The art of the sheng repairer

GGZ Fan Huilai 93

Fan Huilai overhauling sheng, 1995.

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. [1]

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.


Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

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 7, 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.

GGZ sheng stuff 2GGZ sheng stuff 1

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.

E. Jiangcun sheng

Sheng parts, East Jiangcun, Renqiu county. Photo: Music Research Institute, 1993.

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.

E. Yuzhuang chui

The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, East Yuzhuang 1995.

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!

Further south
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, [2] 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.


[1] 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.
[2] See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.

Ritual groups of Jinghai

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YMK jing

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.


Ritual groups of Langfang

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S. Hancun 1993 heying

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 BazhouLangfang 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.

Ritual in The dream of the red chamber

Citing Cao Xueqin’s entrancing novel The story of the stone recently, I was reminded that among the many virtues of the epic tale is its detailed depiction of rituals in 18th-century Beijing[1]

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. [2] 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. [3]

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:

Aroma continued:
“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?”).

JPM Daoist painting

Perfected Man Huang sends forth an official document recommending the deceased, c1700: Daoists presiding over the liandu funerary ritual of chapter 66 of the Jin ping mei. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; see Little and Eichman, Taoism and the arts of China, pp.192–3. Note typical northern shengguan ensemble of guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with large cymbals nao and bo.

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. [4]

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!). [5]


[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
[4] For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
[5] 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.


More East–West gurus

Besides Gary Snyder, another hero of mine in the 60s was Alan Watts (1915–73).

His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by


  • David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. [1]

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”. [2]

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 (1958)—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. Here’s one worthwhile talk:


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, J.D. Salinger, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Salinger‘s absorption in oriental mysticism, see for example Seymour: an introduction (Penguin edn), pp.90–102. Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters [3] opens with the narrator Buddy’s 17-year-old brother Seymour reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny. [4] Call me old-fashioned, but these books just get better and better. OK, I’ll leave Salinger and Steinbeck for another day…


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!

Zen archer

Zen archer, Kyoto. ©Timothy Kraemer, on tour with English Concert, 1990s.

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.


[1] Among many online sites, note
[2] 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.

[3] A Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt.
[4] Some further links:, and

Ritual groups of Xushui

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(under Local ritual in main menu)

QMZ 1958

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.


A transcendent arhat

WTS monks and luohan

Former monks from Shanxi pose with arhat, 1992. Photo: SJ.

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 were sporadic but delightful. In 1992 I took a group of former monks from Shanxi around the museum, and it was also wonderful to assist in the performance of the Zhihua temple before the sculpture in 2014—linking up my fieldwork to my misspent youth.


Courtesy British Museum, 2014.


Hu Qingxue, accomplished leader of the Zhihua temple group, a fine liturgist and guanzi master. Photo: courtesy British Museum, 2014.


* Not yet “Buy one, get one free” (BOGOF)