Chinese society (1961), a fine early study written at an exceptionally traumatic time for the PRC. And Chau might be sympathetic to my suggestion to include some ethnographic films in this list—always a more engaging medium than discursive, silent, immobile representations on the page.
* * *
Like Ian Johnson’s The souls of China (2017) and the recent Handbook on religion in China (ed. Stephan Feuchtwang, 2020), this book should appeal to a rather broad readership. Some of the issues in reaching a wide audience are in presentation, such as in-text references and footnotes—both inimical to more populist publishers. But Chau’s book has sixteen photos, whereas Ian’s, curiously, has none.
The two books are very different. While also giving fine personal vignettes, Chau’s main aim is to illuminate social structures; whereas Johnson’s book, while also well-informed, revolves around portraits of a few figures (again including the Li family Daoists!), and may speak more vividly to non-specialist China-watchers. So The souls of China (“a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise”—James Miller) makes more welcome fodder for the Western Seekers of Truth, as well as for advocates of religious freedom and the triumph of spirituality over secularism. But I hope all those who admire Johnson’s book will also learn from Chau’s work.
I look forward to reading a recent book collecting promising articles on the role of sectarian religious scriptures in folk ritual over a wide area:
- Hou Chong 侯沖 (ed.), Jingdian, yishi yu minjian xinyang 经典, 仪式与民间信仰 [Classics, ritual, and folk worship] (Shanghai guji cbs, 2018),
continuing a long tradition of such research in China.
The contributors pay attention not only to texts but to performed rituals; and while some articles discuss early history, the focus is on the modern era. Themes include “precious scriptures” (baojuan), the Luo and Xiantian sects, and Zhenwu worship, with contributors such as Wang Jianchuan, Cao Xinyu on White Lotus scriptures, Rostislav Berezkin on funerary baojuan in Changshu (see also n.1 here), Xiao Jihong on North Dipper rituals of the Bai minority in Jianchuan, Yunnan, and Lü Pengzhi on Five Thunder registers (Wulei lu 五雷錄) in west Jiangxi.
Excuse these crappy screenshots—you can view the contents more clearly on sites such as douban:
For another recent volume on baojuan, click here.
Blind people groping at the elephant
Following my posts on the tangming bands and the 1956 Suzhou Daoist project, while I have no field experience of Daoist ritual around Suzhou, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp with the aid of exceptionally abundant secondary sources. So this isn’t so much a review of Suzhou Daoism, as an illustration of the multiple ways of approaching it.
Research on ritual life throughout the whole of south Jiangsu—Suzhou, Changshu, Wuxi, Shanghai, and so on—ranks close behind that for southeast China and Hunan. Still, ritual activities in these regions are quite different: in the southeast and Hunan, individual household altars (and particularly their ritual manuals) dominate research, whereas in south Jiangsu wider networks of temples and their priests seem more important.
One might suppose that Suzhou Daoism would be a rather easily-defined topic, but it illustrates my comment (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.3–4) that we are all “blind people groping at the elephant” (xiazi moxiang 瞎子摸象)—only able to describe that tiny part of the total picture that we happen to grasp, never managing to see the whole.
Even for scholars equipped with the skills to study modern or imperial China, Daoist ritual is a daunting topic. And it’s hard to integrate within the changing religious practices and life stories of ordinary people in rural China under successive regimes since the early 20th century. Indeed, this is a general issue in religious studies: the tension between approaching religion as social activity and as doctrine—the manifestation of the Word of God (see e.g. Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, and Ritual theory, ritual practice).
For China, we might identify three broad strands of enquiry: social history, ritual (particularly texts), and “music”, that seem to be conducted independently; it seems hard to piece together the multiple pieces of the jigsaw. And whereas change is a major element in studies of social history, ritual and music tend to be treated as eternal; scholars in both the latter fields engage only sporadically with modern society and people’s lives.
Even studies of Daoist ritual and “Daoist music” don’t quite communicate with each other. While sound is invariably a vital element in the performance of ritual, scholars of ritual tend to downplay performance and its soundscape, whereas scholars of “music” may focus too narrowly on it. Both tend to reify, documenting either ritual sequences and liturgical texts or “pieces of music” at the expense of studying social change.
1 Social history: the wider religious context
Here I can only hint at the riches of ritual activity around Suzhou. As throughout China, Daoist ritual is a major theme in ritual activity in the region, but it’s far from the only one. While studies of Daoist ritual tend to favour “salvage” above ethnography, it should be obvious that an understanding of ritual practice depends on the study of local society.
A network of scholars have done impressive research on ritual life around south Jiangsu from the late imperial era, using exceptionally well-documented material on socio-political change since the mid-19th century.
In his book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949, Vincent Goossaert makes a convincing case for studying the lives of “ordinary Daoists”. And further, he spreads the net wider to ordinary ritual practitioners. Around Suzhou (as elsewhere), spirit mediums (xianniang 仙娘 or lingmei 靈媒), devotional groups (xianghui 香會, xuanjuan 宣卷, luantan 亂壇, and so on—often sectarian), temple and household Buddhists, and so on are all active, forming an interrelated complex (for further readings on xuanjuan, see n.1 here).
Xuanjuan scriptural group, Jingjiang 2009.
Source: Berezkin and Goossaert, “The three Mao lords”.
A fine introduction to the wider social background is
- Tao Jin 陶金 and Gao Wansang 高万桑 [Vincent Goossaert], “Daojiao yu Suzhou difang shehui” 道教与苏州地方社会 [Daoism and Suzhou local society], in Wei Lebo 魏乐博 [Robert Weller] (ed.), Jiangnan diqude zongjiao yu gonggong shenghuo 江南地区的宗教与公共社会 [Religion and public life in the Jiangnan region] (2015).
They cite a wealth of historical sources from the late Qing and Republican eras, as well as more recent field reports. Like Yang Yinliu, they note nested hierarchies of ritual practitioners, and indeed within the ranks of hereditary Daoists—with a minority of elite fashi ritual masters maintaining their historical contacts with Longhushan  and Beijing above the ranks of common household Daoists.
Noting changing ritual practices from the late 19th century, the authors provide rich material contrasting the pre-1949 and modern periods, such as the mentu 門圖 or menjuan 門眷 ritual catchment-area system formerly common throughout the region.
One of the recurring themes in Goossaert’s research is the history of state attempts to manage—and control—unlicensed priests operating at the grassroots level, and the whole diversity of the religious scene.
- “A question of control: licensing local ritual specialists in Jiangnan, 1850-1950”, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and Liu Shufen 劉淑芬 eds., Xinyang, shijian yu wenhua tiaoshi 信仰, 實踐與文化調適 (Taipei, 2013).
Even in the early 1950s, the Suzhou Daoist association distinguished temple-based Daoists (daofang 道房) and the others (fuying 赴應) whom they hired on a daily basis. The complex relation between Daoists and state supervision has continued to be a major issue in the reform era. Leading Daoist masters who led the preparatory committee for the Suzhou Daoist Association from 1979 included Zhang Xiaoxuan 张筱轩, Ren Junchen 任俊臣, and Zhou Qiutao 周秋涛. Other municipalities also formed Daoist Associations over these years. But there was a wide age-gap between the younger Daoists and their senior masters who had trained under a very different system.
Today, with the increasing vogue of recycling imperial models of governance, we witness to a certain extent a return of this idea that official Daoists and Buddhists holding positions in their respective associations are entrusted with licensing and controlling the vernacular priests in their locales (and indeed, to a certain extent, spirit-mediums who work with them).
By the 2010s, while rituals were still held at the Xuanmiao guan, the temple was partly museified; core focuses serving the ritual needs of communities are now the nearby Chenghuang miao and Qionglongshan (in the western suburbs near Lake Tai).
Another major centre is the Maoshan temple complex. As usual, studies of Maoshan are dominated by ancient history rather than the maintenance of its temple liturgy in modern times; as ever, such prominent temples are subject to great official pressure. Relevant here are
- Yang Shihua 杨世华 and Pan Yide 潘一德 eds., Maoshan daojiao zhi 茅山道教志 [Monograph on Maoishan Daoism] (2007), and
- Ian Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain: the modern transformation of Maoshan”, Journal of Daoist studies 5 (2012).
But there is a multitude of smaller temples throughout the municipalities under the Suzhou region—Kunshan, Wujiang, Changshu, Zhangjiagang, and Taicang.
The revival was gradual. A variety of rituals were soon in demand, such as exorcistic and blessing rituals, rituals for new dwellings, mortuary (including commemorative) rituals, and even wedding rituals. The authors describe four main types of jiao Offering currently performed: taiping jiao 太平醮 for the well-being of a local community; guoguan jiao 過關醮 for life crises, particularly for children; jiao to protect from fire (huojiao 火醮); and rituals for the Thunder God leishen 雷神. They note that 7th-moon rituals to deliver the soul have become rare, but they don’t discuss funerals.
Rituals performed by Tao Jin’s master Zhou Caiyuan in July 2011, showing locations, personnel, ritual type, and ritual segments. For the seven rituals held at the Heshan daoyuan he was a “guest master” (keshi 客师).
Rituals held at the Chenghuang miao temple in July 2011, including Communal Offerings (gongjiao), Crossing the Passes (guoguan), commemorative daochang, and so on.
As around Shanghai and elsewhere, spirit mediums are crucial organizers. Until the 1950s the xiangtou from the local gentry who invited the elite Daoists to perform rituals, and those attending, were male; nowadays female lingmei (or xianniang 仙娘), and female worshippers, play a leading role. And almost all the rituals (even in the urban temples) are commissioned by rural patrons.
Even some long-discontinued ritual processions resumed—only no longer to the elite temples. For the changing religious scene of festivals, territorial cults, and pilgrimages from the late Qing to the Republican era, see further
- Gao Wansang 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert), “Wan Qing ji Minguo shiqi Jiangnan diqude yingshen saihui” 晚清及民國時期江南地區的迎神賽會, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert) eds., Gaibian Zhongguo zongjiaode wushinian: 1898–1948 改變中國宗教的五十年: 1898–1948 (Taipei, 2015)
- Vincent Goossaert , “Territorial cults and the urbanization of the Chinese world: a case study of Suzhou”, in Peter van der Veer ed., Handbook of religion and the Asian city: aspiration and urbanization in the twenty-first century (2015).
In the latter, a nuanced account of the ever-changing fortunes of urban, suburban, and rural temples, the processes of deterritoralization and reterritoralization, he observes:
Judging by current practice, small-scale rituals by local communities typically involve two main kinds of ritual specialists: spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters. […] Not all territorial communities hire Daoists for their celebrations every year; the scripture-chanting masters provide cheaper, simpler services, complemented by dances and songs formed among the community’s elder women. For the larger celebrations involving Daoists, spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters are also commonly present; these specialists have a clear division of labour and are not in competition.
- Rostislav Berezkin and Vincent Goossaert, “The three Mao lords in modern Jiangnan cult and pilgrimage between Daoism and baojuan recitation”, BEFEO 99 (2012–13).
And the journal Minsu quyi, always core reading for Chinese ritual studies, continues to publish a wealth of material, most recently here.
2 Documenting ritual practice
While such work is exceptionally rich in social detail, it can’t seek to address the nuts and bolts of ritual practice—which for scholars of Daoism is the heart of the matter.
This is the kind of work for which Tao Jin 陶金 is perhaps uniquely qualified, with his detailed historical knowledge of Daoism and its ritual manuals. One of very few scholars of Daoism who have followed the lead of Saso and Schipper in participant observation, Tao Jin apprenticed himself first to Chang Renchun in Beijing and then, since 2008, to the Daoist masters Zhou Caiyuan 周財源 and Wu Shirong 吾世榮 in Suzhou; in 2018 he was himself ordained.
- Tao Jin 陶金, “Suzhou ‘Xiantian bawang zougao keyi’ chutan” 蘇州《先天奏吿科儀》初探, in Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志 and Laogewen 勞格文 [John Lagerwey] eds., Difang daojiao yishi shidi diaocha bijiao yanjiu guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwenji 地方道教儀式實地調查比較研究 (國際學術研討會論文集) (Hong Kong, 2013).
In this article Tao Jin explores the esoteric Xiantian bawang zougao ritual to the Doumu 斗姥 deity. It may be adapted to rituals for both the living and the dead; he documents a mortuary version that he attended at a family home, including randeng 燃燈 and poyu 破獄 segments (see photo above).
Only from the tables can we learn that the group consisted of three liturgists and four instrumentalists; they are not named. Tao Jin’s purpose is not to document normative current practice but to explain aspects of the early evolution of Daoist ritual. He gives only minimal coverage of the soundscape—even basic features like solo chanting, group singing, slow/fast, melisma, the function of percussion and melodic instrumental music.
One may choose to depict a given ritual because it encapsulates the core wisdom of ancient Daoism, or because it is frequently performed today. In my work on the Li family I focus on funerals, because that is their main context, which we can document in detail by observation; I also note their performance of temple rituals and Thanking the Earth, rare or obsolete since the 1950s. Tao Jin comments (in a footnote!) that the Doumu ritual is still performed in the Shanghai region for both the living and the dead, whereas in Suzhou it is now used only for the latter; one wonders about reasons for this difference.
Work of this type is more concerned with tracing medieval antecedents and imperial history than with documenting change within living memory, or indeed performance practice. As with the voluminous material on household Daoist groups in southeast China, documenting the radical social or political changes since the 19th century is left to other scholars.
Another of Tao Jin’s themes is the strong historical link with Daoism in Beijing;  and such rituals should also be studied in conjunction with those of Shanghai. While he, with his rich insider’s experience as a participant, should be well qualified to detail the practicalities of ritual life, his main energy is devoted to doctrinal history. Still, if anyone eventually compiles a more comprehensive account of the whole range of rituals still performed, then Tao Jin is the person to do it.
3 Music scholarship
All this seems to put the perspective of musicology in the shade, but this approach does at least provide an impression of current practice.
Clearly, the soundscape of Daoist ritual is crucial; but looking to scholarship on “Daoist music” to understand ritual also has its limitations. Around Suzhou and Wuxi, a reified image of the Shifan instrumental genres works to distract us from both ritual practice and local society; however complex, Shifan is only one supporting element in the performance of Daoist ritual in the region.
In the 1950s “Daoist music” became a palatable way of discussing Daoist ritual; but it obfuscated the issue. Still, whether I like it or not, “Suzhou Daoist music” is A Thing. Like the studies of ritual, such works tend to be heavily laced with generic citations from ancient history. And by contrast with the broader enquiry of social scholars, based on folk practice, they are dominated by the official Xuanmiao guan group. Still, they suggest some clues.
So the riches of Daoist ritual around south Jiangsu (and everywhere) need to be addressed by scholars of Daoist ritual, not just “Daoist music”. I would like to read works without the word “music” in the title, where it is a given that coverage of the soundscape is intrinsic to the task.
Transcriptions are an important step towards revealing the nuts and bolts of ritual practice, towards suggesting how performers and patrons experience ritual performance. However, scholars of Daoism may be reluctant to take this on board. Learning to read cipher notation requires very little time, but few will take the trouble to do so—perhaps partly because they will struggle to perceive its relevance. Whether for the vocal liturgy or the instrumental music, they might ask: does the manner of performance—notably its sound—matter, as long as the text gets transmitted? (cf. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.256–7). Indeed, transcriptions—like reproductions of ritual manuals—are merely a form of graphic representation, not easily translated into sound. What we need is film (on which more below).
After a very basic introduction, the “religious music” section of the instrumental volumes of the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷) gives extensive transcriptions of items of vocal liturgy (pp.1439–1645), though it only gives brief notes to contextualize them. The Shifan genres which punctuate them are transcribed separately under instrumental ensembles.
From the Anthology: top (left) Daoist tangming group; (right) Mao Zhongqing leads ritual overture on drum at the Chunshenjun miao temple;
mid: (left) Xue Jianfeng accompanies liturgy on shuangqing lute; (right) Maoshan ritual;
below: (left) chuanhua segment of Quangong/Quanfu ritual; (right) Zhou Zufu accompanies vocal liturgy.
Opening of Hymn to Incense from San Mao baochan, Maoshan,
with percussion prelude and accompaniment.
From Maoshan the Anthology provides transcriptions from the following rituals:
- San Mao biao 三茅表
- San Mao baochan 三茅寶懺
- Yuhuang chan 玉皇懺
- Shangqing risong wanke 上清日誦晚課
And from Suzhou:
- Sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 三寶懺悔設[施?]食玄科
- Qingwei gongtian xingdao chaoyuan keyi 清微供天行道朝元科儀
- Quangong/Quanfu 全功全符
- Quangong/Quanbiao 全功全表
- Miscellaneous vocal liturgy
The Anthology continues with transcriptions of Buddhist ritual (pp.1652–1765), mainly of the influential Tianning si temple in Changzhou, as well as Nanjing and Yangzhou, and some items from the xuanjuan scripture groups.
Valuable as the Anthology is, it provides us with clues, starting-points; its material always needs unpacking. Meanwhile, in the substantial series Zhongguo chuantong yishi yinyue yanjiu jihua 中國傳統儀式音樂研究計畫 [Traditional Chinese ritual music research project]
- Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2000)
is a rather slim tome. Their dry list of rituals (pp.39–40), under the basic categories of jiao, fashi, and minor rituals, is less than clear. And instead of clarifying, they go on to discuss the instrumental component. They do then give transcriptions (pp.53–130; texts alone on pp.141–72) of the vocal liturgy from two major rituals (Duiling sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 對霛三寶懺悔設食玄科 and Lingbao xianweng jilian xuanke 靈寶仙翁祭煉玄科), but entirely without context.
The Offering to Heaven ritual
In the same series, a much more detailed account of one of the core rituals, as performed by the Xuanmiao guan group, is
- Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun 蘇州道教科儀音樂研究: 以“天功”科儀為例展開的討論 (1999).
It doesn’t consist merely of musical transcriptions, but belongs with the style of the works of Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 for other traditions (e.g. Beijing, south Hebei, and Baiyunshan), documenting whole rituals in detail.
Liu Hong lists three types of jiao Offering:
- those formerly commissioned by urban dwellers for prosperity;
- Communal Offerings (gongjiao 公醮) commissioned by rural groups assembled by a xiangtou leader (usually a tiangong ritual, as here)
- offerings for individual families.
In a useful section (pp.194–8) discussing flexible elements in the ritual, he notes that whereas before Liberation they used to travel widely in the region to perform lengthy rituals, tailoring them to patrons’ differing demands, since the reforms the patrons come to the Xuanmiao guan temple to have rituals performed, leading to both standardization and abbreviation. This is important, although one now wants similar treatments for all the rituals still performed “among the people”, including those listed in the tables above.
The tiangong ritual consists of three main sections: Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 發符), Offering to Heaven (gongtian 供天), and Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表)—a sequence also regularly performed by Zhou Caiyuan under the heading of Communal Offering.
Liu Hong’s account isn’t limited to melodic items; he includes texts of chanted sections, and describes ritual actions; and like Tao Jin, he provides titles for ritual manuals and diagrams of altars. He also pays rather more attention to social context; for the ritual he attended in July 1994, the “audience” of over one hundred consisted mainly of female peasants from the outlying regions, bringing offerings to be used during the ritual. He lists the performers for a tiangong ritual at the Chunshenjun miao temple in 1995: seven fashi liturgists (led by Xue Guiyuan), two xianghuo helpers and seven instrumentalists (with Mao Liangshan on drum).
Studies of ritual nearby
We might read this material in conjunction with related monographs on Shanghai and Wuxi:
- Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Haishang Baiyun guan shishi keyi yinyue yanjiu 海上白雲觀施食科儀音樂研究 (1997) documents a 1994 performance of the shishi ritual, and contains reproductions of four ritual manuals.
- Qian Tiemin 錢鐵民 and Ma Zhen’ai 馬珍媛, Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (2 vols., 1999) contains transcriptions of the vocal liturgy (pp.165–568), but is dominated by the instrumental repertoire.
For other volumes on Shanghai in the important Minsu quyi congshu series, see n.3 here, including a review by Poul Andersen.
So such studies by musicologists contain considerable material for the scholar of Daoism.
Though the Maoist era was a crucial period for transmission, details remain elusive. Tao Jin and Goossaert give a bare outline (p.99–100). Household Daoist Zhou Caiyuan recalled a large-scale zhutian hui 朱天會 ritual in the late 1950s at the Wulu Caishen miao temple near the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Maoshan temples managed to maintain activity too: in 1963, roughly 20,000 believers attended a kaiguang 開光 inauguration ritual at the Jiuxiao gong temple there.  Even the performance of such rituals under Maoism suggests a nuanced picture, but few details emerge of more routine practice—including funerals, always an important context.
A 1956 list of temples in the city of Suzhou (Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.15–18) gives a stark picture of the decimation of the physical religious landscape there. Suburban and rural temples may have been hit less hard, though ritual activity there too would have been severely limited.
To return to Goossaert’s plea, it’s worth exploring the lives of the ritual performers.
For scholars of Daoism, the fashi ritual specialists properly take priority over the “musical” Daoists. But the 1957 volume Suzhou daojiao yishuji only lists their names, and the Anthology biographies concern not those specializing in liturgical practice but performers noted for their instrumental accomplishments who went on to achieve fame under Maoism as members of secular state troupes. Still, these Daoists are not mere “musicians”: they have long experience performing lengthy rituals. While some of them formally served as temple clerics before Liberation, most were household Daoists. 
Some of the most famed performers are renowned for their drumming (a major component of Daoist ritual around the region), such as Mao Zhongqing and Zhou Zufu, as well as Zhu Qinfu in Wuxi. Scholars pay attention to the complex drum sections that punctuate the instrumental suites, rather than the less virtuosic art of accompanying vocal liturgy (on which, for Yanggao, see here.)
Most of these biographies describe prominent Daosts recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple group in Suzhou:
Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (1915–?)
Mao Zhongqing studied from young with his father Mao Buyun 毛步雲, a priest in the Huoshen dian shrine attached to the Xuanmiao guan. He studied dizi flute with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎 of the Jifang dian shrine, sanxian plucked lute with Hua Yongmei 華詠梅 of the Wenchang dian shrine, and the whole Shifan repertoire with Dai Xiaoxia 戴啸霞, a Daoist attached to the Greater Guandi miao temple. From the age of 12 sui he was working for the Caishen dian temple.
After Liberation he was recruited to a Music Research Group in the Suzhou Daoist community for the “Resist America, Support Korea” Association. In 1953, like Cai Huiquan, he was employed in the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra, along with his fellow Daoists Wu Mingxing 吳明馨, Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, and Hua Lisheng 華麗生. But already in late 1954 he requested leave to return to Suzhou, where he worked for the Suzhou Daoist Study Committee.
In 1956 he took part on drum and tiqin fiddle in the major project to document a complete jiao Offering ritual. Wu Xiaobang, leader of the project, went on to organize the Heavenly Horses Dance Experimental Office (Tianma wudao shiyanshi 天马舞蹈实验室) in Shanghai, with whom Mao Zhongqing toured widely from 1958 to 1960. When the group folded in 1961 he once again returned to Jiangsu, joining the provincial Kunqu troupe. In the early years of the Cultural Revolution he was kept on at the reception office there, but he took early retirement in 1970, returning to Suzhou. In 1979, as tradition restored, he was part of an illustrious group of thirteen Daoists gathered together by cultural officials to record. He was now assigned to the Suzhou Song-and-Dance Ensemble, also taking part in the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe.
Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (1915–97)
From a background of Kunqu, Zhou Zufu was adopted after his mother’s death into the hereditary ritual tradition of the Zhou family in Huajing village of Wuxian county, descended from the Renshi tang 仁世堂 hall, performing along with four brothers. Aged 17 sui he studied Daoist percussion with Xu Yinmei 許吟梅 of the Caishen dian temple of the Xuanmiao guan, and from 21 sui he invited Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, an eminent Daoist attached to the Zongguan tang 總管堂 hall, to Huajing to teach them sanxian. After the Japanese occupation, with travel disrupted, he studied Shifan with Zhu Peiji 朱培基 (aka Zhu Boji 朱柏基). By now he was a respected performer in Daoist ritual and tangming groups around the countryside. He was given a post in the Suzhou Daoist association, expanding his ritual activities to the city. After the Japanese were defeated he was the only rural Daoist to take part in the Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, one of many such official Daoist groups formed since the 1920s.
After Liberation Zhou Zufu was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group. In 1953 he was assigned to the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe (forerunner of the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe), and in 1957 he went on to the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra. Again, he had to return to the Suzhou countryside with the 1962 state cuts.
Following a typical lacuna in the account, he was recalled to the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe in 1977. In 1984 he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple. That year he performed in Venice with a combined group from Suzhou (also including qin master Wu Zhaoji), arranged impressively by Raffaella Gallio, first foreign student at the Shanghai conservatoire from 1980—who incidentally was instrumental in helping me realize that Chinese folk music was reviving (see here).
The account lists official festivals at which he took part through the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1990 Beijing Festival of Religious Music. But by the late 1980s he was also a leading light in rituals at the Xuanmiao guan, teaching the new generation.
Jin Zhongying 金中英 (1925–96)
A hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, Jin Zhongying studied at sishu private school from the age of 6 sui, but had to withdraw after two years since the family could no longer afford the fees. When he was 12 sui his father died, and he gradually began performing in rituals, learning instruments and liturgy from masters like Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (see below), and learning further from 15 sui in the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 Daoist academy. In 1945, as the Japanese were defeated he took part in its successor the Yixuan yanlu, but their activities were soon curtailed by the civil war. In 1948 he studied with Xu Yinzhu 許吟竹 at the Wenchang dian temple.
After Liberation, in 1951 he too was enlisted to the Suzhou Daoists’ propaganda activities for the Korean War, and from 1953 he headed the second Daoist Music Research Group, with a brief interlude in the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe. He had an impressive collection of ritual manuals, and it was he who in 1953 provided the early Juntian miaoyue score by Cao Xisheng. He was one of the organizers of the 1956 project, and the main author of the resulting volume; and like Mao Zhongqing he went on to join the Tianma Troupe in Shanghai. In 1960 he was recalled to oversee the Suzhou Chinese Music Troupe. From 1965 he held successive cultural posts in Suzhou. He was a leading light in the revival from 1979.
As I observed in my post on the tangming bands, few Daoists would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and protected them, mostly, from accusations of “feudal superstition”.
By contrast with other regions, there was more official research activity in Suzhou under Maoism, based to a degree on the lively Daoist institutions of the Republican era. But such biographical sketches are frustrating. They were all versatile instrumentalists, but for details on their ritual and liturgical practice we have to seek elsewhere.
Cao and Zhang give further brief biographies (pp.131–40)—still based more on “musicians” than on liturgists. In addition to the Daoists above, they list:
Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?)
Son of the great Daoist Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, who had over two hundred disciples, Zhao Houfu also studied percussion in the 1930s with the Daoist master Dai Youxia 戴攸霞. From 1951 he was a member of the Suzhou Daoist Music Study Group, and he took part in the 1956 project, going on to the Tianma Troupe.
Xie Jianmei 謝劍梅 (1912–88)
From Suzhou city, from the age of 16 sui he learned with Li Peiyuan 李培元 and Shao Shilin 邵世琳, with further training in liturgy from Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, Wu Dinglan 吳鼎蘭, and Jin Shenzhi 金慎之. He became a priest at the Caishen dian shrine of the Xuanmiao guan after the 1945 victory over Japan. In 1951 he joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, working alongside Jin Zhongying and Hua Lisheng. Later he was recruited to the Kunshan Dasheng Yueju Opera Troupe. During the Cultural Revolution he worked at a primary school. From 1981 he was employed at the Xuanmiao guan.
Cao Yuanxi 曹元希(1913–89)
A hereditary Daoist at the Huoshen miao temple in Suzhou, he was a descendant of Cao Xisheng, compiler of the Juntian miaoyue score. After studying with Shao Shilin 邵士琳 and Xu Yinmei 許吟梅, he became abbot of the Huoshen miao. In 1951 he too joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, and he took part in the 1956 project. From 1957 he was in the Heavenly Horses dance troupe, moving on to the Suzhou Chinese Music Orchestra and the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe, where he worked until retiring.
Hua Lisheng 華麗笙 (1915–89)
Hua Lisheng became a priest in the Jifang dian 機房殿 shrine of the Xuanmiao guan at the age of only 10 sui, learning ritual with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎. In 1946, with Zhang Jingyun 張景雲, Li Youmei 李友梅, and Zhang Yunmou 張雲謀 he formed the Yunji she 雲笈社, a short-lived organization for Daoist research. In 1952 he was recruited to the Central Broadcasting Troupe, but returned home due to ill health. Through the Cultural Revolution he made a living from making paper boxes in Xuanmiao guan Alley. From 1981 he worked for the preparatory group for the Suzhou Daoist Association, becoming secretary when it was established in 1986.
Mao Liangshan 毛良善 (b.1927)
From Weiting in Wuxian county, Mao Liangshan was adopted at the age of 6 sui by Zhao Houfu, learning Daoist ritual with him and Zhao’s father Zhao Ziqin. He became a priest at the Xiuzhen guan temple in Suzhou at the age of 13 sui, under the tutelage of Shen Yisheng 深宜生. On the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he returned to Weiting to work in the communal fields. In 1984 the Suzhou Daoist Association summoned him to perform rituals.
Xue Jianfeng 薛劍峰 (b.1925)
A hereditary Daoist, Xue Jianfeng became a temple priest at 14 sui, studying with his father Xue Songqing 薛松卿 and Shao Shilin. From 18 sui he was abbot of the Liushuixian miao 柳水仙廟 temple. After the disruption of the Cultural Revolution, he returned to the Xuanmiao guan in the early 1980s. While a versatile instrumentalist, he specialized in the shuangqing 雙清 plucked lute. Along with Zhou Zufu and Mao Liangshan he trained the new generation.
Jiang Jierong 蔣介榮 (b.1926)
From Wuxian county, Jiang Jierong began studying Daoist ritual from the age of 8 sui with his father Jiang Nianxuan 蔣念萱. His father died when he was 13 sui, whereupon he studied “shendao” 神道 (the tangming ritual style) for three years under Tao Qinghe 陶慶和 (Tao Dawei 陶大微). At the age of 16 sui he became a priest at the Qingzhou guan temple in Suzhou, furthering his studies with Xu Yinmei. Upon land reform he left the clergy, but continued working as a household Daoist. After a long lacuna in the account, he resumed ritual life upon the reforms, and was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Association in 1990.
Here I may as well include a renowned Daoist drummer from nearby Wuxi, on whose reputation the wider awareness of the art of Daoist drumming in south Jiangsu is largely based—it’s worth recalling that Chinese musicologists were studying ritual in mainland China long before other scholars, and that this began with the great Yang Yinliu‘s immersion in Wuxi Daoism.
Zhu Qinfu 朱勤甫 (1902–81) 
Born to a poor family in Zhucuntou village of Wuxi, Zhu Qinfu was brought up by his Daoist uncle Zhu Xiuting 朱秀亭. He became the fifth generation of Daoists in the family, taking part in rituals from the age of 8 sui, and training formally with Zhu Xiuting from 12 to 16 sui. He was part of the Tianyun she group that performed for Henry Eichheim in 1921.
Around 1940 he formed a band called Shiwuchai 十勿拆, renowned for their rendition of the Shifan gu instrumental repertoire. In October 1947 he was invited by the Yangchun she in Shanghai to combine with the Tianyun she for three days of performances, attended by luminaries like Mei Lanfang and Yu Zhenfei. The recordings were broadcast and issued on six discs, but were apparently destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
After Liberation, Zhu Qinfu was recruited in 1952 to the orchestra of the Central Opera Academy in Beijing, and then the Central Experimental Opera Academy. In 1962 he was sent back home as a result of the state cuts following the famine—whereupon, to their credit, the conservatoires of Shanghai and Beijing employed him (the CD-set Xianguan chuanqi includes a 1962 recording). But with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was again forced home.
In 1978 the Shanghai conservatoire once again sought him out. Their recordings were less than ideal, since he was no longer in good health. In 1979 they made a TV documentary. Zhu also returned to the Central Conservatoire in Beijing before his death in 1981.
Back in Suzhou, Liu Hong also introduces two leading liturgists:
Xue Guiyuan 薛桂元 (b.1919) began learning with his father from the age of 9 sui, training from 15 sui at the Anzhaiwang miao 安齋王廟 and from 19 sui with Shao Shilin 邵世琳. Whereas the most accomplished Daoist instrumentalists might find work in state troupes, this was not an option for ritual masters like Xue Guiyuan, and from 1951 he had to work as a peasant, right until 1988 when he was summoned to the Xuanmiao guan.
Zhang Boxu 張伯旭 (b.1921), from Wuxian county, learned with his father from 9 to 13 sui, going to study with Li Duanchun 李端春 before making a living as a household Daoist. From 21 sui he spent two years in Suzhou under Lu Zifan 陸子範. He seems to have remained active until 1962, when he had to return to peasant life. Resuming ritual activities from 1988, he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan in 1992.
All these Daoists came from hereditary backgrounds, learning first in the family and then often with other masters. They had all performed rituals for their local communities before Liberation; though such accounts are unclear about their ritual life under Maoism, they had been largely unable to practice until the 1980s’ revival.
Cao Benye and Zhang Fenglin also introduce three able younger Daoists who became priests at the Xuanmiao guan since 1984, taking part in training sessions (cf. Shanghai) and becoming regular members of the temple’s main ritual group: Lu Jianzhong 陸建中 (b.1966), Xie Jianming 謝建明 (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong 韓曉東 (b.1972). Here we can note a shift: with hereditary training having been disrupted, their studies now took place at a later age, and under the auspices of the temple’s training programmes. Lu Jianzhong and Han Xiaodong went on to pursue their studies further with ritual master Xue Guiyuan.
But again, I wonder about the fates of Daoists struggling to make a living after Liberation: not only the more accomplished fashi ritual masters and instrumentalists, but ordinary Daoists too. Many had to return to the collective fields or take up factory jobs, though doubtless some also performed rituals intermittently. More detailed biographies would yield rich material on the Maoist era.
Today the Xuanmiao guan group comprises some accomplished Daoists (see also here), but the temple’s “museified” official representation may innoculate us from considering the complex realities of local ritual life (cf. the Zhihua temple in Beijing). We still need to include the lives and activities of both fashi ritual masters and ordinary Daoists in the picture.
I return to my usual refrain: none of this discussion can convey an adequate impression of the actions and sound of rituals in performance—and sound is precisely the means by which the texts are communicated.
So beyond silent immobile texts (and beyond transcriptions, or even audio recordings), what we need is films. After all, fieldworkers do commonly film the rituals they observe; but their footage is rarely admitted to the public domain. Online you can find a few unedited, undocumented clips, like the footage of the Dispatching the Talismans at the end of this post.
Rather, I’m suggesting edited ethnographic films with commentary and subtitles showing liturgical texts—both documentaries showing ritual life in social context, and “salvage” projects aiming to preserve or recreate rarely-performed rituals. For the former, Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven enriches his detailed work on ritual life in Putian in Fujian; for the latter, we might cite the current project of the Shanghai Daoist Association, and Patrice Fava’s films tend towards this style. For further such material, see here.
Of course, the historical dimensions of film may be rather shallow. It by no means supplants textual publications, but it should be a sine qua non. However well such textual descriptions are done, they can’t begin to evoke such complex rituals; it’s an absurdity of academia that they are considered adequate. Film is hardly a new medium. Scholars’ reluctance to use it may be partly to do with the lasting dominance of print media in academia, but it also suggests that they consider the written text, not performance, as primary. They write texts about other written texts. In the Appendix of my Daoist priests of the Li family I made this analogy:
It’s like someone with a fine kitchen and loads of glossy cookbooks, who draws the line at handling food or cooking.
If a copy of the 1956 film of the Suzhou Offering ever miraculously resurfaces, then Tao Jin can add subtitles for the ritual segments and vocal texts…
* * *
So the Xuanmiao guan is just one element in Suzhou Daoist ritual; and the latter is just one component of ritual life around the region.
A certain compartmentalization of all these strands may be inevitable; but it’s hard to bring them into dialogue. I suppose it was this kind of synthesis that I attempted in my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, combining text and film. Within the ethnographic framework of the book I gave material both on the wider history of their ritual texts and on their changing performance practice—my task made easier by the sparser historical material and a smaller ritual repertoire. Often my posts on local ritual in north China concern traditions for which little evidence has emerged in either historical or religious studies—which makes them both valuable and limited. But for regions like Suzhou it may be too much to ask for an accessible synthesis of these various elements.
So again the analogy of “blind people groping at the elephant” seems apposite.
With many thanks to Tao Jin and Vincent Goossaert
 “Dagaoxuandiande daoshi yu daochang: guankui Ming–Qing Beijing gongtingde daojiao huodong” 大高玄殿的道士与道场：管窥明清北京宫廷的道教活动, Gugong xuekan 2014.2, and
“Dadong wushang jiuji tianxian chuanjie keyi chutan: yige Qingdai Beijing yu Jiangnan wenhua luantan jiaohu yingxiangde anli” 蘇州無上九極天仙傳戒科儀初探: 一個清代北京與江南文化亂壇交互影響的案例, Daoism: religion, history and society 5 (2013).
 Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain”, pp.95–6.
 My summaries here are based on three sources, not always unanimous in detail: the Anthology, Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (2000), pp.131–40, and Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun苏州道教科仪音乐研究:以“天功”科仪为例展开的讨论 (1999), pp.321–8.
After an interlude on ritual around south Jiangsu (notably the great Daoist ritual held in Suzhou in 1956), here I return to my home base of north China, focusing on the Maoist era as a kind of prequel to my post on the Wutaishan Buddhists.
As always, I note the tension between studies of ritual and “music”. Whereas scholars of religion tend to focus on early doctrine and silent texts, Chinese music scholars set forth from the living soundscapes of ritual. At the same time, they have tended to collect reified “pieces of music”, only paying attention to ethnography quite recently. However, at least they do the fieldwork, stressing the actual performance of ritual, and we can glean clues to the changing life of religion in society.
Wutaishan is one of the foremost sites for Buddhism in north China. Since the 1980s, the history of its temples has become a major research topic,  and Chinese music scholars have documented their rituals (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.213–25). But already in 1947, amidst civil war and land reform, Ya Xin spent three months on Wutaishan documenting the ritual soundscape (whose features in north China I introduce here).
Following the national Communist victory in 1949, major projects to document a wide range of folk musical genres were initiated right across China. In March 1954 Ya Xin took part in a conference in Chengdu to discuss the enterprise, prompting him and five others to spend August doing fieldwork in the temples of Emeishan in Sichuan. In 1955 he edited a 508-page volume of transcriptions, including both that material and his 1947 work on Wutaishan:
- Ya Xin 亞欣, Siyuan yinyue 寺院音樂 [Temple music], Zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui Chengdu fenhui, 1955.
By the 1950s, scholars like Yang Yinliu studying “religious music” found it obligatory to defend the “value” of the topic, and Ya Xin prefaced his introduction (pp.1–15) with such a defence. The following transcriptions for Emeishan (pp.16–297) include the major Yuqie yankou ritual, daily services, and other vocal liturgy. 
But back in 1947 (just as Bill Hinton was embedded with the land reform teams in a village further south in Shanxi), Ya Xin had carried out fieldwork on Wutaishan while serving as a cultural cadre for the Jin–Sui Liberated Area. The conditions were most taxing: amidst ongoing battles with Nationalist troops, the Communists were implementing land reform. So Ya Xin notes that his work was imperfect. But it was a bold initiative: while collecting folk music had been a major project in the Shaanbei Base Area, temple ritual was not on their agenda.
For Wutaishan (pp.299–454), Ya Xin transcribed the main items from the Yuqie yankou ritual, shengguan wind ensemble melodies for both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles, and the Three Days and Nights (san zhouye) mortuary ritual. With the book’s many transcriptions of hymns (zan 讚), gathas (ji 偈), mantras (zhenyan 真言), and so on, it provided an early framework for understanding the mechanics of vocal liturgy.
From Ya Xin’s transcriptions of the Wutaishan yankou: Daochang chengjiu hymn,
and opening of Huayan hui, showing melisma with padding characters.
Finally, visiting Du Wanzhongshan’s gufang 鼓房 folk wind band in Dongye town at the foot of the mountain Ya Xin notated their “eight great suites” (pp.455–508), derived from the shengguan of the temple monks (Folk music of China, pp.218–19)—although unlike groups of household ritual specialists, they don’t perform vocal liturgy.
Since Ya Xin wasn’t equipped with a recording machine, one both admires his diligence in transcription and wonders at its accuracy. I surmise that much of his work on the vocal liturgy was done with individual monks singing items for him repeatedly, rather than in the course of rituals—not least because the Buddhist texts themselves are highly complex, so he clearly had access to ritual manuals; and he seems to have consulted gongche scores of the shengguan music too. But he didn’t list the temples where he made his transcriptions, or provide names of monks.
We should bear in mind the wider history of Wutaishan around the time. Here I seek clues in the 1988 Wutai county gazetteer.  Though such sources are “history of the victors”, they contain some useful material.
Warlord conflict from the 1920s, with Yan Xishan’s troops active, already made the region unstable. But in 1936 Wutaishan had 130 active temples with 2,200 registered clerics (including 800 lamas)—many of whom were doubtless fleeing from warfare. John Blofeld spent time there in 1936–37.
The early architecture of the Wutaishan temples had attracted historians for some time. Japanese scholars found some important temples early in the 20th century, though the Danish Johannes Prip-Møller was unable to visit during his 1929–33 temple survey. In 1937, on the eve of the invasion, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin rediscovered the Tang-dynasty Foguang si temple. The search for “living fossils” would later become a major industry in Chinese musicology.
Japanese troops invaded the area in October 1938, carrying out several massacres. This was an early base area for the Communists in the resistance against Japan. Both patriotic and quisling Buddhist associations were formed in the temples. Many of the monks assisting the resistance were Tibeto-Mongolian lamas, such as those of the Zhenhai si temple, who in 1938 handed over to the 8th Route Army an entire arsenal of weapons that had been given by Chiang Kai-shek to the bodyguard of the Zhangjiafo lama. Monks handed over another cache of weapons in 1942.
The Nationalists fled in 1943, and the Japanese were in retreat from 1944. By July 1946 the Communists were in complete control, and began carrying out land reform. The monks now lost much of their land and income, and some temples were destroyed. By 1947, with little patronage, tilling the monks’ remaining land constituted 89% of their income.
Yan Xishan’s forces returned in October 1946, but retreated again in November. Even in February 1949 they committed a massacre in Dongye town.
During this whole period from 1937 a succession of Communist leaders had passed through. After Chairman Mao’s 1947 visit to the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, on a trip to Wutaishan in 1948 he expressed appreciation of the cultural heritage of Buddhism (for many such comments see e.g. here). Such utterances might have offered a certain intermittent validation for research, though they are utterly paltry alongside the Party’s long-term onslaught on religion.
Upon Liberation and over the following years, most temple clerics were laicized, with their traditional patronage severely reduced. The remaining monks on Wutaishan (a 1956 survey lists 445)  received a monthly income of 20–40 yuan from the county government. During the Maoist era ritual life was doubtless much impoverished, though the authorities sanctioned occasional visits from overseas Buddhist delegations.
Meanwhile, away from the temples, household ritual specialists, their numbers now boosted by clerics returning to the laity, maintained a certain activity. And although the influence of Wutaishan made Buddhism dominant around the region, Daoist ritual specialists were also active, such as in nearby Xinzhou.
Sectarian groups are another major theme in religious life throughout China. The sectarian connections of the amateur ritual associations in central Hebei, whose liturgy was transmitted from temples, are a separate case. But all these sects should interest us, since while not all of them performed complex liturgy, they show a link between temple and lay practice.
It is not that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests were usually sectarian; often, as in Yanggao, occupational ritual specialists are clearly distinct from the sects. But I have a growing list of temples where clerics belonged to such groups (Tianzhen, Xinzhou, Baiyunshan).
The recent county gazetteers, however partial, are often a useful source on the sects. Major campaigns were held from 1950 to 1951, and continued through into the Cultural Revolution. Of course, campaigns against “heterodox teachings” were nothing new, having been frequent under both imperial and republican governments, but the new campaigns were far more ruthless. Still, the sects went underground as usual, and have revived since the 1980s. However partial such recent accounts may be, it is important to bear in mind this perspective on local religious organizations when we consider the practice of folk ritual over the last century; this background still colours local society, and our discussions, today.
In the Wutai region, despite campaigns since 1945, intensifying in 1949 and 1950, a variety of sectarian groups were still active through the 1950s, including the Jiugong dao, Huanxiang dao, and Houtian dao.  They had a firm base in the temples as well as throughout the countryside. A brief biography of Zhang San Baotai 张三保泰 (1890–1958),  leader of the Houtian dao sect, is so rare as to be worth summarizing.
After joining the sect in 1924, Zhang became a monk at the Yuanzhao si temple on Wutaishan in 1938. The following year he declared himself a living Buddha, but his plot with Yan Xishan’s troops to organize an underground arsenal was exposed. In 1941 he travelled through Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, recruiting over ten thousand followers. His activities continued under the PRC, despite the campaigns of 1950–51. After returning to Wutai from Yuxian in Hebei in 1955, he prepared a major armed uprising for 1960, planning to establish a capital at Dingxian in Hebei, and mobilizing in Shandong; but he was captured and executed in 1958.
Apart from the general persecution of “orthodox” religious practices, the sectarian connection would have further darkened the cloud hanging over the temples.
Research in the 1950s
I know of no fieldwork on the rituals of the Wutaishan temples after Liberation. Still, eighteen monks from Wutaishan took part in a provincial festival of folk music at Taiyuan in 1958, winning a prize. Provincial scholars were hoping to do fieldwork from the mid-1950s, but were unable to do so. 
The “eight great suites”
The folk shengguan instrumental bands made a more palatable topic than the vocal liturgy of the temples, and this style did go on to achieve wider fame. In 1953 the Shanxi Radio Station revisited Du Wanzhongshan’s band in Dongye to record, which were widely broadcast, and Liu Shiying 刘士英 published transcriptions.
Indeed, early in the War against Japan a friend of Bo Yibo, then a major Communist resistance leader in Shanxi, had lent a 1926 gongche score of this repertoire to Lü Ji, who would become the pre-eminent official pundit of Chinese music. After Liberation Lü Ji lent the score to Yang Yinliu;  a page was reproduced in vol.4 of the 1957 Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片, spreading awareness of the genre in music circles.
Even as the enforcement of the commune system was leading to desperation, further recordings of the suites, along with transcriptions, were made from 1959, with Du’s son Du San now leading the band.
When I first visited Wutaishan in 1986 it was still far from a bustling national and international tourist attraction. Indeed, I needed a special permit to travel there. Even the town of Taihuai was still a tranquil retreat. But my attention soon turned from the temples to folk ritual practice, and on my later trips I explored household groups in the surrounding region, including a fine shengguan band in Dongye town, led by Xu Yousheng. In 1992, having followed them round on funerals, we held a recording session (#5 on CD1 of my China: folk instrumental traditions; or a shorter version as #5 of the CD with the 1998 paperback of Folk music of China).
Since the reforms
The provincial scholars who had planned fieldwork on Wutaishan in the mid-1950s were only able to realize the project after the end of the Cultural Revolution, leaping into action as early as 1978. A group of senior monks was invited to the Shanxi Music and Dance Research Institute that year, and the precious recordings (as well as some further tracks from 1988) were issued on the five-cassette series
- Wutaishan foyue 五台山佛乐, with notes by Liu Jianchang, in The Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China series, ed. Tian Qing (Shanghai yinxiang gongsi, 1989; reissued on CD since 1998). 
The set includes both vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble music, with excerpts from the yankou ritual and examples of both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles. Like the group that came to England in 1992, most of the performers had been ordained on Wutaishan but had spent much of the Maoist era elsewhere in Shanxi, doing rituals sporadically among the folk. And meanwhile the “southern” style of vocal liturgy was replacing the distinctive regional styles of northern temples (such as Beijing and Shenyang).
From 1978 to 1980, Chen Jiabin and Liu Jianchang published transcriptions in mimeograph, and by the 1980s, along with the Anthology fieldwork, several provincial scholars were undertaking studies. The most extensive research is
- Han Jun 韩军, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun 五台山佛教音乐总论 (2012).
The Anthology coverage is also substantial:
- Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 山西卷 (2000), introduction pp.1543–53, transcriptions 1554–1768.
The yankou: opening of Huayan hui hymn, from Anthology. For variant renditions, see Han Jun, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun, pp.152–5.
Such studies suffer from the usual flaws of Chinese research, consisting mainly of reified transcriptions rather than ethnography, but they contain some clues to the changing fortunes of religious life.
Meanwhile, as with groups such as the Zhihua temple, media coverage steered clear of the ritual basis of the tradition by highlighting the shengguan instrumental ensemble, with glossy performances on stage.
- Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012)
also mainly focuses on the shengguan ensemble, but she takes a more ethnographic approach, with useful sections on the vocal liturgy; notes on actual rituals observed, including a funeral; and astute comments on the ideological baggage of Chinese studies and the recent commodified market.
* * *
In the West the study of Chinese ritual is often considered to date from the work of Kristofer Schipper in Taiwan in the 1960s; and in the PRC much of the vast energy in researching local ritual traditions has taken place since the 1980s.
However, long before scholars of religion, fieldworkers in mainland China, in the Republican era and under Maoism, were hard at work documenting ritual practice—their studies conducted under the discreet guise of “music”.  It was the intrepid fieldwork of such scholars before 1965, despite all the ideological obstacles then placed in their way, that formed the background to the monumental Anthology project of the 1980s. While most Chinese music scholars working on northern ritual traditions stress the shengguan ensemble, they don’t neglect the vocal liturgy.
Most scholars of Buddhism, and indeed Daoism, are more concerned with early doctrinal issues and the material heritage than with ritual performance. But as I constantly stress, if we wish to study religion in China, we must get to grips with its soundscape. And even this barely addresses my main concern—the changing ritual life of local communities.
 Note e.g. the journal Wutaishan yanjiu 五台山研究, and the recent volume Yishan er wuding: duoxueke, kuafangyu, chaowenhua shiyexiade Wutai xinyang yanjiu 一山而五頂：多學科，跨方域，超文化視野下的五台信仰研究 [One mountain of five plateaus: studies of the Wutai cult in multidisciplinary, crossborder and transcultural approaches], ed. Miaojiang 妙江, Chen Jinhua 陳金華, Kuan Guang 寬廣 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2017).
 Yang Yinliu had visited Qingchengshan in the summer of 1942, but his attempts to transcribe vocal liturgy there were frustrated by an unhelpful abbot (see his 1961 essay “How to treat religious music”). BTW, folk and temple ritual in the vast province of Sichuan is also a major topic that I can’t begin to address—as ever, the Anthology is one starting-point, and Volker Olles can provide leads.
 Besides other essays in the Wutai xianzhi, for “major events” of the Republican and Maoist eras, see pp.696–714. See also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012), pp.10–21. For more background, see Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (1972).
 Wutai xianzhi, p.581.
 Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.
 Wutai xianzhi, p.643.
 Liu Jianchang 刘建昌, Chen Jiabin 陈家滨, and Ren Deze 任德泽, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告, Yinyue wudao 1990.1.
 Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji (1986), prelude by Lü Ji, p.3.
 Cf. Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries, pp.128–9. Of course, rituals such as the yankou, with its complex Tantric mudras, cry out to be documented on film. For a brief 2003 excerpt from a yankou in a minor temple in Yanggao, led by a monk trained at Wutaishan, see my film Doing Things.
 Cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.20–26.
Hardly had I published this series of links to posts on the Shunzhi emperor’s Buddhist meditation on impermanence, and what it’s doing in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, when I realized that I would be churlish not to provide a rough translation, for those readers less than fluent in classical Chinese—of whom I hope there are many!
So I’ve now added it under the original post, here. Help welcome…
In several posts I refer to the beautiful Buddhist meditation on impermanence Kangxi yun 康熙云, actually composed not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61).
A variant of the poem forms part of the hymn volume of the Li family Daoists, the very first ritual manual that Li Qing recopied in 1980. This volume is not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts—I explain in some detail the process of recopying the manuals in this post (for the hymn volume, see under “Manuals and ritual practice”).
Here I noted Li Manshan’s attachment to the text of the Kangxi yun (with a very rough translation), and began to wonder what it is doing in the hymn volume. And on my stay with Li Manshan last year (see my diary, under “Pacing the Void”) we sought further clues, speculating about how, and when, the text might have entered the Li family manuals.
But ritual manuals are never merely silent texts; it’s also important to document the function of such texts in ritual performance. The Li family Daoists no longer perform the Kangxi yun, but as Li Manshan explains, it was one of several long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be recited in the shuowen solo introit style used for funerary segments like shanggong 上供 Presenting Offerings—discussed here.
This is among my more superficial introductions to changing ritual life over a wide region, the northeastern province of Liaoning.
I set forth from Ling Qizhen’s 1958 study of “Buddhist music” (shengguan wind ensemble) in Shenyang, moving on to the 1980s’ Anthology accounts of Buddhist and Daoist (largely temple) activity, and Li Runzhong’s fine detailed “salvage” ethnography from Panjin municipality.
Change is constant, not only in the vast social upheavals since the early 20th century but in the adoption of the “southern” style of vocal liturgy and the decline of the shengguan wind ensemble. But here it does appear that the ritual practice of household ritual specialists was much impoverished by the 1950s, and any folk activity today remains elusive.
So as with some of my other reports, this is a mere introduction to tempt people to continue such fieldwork.
*For main page, see here! With two major new articles, and new layout!*
Here’s a link to some more vignettes from my 2004 book Plucking the winds on the ritual associations of Gaoluo village in Hebei. And while adding them, I’ve rearranged the way they all appear on the site layout: in the top menu (under Other publications), a general introduction (Gaoluo) leads to a sub-menu of pages, like so:
including the substantial new articles
I’ve supplemented the related page on ritual images, and to the remarkable article on the Gaoluo Catholics I’ve added photos of the village’s own ordained priests, and Bishop Martina, from the 1940s. These articles overlap to some extent, so it’s good to read them in conjunction.
This new layout makes a certain arcane sense to me, at least… You can find much further related material with the help of the Gaoluo tag in the sidebar.
In most of these vignettes, conflict is apparent: from the animosity between the ritual association and the village Catholics that led to the Boxer massacre, to the social breakdown under Maoism, to the challenges of the reform era that I witnessed.
Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.
I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.
Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).
To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.
I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including
Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.
I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably
- Iron curtain, including posts on the Ukraine holodomor, as well as the Bloodlands, east Europe, and Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans. Also relevant are the films of Wang Bing and Ai Xiaoming on the Chinese gulag (for more, see Maoism tag)
- Related are more posts on 20th-century traumas around Europe (collected here), including A Nazi legacy; a sequel on the GDR; Sachsenhausen, to follow Ravensbrück; fascism in Portugal and Spain; Les Parisiennes
- south China, including ritual and recreational cultures
- world music, obligingly subheaded (introduction here). Among many posts, the general ones argue the importance of soundscape: Nettl, McClary, Small, Bigenho, and so on. And do read the series on flamenco and fado (under Iberia tag); Sardinian chronicles; Women of Herat; as well as analysis, more and less technical. In Different values I collect several posts on the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire performance in China
- The WAM category (also with subheads!) also continues to grow, including more Proms; chinoiserie (Berlioz, as well as Ravel and Mahler, who have their own tags); and early music. Coverage of the infinite wonders of Bach continues, such as this. Try also this Haydn trio (part of a series on reception history). The humour subhead includes gems like The Mary Celeste. See also under conducting
I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as
Some posts are instructively linked in chains:
- Shakespeare stories
- Deviating from behavioural norms
- Trumpets, wind and brass bands around the world—now and in history
Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:
Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!
I’m happy to see a Chinese translation of the Appendix “Ethnography, performance, and history in Daoist ritual studies” of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, just published in the fine series Dayin (“Ritual soundscapes”—which, BTW, is always full of excellent field reports) from the enterprising Centre for Chinese Ritual Music Research at the Shanghai Conservatoire 上海音乐学院中国仪式音乐研究中心:*
- “Daojiao yishi yanjiuzhongde minzuzhi, biaoyan he lishi” 道教仪式研究中的民族志、 表演和历史, Dayin 大音 vol. 13, pp.112–30.
This Appendix explores many of the main themes in my research, not just on the Li family Daoists but on my whole fieldwork on ritual practice in rural China. I worked on the translation together with Zhang Lili, whose recent PhD thesis explores my relationship with the Hebei village of Gaoluo, as in my ethnography Plucking the winds. She’s thoroughly familiar with my work.
Amidst current anxieties over censorship (for Chinese pressure on Western academic publication, see e.g. this NYT article), my own arcane publications hardly merit much attention. But here at last I did come up against a little issue.
Earlier this year in my talks in Beijing I noted an impressive candour about modern history amongst Chinese colleagues (cf. this article), and Chinese social media and websites resound with yet more controversial material (such as on aisixiang.com, including this recent English translation); but print publication is a rather separate matter.
As we worked on the translation, we very occasionally adapted a phrase to read more naturally in Chinese, but left my content intact. It was then accepted for the Dayin series—which is gratifying, since while I stress the crucial role of soundscape in ritual, my Appendix contains rather little material on “music” as such. And Dayin also makes a suitable home for my work since the Centre for Ritual Music Research (despite its name) has long advocated the use of the term “soundscape”, while taking a broader anthropological view than other Chinese “music” journals.
Later during the editing process, the doubtless well-meaning editors were mainly concerned about the potential political sensitivity of one sentence (in bold below) under “The 1949 barrier”, where I explore the status of research on ritual in the PRC:
Scholars of Daoism recognize the historical importance of politics, describing machinations at imperial courts, or campaigns in the Republican era. But then their enquiry abruptly stops. So religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.
Indeed, early history has long been a safer topic in socialist countries, as Vesna Goldsworthy notes for Serbia. In the discussion at one of my Beijing talks, a senior Chinese scholar made a similar point, even while noting greater freedoms in research since the 1980s’ reforms; and I’m sure personally the Dayin editors (like everyone in China I know in the field) concur with it. I’ve made such observations in many previous English (and even some Chinese) publications, read by my Chinese colleagues and their students; after all, the dominant theme of my research is the maintenance of ritual activity under Maoism and since. Though my critique applied as much to Western as to Chinese scholars, some—even within the PRC—have published honorable ethnographies that I often cite.
But constrained by the current climate, the editors observed that if I wanted to retain the sentence in bold above (indeed the whole passage—see below), then it would need to be submitted to a whole chain of meetings of Higher Authorities, which could be both time-consuming and tedious. Reluctant to do a King Canute, and bearing in mind the fieldworker’s maxim “abide by local customs“, I found myself willing to make a certain compromise.
Our Chinese draft had gone:
For “whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained” the editors at first suggested a softer 无论管得严还是松 (“however strict or lax the control”); it’s not quite what I wrote, but I liked it since it read more idiomatically. I wasn’t privy to later stages in editing, and the final version turned out closer to our own—but at the expense of a cunning adjustment to the previous phrase. In the end the sentence came out as
Thus, following “But then their enquiry abruptly stops” (from which the deletion of “abruptly” also subtly transforms my intent), the sentence now reads
So religious practice in different historical periods—whether [“savagely” cut] repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.
In other words, they’ve replaced my “religious practice since 1949” with “religious practice in different historical periods”. That totally garbles my point: it’s not the whole political history that’s sensitive, just that since 1949!
Of course, the beauty of it is that precisely by censoring the sentence they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly showed that it was… Ha! I rest my case.
Leading on from that idea, our translation of the following section has also been garbled in the publication:
Ironically, modern history (as for earlier periods) is not entirely about political campaigns; general social and economic trends also need discussion, but they too are casualties of this taboo mentality. It is ironic, or significant, that this self-censorship has largely emanated from projects led from Hong Kong and Taiwan—their caution perhaps deriving partly from not wishing to implicate mainland authors and subjects. But such idealization of both present and past feeds into the rose-tinted patriotic subtext of recent cultural heritage projects.
Of course, this is a far wider issue than ritual studies, involving the whole historiography of modern China. The next paragraph also received subtle yet significant editing:
Actually, it is not only religion that is sensitive. When discussing with Chinese colleagues the lack of detail on modern history in reports on local folk culture, one often hears the riposte “Everyone knows [again they’ve added “tacitly” here, which I like] what happened since 1949—there’s no need to discuss it.”
*Such a conspiracy of silence is both erroneous and dangerous [that phrase altered], repressing memory. There is a remarkable ignorance among younger Chinese of basic details about modern history [that whole phrase cut, and thus the following two words]; even older people who lived through the period must have had different experiences, that are still poorly documented.* If we refrained from writing about World War Two because “everyone knows what happened”, we might assume that the experiences of people of various classes in Latvia, Puglia, and Singapore were similar and so not worth recording.
For the record, here’s our draft of that further offending passage (between asterisks above):
Of course, Western editors can be critical too—but this is a translation of a published work, not a manuscript submitted for assessment. Our Chinese version may not always have read well, so I welcome stylistic suggestions—but here there’s also another agenda for editor and author to ponder. I didn’t write my book, or any of my other English works, with a view to publication in Chinese; while always sensitive to the condition of Chinese people, I carry out my research in the context of Western academic discourse. But reading my original, perhaps you will think me naive not to have engaged in self-censorship even while working on the translation.
Innocuous enough, the incident may not be the end of the world, but it’s a slippery slope. Whatever the result, now I’m free to document it all here, somewhat salving my conscience, and I’m not blaming the editors in the least. Everyone involved acted in good faith—these are just the kind of issues with which we all have to grapple through variable political climates.
Anyway, I am glad to see my Appendix in Chinese—very nearly complete, and more or less accurate. Far more impressionistic translations, in both directions, have doubtless been published.
* BTW, following my peeve about the Western academic convention of disrupting authors’ melliflous prose with garrulous parenthetical in-text citations, the name of the Dayin editorial committee would make another fine case (Shanghai yinyue xueyuan Zhongguo yishi yinyue yanjiu zhongxin Dayin bianjibu weiyuanhui 2018, personal communication).
*For main page, click here!*
This article introduces household Complete Perfection Daoist groups in the counties south of Linfen city.
Since southwest Shanxi is another region that I haven’t visited, my account is based on limited secondary sources, so this is more of an invitation than a report. So this is a modest if more colourful update of the material in ch.4 of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. Even if many details need clarifying, we gain a tantalizing glimpse into grass-roots Daoism since imperial times.
And following my articles on the worship of the goddess Houtu on the Hebei plain, I also give a note on Houtu temples in south Shanxi.
In a field where silent inanimate publications vastly outnumber audio-visual documentation, for further background on ritual life in Yanggao it’s also worth watching my earlier DVD Doing things (办事, widespread parlance for “performing rituals”), which comes with my 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.
Apart from the shawm bands (notably the Hua family band: the magnificent suite in §C of the DVD is analysed here), this film also contains many interesting scenes of funerals and temple fairs in Yanggao from as far back as 1991, including not only the Li family Daoists but also
- Li Yuan‘s Daoist band
- Rituals such as Fetching Water (for both funerals and temple fairs), Burning the Treasuries, Transferring Offerings, and the burial procession
- Raising the Pennant, and Judgment and Alms, at the 2003 Lower Liangyuan temple fair
- A nocturnal yankou ritual performed by Buddhist monks
- The Gushan temple fair, with Daoists and sectarians
- pop music at funerals and temple fairs (cf. here, and here).
And while I’m here, don’t forget the DVD Notes from the yellow earth with my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei—a vivid complement to the book and my various posts on Shaanbei!
Both volumes are now in paperback…
*For main page, click here!*
Continuing my series on local ritual in north China, the province of Ningxia, between Shaanbei and Gansu, looks to have lively traditions of Daoist and Buddhist ritual, both temple-based and household.
Of course Ningxia is better known for its Hui Muslim population—and the recent clampdowns. But Han Chinese make up around two thirds of the inhabitants, and their Buddhist and Daoist ritual activity is widespread, with a long history. One scholar has estimated that there are over thirty thousand household Daoists active there!
With no personal experience of fieldwork there, my little introduction is based on limited secondary sources, merely suggesting the kind of spadework one should do before venturing into the field. I set forth from the instrumental volume of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, itself resulting from fieldwork in the late 1980s to early 90s. As usual, while I dispute the very concept of “religious music”, I’m grateful for all the clues there.
Still using the Anthology, I also add a note on “Buddhist precious scrolls” and “Daoist morality tales” performed by devotional sectarian groups in Gansu.
Inspired by the recent British Museum performances of the new generation of Zhihua temple ritual specialists, I’ve just enriched the playlist in the sidebar (#14) with a haunting recording of the former monks from 1953, with commentary here.
For a roundup of posts on the Zhihua temple and related ritual activity, see here.
*UPDATED with links to posts on the Zhihua temple and related topics!*
Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:
Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple. […] It was only hearing the temple musicians that directed me irresistibly to living traditions. I began to neglect ancient history…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]
While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—the soundscape of its shengguan remains a classic source. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.
In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster.** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.
It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.
For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:
Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy.
Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.
As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.
This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:
Music of the Zhihua temple
A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming – several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.
The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.
Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing. After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.
Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicised, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.
Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context – in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.
While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.
The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerizing heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.
- Stephen Jones, Folk music of China: living instrumental traditions, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 (paperback edition with CD, 1998).
- Stephen Jones, Plucking the winds: lives of village musicians in old and new China, Leiden: CHIME Foundation, 2004 (with CD).
- Stephen Jones, In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010 (Appendix 1).
- Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu [The Buddhist capital music of China], Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2012.
- Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu [Wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing], Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe, 1993.
Articles on this blog:
And for conceptual backgound,
On the Qujiaying connection:
See also Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing.
* * *
The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also includes flamenco (cf. my series starting here), Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.
**Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.
Following the 2014 performance of the Zhihua temple group at the British Museum, I’m looking forward to their repeat visit this coming Monday! I’ve just added it to the events calendar in the sidebar.
In addition to the haunting shengguan wind ensemble, we’ve now incorporated vocal liturgy as well as percussion items with large cymbals into the programme, to give a flavour of the whole ritual soundscape.
An important theme in our fieldwork on ritual associations around the Hebei plain is that of the itinerant occupational sheng mouth-organ repairers (dianshengde 点笙的). They make cameo appearances in several pages on Local ritual, so here I’d like to collect some of the material. 
While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).
Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.
On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.
When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pin sheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.
So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.
Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.
Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai
Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.
We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.
They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.
Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 8, and here)—the Shang family sheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.
In Xiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.
Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.
In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.
Xushui and Yixian
In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.
In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.
Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.
Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.
Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.
A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!
Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.
In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang,  which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.
Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.
I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.
I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.
 See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g. http://www.onesheng.cn/news/102721.html.
 See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.
Continuing our surveys of ritual associations on the Hebei plain, the Jinghai region of Tianjin is an extremely fruitful area for fieldwork. Even by the 1990s Tianjin municipality (like Beijing) was largely rural, way beyond the city itself.
This article introduces two ritual groups in Jinghai, those of Lesser Huangzhuang and Yuanmengkou, both richly deserving more fieldwork than our team could manage in 1994 and 1995. Through the latter we found a network of Heaven and Earth Teachings sectarian associations—continuing our acquaintance with sectarian groups (Laofomen, Hunyuan, Hongyang, and so on) elsewhere on the Hebei plain.
As ever, such research requires a blend of fieldwork, textual study, local history for both imperial and modern eras, and an understanding of folk religion and the ritual soundscape.
Here’s yet another article in my series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing, gradually filling in some of the gaps on the map.
I’ve noted the contrast between the occupational household Daoist bands of north Shanxi and the village-wide amateur ritual associations that are typical of the Hebei plain. Just southeast of the capital, on the way to Bazhou, Langfang municipality (formerly the county of Anci) is another lively area for ritual. Village associations here seem to feature elements of the ritual scene in suburban Beijing, with some occupational Daoist and Buddhist groups alongside the amateur associations that are common just further south and west. The Langfang region is also famed for its involvement in the 1900 Boxer uprisings.
These groups too had learned from temple clerics. Unlike the particular case we found in Daxing, most ritual associations here, as south and west on the plain, maintained the amateur tradition of “practising good” by performing rituals as a social duty without reward, though some were beginning to accept modest fees. As usual, such amateur groups were active mainly in the home village and a very small radius.
A work of fiction it may be, but what I admire here is the ethnographic thick description—a model for modern fieldworkers. Prompting us to experience such rituals within the far wider context of social life and personal experience, the author not only evokes all the human detail of the family’s behaviour and emotional world, including the priests’ relations with their patrons, but depicts the whole physical setting and itemizes expenses.
Chapters 13 and 14 describe a 49-day observance for the funeral of the family matriarch, with several groups of ritual specialists performing. Chapter 13 gives the text of the placard—similar in style to those used in modern times.  In David Hawkes’s brilliant translation (for the whole passage, see vol.1, pp. 255–87):
He also instructed someone to invite an expert from the Board of Astronomy to select dates for the funeral and the ceremonies preceeding it. With the approval of this official it was decided that the lying in state should be for forty-nine days and that the notification of bereavement indicating the family’s readiness to receive official visits of condolence should be made in three days’ time.
A hundred and eight Buddhist monks were engaged to perform a Grand Misericordia for the salvation of all departed souls in the main reception hall of the mansion during these forty-nine days, while at the same time ninety-nine Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect were to perform ceremonies of purification and absolution at a separate altar in the Celestial Fragrance pavilion. These arrangements having been made, the body was moved to a temporary shrine in another pavilion of the All-scents Garden. Fifty high-ranking Buddhist monks and fifty high-ranking Taoist priests took turns in chanting and intoning before it on every seventh day.
Inside the gateway, facing the street, a high staging was constructed on which Buddhist monks and Daoist priests sat on opposite sides of an altar intoning their sacred texts. In front of the staging was a notice on which was written in large characters:
The very Reverend Wan-xu, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all monks and clergy of the Incorporeal, Ever-tranquil Church of the Lord Buddha,
the Venerable Ye-sheng, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all priests and practitioners of the Primordial, All-unifying church of the Heavenly Tao,
with all due reverence and care, prepared offices for the salvation of all departed souls, supplicating Heaven and calling upon the name of the Lord Buddha…
earnestly praying and beseeching the Eighteen Guardians of the Sangha, the Warlike Guardians of the Law, and the Twelve Guardians of the Months mercifully to extend their holy compassion towards us, but terribly to blaze forth in divine majesty against the powers of evil, we do solemnly perform for nine and forty days the Great Mass for the purification, deliverance and salvation of all souls on land and on sea…
—and a great deal more on those lines which it would be tedious to repeat [Cao Xueqin’s comment, not mine!].
Chapter 14 goes on to list some of the major ritual segments and activities. The Buddhist Water and Land (shuilu 水陸) ritual included Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), Smashing the Hells (poyu 破狱), Transmitting the Lanterns (chuandeng 傳燈), Illuminating the Deceased (zhaowang 照亡), Opening the Golden Bridge (kai jinqiao 開金橋), and Leading the Panoplied Pennant (yin chuangfan 引幢幡. 
Daoists performed the Presenting the Memorial (shen biao 申表) ritual before the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor; Chan Buddhist monks performed Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香), Flaming Mouth (yankou 焰口), and Worshipfully Presenting the Water Litanies (bai shuichan 拜水懺); and thirteen young Buddhist nuns recited mantras.
Rendering the fantastical vocabulary of Daoist ritual into English is always a challenge—also well met by Ken Dean and John Lagerwey. Again, Hawkes makes a brilliant attempt at this passage—with occasional elaborations, and a quite understandable, even attractive, “translation” of titles for ritual segments into specific actions (which, of course, they are!):
The Thirty-fifth had now arrived—an important day in the penitential cycle of seven times seven days preceding the funeral—and the monks in the main hall had reached a particularly dramatic part of their ceremonies. Having opened up a way for the imprisoned souls, the chief celebrant had succeeded by means of spells and incantations in breaking open the gates of hell. He had shone his light (a little hand-mirror) for the souls in darkness. He had confronted Yama, the Judge of the Dead. He had seized the demon torturers who resisted his progress. He had invoked Kṣitigarbha, the Saviour King, to aid him. He had raised up a golden bridge, and now, by means of a little flag which he held aloft in one hand, was conducting over it those souls from the very deepest pit of hell who still remained undelivered.
Meanwhile the ninety-nine Taoists in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion were on their knees offering up a written petition to the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor himself in his heavenly palace. Outside, on their high staging, with swinging of censers and scattering of little cakes for the hungry ghosts to feed on, Zen monks were performing the great Water Penitential. And in the shrine where the coffin stood, six young monks and six young nuns, magnificently attired in scarlet slippers and embroidered copes, sat before the spirit tablet quietly murmuring the dharani that would assist the soul of the dead woman on the most difficult part of its journey into the underworld. Everywhere there was a hum of activity.
Not wishing to quibble over details, my only little comment there would be that the (thirteen!) niseng refers to nuns. And that final comment “Everywhere there was a hum of activity” (re’nao “exciting”, “bustling”, lit. “hot and noisy”, cf. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.147–68) is ironic after the silent mantras of the nuns. (BTW, I almost like the rendition of shifen as “everywhere”, but I’m still inclined to think it carries the modern colloquial sense of “really”—thus “it was really boisterous”.)
Chapter 102 gives a detailed account of a one-day exorcism performed by forty-nine Daoist priests, with god paintings hung out, performing Ambulating Incense, Fetching Water (qushui 取水), Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表) and Inviting the Sages (qingsheng 請聖) rituals, and reciting the Dongyuan jing 洞元經 scripture throughout the day. Three chief liturgists, donning seven-star hats, wielded precious swords, flags, and a whip, as a placard was displayed and exorcistic talismans depicted.
In chapters 28 and 29 (Hawkes vol.2, pp.41–92) the family commissions a three-day Daoist Offering for well-being (ping’an jiao 平安醮) at the Qingxu guan 清虚观 temple:
“Her Grace sent that Mr Xia of the Imperial Bedchamber yesterday with a hundred and twenty taels of silver to pay for a three-day Pro Viventibus by the Taoists of the Lunar Queen temple starting on the first of next month. There are to be plays performed as part of the Offering, and Mr Zhen and all the other gentlemen are to go there to offer incense. Oh, and Her Grace’s presents for the Double Fifth have arrived.”
This section offers far less detail on ritual, the opera being the main attraction. We tend to assume that in the Good Old Days people gladly respected the “rules” (guiju 規矩), but like that intriguing re’nao of chapter 14, there is clearly a long ancestry to the common lament since the 1980s that audiences care more about ostentation than correct ritual performance. The account uncannily reflects my observations at Yanggao funerals since 2001 (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.356):
Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall.
Imagine if Bach had taken that sabbatical in Beijing, then he might have had patrons like the Jia clan in The dream of the red chamber… They could hardly have appreciated Bach’s genius any less than the Margrave of Brandenburg (“what does that even mean?”).
Earlier still, the Ming novel Jin ping mei offers just as wonderful ethnographic material for rather less elite social strata—set in Shandong, ostensibly in the 12th century, but clearly based on the milieu of the author’s own day. Here too are many vignettes on minor domestic rituals and major exorcistic and mortuary rituals, as well as on the lives of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks.
Of course, these are just two of the most celebrated works of Ming–Qing fiction wherein we can seek such depictions. Just as with contemporary fieldwork, my first thought is to situate such rituals in space and time, rather than giving generic accounts. Thus one would seek to understand the rituals of the Jin ping mei in the context of 16th-century Shandong, and those of The story of the stone in that of 18th-century Beijing—just as we should be clear if our accounts of modern rituals refer specifically to north Shanxi in the 1930s, west Fujian in the 1990s, and so on.
Despite monumental social transformations since imperial times, all the rituals described in these early novels are still performed today—always varying by region and circumstances. 
Still, I need hardly reiterate that both texts (novels, ritual manuals, field reports) and images (paintings, photos) are silent and immobile: what we really need is films—which are in short supply even for current ritual practice, and an even taller order for the imperial era (though dramatized adaptations of The story of the stone may be quite educative!). 
 Within the vast literature on Hongxue 红学 (“Redology”—Dream of the red chamber studies), there are many Chinese studies of its religious and indeed musical components, searchable on databases. A considerable body of research is also available for Jin ping mei.
 For a couple of examples in English (for different kinds of rituals), see Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China, pp.53–8, and my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.230–31.
 For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
 For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
 Perhaps I digress, but given the stylized acting culture of China, the “Star of Tomorrow” company’s recent nine-part TV version (beginning with the episode below), using child actors, has been highly praised for its naturalism and conviction—far from merely cute.
His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by
- Monica Furlong, Zen effects: the life of Alan Watts, and
- David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. 
Watts was blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout his youth. His accounts of drab suburbia in the early chapters of In my own way are worthy of Betjeman. In the distinguished British tradition of alienation, he reflects on his early exposure to Christianity: “on the whole I am ashamed of this culture”, and “I could not make out why such pleasant people espoused such a fearsome and boring religion”. Yet while deploring the “asinine poems set to indifferent tunes”, “wretched bombastic, moralistic and maudlin nursery rhymes”, he goes on to appreciate their charm. He would have loved Dud’s Psalm.
And—long before Alan Bennett’s Sermon:
“the sermons of the clergy—bleated or sonorously boomed […]—conveyed nothing beyond the emotional energies of their funny voices, which all of us used to mock and mimic”. 
Still, he did well to note:
Strangely enough, young people in Japan have the same feeling about the atmosphere of their parents’ Buddhism—the atmosphere which is, to me, enchanting and magical with booming gong-bells and deep-throated and unintelligible sutrachanting. To them all this is kurai—a word which means deep, dark, dank musty, gloomy, and sad. (p.46; cf. pp.421–22)
Such dispassionate observation needs taking on board while observing Chinese rituals (cf. my post on Geertz).
Watts made trenchant comments on the “ritualized brutality” of British education and the teaching of history (“propaganda for the British Empire and the Protestant religion”). His view of schools and universities as “production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine” may be par for the anti-establishment course of the time, but In This Day and Age his mission to retune values is worth revisiting.
Railing against God and his [sic] role in Europe’s bloody history, he had to escape, taking refuge in the more “amiable” tradition of Buddhism, seeking a mystical depth his guilt-ridden religious upbringing couldn’t offer. Through Christmas Humphreys he became immersed in the Zen of D.T. Suzuki. His early fascination with the Mystic East was nurtured both by his mother’s “oriental treasures” (he relished the clarity, transparency, and spaciousness of landscape paintings), and—plausibly—with Fu Manchu (for me it was The inn of the sixth happiness!). He got to know Nigel Watkins, whose bookshop he relished long before me (In my own way, pp.123–4)—aware that a lot of such literature was “superstitious trash”, he appreciated Watkins’s “perfect discrimination”. He wrote his first pamphlet, An outline of Zen Buddhism, while still a pupil at King’s School, Canterbury. Among many meetings with remarkable men [sic, as ever], he was first introduced to Krishnamurti in 1936. In 1937 he met Eleanor Everett, daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (herself later married to the Zen priest Sokei-an Sasaki before his death in 1945); they married the following year, moving to the USA as war loomed.
Without any contradiction, Watts’s escape from the grey conformity of suburban Kent also made him “an unrepentant sensualist”. It’s all the more remarkable that he went on to train as an Episcopal priest, becoming ordained in 1945; at the time “it seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do, in Western society”. But unable to reconcile this “ill-fitting suit of clothes” with his inner beliefs, he withdrew from the church in 1950, and after a divorce he moved on to California. Of course, deploring missionary zeal, he was always free-floating—the ultimate trendy vicar, eagerly imbibing all the psychedelic trappings the burgeoning alternative scene had to offer from the prime position of his Cali refuge. Never one for institutions, he had an on-off relationship with academia, becoming what he called a “philosophical entertainer”—guru to the counterculture.
Watts’s 1957 book The way of Zen (1957) is a remarkable introduction to the whole subject. As he notes there:
During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism.
So—just like sexual intercourse (on which he would also have much to say, based on avid participant observation—see e.g. Nature, Man and Woman )—we clearly have to backdate the Western craze for Zen rather before 1963.
In parallel with Gary Snyder, Watts trod his own path, but his admiration for Snyder is clear, evinced in his writings such as the 1959 Beat Zen square Zen and Zen. And for all their discipline, they shared a delight in language and humour:
The task and delight of poetry is […] to eff the ineffable, to screw the inscrutable.
And he even relished Brazil’s balletic “gaieté d’esprit” in the 1970 World Cup! He also left a rich archive of audio recordings—many of them are on YouTube, even if some tip over into self-help or Thought for the day.
Also in England (and with a similar background in his Anglican church choir), the translator John Minford became hooked on Laozi, The Dharma bums, and later the work of van Gulik on the qin zither, as he recounts in this fine zeitgeist article. His early fascination with Chinese mysticism was less challenged than mine was to be, as I came to experience the spit-and-sawdust of folk Daoist ritual practice.
* * *
If the hippies were predated by the beats, then before them both came R.H. Blyth (1898–1964, when authors might still have unscrewable initials rather than personal forenames; see also here), to whose work I was drawn by Alan Watts. Blyth completed his Zen in English literature and oriental classics while interned in Japan in 1941.
I was far more amenable to the oriental classics (notably haiku, his main exhibit) than to all the Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but I got the point that enlightenment didn’t necessarily have to be sought in remote oriental mountain hermitages—as the Daoist and Zen masters indeed remind us. Blyth was also a great Bach lover.
He wrote a whole further series of books on haiku, as well as on humour in Asian and English literature—main exhibit for the former being senryū, humorous counterpart to haiku. He would have enjoyed “the first English haiku”, not to mention this limerick.
Apart from Alan Watts, other devotees of Blyth’s work included Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s absorption in oriental mysticism, see here.
* * *
And before Blyth… there was Eugen Herrigel, whose 1948 book Zen in the art of archery was based on his studies in Japan in the 1920s! His later membership of the Nazi party is less advertised (see here); see also The Celibidache mystique.
Apart from this whole fascination with Zen and Daoism, it was the characters provided in The way of Zen and Zen in English literature and oriental classics that led me to study Chinese at Cambridge, and eventually to read between the lines of dour field reports on local Chinese folk ritual, as well as seeking the unassuming wisdom of Li Manshan. As I became involved with such grass-roots religious activity among poor rural Chinese communities, documenting their fortunes under Maoism, I came to feel somewhat uncharitable towards traces of lofty New-Age hippy-style abstraction in studies of Chinese religion; but now that I revisit the work of such trail-blazing sages, I’m not just nostalgic, I sincerely find much to admire.
 Among many online sites, note http://www.alanwatts.com
 He also had a fine line in limericks, often religious—work this one out, a footnote to the Salisbury (Sarum) rite (In my own way, p.67), rather in the vein of Myles’s tribute to Ezra £ (and there’s another early orientalist!):
There was a young fellow of Salisbury
A notorious halisbury-scalisbury
He went about Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the vicar compelled him to walisbury.
While ritual groups all around the Hebei plain survived Maoism to revive under the reform era since 1978, the county of Xushui makes a particularly intriguing case, notable both for its ephemeral fame with the razzmatazz of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and for its more long-lived ritual groups.
Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religious activity, notably the cults of the sectarian creator-goddess Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm Granny (Cangu nainai 蚕姑奶奶)—the latter a popular deity in this area, rarely featuring prominently elsewhere on the plain. Associations commonly display ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings and the Water and Land series, and perform vocal liturgy. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the rather distant pilgrimage to Houshan, though they more commonly visit the nearer Western Summit (Xiding 西頂) on Langyashan further southwest from Houshan. Again we found a rather complex overlap between the village-wide ritual associations, sects, and yinyuehui.
Further to my brief introduction in my post on Festivals, here I introduce some of the groups we visited from 1993 to 1996. 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 Beijing.” 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.
On visits to the British Museum in my teens, as interludes between basking in the treasures of nearby oriental bookshops, I would sit for hours before the tranquil sculpture of the arhat (luohan 羅漢) there, thought to date from the Liao dynasty (907–1125). I can’t believe I had such good taste—this and others in the set (dispersed in museums around the world), with their sancai tricolour glazing in the Tang tradition, are highly admired by art scholars.
Basking as I was then in a romantic image of ancient China remote from any real physical locations or human beings, it was to be several decades before the statue’s little caption made any tangible sense to me. The arhat comes from Yixian county south of Beijing, one of the most fertile sites in our fieldwork project on amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain, whose elders had learned their liturgy with temple monks. It was part of a set* bought by the German sinologist Friedrich Perzynski around 1913, after they were discovered in a cave in the west of the county, probably having been relocated there from a temple (see here—note this lecture). Serially displaced, it has long been uprooted from its religious context, as is the way with artefacts; but the rituals of Yixian persist in local society there, changing subtly over time.
My later encounters with the arhat have been sporadic but delightful. In 1992 I took a group of former monks from Shanxi around the museum. In 2014, and again in 2018 (NB new photo!), it was wonderful to assist in the performance of the Zhihua temple before the sculpture—linking up my fieldwork to my misspent youth.
For a sequel, see here.
* Not yet “Buy one, get one free” (BOGOF)
One of my great inspirations via teenage excursions to oriental bookshops was the great Gary Snyder (b.1930). Though his path puts me to shame, he was a great hero of mine (along with Pierre Boulez—looking back, I see this was not entirely normal in suburban London, however experimental the age).
Snyder was always more serious than most of his beat contemporaries. Studying anthropology, he developed an affinity for Native American cultures. As he became immersed in Zen, he began learning Chinese and Japanese (indeed, just at the right moment to benefit from the disturbing Teach yourself Japanese!).
All the while he was writing poetry, part of the beat generation with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, taking part in the seminal 1955 reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. That year he made the first of several study periods in Japan over the next fourteen years, living as a “de facto monk”.
In 1958 and 1959 he made (almost) the first translations of the Cold Mountain poems by the numinous 8th-century Zen recluse Hanshan (see his reflections here). At the other end of his life, his poem Go now is an unflinching tribute to his wife in her final days.
He has deepened his early studies by going on to lead a whole life unobtrusively based on Zen, without parading it or getting hung up on, well, anything. Living in harmony with nature in a series of hermitages, his environmental activism has complemented his occasional jobs as seaman, firewatcher, and logger (among a wealth of articles on him, I like this, and this). Now I come to think of it, I’d like to introduce him to Li Manshan—they’re both conscientious, unfussy, living on and with the land.
Snyder made a suitable paragon for Alan Watts (another guru of the age) in his 1959 pamphlet Beat Zen square Zen and Zen, a generous critique of both the Western craze for Zen of the 1950s and the ascetic rule-bound tradition in Japan. Citing Jack Kerouac’s portrayal of him (as “Japhy Ryder”) in The dharma bums, Watts’s warmest words are for Snyder; despite his rigorous training in Japan, he transcended both the “spiritual snobbism and artistic preciousness” of square Zen and the spaced-out bohemian scene of beat Zen. Watts’ tributes in his autobiography In my own way also hit the nail on the head:
Gary is tougher, more disciplined, more physically competent than I, but he embodies those virtues without rubbing them in. (p.309)
He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart. (p.439)
From Snyder’s Cold Mountain poems:
In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place—
Bird paths, but no trails for me.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here —how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the word’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
Back in the 60s, with my schooling in classics (alas, long before I might have learned from the wisdom of Mary Beard) and my growing immersion in the violin, the popular culture of the time virtually passed me by. But I found myself on the margins of hippiedom largely through regular visits to the oriental bookshops like Probsthains before the British Museum, and notably Watkins in Cecil court. Watkins was like our version of City Lights in San Francisco—to which I only got to make my first pilgrimage some three decades later.
Apart from the usual suspects like the Bhagavad gita, Eliade, Castaneda, Jung, Krishnamurti, Blofeld, and The cloud of unknowing, this was the genesis of my initiation into Zen, courtesy of Christmas Humphreys, D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, R.H. Blyth, Gary Snyder, Eugen Herrigel, and so on—these were my bibles!
This was perhaps a not uncommon pattern for wannabe hippies, as well as future scholars of Asian culture. My own later ethnographic path, progressing by way of Tang history to documenting the tribulations of local society under Maoism and the mobiles and motor-bikes of household Daoists, may now seem almost a reproach to the lofty mysticism of those years. While I thus came to replace the romantic search for oriental spirituality (that still persists even in some areas of scholarship) with an approach more based on socio-political history and the lives of Chinese people, somehow the background of that quest also formed an enduring foundation.
Perhaps what I’m suggesting here is that a predilection for mysticism needn’t mitigate against more dispassionate ethnography…
*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual)
Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two, as in this composite funeral sequence for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region south of Beijing.
Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. While we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves. In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.
A gradual dilution of ritual practice has undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone.
I go to some lengths to show how Daoist ritual and religious practice are important topics in the local cultures of north as well as south China (for a succinct encapsulation of the chasm, see here). But every time I feel I’m establishing some kind of parity for the north (heartland of ancient Chinese culture!), yet more research materializes to remind us just how amazing local ritual traditions are in the south—in terms of both the range and complexity of rituals performed, and the sheer volume of artefacts preserved there.
As I commented in Appendix 1 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family (where you can find further references),
With the noble exception of studies by Chinese music scholars from the 1930s, fieldwork on local Daoist ritual began in earnest in the 1960s with Kristofer Schipper’s groundbreaking studies in Taiwan. As mainland China began opening up in the 1980s, such work was able to expand first into Fujian and then further afield in south China—Jiangxi, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, and so on. Major projects (largely in Chinese), led by the indefatigable holy trinity of C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and latterly Lü Pengzhi, recruited local cultural workers who went on to develop considerable familiarity with the ritual specialists who were their subjects.
- Wang, C.K. [Wang Ch’iu-kuei 王秋貴] ed., Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書. Taipei: Shi Ho-cheng Folk Culture Foundation, 86 vols (building on an extensive series of articles in the journal Minsu quyi).
See also “The collecting and editing of Taoist ritual texts.” Chinoperl Papers 23 (2000), pp.1–32, and Studies in Chinese ritual, theatre and folklore series: abstracts of the first sixty volumes (1997).
- Wang, C.K. ed., Zhongguo chuantong keyiben huibian 中國傳統科儀本彙編 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng), 17 vols.
For useful reviews in English of the early projects, see
- Daniel L. Overmyer, ed., with the assistance of Shin-Yi Chao, Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of achievements and results. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Company (2002),
and for a fine overview of such work within the wider context of Daoist studies,
- Vincent Goossaert, “L’histoire moderne du taoïsme: État des lieux et perspectives.” Études chinoises XXXII-2 (2013), pp.7–40.
These vast series continue to yield further discoveries. The latest project, from Xinwenfeng in Taiwan (long an industrious publisher of major works on Daoism) is initially (!) planned to comprise fifteen lengthy monographs:
- John Lagerwey 勞格文 and Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志, eds., Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書.
The southern bias of Daoist studies has a long ancestry: from very early in Chinese history, southern Daoists have dominated the picture. The ritual vocabulary that I provide in my writings on north China is partly an attempt to rebalance a picture largely conditioned by southern Daoism (see also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp. 15–21, 211–213). As I note there,
It is rather as if our knowledge of Christianity in the whole of Europe were based almost entirely on Sicily and Puglia, with the odd footnote on the Vatican and Westminster Abbey. We may like what we find in those places, perhaps considering it more exalted, mystical, and ancient—but that is another issue.
Still, the material here is overwhelming. So far three volumes (each consisting of around 1,500 pages!) have been published in this new series, on local Daoist altars in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Fujian respectively:
- Dai Lihui 戴禮輝 and Lan Songyan 藍松炎, Jiangxi sheng Tonggu xian Qiping zhen Xianyingtan daojiao keyi 江西省銅鼓縣棋坪鎮顯應雷壇道教科儀
- Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇and Li Xinwu 李新吾, Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一：湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承 (for Hunan Daoism, see my overview here)
- Ye Mingsheng 葉明生, Minxinan Yongfu Lüshanjiao chuandu yishi yanjiu 閩西南永福閭山教傳度儀式研究
Ye Mingsheng is one of the most distinguished collaborators of the project, having worked for decades on Lüshan household Daoists of Fujian. This new publication focuses on the ordination rituals in Yongfu in the southwest of the province. As John Lagerwey writes in his Abstract:
The present book begins with an investigation of the histories of the Daoist altars of four lineages […] in Yongfu. It systematically examines the origins of the local Lüshan school, the structures of their altars, and their rituals, manuscripts, talismans, and registers. It also describes in detail two actual Flag-Raising Transmissions in the years 1999 and 2011, discussing all aspects of the transmission ritual from a variety of disciplinary angles so as to provide students of religion with as complete an understanding as possible.
Volume 2 provides a wealth of ritual texts. Among the many photos is a substantial section in colour, including beautiful god paintings.
Still, even photos of ritual practice remain silent and immobile. Given that ritual is noisy and vibrant, part of “red-hot” social performance, the whole project seems to cry out to be accompanied by films. Since the scholars working on these projects have rich archives of fieldwork videos, how very valuable it would be to accompany each topic with an edited film of, say, two or three hours, with voiceovers and/or captions.
As I observed here, all these series (like the “music-genre” system of Yuan Jingfang), while documenting particular rituals in detail, focus on the salvage of texts—at the expense of ethnographic study, performance practice, and social change. Now, faced by such a wealth of precious manuscripts it’s no simple task to incorporate the topic into wider discourses on a society in constant change. But many students of religion, for whom social and political changes over the past century are a major topic, may find that “variety of disciplinary angles” elusive. They may miss even succinct discussion of how local ritual traditions have been affected by such mundane issues as migration, successive political campaigns, and changing economic circumstances—all the more since the subject of this new volume is transmission, utilizing field material from 1999 and 2011, through yet another period of change. 
Still, none of this detracts from the value of the project. This vast body of work on local ritual in south China continues to form the vanguard of Daoist ritual studies—essential material on Chinese religion.
For a broad introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian—based on ritual—see here, including references to the fine writings and film of Ken Dean, one of few scholars of Daoist ritual to encompass modern social change. See also Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian.
 For basic biographical accounts of the Yongfu Daoists, see pp.79–103.
Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake:
the Medicine King cult
On the Hebei plain, just south of the Xiongxian region, the Baiyangdian lake, and the ritual catchment area of the pilgrimage to the Medicine King temple in Maozhou, form a somewhat distinct area for ritual practice. This is highly topical since it is now part of the vast plan to build a megapolis there, expanding Beijing and Tianjin southwards amidst profound social and ecological change.
This was the southern boundary of our project on the Hebei plain, where we had found so many complex liturgical sequences, ritual manuals, and grand shengguan instrumental suites with scores derived from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin. Xiongxian turned out to be the heartland of the suites and scores, but around the lake just south, despite the lively Maozhou cult, the trail was becoming somewhat diluted—and I don’t believe this is merely because our visits predated more in-depth stays in the areas further north and west. Still, these associations were very much based in ritual and shengguan, and dated back to at least the 18th century.
This survey introduces ritual groups all around the lake, including villages of Anxin, Renqiu, and Gaoyang counties. The aquatic setting engenders plentiful rituals based on “releasing river [or lotus?] lanterns” (fang hedeng 放河/荷燈).
As ever, this article merely scratches the surface of our fieldnotes—themselves just a superficial survey of some village associations that came to our attention. There may be many more, and certainly were until the 1950s. Any one of these groups (and indeed the Maozhou temple) could, and should, form the subject of a detailed diachronic ethnography such as I did for Gaoluo.
Around the Baiyangdian lake we found further evidence for the connection not only with Buddhist monks and Daoist priests but also with the ritual and musical cultures of the Qing emperors in Beijing—a link that appears occasionally throught the Hebei plain, such as Yixian, and strongly suggested in Xiongxian just north.
Back in the mists of time, long before the internet, or even usable landlines—the 1990s—this ritual system still comprised the main cultural network of such regions. Having survived Maoism remarkably unscathed, there are complex reasons for the long-term decline of these associations—including not so much the recent urban development plan for the region, but migration, the whole commodification of society, and the secularizing pressures of the ICH. These notes are valuable for documenting local ritual life at a time when such transformations were still in their early days.
*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)
Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.
As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.
Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but there is rich material here, not only on the ethnography of local ritual in modern times, but for scholars of the late imperial period.
*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)
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 (major new page here!).
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.
***For main page, click here! ***
(in Local ritual, under Themes in main Menu)
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.
Strange—not to say fatuous—goings-on in Pingyi county in Shandong.
I generally give Short Shrift to horror stories in the Western media about new clampdowns on “superstitious practices” in China, finding that they rarely have any perceptible long-term effect at local level. Indeed, I have it on good authority that this latest instance of interference from local government is only a blip, going against the current tide in these more laissez-faire times—but it’s still rather interesting.
A fine article “The endangered sound of suona” by Fu Danni, on the Sixth Tone website, reports on the recent ban on shawm bands at funerals in Pingyi county. But the official directive looks far more disturbing than that—it’s just one aspect of a far more ambitious attempt to limit the length of life-cycle ceremonies and extravagant spending therein. The Pingyi measures even castigate the zacai decorations at the funeral altar as a “corrupt feudal practice”. Similar leftist campaigns, effectively seeking to deprive villagers of their traditional funerary observances, have occasionally been touted ever since traditional life-cycle events revived in the 1980s—a related article makes an ominous comparison with the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.
But there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Campaigns aimed at enforcing frugality at life-cycle ceremonies have a long and mostly futile history, long before funeral strippers became a routine and salacious media topic (as a quick Google search will reveal). So it’s good to see twenty-one noted Chinese academics protesting at the fatuous recent official directive in a detailed open letter (Chinese text here). Note how adroitly it adopts the language of both Confucian and current CCP values—reminiscent of the recent online rebuffs to the Chinese FA over their attempt to ban Daoist ritual at a football match. The open letter has stimulated much online discussion, in which voices in support of the restrictions are largely drowned out.
Still, however isolated and fleeting such instances of local implementation may be, it’s remarkable that even in 2017 the Pingyi county government announced that it would confiscate musical instruments played at funerals. Sure, this kind of thing has happened occasionally since the 1980s’ revival; generally, as here, the musicians manage to get them back after a while.
It may be that in Pingyi the shawm bands have unfairly taken the blame; some scholars too have reservations about “other, more vulgar, funeral practices” (like stripping, perhaps), though it’s unclear how a criterion for vulgarity might be policed, short of inculcating norms of public decency—for which cadres are not renowned.
The article on the Pingyi nonsense observes the flagrant irony of the simultaneous [albeit formalistic and superficial, I should add!] brief of the cultural authorities to document such bands as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project—whose agenda has anyway never been exactly ethnographic. But by contrast with the project’s kitsch nostalgic dreams, shawm bands all over China are far from a bastion of tradition. They’re always innovative: for several decades, they have themselves been spontaneously adapting to the times by replacing their traditional repertoire with popular melodies and supplementing their instrumentation with trumpet, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. You can read all about shawm bands in my post Walking Shrill, and in my books on Yanggao and Shaanbei (both with DVDs); there I documented the rapid substitution of the majestic old suite repertoires with pop music before my very eyes and ears. There are tracks on the playlist too, with notes here.
Were I just a tad cynical [surely not—Ed.], I might say that the Chinese are perfectly capable of diluting their own local traditions without government assistance. This cultural shift has been taking place ever since the early 1980s, as a result not of state interference but of changing popular tastes. And when the article comments that “most suona players have started to take on other jobs”, such as in factories and construction, this too is part of a much wider and longer trend, not some sudden response to the directive—as I noted for the Li family Daoists, the choice to abandon a hereditary tradition is complex.
Though the Sixth Tone article uses the nationally standard term suona for the shawm, it’s good to see the local term wulawa—one of many such names by which this most ubiquitous instrument is known (hence my adoption of the English term shawm, avoiding official vocabulary). And I was glad to see a reminder of the technique of blowing through a hollow reed into a basin of water—standard device for teaching circular breathing to young students.
The article doesn’t mention liturgical performance (such as household Daoists) at funerals, which generally alternates with that of the “secular” shawm bands, but it’s quite possible that there aren’t any ritual groups in this area. Anyway, hiring such bands is only a minor item in the total budget for the funeral family.
Keep calm and carry on
Back in 1990 I attended an impressive funeral in Meixian county-town in Guangdong province, with accomplished young xianghua household Buddhist ritual specialists presiding. Above the road outside (where they performed many of their rituals) was draped a slogan advertising a campaign against spirit mediums (cf. my unpublished article “Striking a happy medium”). Of course mediums and liturgical specialists (not to mention shawm bands) provide very different services, but one might suppose that there’s a risk that blanket directives may throw out the baby with the bathwater.So while there are complex issues at work here, the recent directive illustrates a common befuddled knee-jerk response from local government. If they’re so keen on harking back to Maoist values, they might instead consider a re-education campaign for cadres—it is they who now lead the way in “vulgarity” and “lack of culture”.
Still, I can’t quite join in the general moral outrage over the Pingyi campaign. While it is quite right for scholars (both Chinese and foreign) to protest, at the same time we shouldn’t overestimate the long-term effect of such fatuous official measures. Observers have been lamenting “cultural impoverishment” in China for many decades—indeed, further afield, nay worldwide, the call to “rescue endangered traditions” went out a nanosecond after the birth of anthropology. But change is a constant. As is clear from my recent film and book, since the 1980s’ revival—in both ritual and music—any dilution takes place not so much as a direct result of sporadic leftist campaigns, but under more pervasive socio-economic pressures (to be sure, related to wider political currents) such as urban migration, modern secular education, and the changing tastes of rural patrons as they aspire to the modernity of pop and media culture. Since these are trends with which few seekers of hallowed Chinese traditions tend to engage, the state may seem to make an easier scapegoat.
For a prequel to this story, see here.
Local relations have only deteriorated following the interference of the radical cadres of Pingyi in funeral customs. A recent article on Chinese Twitter tells how irate musicians have ceremoniously burned their instruments in protest. The only good news is that public criticism of the directive forbidding “extravagant” funeral observances is ever-more widespread, both from local villagers and from higher-ranking officials and pundits further afield—again adroitly (indeed convincingly) adducing “cultural heritage” and the good old Confucian values touted by Uncle Xi.
One old musician observes that neither the Allied forces suppressing the Boxers, nor the Japanese invaders, nor even the Four Cleanups campaign had ever managed to silence such bands:
Do watch the video in the article.
From London, or even Beijing, it’s hard to judge what’s going on. The focus on shawm bands still seems something of a red herring. As locals observe, “extravagance is something for people with money—what have the common people got to waste?” The shawm bands are not only inexpensive but utterly “secular”—and again, we’re not being told about the wider restrictions on funeral observances.
This still seems to me like an isolated blip—has anyone heard of serious instances anywhere else recently? It’s all the more curious when funeral customs continue to be observed grandly throughout China—see this recent report on a six-day Daoist funeral in Hunan.
The radical stance of the Pingyi cadres seems deranged. Usually such campaigns blow over (an apt metaphor), or at worst cadres adopt the age-old practice of “one eye open, one eye closed”, or “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented”; but here they haven’t backed down, and the musicians’ astute demonstration has gained widespread publicity.
I can’t keep up with all such cases, but this one caught my eye.
Chinese media (in English, see e.g. here, and this article with further background) are in uproar over a draconian policy in 2018 to destroy coffins in rural Jiangxi province—which one might suppose less vulnerable to radical directives. It’s a misguided attempt both to save land and to discourage extravagant burial rituals.
Again, campaigns to enforce cremation have a long history, but have been largely ineffective outside the towns.
In this case the protest doesn’t even need righteous netizens—it’s led by the state-run media:
Chinese state media editorials on Monday slammed the policy as “barbaric and unpopular”. Articles in both People’s Daily and Guangming Daily urged the Jiangxi government to rethink its funeral reform.
“Is there any reason to carry out such a rough and even barbaric move?” the editorial in People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, said. “Even if the funeral reforms are effectively carried out, the hearts of the people are hurt and [the administration’s] credibility is lost … [and] built-up resentment triggers instability.”
Even Jiangxi’s department of civil affairs issued a notice saying a number of county-level officials had taken “simplistic and extreme” actions that had “hurt the feelings” of local residents.
Again, it looks like a conflict between particular trigger-happy extremist local governments, with central authorities on the side of the local population.
None of these stories is so simple as blanket state repression: conflicting forces operate.
***Link to this page!***
In my post on our 1992 trip through north Shanxi I mentioned our brief visit to the household Buddhist ritual specialists of Ekou township in Daixian, near Wutaishan. The new page provides some further notes, which though sketchy may augment our understanding of ritual and society in the region.
Following the 1992 UK tour of the so-called “Wutaishan Buddhist music troupe”, I gained clues to the rituals of household Buddhist groups in central Shanxi, supplementing the list under the heading of Local ritual.
Just made a modest update to my page on local Buddhist ritual traditions in Shanxi, with ever-skimpy clues to Wuzhai and counties further south.