Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

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GGZ xu 1

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.

This is the latest in a series on ritual in Hebei that includes Houshan and the precious scrolls, suburban Beijing, and Bazhou.

Ritual groups around Bazhou, Hebei

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Xin'an Yingming drummer 1995

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

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

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

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

Ritual groups of suburban Beijing

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N. Xinzhuang funeral 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officials without culture

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.

Wang Ruiyong’s shawm band in Pingyi, suffering from the recent directive. From Sixth Tone article.

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.

Xingyuan 2011
Burning paper ritual money for the deceased before the coffin—village funeral, Yanggao 2011.

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 onMeixian funeral
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. 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.slogan Meixian 1990So 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.

The Buddhists of Ekou, Shanxi

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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.

RL and CD.

Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

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Our material on ritual groups in north Shanxi relates mainly to the area east and south of Datong city. But Zuoyun county, just west, has potential—indeed, the whole area west of Datong would be worth exploring.

What little material we have so far suggests a Buddhist temple tradition, but it is too early to assess the scene around Zuoyun. Typically, the material focuses on a single temple, the Lengyan si, conveniently packaging its rituals merely as “temple music”. So my brief article becomes another critique of the cultural heritage flummery.

Where there are temple groups, I expect there to be household groups too; and where there are Buddhist bands, there are likely to be Daoist ones too.

Lengyan si