The temple of memories

Jing Jun cover

Along with my common themes of religion, Maoism, and famine, I plead for more studies of ritual life in Gansu (see e.g. Maoist worship in Gansu, and Chinese shadows). So I’ve been re-reading the ethnographic classic

  • Jun JING, The temple of memories: history, power, and morality in a Chinese village (1996).

The opening of the book is compelling:

The Kongs of Dachuan cannot forget that winter, more than three decades ago, when their village was effaced and life as they had known it had ended. For much of 1960 they had ignored, then resisted, the government’s declaration that their homes lay in the path of one of the more ambitious projects of the Great Leap Forward, and that by autumn’s end they would have to make way for a hydroelectric dam and reservoir. […]

So months lapsed, the deadline passed, and still the Kongs stayed on. And then, on a chill December night, the militia entered, shock troops of eviction, targeting first households without strong young men. Old women screamed and clung to their beds, refusing to leave. They were carried out bodily. The supporting pillars of the houses were roped to mules and pulled down. As dawn broke, the frightened villagers began dismantling their own houses in a scramble to salvage what they could to build shelter elsewhere. They hastily dug up the graves of immediate ancestors and close relatives, and, in violation of all tradition, unceremoniously threw bones in cement sacks or whatever other containers they could find for reburial on higher ground. “It was no time for being proper about such things,” an elderly villager recalled years later. Nor did they have the physical strength to save older graves; the trauma of dislocation was exacerbated by a debilitating famine, the worst in modern Chinese history.

While still a student in the Sociology department of Peking University, Jing Jun began fieldwork in Dachuan in 1989, prudently absenting himself from the tense atmosphere of the capital in the aftermath of the 4th June massacre (cf. Liao Yiwu). He is among several fine Chinese anthropologists and folklorists such as Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, and Ju Xi.

Apart from fieldwork with villagers, he also unearthed material by consulting the county archives.

* * *

For some scholars such a topic might be a disembodied paean to the resilience of imperial grandeur, but for an ethnographer like Jing Jun it makes a telling prism on the traumas of the Maoist era. Noting the background of serious poverty, he goes on to detail the fate of the “community of suffering” (cf. Guo Yuhua) after the 1949 revolution.

Jing’s study makes a worthy complement to detailed accounts of turbulent events in individual villages under MaoismHe explores two main themes: suffering (both individual and communal), and means of recovery from political persecution, economic deprivation, and cultural disruption. Amidst state attempts to dictate and manipulate remembrance and forgetting, he focuses on the politics of social memory, suggesting three main topics: collective, official, and popular memory.

Stylistically, whereas obligatory academic citations of broader theoretical perspectives may be formulaic, Jing Jun has a rare gift for making such comparisons revealing.

* * *

In Dachuan village in Yongjing county southwest of the provincial capital Lanzhou, 85% of the villagers belonged to the Kong lineage, considering themselves to be descended from Confucius. Dachuan was the centre for an ancestral cult of many villages in the county.

The earlier history of the temple was not untroubled: it had been destroyed in 1785, rebuilt in 1792, looted and burned during the major Muslim rebellion in 1864, but only restored in 1934—it seems curious if the cult remained inactive over this long period. It was just at this time that the Kongs of Dachuan contributed to the compilation of a major genealogy documenting the nationwide lineage; Confucius and the major ritual site for his worship at Qufu in Shandong play a major role in villagers’ historical imaginations (cf. the fate of the Confucian ritual in Hunan).

After “Liberation”

The destruction of their village was the central event in a long procession of tragedies for the Kongs under the new Communist regime.

Following the Communist takeover in 1948, the prelude to a long period of state-organised violence was the siege of Dachuan by the PLA in December 1950 in response to reports that a rebellion was being organised by “secret societies” led by the Kongs.

All exits from the village were sealed off as soldiers went from one compound to the next, searching for weapons. After a full cartload of daggers, spears, swords, hunting guns, and old muskets were hauled away, a mass rally was staged and about fifty local people were paraded onto an improvised stage. These villagers, whom the government accused of being affiliated with “reactionary religious associations” (fandong hui dao men), were warned by military and government officials that any misconduct on their part would meet with severe penalties. Three Kongs, key members of a semi-religious and highly militant group known as the Big Sword Society (da dao hui), were escorted out of Dachuan, and beheaded.

The search for weapons and the executions at Dachuan heralded the new government’s crackdown on religious societies. Five months later, an “investigation-and-registration” campaign identified more than 11,500 people in Yongjing county as members of “reactionary religious associations”.

The divisive land reform campaign was implemented from 1951 to 1953. Under the commune system the system of lineage elders was destroyed. Even as the Kong lineage was being persecuted, they continued to provide the village leadership.

In the early years of Communist rule, many of those not targeted

engaged in clandestine activities in smaller religious groups attached to temples honouring various deities and community patron gods. […]
Geomancy and shamanistic healing were still secretly practised until at least the early 1960s.

But during the 1958 Great Leap Backward, police and militia forces rounded up 855 people in Yongjing county; temples were dismantled, and religious implements destroyed. The Confucius temple at Dachuan was sealed off. In August an armed uprising was quelled in nearby Dongxiang county. As famine escalated from late 1959, the villagers were relocated in 1960, as the temple lay decrepit and abandoned.

Large-scale hydraulic projects were a major part of the state’s efforts to generate electricity by creating reservoirs, despite the great suffering they caused—and their social disruption continues to concern anthropologists. On 31st March 1961, as the floodgate of the Yanguoxia dam was lowered, Dachuan was among many villages flooded. Though there was considerable resistance, most villagers were forcibly relocated, while some remained on higher ground there. One of the most traumatic violations of tradition was the loss of gravelands.

Such stories are also submerged under the “master narrative” of rosy state propaganda, seeking to legitimise painful experiences.

The remains of the temple, empty and waterlogged, were still standing until 1974, when it was destroyed in the anti-Lin Biao and Confucius campaign.

The 1980s’ revival
Such a history of Maoism at the grassroots needs telling anyway, but it’s also essential background to the revival since the 1980s after the collapse of the commune system. Jing Jun observes:

These ideas and practices are not mechanically retrieved from the past; they are blended with cultural inventions, shaped by the local experience of Maoism, and permeated with contemporary concerns.

In a similar pattern to that taking place throughout China, as the villagers began to retrieve what had survived of the temple artefacts, rituals were held at a provisional ancestral shrine from 1984. The Confucius temple was rebuilt in 1991.

Dachuan 1

Jing explores the backgrounds and moral authority of the new temple leaders, and reflects on the whole process of cultural invention.

In a situation in which the administrative power of Dachuan’s village cares was rapidly shrinking, leadership in ancestral worship could be a key step toward winning respect, popularity, and even trust.

But power structures were in flux, as grievances from the Maoist era became public, with petition drives and demonstrations common.

Since the surviving lisheng ritual performers had only distant memories of how to perform the ceremony, they gradually recreated its liturgical structure, actions, and vocal style, culminating with the compilation of a ritual handbook in 1991 (this is not quite a typical case, I’d say: in many regions of China under Maoism, household ritual specialists had managed to transmit a more substantial corpus of their ritual expertise.) As Jing notes, there were certain models for the literary style of the written texts in the fragments of wider religious life. And I might suggest that even the rhythms and high-pitched style of the chanted elegies were not recreated in a vacuum: the traditional soundscapes of folk-song, local opera and shadow-puppetry, and so on—which had persisted to some extent under Maoism (for Hunan, see e.g. here)—might offer piecemeal clues.

Jing addresses the complex issues in studying genealogies, again focusing on social memory.

Dachuan 2

In 1992 the nearby village of Xiaochuan restablished its own Confucian temple. From 1958 it had suffered a similar fate to that of Dachuan. In both villages the ceremonies were now opened to outsiders beyond the immediate lineage. Jing distinguishes “dominant” and “variant” ritual structures.

In the latter, women played a major role (again, this is typical of temple fairs more generally)—including a spirit medium who brought over thirty female followers from her nearby village. Women were particularly devout in making vows, burning paper offerings, and singing songs of lamentation.

An older woman whose vivid renditions of songs from qinqiang, or Shaanxi opera, attracted a thick circle of spectators was led away by men in charge of the festival’s security. Another circle formed around a middle-aged woman whose body jerked spasmodically and who mubled what sounded like poems as if in a trance. She was carried away by the security guards, who were young men from Xiaochuan. After these women clamed down, they were sternly lectured by the festival organisers for having performed “superstitious” acts that could draw unwelcome attention from the local government to Xiaochuan’s festival.

Jing notes hierarchies among those attending the festival, and in the food provided. He goes on,

The woman’s eviction displeased some visitors, since singing is perfectly acceptable at many temple activities. This incident thus indicates a clash between two different perceptions of the festival.

While the Kongs were as fond as anyone of combining the singing of local opera with the worship of local deities, they rejected it as a proper form during a service for ancestor worship. Jing suggests that their antipathy went back to an incident in the early 1940s, when community leaders had objected to the staging of an opera inside the Xiaochuan temple to celebrate a bumper harvest—their resentments partly based on a rich man treating the occasion as a self-serving display of wealth and generosity. But as he says, few would have been aware of that. Such incidents mainly illustrate multivocal interpretations:

Such negotations were precipitated by variations in historical experience, personal memory, understanding of religious symbols, and concepts of ritual propriety.

Jing opens the impressive final chapter, “Finding memories in Gansu”, by encapsulating the tension between ethnography and history:

In an ethnography of the Kongs, one could take a synchronic approach, a type of analysis typical of the structural functionalists and French structuralists, that treats a society as if it were “outside of time”, that is, without reference to historical context.

Indeed, as I have noted, it’s more complex: in many field reports on local Chinese ritual, the fieldwork makes a pretext for timeless depictions that are dominated by early historical context while glossing over the current social picture.

Anyway, Jing gives ample reasons for placing the Dachuan rituals in their modern setting. He goes on to give instances of accounts of the memory of suffering in other societies, including Alan Mintz and Lucette Valensi on the Holocaust and Anastasia Shkinlyk’s devastating study of the despair and agony of a relocated Inuit community. He also cites Arthur Kleinman’s work on illness narratives among Chinese patients. And we can now add Stephan Feuchtwang’s study After the event. (cf. China: commemorating trauma, including Wu Wenguang’s memory project).

He is right to note the official conformity of depictions in county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s—although in the accounts of Maoist campaigns and famine for some counties like Yanggao in north Shanxi (see e.g. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.122–3) one may discern a subtle resistance to state propaganda. He also sets forth from Frances Yates’s 1966 The art of memory to explore the historical memory embodied in religious artefacts.

As Jing Jun observes, the reinstated worship of Confucius in the Dachuan area is not an isolated case of religious revival in a rather remote part of China. He places it in the broad context of the religious revival in China, if not in Yongjing county. Thus while we find vignettes on other forms of religious expression (mediums, sectarian groups), his coverage might have benefitted from an outline of the broader fortunes of ritual life in the area through the 1950s, such as the fate of other temples in Dachuan and nearby, funerals and temple fairs, and the activities of household Daoists and bards. The story of the Dachuan temple make a particular but revealing case.


The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory


The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.


Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.


[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

New tag: famine


Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

Famine and expressive culture

Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.

Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.

Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. [1]

Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi were all natives of Hunan. On 11th May 1959 Liu wrote to Chairman Mao after spending a month investigating the region of his birth:

According to comrades from the provincial Party committee, 40% of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes, and brigades.

On a visit to Mao’s home village in Shaoshan before the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959, the Chairman himself had hinted at a partial retreat from the more radical policies of the Leap. Peng Dehuai went on to confront him at the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959:

When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practice close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.

Becker notes that in the anti-Peng hysteria that followed the conference, Hua Guofeng personally supervised the brutal persecution of Peng’s family who lived in the Xiangtan region. Provincial leader Zhou Xiaozhou, who had tried to blunt the impact of extreme leftist policies, was purged, and the madness only escalated.

Dikötter observes:

The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe—despite the space created by the loss of several million to starvation.

Ambitious yet misguided irrigation and land reclamation projects further depleted the environment. People were beaten to death in 82 out of 86 counties and cities. As investigating teams dispatched to the countryside reported:

In Daoxian county many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90% of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. […] Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10% had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by Party members or militia. In Shimen county, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12% were “beaten or driven to their deaths”.

Dikötter cites reports from 1961:

In Yuanling county, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded, and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall. In the Liuyang region, iron wires were used to chain farmers.

Liu Shaoqi returned to Hunan in 1961 in a widely-reported trip (online, see e.g. here):

Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2nd April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a Spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his assistants combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the human excrement piled up for fertilizer consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.

Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shicheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.

In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages. “Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.” In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologized to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.” That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.

A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution, and starvation to the people he was meant to serve.

Becker also describes Liu Shaoqi’s visit to Hunan:

In the Hengyang district “nearly an entire production team had died of hunger, and there was no one left with the strength to bury the bodies. These were still lying scattered about in the fields from which they had been trying to pull enough to stay alive.” Yet when Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, visited Hunan to see for themselves, local leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and deceive them. Along the road leading to Liu’s home town of Ningxiang, starving peasants had torn the bark off the trees to eat, so officials plastered the tree trunks with mud and straw to conceal the scars. […] Liu only managed to discover the truth in the village where he had been born, Ku Mu Chong, when some villagers dared to tell him that twenty of their number had starved to death, including a nephew of Liu’s, and that a dozen more had fled.

Expressive culture
With all this in mind, it may seem almost perverse to turn our attention to expressive culture. Doubtless in some areas upon the 1949 Liberation, traditional culture was virtually stamped out, quite abruptly, only reviving after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s. Even where traditional genres survived relatively unscathed in the early 1950s (in 1956 Yang Yinliu’s team found rich material on his fine fieldtrip to Hunan, and his report contains no hint of the impending disaster), one might suppose that they would have declined further as collectivization intensified. We might doubt the ability of performance genres to survive through the famine following the 1958 Leap. Indeed, in many regions, irrespective of any official prohibitions, it may seem inconceivable that people could even have the strength to observe traditional cultural practices (see e.g. here, under “Religion and culture”).

On the contrary, it seems that it was precisely the desperation of the times that prompted (on the economic front) a revival of folk performing groups and (in the sphere of belief) a renewed emphasis on traditional ritual. With no food or shelter in their home villages, people resorted to extreme measures. Migration was a traditional response to adversity; Hunan peasants often crossed the border into Hubei (cf. the flight of Yanggao dwellers to Inner Mongolia: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.120–21).

For the condition of folk performance activity in the early 1960s, apart from talking with people who recall the period, official documents in the Appendices of several of the provincial volumes of the monographs on opera and narrative-singing in the Anthology make an unlikely but revealing source, containing documents from imperial, Republican, and Maoist times, often relating to prohibitions (for all three periods!). [2] Often they inadvertently reveal “negative material” in discussing the desperate revival of folk and ritual groups from the late 1950s, reminding us that even through all the traumas of campaigns and collectivization, traditional genres “obstinately“, however tenuously, kept active.

A series of detailed documents from the Hunan Bureau of Culture between 1957 and 1965 gives a remarkably frank impression of a far-from-stable socialist society. [3]

A document from September 1961 innocuously prescribes a systematic project on the province’s rich heritage of local opera, specifically calling for impartial documentation irrespective of “feudal” and “superstitious” elements. Doubtless they benefitted from the model established by Yang Yinliu on his 1956 fieldwork. A lengthier document from March 1962 explicitly includes the diverse genres of narrative-singing in the project.

By October the Bureau of Culture was discussing the registration of “folk professional scattered artists” (minjian zhiye lingsan yiren 民间职业零散艺人) that they had initiated in 1957. They note the recent growth of such performers along with state cutbacks and the arrival of migrant groups; some belonged to the “five black categories”, performing “unhealthy” items.

With new campaigns for Socialist Education, the tide was turning: by April 1963, prompted by a central decree from Beijing, the Bureau of Culture issued a ban on the performance of “ghost operas”, which had grown “in the last couple of years”. For rural and urban Hunan they describe an increase of funeral elegies and rituals, offering incense and worshipping the Buddha, constructing temples, and inviting opera groups for rituals to invite the gods and redeem vows, [4] all encouraging the spread of anti-revolutionary elements and reactionary sects (fandong huidaomen).

A draft discussion from 1964 elaborates further on how to register folk performers, mentioning over 12,000 rural scattered semi-professional artists (performing opera, shadow-puppetry, marionettes, and narrative-singing), some of whose groups “have become hiding places for class enemies, their programmes mostly spreading feudal superstition and capitalism.”

Despite (or because of) the rising tide of political campaigns, a lengthy supplement from August 1965 reveals continuing issues:

wenjian 1
wenjian 2
wenjian 3
wenjian 4

Under “Severe situation” (pp.622–3), problems are listed under five headings, all with detailed examples:

  • Performing bad [feudalistic, superstitious, capitalistic] programmes, long prohibited but still rife, “poisoning people’s thinking”. This was a problem among the state troupes as well as folk groups: from the founding in November 1963 of the No.2 Marionette Troupe in Xinshao county to September 1964, 84 of their 103 performances were deemed “superstitious”.
  • People abandoning production to take up itinerant performance. Of 96 shadow-puppet artists in one district, 21 took it up before Liberation, 17 from Liberation to 1958, but 58 since 1958—and those taking it up since Liberation were mostly strong young men, badly needed to help agriculture recover from the disasters of the years of hardship. In Lixian county, [5] the senior yugu performer Cheng Dengyun’s oldest son (33) was a production-team chief, his second son (28) team accountant, his third son a strong worker, but from 1961 they all took up yugu and abandoned production.

Left: daoqing/yugu performers in Hengyang municipality, 1956.
Right: yugu, undated photo from Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan.

Yugu 渔鼓, related to daoqing 道情 and shadow-puppetry, is one of the most widespread genres of narrative-singing around Hunan and nearby provinces, using a distinctive drum made from a bamboo tube. The separate Anthology item on the genre introduces the early and later history of yugu, giving useful leads for the various regional styles. [6] But the 1964 document valuably supplements the largely official picture of yugu modernizing under the avuncular guidance of the Party. Online, besides more glossy official versions, you can find some excerpts from recent funerary performances, like this from Qidong county.

  • Exorbitant charges. In a case from 1963, two shadow-puppeteers from a commune in Hengnan county performed an opera to redeem a vow; apart from a ticket price [??] of 6 yuan, they also demanded a dou of “holy rice” and 2 jin of oil; at the end they gave a commune cadre a statue of the deity Guanyin and demanded a further 2 yuan as a donation.
  • Taking disciples, exploitative hiring practices—again showing the persistence of pre-revolutionary traditions.
  • Harbouring bad elements and carrying out anti-revolutionary activities; examples are given of puppeteers performing anti-Communist propaganda.

For local religious life over the Maoist era I haven’t yet sought documents from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, or indeed the archives of the Public Security Bureau, but one might expect revealing results there too.

* * *

Having endured yet more traumas in the Cultural Revolution, such genres, mostly based on ritual practice, revived spectacularly after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s. But we can now see that the revival was not some miraculous atavistic re-imagining after three decades of silence: it took up a thread that had never been erased. Indeed, there was even a certain very limited activity through the Cultural Revolution decade. Equally, the wealth of research since the 1980s didn’t spring from a vacuum: it built on the brave work of scholars under Maoism.

Studies of expressive culture under Maoism are often narrowly based on central policy towards “the arts”. Candid documents like those discussed here reveal not only regional policy but—more interestingly—the real situation on the ground, even if they were seeking to “correct” it. Thus the Party refutes its own simplistic narrative that “feudal superstition” was abruptly suppressed after Liberation—a claim that is rarely challenged even by scholars outside China .

So the study of Maoism, expressive culture, and people’s lives should go hand in hand.


[1] The material here is based on Jasper Becker, Hungry ghosts and Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, consulting the indexes under Hunan. The famine in some provinces, notably Henan, was considerably worse: I won’t attempt to summarize the abundant material here, but again it is described by Becker, Dikötter, et al. For refs. to Henan folk opera troupes begging during the famine, see Zhongguo quyi zhi, Henan juan, pp.735–40. For the great famines of Ukraine and China, see here.

[2] Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

[3] For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.

[4] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.

[5] Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!

[6] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.


The Cultural Revolution in Tibet

book cover

With my focus on Han Chinese culture, I rarely presume to venture into modern Tibetan history. But amidst the recent escalation in the plight of the Uyghurs, we should keep in mind the chronic tribulations of the Tibetans within the PRC.

Social and political change is a major element in studying the travails of expressive culture and religious activity—not least under authoritarian regimes, including the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. So work on the Maoist era is particularly important, with local studies such as Chen village, the work of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts, my study of Gaoluo (Plucking the winds)—and, devastatingly, Guo Yuhua‘s study of a Shaanbei village.

For Han Chinese regions, accounts of factional fighting, armed warfare, and massacres are common for the Cultural Revolution—largely pertaining to the years 1966–68. Since the tension between religious practice and politics is one of my major themes, this disturbingly riveting book makes an extraordinary case-study for a rural Tibetan county near Lhasa:

  • Melvyn C. Goldstein, Ben Jiao, and Tanzen Lhundrup, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo incident of 1969 (University of California Press, 2009).

It’s the fruit of collaboration between Goldstein, leading scholar of modern Tibetan history, with Ben Jiao (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Tanzen Lhundrup of the China Tibetology Centre in Beijing. Yet another instance of the vast amount of material that Goldstein has managed to unearth over a long period, the book prompts us to reflect not only on society, politics, and religion, but on the multiple viewpoints afforded by interpreting fieldwork material.

Since the 1980s, Tibetan studies have emerged impressively from an uncritical reified nostalgia for an idealized old culture, when few (either under Chinese rule or in the diaspora) were able or willing to document modernity and a changing society—a view that still tinges scholarship on Han Chinese culture, not least Daoist ritual

Besides Goldstein’s own ongoing history of modern Tibet (the first three volumes of which take us up to 1957), the definitive single-volume study, from 1999, is

  • Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of  modern Tibet since 1947.

Chapter 12 makes a useful introduction to the Cultural Revolution. Note also this site. And a vivid personal account of the period is the eight-part series by Tsering Woeser to be found here, based on collections of her father’s photos[1]

Also most authoritative on modern Tibetan society are the voluminous writings of Robbie Barnett, going back to the early days of the ground-breaking Tibet Information Network. [2] He introduces the field in this 2014 interview.

Throughout the Tibetan populations—not just in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR) but also in Amdo and Kham—unrest has been constant under Chinese rule. Major incidents include the 1959 Khamba uprisings (note the 10th Panchen Lama’s 1962 report to Chairman Mao, detailing severe sufferings among Tibetan communities); [3] and since the partial liberalizations after 1980, the disturbances of 1987–9 and 2008. Such friction is still ongoing today.

By the early 1960s the CCP leadership, including TAR Party boss Zhang Guohua, were anxious. Through much of the 50s they had sought for the “stability” of a “gradualist” approach for Tibet: collective farming was postponed after the 1959 rebellion, and when the Cultural Revolution erupted they made a case for controlling its volatility. But warfare inevitably broke out between the rival Gyenlo and Nyamdre factions, spreading out from Lhasa. The army sided with Nyamdre. In June 1968 a major battle took place at the Jokhang temple.

By summer 1969—by which time the major violence in inland China had been pacified—serious unrest had broken out in a quarter of the rural counties of TAR, in which ordinary Tibetans participated as much as Chinese-led revolutionary groups. On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet focuses on Nyemo county in Lhasa municipality, but outlines other disturbances in at least eighteen counties; most of the five for which the authors give brief accounts involved a religious element.

The book
Using far more detailed material than previously available, the authors analyse the violence in Nyemo, which came to be led by the former nun Trinley Chödrön. Unlike the 1959 Khamba uprising, the authors argue, this was not explicitly a revolt against the Chinese occupiers. Assessing the balance of nationalist and economic elements, they find the latter more significant:

The Nyemo disturbance was not a spontaneous Tibetan nationalistic uprising against the Chinese “oppressor”, nor was it a revolt aimed at creating an independent Tibet. To the contrary, it was the outgrowth of a careful strategy orchestrated by a Maoist revolutionary faction to seize control of its county from a rival revolutionary organization.

The power-struggle, they comment,

clearly had nothing to do with the now famous nun called Trinley Chödrön. Gyenlo’s move to wrest power from Nyamdre started well before the nun from Nyemo was involved, and it certainly would have continued with or without her presence. Moreover, at this time, Gyenlo’s strategy was not about religion or nationalism; it was about Gyenlo defeating its rival revolutionary faction with the support of village masses who were willing to join in this venture because Gyenlo was promising them that they would benefit by being allowed to keep more grain, by ridding themselves of officials they saw as corrupt and avaricious, and by stopping implementation of the collective system.

The authors seek to refute previous views of the revolt:

Rather than a simple dichotomy, angry Tibetans spontaneously organizing and striking back at hated Chinese or Tibetans rising to fight only for their material interests, there were multiple levels and multiple actors, Tibetan and Chinese, with different motives, using and manipulating each other for different end goals.

Some may have stood to gain following the “Democratic Reforms” implemented in Tibet after 1959, but the common people were soon hit by exactions, leading to food shortages (from which the Han peoples across inland China were also suffering terribly). The Gyenlo faction promised to postpone the threatened imposition of collective farming. But while the authors find economic factors more urgent causes of popular discontent, the widely-resented assault on religion was a further factor:

Notwithstanding the suppression of organized religion (monasteries and nunneries) after 1959, individuals had still been permitted to practice religion on a private basis. That freedom ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Indeed, a work-team sent from Lhasa in 1987 (just as further waves of unrest were looming) reported on the negative consequences of the Party’s assaults on religion:

We used to talk too much but do too little to help people with their religious beliefs. Especially during the Great Cultural Revolution, religious beliefs were labelled as one of the “four olds”, and nobody was allowed to practise any religion. People did not like our policies, and once something tempting about religion appeared, the masses were easily fooled.

This is the tightrope from which the regime constantly falls.

The problematic figure of Trinley Chödrön
Among Tibetans and Westerners it may be tempting to view the nun who came to lead the violence as a heroic freedom fighter, a kind of Joan of Arc. The authors go to some lengths to describe her background and the development of her spiritual powers. Her family and fellow villagers themselves described her as having mental problems—which were doubtless exacerbated by the 1959 measures and the new campaign to destroy the “four olds”.

As she developed the powers of a trance-medium, claiming possession by deities, the book describes how she went (in 1968!) with her younger brother to a local lama called Chamba Tenzin for the tsago che initiation ritual. This briefly caused her to become more stable, and she herself applied to join the Gyenlo faction. It was now, as her trances became more frequent, that she gained a following. Still, when she claimed to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche (the Sakyamuni Buddha whose statue in the Jokhang chapel in Lhasa was the most sacred in Tibet), orthodox lamas were sceptical, not least since trance-mediums channel local territorial deities, not Buddhas.

Of course, in local society mediums were by no means perceived as unbalanced; and  a system was in place to distinguish fake mediums. The authors note how her claims to possession diverged from the those of mediums in traditional society; and it was not just atheist cadres who regarded her as a crazy charlatan.

Still, the authors claim, it was precisely because she was considered insane that she was given latitude to perform religious activities at this unlikely time; but gradually locals came to trust in her powers of healing. The most powerful god by whom she claimed to be possessed was to be Ani Gongmey Gyemo, aunt and adviser of the legendary King Gesar—although how she acquired this allegiance is unclear, since the Gesar story was not popular in Nyemo, and this seems to be a unique case. Anyway, as the authors note, Ani Gongmey Gyemo and Gesar

were not some mythical figures in folktales, nor were they simply local mountain deities; they were real and powerful deities famous for fighting for Buddhism in Tibet.

While Trinley Chödrön’s claim to be a medium for a figure connected to King Gesar was at the core of previous scholars’ understanding of her as primarily a religious or ethno-nationalist figure, the authors note that she now also began to praise the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in public. The pragmatic Gyenlo leaders, while themselves secular in mentality, now saw the value of utilizing her as a channel for the religious faith of local people, to earn them more support in their factional struggle. Still, they themselves described her as “the crazy one”, an assessment they shared with more devout Tibetans; and they were preparing to kill her once they had won victory.

Her following was consolidated with the formation of a group of adherents known as warrior-heroes (badü), who also went into trance in what the authors call a kind of “Gesar hysteria”. With the faction now known informally as Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods, she became crucial to their cause, and soon a series of brutal killings began.

The authors give a nuanced categorization of the “enemies” killed and mutilated, including not just Chinese and Tibetan cadres but those who had ridiculed Trinley Chödrön’s religious authenticity and other hapless victims of her personal vendettas. But still the Gyenlo leaders refrained from intervening to have her detained:

“It is not necessary to arrest the nun. She is just a common lunatic. We’ll have trouble if we take her to the Public Security Bureau. So don’t bother her. She is useful to us. We need to protect her.”

At last the PLA arrived, putting themselves in the firing line. Just like the Boxers in 1900, Trinley Chödrön’s adherents rashly claimed immunity from bullets. Locals, while disillusioned, were fearful of her powers. But eventually in June 1969 she was captured, her followers surrendering. Early in 1970, along with the other warrior-heroes and her lama, she was executed at the sand dune area below the Sera monastery near Lhasa. Gyenlo leaders managed to exculpate themselves until 1970, blaming the massacres on the very “religious reactionaries” whom they had exploited. Investigations continued in 1971; though in 1972 the Gyenlo faction was punished, revised assessments in the 1980s reduced the verdicts.


As the authors observe, the Nyemo disturbances would not have been possible without the state-sanctioned chaos that Mao unleashed with the Cultural Revolution. Yet disturbances of one kind or another have erupted constantly ever since the Chinese occupied Tibet.

It was, of course, very unorthodox for a revolutionary organization of the masses to ask a Tibetan religious medium to dress in costume, go into a trance, and summon a god to motivate them to undertake revolutionary work for Chairman Mao, but Gyenlo in Nyemo was pragmatic to the core, and the leaders found it easy to rationalize the temporary utilization of “superstition” (religion) as an acceptable price to pay for achieving their consuming goal of deposing Nyamdre and taking control of the county.

Though the authors are to some extent proposing an alternative explanation of the Nyemo revolt to those of previous scholars like Tsering Shakya, they conclude:

However, we should not minimize what clearly fuelled this incident: the anger many rural Tibetans felt at the direction party policies had taken, not only in the realms of taxation and economic freedom, but also towards religion and culture.

And to me this doesn’t look so far from Shakya’s own view (The dragon in the land of snows, pp.346–7):

The revolt of 1969 was inspired by the Tibetans’ desire to regain some measure of social, psychological, and cultural freedom. It was not, however, a conscious nationalist uprising, but a cultural response to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
A nationalistic interpretation of the events in Nyemo tends to stress the Tibetanness of the revolt and view it as an anti-Chinese uprising. However, at this stage we do not know how far the events in Nyemo can be separated from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and it has to be remembered that it was the Chinese authorities who highlighted the revolt as a nationalist and separatist movement.

On first reading, Goldstein’s analysis seems perfectly convincing. But we can also learn from critical reviews by three scholars who have themselves made notable progress in documenting the travails of modern Tibet: Charlene MakleyRonald Schwartz, and Benno Ryan Weiner. What they dispute is the balance of economic/materialist and cultural/nationalist explanations; the role of religion; and the very interpretation of local accounts.

Beginning with the latter, lessons from the book are not just in the extraordinary detail, but in the constant dilemma of assessing fieldwork material. As the authors observe, “We investigate the past not to deduce practical political lessons, but to find out what really happened.” In the years following the violence several investigation teams descended on Nyemo—reminding me of the 1974 visit to Gaoluo of a team seeking material on the Boxer uprising of 1900 (see my Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and n.42).

TOHAPThe authors seek to assure the reliability of interviews by collating a wide range of accounts (including but not limited to interrogations and confessions), from victims and perpetrators, members of both factions, ordinary people caught up in the events, officials and soldiers. [4]  So they claim:

“in the end we feel confident that we are able to represent the different attitudes and experiences in Nyemo accurately.”

Alas, multiple interpretations are always likely to emerge, depending on people’s experience of the society in question and their whole worldview.

Thus Makley argues:

Despite the complex and copious data which they present, the authors’ overwhelmingly statist perspective and the bluntness of their analytic tools obscure their conclusions and leave us with little against which to assess them. In the end, they echo the findings of the state teams charged with re-investigating and re-labeling the Nyemo events in the mid-80s. They refer throughout to “the Nyemo incident”, the term which the 1980s team used to re-categorize the events as isolated local conflicts rather than fundamentally ethnic “rebellion” against Chinese rule.

So she is

unconvinced by the authors’ easy assertions that they controlled for “bias” in their “private” interviews and were able to get at participants’ actual experiences during the violence.

Of course, she isn’t suggesting we should dismiss all the local accounts of the nun’s disturbed mental state as statements made under duress, as propaganda for which the authors have fallen—that might almost amount to questioning the validity of any field discussions within the PRC. After all, such accounts note both Trinley Chödrön’s instability and the faith that local people came to have in her.

I can’t presume to assess Makley’s criticisms, but they are worth citing at some length. She finds that Goldstein’s

preference for the clear contours of the social over the messy indeterminacies of the cultural—especially since the rise of the modern Chinese state critically depended on categorizing and disciplining “ethnic minorities” as premodern Others mired in alien cultural worlds—subtly negates Tibetan concerns.

Although to me the book’s variety of views seem suitably messy, and not oblivious to the cultural, Makley comments that Goldstein is brought

face to face with the quintessential premodern Other: Trinley Chödrön, a young Buddhist nun turned deity medium who led brutal attacks, murders and maimings in the name of resistance to Chinese-led “democratic reforms”.

As she explains,

the authors aim to refute idealized or simplistic views that the nun was primarily an ethnic nationalist leading a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, arguing instead that she accepted the administrative contours of the “new society” under Mao, only seeking to restore “religion” within it.

But she counters:

Their statist view from the outside gives us no real sense of Trinley Chödrön and her followers’ own, very Tibetan cosmologies and notions of personhood, agency and  power. There is no cultural history of Nyemo here as a specifically Tibetan locale, only testimonies gathered by successive waves of statist outsiders. Thus, despite a perfunctory nod to the basic features of deity possession as a “cultural script” among Tibetans, Trinley Chödrön ultimately figures as the marginal premodern Other par excellence. We come to view the defrocked nun’s unconventional mediumship, claiming possession by Gongmai Gyemo, the divine aunt of the great Tibetan epic hero Gesar, and ordering brutal attacks against her “Gyenlo” enemies, as the repulsive workings of a cult (as in Jim Jones, or Waco).

Of course, “the exoticized premodern Other” was precisely how Tibetan clerics were portrayed before the growth of serious scholarship. And there may indeed be scope for a more sympathetic portrayal. But surely it wasn’t just “statist” Chinese and Tibetan cadres, but ordinary villagers and lamas too, who described her as “crazy”; those whose limbs were hacked off might be reluctant to entertain a cultural defence. Perhaps one might say that Trinley Chödrön’s mental instability reflected that of Tibetan society traumatized under Chinese occupation.

The fate of Tibetan religion under Chinese rule has become a major field, with many detailed and sensitive case-studies. Goldstein may tend to favour economic explanations, but he is quite aware of the major role of religion (e.g. his 1998 co-edited book with Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in contemporary Tibet: religious revival and cultural identity). Of course, Makley is not suggesting a return to the outmoded idealization of Tibetan religion; critical ethnographies, such as her own, are to be encouraged.

She further unpacks the authors’ language:

Trinley Chödrön is “the nun” (never the god!) and, unlike other Tibetan youth who were “barely affected”, she is bitterly angry and thus “mentally disturbed” and “unbalanced” at the loss of Buddhist monastic life enforced with the Democratic Reforms. Faction leaders are “firmly committed” to their factions, treating each other as kin; Trinley Chödrön and her followers are “fanatically committed” to the gods, “immersed in imagined worlds”, or subject to “Gesar hysteria”. In essence, this is a stratigraphic approach to history; the Nyemo events unfold on “two planes”, the Tibetan cultural world of protector gods inhabited by Trinley Chödrön layered over the primary world of economic concerns and realpolitik inhabited by faction leaders and most other Tibetans. Culture never infects the faction leaders’ motives. Their brutality is understandable; Trinley Chödrön’s is an aberration.

Schwartz’s critique largely tallies with Makley’s. He finds the authors “at a loss to explain the syncretic and millenarian elements of Trinley Chödrön’s religious vision.” And

The testimony of the participants collected by the researchers through interviews also declares the mediums to be frauds. But the pressure to reconstruct the Nyemo incident in line with the officially acceptable narrative—in both the interrogations documented by Chinese investigators immediately after the incident and in the recollections of participants many years later—is difficult to ignore.

Schwartz continues:

The authors gloss over the extent to which cultural practices suppressed by the new state reappeared overnight and quickly became widespread once it became clear that they were permitted—burning incense, prayers, the exchange of katas. But the same thing happened after 1980 following the post-Mao reforms and continues right up to the present whenever policies on religious practice are relaxed. The underlying memory of religious practice has never disappeared, and whatever its sources, it is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and society. The revival of religion defies a strictly economic explanation—it recurs during periods of prosperity as well as during periods of deprivation.

Goldstein and his co-authors’ efforts to temper the overwhelming focus among Westerners on ethnicity and nationalism in the Sino–Tibetan conflict is laudable, but their own profoundly statist and modernist perspective forces them to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The particularly Tibetan violence of Trinley Chödrön and her followers in 1969 is just too great a challenge for them. Their efforts to cordon off Trinley Chödrön from the other characters whom they recognize as modern and rational leads to no clear sense of her character and motives: she is mentally ill, she is a hapless puppet, she is a cunning manipulator. In the end, we are left with no real means to assess the authors’ core claim that Trinley Chödrön accepted the “new society” under Mao, because they give us no systematic sense of local Tibetans’ own views and experiences of “the state” or of the Maoist factions. Only a decade after the trauma of the Democratic Reforms, we cannot assume with the authors that Tibetans had entirely assimilated the grounding premises and administrative geographies of the modern Chinese state. A clue comes when the authors comment incredulously at Trinley Chödrön’s “bizarre” statement that Mao is the incarnation of Manjuśri. Yet for centuries Tibetans across the plateau have recognized emperors as incarnations of the bodhisattva of wisdom; Trinley Chödrön here recognizes Mao as a commensurate imperial agent—far away and benign, yet under the jurisdiction of Buddhism.

This is a good instance of how carefully we have to read Goldstein’s text. The relevant passage from his p.81:

At the same time, the nun also said bizarre things like “I am the right shoulder [hand] of Chairman Mao” and “Chairman Mao will not treat us badly, since he is the incarnation of Manjuśri. It is the internal [local] people who are the worst.” Such claims and comments reinforced many people’s belief in her mental instability…

So whereas lamas and common people do seem to have been taken aback by her initial claim to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche, and indeed by her mental problems, in this case the authors haven’t given a source to show that locals doubted the Manjuśri–Mao equation. Schwartz goes on:

The unfortunate, unintended effect of the authors’ modernist ttake on Trinley Chödrön is that it individualizes, pathologizes, and dehumanizes Tibetans’ shock, grief, and anger at the physical and cultural violence of CCP intervention in 1959. Trinley Chödrön as the emblematic premodern Other stands in for any misguidedly ethnic Tibetan left behind in the sweep of Chinese-led modernization. Indeed, throughout the book, although the devastating trauma of the 1959 Democratic Reforms is referred to, it is not considered as a major causal factor behind the Nyemo events ten years later during the Cultural Revolution. Such violence could only happen in the absence of the state. Cordoning off Trinley Chödrön as the aberrant premodern allows the authors to retain the ultimate value in the book: the modern, rational State that returns, legitimately, to restore Order.

* * *

Both the book and its reviews overturn the simplistic stories once told on both sides of the fence. As a mere onlooker, I take the reviewers’ points, but I like to think that the seemingly conflicting “materialist” and “cultural” interpretations can be mutually beneficial.

For me, branching out from the often reified realm of Daoist ritual studies, the intrusion of the Real World is most welcome—even if its interpretation is controversial. However lurid and “messy” the story may be, all this serves as a reminder of the importance of Tibetan studies. Both the book and the responses to it indicate the acumen that is now being brought to bear on the plight of the Tibetans, from which scholars of Han Chinese society and culture can learn.

As to the embattled condition of Tibetan expressive culture—particularly the traditions of ritual and soundscape that have somehow continued to evolve against all the odds—again there is a far more complex story to be told than the reified portrayals on both sides of the PRC–exile divide. It would be rash of me to attempt an overview, “reading between the lines” of research by Tibetan and Chinese scholars within the PRC. But maybe one day I will.

With many thanks to Robbie Barnett


[1] See also interviews by Ian Johnson (here and here, as well as Woeser’s 2013 book (with Wang Lixiong) Voices from Tibet. Indeed, following the initial lively debate between Tsering Shakya and Wang Lixiong, the latter has come much closer to Shakya’s viewpoint.

[2] See e.g. Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz (eds.), Tibetan modernities: notes from the field on cultural and social change (2008).

[3] See A poisoned arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama (TIN, 1998).

[4] See the Tibet oral history archive; cf. Wu Wenguang’s archive for the famine.


A Daoist serves a state troupe

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, Datong 1959. Li Qing front row, far right.

My post on the folk–conservatoire gulf reminds me of the brief sojourn of the great household Daoist Li Qing in the grimy coal city of Datong as a state-employed musician. Indeed throughout China, many “folk artists” were recruited to such troupes, like wind players Hu Tianquan and Wang Tiechui. Daoists were also enlisted (see e.g. Ritual life around Suzhou, §5); Daoist priest Yang Yuanheng even served as professor at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing until his death in 1959.

But under Maoism the “food-bowl” of the state troupes was short-lived; most employees were soon laid off. And while in the troupes, performers’ lives were no picnic: the whole society was poor, all the more so during the Years of Hardship while Li Qing was employed.

The following is adapted from ch.5 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

In the early years after the 1949 Liberation, religious ritual in Yanggao had persisted despite sporadic campaigns and the nominally atheist stance of the new Communist leadership. But by 1954, as collectivization began to be enforced ever more rigidly (see here, under “Famine in China”), creating ever-larger units which made it hard to protect local interests, and with ambitious new mobilizations taking up more and more time, it was becoming increasingly hard to “do religion.” The main thrust of campaigns may have been economic, as household enterprises were forced into inactivity; but “eliminating superstition” was never forgotten, and was to be one explicit slogan of the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

Li Qing eats off the state
When not busy laboring in the collective fields or doing rituals, Li Qing enjoyed playing his beloved sheng mouth-organ in the village’s amateur “little opera band”, accompanying both the majestic “great opera” (Jinju) and the skittish local errentai duets. In the bitter cold of the first moon in 1958 Li Qing, now aged 33 sui, made the journey to Yanggao county-town to take part with his village band in a secular arts festival there. The county cultural authorities were choosing musicians for their Shanxi opera troupe, [1] and were keen to recruit Li Qing. But scouts attending from the prestigious North Shanxi Arts-work Troupe in the grimy regional capital city of Datong pulled more weight, and it was for this ensemble that he was now chosen. In this period regional arts-work troupes and county opera troupes throughout China commonly recruited Daoists and other folk ritual performers as instrumentalists. Li Qing was to spend nearly four years in the troupe. Thus, although they made regular tours of the countryside, he was protected somewhat from the worst excesses of the Great Leap Forward back home.

In 2011, to learn more about Li Qing’s time in the troupe I visited Datong to seek out some of his former colleagues there—Li Manshan and Li Bin had already bumped into a couple of them on trips there.

It’s good to see my old friend Bureau Chief Li again. We track down two old musicians from the troupe and invite them round to his posh flat where I am staying the night. It would make a tranquil venue, but since it is the time of the Mid-Autumn festival, an auspicious time for weddings, our chat is regularly punctuated by deafening firecrackers echoing around the high-rises, so that the soundtrack evokes the battle of the Somme.


Li Kui (left) and Zhang Futian, Datong 2011.

Li Kui, who played erhu fiddle in the troupe, and the effervescent Zhang Futian, a dizi flute player, both born in 1939, were 19 sui when they joined, thirteen years younger than Li Qing. Wary of hagiography as I am, all those who met Li Qing remain moved by his kindly soul and unsurpassed musicianship. Those years were not just a contrast to the rest of his life but a unique period for everyone. Recruitment to a prestigious state ensemble may sound grand—until you realize not only the desperate conditions of the late 1950s but that they spent much of the year touring the ravaged countryside on foot. Still, for them the period has a bitter-sweet nostalgia that I can’t help sharing. My visit provides an excuse for them to get together to reminisce about old times—they are so loquacious that I rarely get to chip in with a question.

Li Qing went off to Datong to take up his new job in the 8th moon of 1958, just as the Great Leap Forward was being rolled out to great fanfare. Even if he had a choice about taking the job, he can have had little hesitation. With Daoist ritual business, and society as a whole, going through such a tough period since the enforcement of collectivization, he would have been grateful to get on the state payroll.

The Party officials of the troupe must have found out about Li Qing’s rich-peasant status but drawn a veil over it. Throughout the Maoist period, the Yanggao cultural cadres didn’t dare have any contact with the Daoists or even the shawm bands—but the Datong troupe leaders didn’t need to know that Li Qing was a Daoist. His colleagues would find out, but everyone understood there was no need to discuss that kind of thing. He didn’t talk much at first, but became more chatty as he felt more at ease. For his closest friends he even furtively held sessions to determine the date.

The new troupe, based in a compound at no.13 Zhengdian street, was an amalgamation of the North Shanxi and Xinzhou regional troupes. Eight or nine musicians were recruited to the band at first, gradually increasing to around sixteen; with singers, dancers, stage crew, and cadres, the troupe consisted of around sixty people. Its reputation was second only to the troupe in the provincial capital Taiyuan.

Li Qing now found himself accompanying stirring patriotic folk songs and short simple instrumental compositions in revolutionary style. As a household Daoist, he was a born musician, and effortlessly versatile. Apart from his old vocal liturgy and the “holy pieces” of the shengguan instrumental music, he knew a wide range of more folksy instrumental pieces played on procession and for the popular afternoon sequence, and he had the local opera repertoire in his blood.

Dancer Feng Yumei, also from Yanggao, arranged some of the earliest dance suites in folklore style, like “The Earth around the Yellow River” (Huanghe yifangtu), considered one of the earliest and best creations in the idiom. The troupe performed a new opera composed in Hubei, later made into a film.

Li Qing was the only Daoist in the troupe; the only other instrumentalist from Yanggao was the fine gujiang shawm player Shi Ming (1932–2003) from Wangguantun just northwest (see also my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.22). They remained lifelong friends. Shi Ming, already 27 sui, had an eye for the dancers, but they preferred the younger more eligible guys, like Li Kui himself! The troupe’s star soloist on the suona shawm was Yang Xixi from Xinzhou. Our friends ranked him alongside the nationally celebrated virtuoso Hu Tianquan, also a native of Xinzhou, mainly renowned for his sheng playing. Li Qing sometimes played Yang Xixi’s guanzi for fun.

As the only sheng player in the troupe, Li Qing accompanied Zhang Futian’s flute solos. Sometimes he played solos himself, accompanied on the accordion by one Ma Yun, over 50 sui in 1958. One solo that his colleagues recall was a Napoleonic Marche du Victoire (Kaixuan guilai), perhaps even the March from Aida. Imagine—Li Qing even performed a foreign piece! He played with feeling, and was infinitely adaptable. The conductor never criticized him; if he made the slightest error, he would correct it at once. Zhang Futian’s appraisal was still higher than that of the local Daoists: “He was a genius—the greatest musician I ever met.”

WGT trio_2

Li Qing (left) with fellow wind players Yang Xixi and Shi Ming, 1959.

No less impressive was Li Qing’s personality. Affable and generous, he had no temper. Even if he got ill, he never asked for leave. He earned a reputation for generosity and for smoothing over disputes in the troupe; his mere presence was enough to ease any tensions within the group. In a society where mutual suspicion was fostered and nasty rumours spread rapidly, he had no bad words for anyone, and bore no grudges. Folk musicians prided themselves on loyalty (yiqi).

The salary system was graded. Ordinary members got 25 kuai a month, most of the band 35 kuai. Relatively senior, Li Qing was soon considered an “old artist” (laoyiren), getting 45 kuai a month. The wind players and dancers got an extra 2 liang in rations.

During his time in the troupe Li Qing learned the modern system of notation called jianpu “simplified notation,” which uses the Arabic numerals 1 to 7 to represent the solfeggio pitches of Chinese gongche notation. [2] Though simple, it never caught on in the countryside; for the Daoists, traditional gongche remained in place as a means of learning the outline of the shengguan instrumental melodies, and they had no need of any notation at all to learn all the complex vocal hymns. The gongche solfeggio translates rather easily into numerical notation. The latter was used in the troupe to learn new pieces, but Shi Ming didn’t take to it, so Li Qing helped him learn them. Li Qing was to put this new skill to use from the 1980s when he used it to write scores of his Daoist repertoire.

For much of the year the troupe went on tour through the impoverished countryside, doing over a hundred performances a year. Apart from visits further afield in north China, they toured throughout north Shanxi, including Yanggao villages—mostly on foot, sometimes with horses and carts. Sometimes they slept in peasant homes, dispersed among several suitable families by the village brigade, or in the village school; or they put up a big tent. They took their own food, and stoves to cook it on. Li Qing didn’t smoke or drink, but the others drank laobaiganr liquor from a little flask; at first the troupe supplied them with packs of Happiness cigarettes, but later they were reduced to picking up fag-ends after a gig and rolling them into a new one. Their program was written in ink and stuck up as a poster. It was a tough life—Zhang Futian admits he got fed up with it.

Over these four years Li Qing was only able to go home once or twice a year for a couple of days, bringing only a bit of money, but no food. His wife, alone with four children to look after, never visited him in Datong. Li Manshan only went to see him once, in 1961; but soon after he arrived, Li Qing had to go off with the troupe to Harbin in northeast China to perform, so he could only go to the station with his father before taking a packed windowless bus back to Yanggao town and walking home from there.

For several generations the Li family’s exquisite sheng mouth-organs had been made by the Gao family in Gaoshantun near Upper Liangyuan. In 1961 Li Qing managed to get an invitation for the elderly master Gao Bin (1887–1967) to spend ten days with the troupe mending his various sheng, when Gao was really down on his luck; even the meager pickings in the troupe’s canteen probably saved his life.

Like many state work-units throughout China, the troupe was cut back in 1962, and Li Qing returned to his village early that spring. With such relocations, by 1963 some 84% of the Chinese population were living in the countryside—the highest proportion in the history of the People’s Republic. [3]

The troupe staggered on until it was disbanded in late 1962. Some of its members were recruited to the provincial song-and-dance troupe in Taiyuan, some of the Xinzhou contingent found work back home, while others like Li Qing and Shi Ming had to return home to their starving villages. Several of the performers went on to wider fame; dancer Feng Yumei 冯玉梅 became chair of the provincial dance association, and folksinger Xing Chouhua 刑丑花, from Xinzhou, gained national renown. The troupe reformed in 1964; soon, mainly using Western instruments for the revolutionary “model operas”, it was dominated by “educated youth” from Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. But it disbanded again in 1968.

For a peasant like Li Qing to be chosen for the troupe was a great honor. His “black” class status was no barrier to being selected, and on his return his local prestige was even greater. But in volatile political times, assaults were not far away. If the economy hadn’t collapsed at this time, Li Qing might have continued in the state system; after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he might even have become a sheng professor at a conservatoire. Still, I am grateful that the troupe folded, and that the troupes or conservatoires never again summoned him. Had he secured a long-term state post, he would never have resumed his ritual practice, copied all those scriptures and scores, or taught the present generation.

* * *

If Li Qing’s repertoire in the troupe was new, and his long ritual tradition on hold, at least he was still playing the sheng there and receiving a handsome regular salary. Food supplies in the city were scant, even in state work units; but meanwhile back in Upper Liangyuan, people were desperate. In the absence of Li Qing there were still plenty of Daoists available; the senior Li Peiye, or Li Peisen (who had cannily absented himself from political scrutiny by moving to Yang Pagoda), could have still led bands if there were demand. But they were virtually inactive; not only had their instruments been confiscated, but people’s bellies were empty, and patrons had no strength to observe ritual proprieties.

Still, Li Qing’s return in 1962 coincided with a very brief ritual revival, with a retreat from the extremist policies of the disastrous Leap. Though very few domestic or temple rituals had been held for some years. Li Manshan recalls taking part in a ritual in 1963, commissioned at the home of an individual as a vow for recovering from illness. This was perhaps the last time they recited the Averting Calamity scriptures (Rangzai jing). Already by now they were mainly doing funerals, but Li Qing’s widow recalled that even then they were only able to do two or three a month. So there was less work in the early 1960s than now—there was still a serious famine, and however many deaths there were, people couldn’t afford to put on a grand funeral even if they had the energy.

However intermittent the Daoists’ appearances were during these years, Li Manshan sighs as he recalls how the villagers loved their grand rituals before the Cultural Revolution—in the days before TV and pop music. Even by the time of my visits in 1991 and 1992 there still wasn’t any singing outside the gate—that only began from 1993. In 1991 virtually the whole village seemed to turn out, crowding round respectfully (see my film, from 30.32). Li Qing’s sojourn in the troupe had added to his reputation as a Daoist and virtuous man; Li Manshan’s own repute is still based to a considerable degree on that of his father.

For the Li family Daoists’ ritual revival from the late 1970s, see here and here.


[1] For which see the Yanggao xianzhi (1993), p.468. Alas, links to Chinese websites cited in my book seem to have disappeared—watch this space.

[2] For gongche and cipher notation, see also my Folk music of China, pp.111–123; Plucking the winds, pp.245–246, 262–263.

[3] Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China, p.19.



Following my posts on the work of Philippe Sands, on blind minstrels in Ukraine, [1] and on the famines in Ukraine and China, I’ve been belatedly educating myself on the appalling history of the vast region introduced in Between East and West by reading

The region where some 14 million people (mostly civilians) were killed from 1930 to 1945, largely east of the Molotov–Ribbentrop line, includes Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Victims were Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. And it was to the bloodlands that most Jewish victims from west and south Europe, Hungary, Romania, and so on, were transported to die.

Growing up in post-war Britain, perhaps my ignorance isn’t so unusual—but it’s disturbing, and needs rectifying. As Anne Applebaum comments in her review,

If we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 […] and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

My own belated awareness is partly prompted by my studies of the fates of Chinese people whom I’ve met in the course of fieldwork. Indeed, it’s worth re-reading Ian Johnson’s article “Who killed more, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?”, itself a companion to an article by Snyder.

I wonder what would it take for this vast region of the bloodlands to be recognized as the central physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front. And as Snyder says, the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st.

One might even begin by reading his brilliant “Conclusion: humanity”. And apart from reading static silent texts, there’s a wealth of documentary footage online—which you can choose to explore, or not.

Snyder corrects many widespread misconceptions [here I combine his text and Ascherson’s review]. The western public still tends to associate mass killing with “Nazi concentration camps” (cf. my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and with Auschwitz in particular; and Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

  • In the Soviet Union, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, 90% of gulag prisoners survived. Stalin’s great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in 1930s’ Ukraine where at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the “kulak” peasantry.
  • In the Third Reich concentration camps, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. US and British troops liberated some of those camps, but none of the major death camps, which were further east. And 10 million others who never entered any of the camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war), or gassed in special “killing centres” which were not holding camps at all. Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims were already dead. Some—Polish Jews especially—had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
  • So more common methods of killing than gassing were starvation and shooting. Most of those Jewish victims had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German Einsatzgruppen operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, moving from village to village behind the front lines of war.

In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps. […] The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen–Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

  • Nor is it widely understood that Jews were fewer than 1% of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and about one quarter of 1% by the beginning of World War Two. The great majority of murders of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but […] fewer than 3% of the deaths of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (over 3 million) and residents of besieged cities (over a million), or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (nearly a million).
    And until 1939 Stalin, later credited with defeating Hitler (if not in British public opinion), had a still worse record of mass killings—of his own civilians, moreover. Until then, Soviet terror (against both class and national enemies) was not only far greater in scale, it was incomparably more lethal—and largely unnoticed. By the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany, and far more Jews.

Poland, fatally partitioned between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, suffered terribly—with Warsaw subjected to brutal successive destructions. In western Europe this period was known as “the phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. But on 22nd June 1941 (“one of the most significant days in the history of Europe”) Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, while sealing the fate of the Reich, was a further disaster for the civilian inhabitants of the whole region. It was only with these incursions that Hitler’s territory came to include large numbers of Jews to be (literally) disposed of. And

As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.

As to Ukraine, already decimated by Stalin,

Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.

The Germans implemented mass starvation in POW camps:

As many Soviet prisoners-of-war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the entire course of the Second World War.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.

This had the effect of strengthening Soviet resistance; and while local populations had already suffered terribly under Soviet rule, many now wondered if it might be a lesser evil. Still, in desperation many Soviet citizens were recruited for duties with the German army and police.

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. […] The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. […] They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another.

When the Germans conquered an area they often found that the NKVD had shot prisoners. In 1943 they seized on their discovery of the 1940 massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn. But on 29th–30th September 1941 near Kiev, the Germans had murdered 33,761 Jews at Babi Yar; between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed there during the German occupation.

Local militias also took part in pogroms:

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. […] Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves collaborated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint.
Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

Snyder details the fates of urban centres like Lviv, Łódź, Riga, Vilnius, and Minsk, giving background to Applebaum’s visits in Between East and West. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or deported (see also Soviet lives at war).


Warsaw, 1944.

His story returns to Poland and the unimaginable final agony of Warsaw. As the Red Army advanced on Berlin, their revenge was horrific.

* * *

And thence to continuing sufferings after the formal end of war, with Germans now among the main victims of ethnic cleansing and transports (for an overview of the aftermath across Europe, see Keith Lowe, Savage continent). Through the war the Soviets had continued sending their own citizens to the Soviet gulag (not least the peoples of the Caucasus and Crimea; entire populations of Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Tatar, Meshketian Turks, and so on, still less known in the West than the bloodlands), and in the post-war years deportations only increased.

As Stalin fabricated his own unblemished legend of the Soviet Union and its role in the war, belittling that of Soviet citizens in the Holocaust, he now engaged in his own anti-semitic purges. Although mass terror was no longer pursued after Stalin’s death, repression continued throughout the Soviet bloc, and the fates of the real victims were concealed.

The communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.
Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. […] During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth.

In his “Conclusion: Humanity”, Snyder explores the complexities of collaboration and victimhood—even now a pressing issue for all these traumatized nations. Most peoples suffered double or triple occupations, trapped helplessly between evil regimes, forced into agonizing dilemmas with a view to mere survival. In a telling passage, Snyder reflects on choices:

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

The comparisons between leaders and systems began the moment that Hitler came to power. From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would, all too often, determine their fate. This was true of unemployed German workers in early 1933, who had to decide whether they would vote for social democrats, communists, or Nazis. It was true, at the same moment, of Ukrainian peasants, some of whom hoped for a German invasion that would rescue them from the plight. It held for European politicians of the second half of the 1930s, who had to decide whether or not to enter Stalin’s Popular Fronts. The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years, as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

When both the Germans and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Polish officers had to decide to whom they should surrender, and Polish Jews (and other Polish citizens besides) whether to flee to the other occupation zone. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Soviet prisoners of war weighed the risks of collaboration with the Germans against the likelihood of starving to death in prisoner-of-war camps. Belarusian youth had to decide whether to join the Soviet Partisans or the German police—before they were press-ganged into one or the other. Jews in Minsk in 1942 had to choose between remaining in the ghetto or fleeing to the forest to seek Soviet partisans. Polish Home Army commanders in 1944 had to decide whether or not to try to liberate Warsaw for themselves, or to wait for the Soviets. Most survivors of the Ukrainian famine of 1933 later experienced German occupation; most survivors of the German starvation camps of 1941 returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union; most survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Europe also experienced communism.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial time, were condemned to compare.
In the decades since Europe’s era of mass killing came to an end, much of the responsibility has been placed at the feet of “collaborators”. The classic example of collaboration is that of the Soviet citizens who served the Germans as policemen or guards during the Second World War, among whose duties was the killing of Jews. Almost none of these people collaborated for ideological reasons, and only a small minority had political motives of any discernible sort. […] In eastern Europe, it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.

Snyder goes on:

In the 21st century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.

And he reflects on the purpose of history, describing all kinds of later nationalist agendas, highly relevant today:

Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder. […] Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.

Snyder’s detailed breakdown of figures is numbing (note also his Appendix “Numbers and terms”). [2]

In policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war, Nazi Germany murdered about ten million people in the bloodlands (and perhaps eleven million total), the Soviet Union under Stalin over four million in the bloodlands (and about six million total). If foreseeable deaths resulting from famine, ethnic cleansing, and long stays in camps are added, the Stalinist total rises to perhaps nine million and the Nazi to perhaps twelve. These larger numbers can never be precise, not least because millions of people who died as an indirect result of the Second World War were victims, in one way or another, of both systems.

But as he concludes, such statistics still have to be converted back into the stories of individuals: not the abstraction of 5.7 million Jewish dead, but 5.7 million times one.

It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 individual people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenburg, whose clothes clung together as they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber.

As the Jews of Minsk were liquidated in 1942,

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

* * *

Apart from providing us with essential basic education, such work, both detailed and humane, should inform our historiography generally—all the more with the current worldwide fomenting of ugly xenophobia.

For China, despite all the noble work on the famine and laogai camps, truth remains to be publicly told. In the official myth, the concession of Cultural Revolution “mistakes” conspires to sweep under the carpet the earlier successive terrors of land reform and campaigns throughout the 1950s, as well as long-term hunger. Even studies of expressive culture and ritual need to take all this into account.

See also The Cultural Revolution in Tibet.


[1] In such posts I mention the painful maintenance of expressive culture through times of trauma (and indeed the theme of the music of the camps is both macabre and inspiring), but here it seems unthinkable even to try and do so. It does, however, put into even starker perspective both regimes’ showcasing of Great Works of National Art directed by Great Conductors (see e.g. here). See also e.g. Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (ed.), Music traditions in totalitarian systems (Musicology Today, 2010).

[2] Statistics are always problematical. In China, as Ian Johnson observes, famine deaths alone over a mere four years seem to far outnumber the combined totals for killings under Stalin and Hitler from 1930 to 1945. But for the latter, if one includes “foreseeable” deaths caused by deportation, starvation, and incarceration, as well as combatant deaths and those due to war-related famine and disease, the numbers shoot up astronomically. Slowly, Hitler’s numbers approach Mao’s (see also Lives in Stalin’s Russia.)
Issues with statistics are illustrated by the conclusion of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (esp. ch.5), based on detailed yet unpalatable arguments, that the 20th century was probably not the bloodiest in history. His diachronic table (pp.235–6), adjusted to give mid-20th-century population equivalents, shows death tolls from many other conflicts worldwide outranking those discussed here. Highest on the list is the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion (said to have killed up to 5% of the world population, though even a substantially lower revised estimate seems exaggerated), followed by the Mongol conquests; global deaths for World War Two surpass those of Mao’s famine, but even they only come in 9th and 11th respectively—with the Taiping rebellion in between. See here for Pinker’s responses to some inevitable questions.

But again, we should return to Snyder’s Conclusion.