Calendrical rituals

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from its original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but the whole calendar. Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, has made some thoughtful points.

One of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze in the John Passion:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!

 More performative tears—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing, let’s not forget Holy Week in Spain, with solemn hooded processions, soaring trumpets, and saeta devotional songs for the images of Christ and the Virgin.

Indeed, among the benefits of being a touring muso was being able to combine both Bach Passions and flamenco. In southern Spain flamenco only tends to get going in the small hours, but concerts also begin at 10pm or later. So by the time we had played the final chorus of the Matthew Passion in Seville, there was plenty of time to stroll over the bridge to the wonderful Anselmos bar in Triana, downing a few G&Ts before the flamenco began to get in the groove.


But I digress. It’s a busy period in the Chinese ritual year too. [1] On the Hebei plain, apart from taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, Catholics are busy holding Masses and making pilgrimages—not least evading police road-blocks. It is also the time of the 3rd-moon festival for the goddess Empress Houtu, when many villagers go on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountain temples to revere her.

The Houshan pilgrimage, which had been observed only by a tenacious minority through the 1960s and 70s, began reviving in the 1980s; by the 1990s it was attracting around 100,000 pilgrims for its 3rd-moon temple fair. We met several village ritual associations on the mountain for the festival in 1995, though Gaoluo no longer organizes a group; in recent years “people’s hearts are in discord”, as He Qing lamented. In some places the Houtu festival has been revived within the village: for the 3rd-moon festival in 1996, for instance, we visited Shenshizhuang, south of Yixian county-town, whose four ritual associations all celebrate the Houtu festival in their separate ritual buildings in the village.

Many villagers make the pilgrimage in small groups on their own initiative. Their vows are pledged to Houtu. One can climb to the Houshan temples to offer incense and pledge a vow, or just make it at home; the vow often used to include a promise to “look after a banquet” for the ritual association.

So the red flag which one often sees adorning truckloads of villagers in the 3rd moon now heralds a group of pilgrims rather than any political campaign—another sign of the changing times. But despite the lengthy impoverishment of ritual and faith, the power of Houtu is still strong: even in 1997 Gaoluo friends reminded me “Here we believe in the Empress Houtu, so a lot of people offer incense”.


For the dispassionate (sic) observer, some photos may distinctly suggest a stress on masochism in Easter observances around the world. Meanwhile on a visit to the Saudis, celebrated defenders of religious values, our Prime Minister gets herself embroiled in a futile dispute about Easter eggs with the notoriously subversive National Trust. Hey-ho.

[1] These notes are revised from my Plucking the winds.

Obituary of a determined village leader


From Wang Qingren’s film Sound of Laozu (2013).

Lin Zhongshu 林中树 (1940–2017), a great village leader deeply concerned, nay obsessed, with maintaining his local culture, died on 18th March, aged 78 sui.

Chinese chat-sites are already buzzing with substantial tributes (here and here), and over the coming weeks and months there will doubtless be many more. So here’s my own tribute—my thoughts here (albeit thirty years too late) may differ somewhat from the many hagiographies within China, but also derive from deep respect for him.

Right into the very end of the 20th century, Qujiaying 屈家营 village was an exceptionally  poor village in the exceptionally poor county of Gu’an, Hebei province—a short but bumpy trip south of Beijing, and a world away. It’s still nothing to write home about today. Lin Zhongshu was not himself active as a  performing member of the village’s amateur ritual association (another kind of Country music?), but he cared passionately about it. In the early 1980s, just as the liberal reforms were gradually kicking in, he became village chief, and it was entirely thanks to him that scholars became aware that there was far more to ritual culture around Beijing than the Zhihua temple.

Lin Zhongshu’s “obstinacy” (zhizhuo 执着) is legendary. He constantly besieged cultural officials and scholars in Beijing with phone-calls and visits right to the “head of the dragon”, not in the least deterred by the cultural gap. It was as if an unwashed and semi-literate chairman of the Surbiton village choral society just made up his mind to get on the phone to Roy Jenkins, or buttonhole Ted Heath, insisting that they make the journey to Surbiton to hear them performing in their grotty church hall. Actually, that’s easier to imagine.

And to the extent that Qujiaying became renowned not just among musicologists but throughout the Chinese and international media, Lin Zhongshu’s Herculean labours were fulfilled. A more subtle approach would  hardly have succeeded.

As we soon discovered, Qujiaying is one of hundreds of similar amateur village ritual associations in the region with a rich tradition of ritual performance—while their vocal liturgy seems to have long dormant, their shengguan wind ensemble, ritual percussion, and reciting of the gongche scores all amazed scholars, some time before we realized it was a widely shared heritage.

QJY 1987018

Brilliant Feng Wenci leading the magnificent percussion suite on bo cymbals, my first visit 1987. My photo.

The first, historic, visit of scholars to Qujijaying on 28th March 1986 soon became a new calendrical fixture for Qujiaying, annually celebrated with a gaggle of media pundits descending on the village. Thinking back, despite Xue Yibing and Wu Ben’s fine article, I realize the ethnography of ritual life was never on the agenda with Qujiaying; visitors came largely for an “autonomous” musical experience. But it was on my visit in 1987 that I met Xue Yibing, and with Qiao Jianzhong we hatched the scheme of a survey of ritual associations throughout the plain.

But from Wang Qinghe’s fine film (see below) we can also see that media exposure hasn’t succeeded in securing the future of the association. As with other ritual associations like that of Gaoluo, the problem was acute anyway. We advised Gaoluo against “going down the Qujiaying road” (and Lin Zhongshu really did have a road built to the village!), and his tireless initiatives (and later the Intangible Cultural Heritage project) haven’t managed to resolve the issues. But I didn’t have a better solution.

Admittedly, all the ensuing flummery—with grandiose speeches, romanticized fake-antique costumes, official funding way beyond the imagination of a poor Hebei village in the 1980s (not least the incongruous construction of a new “concert hall”), “living fossil” flapdoodle, and so on—inevitably distracted from the association’s declining role in the ritual life of local people, confirming the media reification of ritual cultures.

Meanwhile, back in the late 1980s, scholars soon became aware that beyond the Zhihua temple, and beyond Qujiaying, similar ritual associations were ubiquitous on the Hebei plain. On the whole background to our “discoveries”, apart from the various links here and in my other posts, I’ve just noticed this interesting discussion between Liu Fu, Zhang Zhentao, Qi Yi, and Yin Hubin.

We also soon learned that such identification with their ritual culture was quite standard among village leaders. We met many village cadres who not only led land reform and Maoist campaigns, but preserved and performed the ritual manuals of their village association, like Cai Fuxiang in Gaoluo. But no-one could compare with the obstinate ambition of Lin Zhongshu.

Authoritative figures like this, perceiving no contradiction between Maoism and the gods, were crucial to the maintenance of ritual culture through the commune system.

I was impressed to read young Chinese music students tweeting “yesterday Lin Zhongshu departed, today it’s Chuck Berry“. [1] Times they are a-changin—and they always have been, as any scholar of medieval Daoist ritual can tell you.

If “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”, then without Lin Zhongshu there would be no project on the Hebei ritual associations, no new Chinese musicology. His departure is another milestone in their history.

Here are some photos from his funeral, taken by Qi Yi 齐易, who has diligently followed up our fieldwork on the Hebei associations.


2Led by Hu Qingxue, Qujiaying villagers, later trained in the Zhihua temple style, kowtowing before the soul hall at Lin Zhongshu’s funeral, and playing the classic sequence Jinzi jing, Wusheng fo, and Gandongshan.


The funeral placard

Material on Lin Zhongshu and Qujiaying is too plentiful to encapsulate here. Apart from the links above, and a plethora of journalistic articles, scholarly coverage began with a brief yet brilliant article by Xue Yibing 薛艺兵 and Wu Ben 吴奔,

  • 屈家营音乐会的调查与研究, Zhongguo yinyuexue 1987.2: 87–96,

with all the kinds of musical and social detail that we would later augment. For further sources, see my article here.

Qiao Jianzhong 乔建中, successor to Yang Yinliu as director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing and one of the great instigators of research on north Chinese music, documented Lin Zhongshu’s own account in

  • 望:一位老农在28年间守护一个民间乐社的口述史 (Beijing: Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe, 2014).

and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 writes perceptively as ever in articles such as

  • 平原日暮——屈家营的故事, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2009.3.

His memorial to Lin Zhongshu has also just been posted by the Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music:

  • 他让乡村乐社走进国家乐史 ——祭林中树

Among many rather grandiloquent films, this leads to further links, while a more sober film by Wang Qingren 王清仁 (2013) is both fascinating and disturbing.


[1] Actually, both died on 18th March, so perhaps it was a question of time zones. Anyway, this is no time for pedantry.

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, Mediterranean (Andalucian festas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—you can trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” (Chau!), socializing… Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Stephan Feuchtwang, Adam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well know than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang commune in Xushui.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

At the height of the Great Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao had visited communes in Dingxian and Xushui. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county town. Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. As part of the nationwide campaign to smelt steel in village furnaces, they had to melt down waterwheels, woks, door hinges.

“Waterwheels are made of steel,” observed one villager caustically, “what’s the bloody point of melting them down to make steel?”

Some village ritual associations had to sacrifice their yunluo gong-frames in the campaign. When Zhou Enlai visited Xushui he was shocked to see the destitution that communization was bringing.

(BTW, in South Gaoluo in Hebei, erudite Shan Fuyi explained village names for us. Among many terms for “village”, two are common in that area, cun and zhuang (or gezhuang). Only villages with a “great temple” (dasi) could be called cun; villages which lacked a “great temple” were called by the less numinous term gezhuang. So going back to Dasigezhuang (“Great temple village”), that clearly contradicts the Hebei rule! That may seem just a  curious little detour, but it was precisely the villages with a “great temple” that held temple fairs.)

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaojiazhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaojiazhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaojiazhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “prior altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “latter altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaojiazhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang, a rather rare use of the term citing in this region), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Can’gu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3).Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show (remind me to do more on flamenco in due course), WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of Vignettes), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour.

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

And their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out— is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.



[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikotter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

Two local cultural workers

These notes are partly stimulated by Zhang Lili, currently writing her PhD in Beijing on my relationship with the village of South Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the Winds.

A useful idiomatic term evoking the whole spectrum, whether of guanxi contacts or the range of funeral services, is yitiaolong “the whole dragon” (indeed, this blog may itself be considered “the whole dragon”, making links between seemingly diverse topics).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Li Bin’s funeral shop in Yanggao county-town, Shanxi.

So having praised Yang Yinliu, shining pinnacle of Chinese musicology, I want to make a tribute to two admirable local cultural workers at the opposite end of the dragon (cf. An unsung local hero) whose work has inspired us since 1989:

Liu Fu 刘阜 and Wang Zhanlong 王占.

Their only qualification was that they were local, and came to take pride in documenting their local traditions under the stimulus of the new directive from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, the vast project that got under way from 1979 as China began to liberalize after the collapse of Maoism.

Let me adapt a passage from my article

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

Antoinet Schimmelpenninck described the process of collecting folk-song in Jiangsu in the early 1990s.

The collecting of folk-songs is one task, but by no means the only or primary task of the bureaus of culture. They carry out political propaganda, make posters about family planning or about the punishment of local criminals, organize dance parties, stage plays and children’s games for local entertainment, run libraries, and execute various administrative tasks which help the provincial government. […]
It is not, at present, one of the specific tasks of the Cultural Bureaus of the Wu area to collect folk-songs. I visited one wenhua zhan (village cultural post) which was mainly engaged in printing labels for jam jars and other consumer goods.

Censorship may operate throughout the process: first, self-censorship of performers (e.g. what kind of songs singers see fit to sing for fieldworkers), and then editorial adaptation of the material collected. In Baoding, one single region of Hebei province, where ritual associations have important traditions, such fieldwork as was done on “instrumental music” took place mainly from 1983 to 1985, but in only two or three of a dozen counties we have visited did we find knowledgable cadres who had done such work.

One of the most diligent of these was Liu Fu, of the Hall of Culture in Laishui county. He acted early on the Anthology directive, printing a mimeograph (4 pp. introduction, map, list of contents, 128 pp. transcriptions, 22 pp. field report, 8 pp. diagrams of instruments) on the county’s instrumental music as early as 1983, which was an important inspiration for my own work on ritual associations there. I don’t know if the regional editors ever forwarded Liu Fu’s work, but it was entirely omitted from the final provincial publication. The following passages of his “Field report” show some of the problems faced by local collectors, here partly relating to the sensitive and secret nature of ritual music:

The work of collecting folk instrumental music is not always smooth: we have met considerable difficulties. For instance, some elderly folk musicians had been struggled against during past campaigns for this [their music/ritual], and had been labelled as “black cliques” and “ox demons and snake spirits”, so they are still anxious. When they heard that we wanted to collect pieces of music, they suspected that it was once again “luring the snake out of its hole”, and so they refused to play for us.

Some associations are very conservative in their thinking, and are concerned that their distinctive pieces will be taken off and learnt by others—in their own words “something we begged for on our knees, we can’t just throw it out now we’re on our feet”, and so they make excuses not to play for us. Some associations take the opportunity to make economic demands. Some brigade [village] cadres think this work is meaningless, and are afraid it might have side-effects, and so are unwilling to co-operate with us. And so on.

Since these are ritual associations, by “side-effects” he apparently means that the collection may be seen as encouraging feudal superstition. Liu Fu continues:

To tackle this situation, every time we arrive in a place, we explain the document “On the collection and documenting of the Chinese folk musical heritage” from the Ministry of Culture and the Musicians’ Association, and the spirit of the directive from the relevant organs of the province and regions, and we discuss the great academic value of the repertory of the ritual associations in our county, and the great significance of the work of collecting, to make the cadres and musicians have a correct understanding; we then show them that they can play whatever they have to play, they must not leave it to later musicians, but do their best to make their own page in the Anthology of instrumental music.

Poor equipment for sound recording, copying, and photography was the norm. Liu Fu goes on to discuss the problems of recording:

Although there are said to be instructions and directives from the central, provincial, and local authorities for the work of collecting instrumental pieces, no-one has given us a scrap of money, and the expenses of the county Bureau of Culture are reduced year by year. Under present conditions, where they can only guarantee annual salaries, they can’t supply any more money to support the work apart from producing a minimal sum for buying necessary goods like tape and paper. Thus, all the associations have to perform for free. This requires us to record as much as possible in a short time.

I might add that any tapes were poorly annotated if at all, and haphazardly stored. One keen cadre I know in the same area had to use a single tape over and over, transcribing a piece in one village one evening and then re-recording music in another village the next day on top of the old recording. But at least he did some work! Of course there was a lot more that local scholars could have done, given time and money—like copying gongche scores and ritual manuals, filming rituals, documenting the histories of the associations, and giving detailed descriptions of ritual sequences, as we later aspired to do in our project around several nearby counties.

Central funds barely reached down to grass-roots level, and cultural cadres did what they could. On one hand, they were indigenous to the musics they were documenting, but they were rarely able to afford the time or resources, even if they had the training, to make systematic reports. Still, some of the results are impressive.

Anyway, we knew that we might learn from local cultural officials how to find ritual groups. Besides, in those early days, when the memory of the commune system was still fresh, it was a necessary first stage to go through the chain of local officialdom. Sometimes, when our preliminary research in Beijing failed to suggest any knowledgeable local officials, we simply bypassed them. A couple of times we got our fingers burnt, but the most fruitful leads to ritual groups often came just by stopping to chat to any old melon-seller by the roadside—he would generally tell us where the grand rituals were held, and which villages were worth visiting.

There were actually two types of cultural officials: those inclined towards “cultural work”, and jobsworths. The latter, once we began visiting the villages regularly, realized that we didn’t constitute an excuse to hold another vast banquet; I was clearly not an eminent foreign professor but an ill-dressed and impecunious young researcher, so they soon left us to our own devices.

Times have changed, though: now the local Bureaus of Culture are staffed by administrators, not necessarily even local, with their smartphones and spreadsheets.

Liu Fu and Gaoluo
Further to A slender but magical clue, I’ve been recalling how we found the village of Gaoluo.

Liu Fu was himself came from a Laishui village, East Mingyi, with its own tradition of vocal liturgy (including baojuan “precious scrolls”) and shengguan ensemble. After the 1986 “discovery” of the Qujiaying ritual association in nearby Gu’an county, he had already approached officials in Beijing to tell them that there were plenty of similar groups in his county alone, giving them a copy of his fine 1983 mimeograph and a tinny tape he had somehow made of a few of their shengguan pieces.

In Beijing Liu Fu also met my mentor Qiao Jianzhong, Yang Yinliu’s successor as head of the Music Research Institute, who then made an exploratory trip to two other Laishui villages in 1988. It was this that prompted me and my friend Xue Yibing  (a bright musicologist from the distinguished Music Research Institute in Beijing) to visit Liu Fu in his bare dingy office in Laishui county-town as part of our first fieldwork survey in New Year in 1989.

After giving us an outline of the various ritual groups in the county, Liu Fu recommended Gaoluo, so we all sallied forth. Here I adapt from the Prelude of Plucking the Winds:

I first arrived in the village of South Gaoluo on a cold but bright winter’s afternoon, on the 14th day of the 1st moon in 1989, in the middle of the great New Year’s rituals then taking place in every village in China. This was one of many villages just south of Beijing where I was working with Xue Yibing in doing exploratory fieldwork on amateur ritual groups.

Escorted on that first visit by a well-meaning ganbu (“cadre”, as state officials are known in China) from the cultural bureau of the county-town, we made slow progress by jeep along the bumpy track to the village; though it is only nine kilometres from the dingy county-town of Laishui, the journey took over half an hour.


An encounter on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.

First we went to the house of the then village chief Cai Ran, himself a vocal liturgist in the village ritual association, and had to spend over an hour in heated debate before we could cajole him into allowing us to trudge through the alleys to the ritual building a few hundred yards away, where the association was then performing before the god paintings at the altar (photo here).


Cai Ran, 1989.


Diaogua hangings for the New Year’s rituals, 1989.


Donor’s list (1930) of the South Gaoluo association, New Year 1989.

At the time Cai Ran’s caution seemed to me excessive, since we were all clearly sympathetic, and the county cadre was taking responsibility, but in retrospect I felt rather embarrassed: maybe we should have respected his reluctance. Later, when I learnt of the 1951 imprisonment of the Italian missionary Bishop Martina, apparently the last foreigner to visit the village, and as I experienced more often the sensitivity of “superstitious” practices in China, I understood his anxieties better. But later Cai Ran recalled that his hostility that day was not related to the revealing of secret rituals to foreigners, nor to fear of criticism from county cadres, but rather to the possible appropriation of his village’s ritual music by the cadre, whom he already suspected of handing on some pieces to the association in his own home village. After this strange introduction, we soon came to enjoy our sessions with Cai Ran: he has a wonderful informality, a great sense of humour, and is full of insight.

Later I liked to share with the villagers another amusing memory of that first afternoon. After finally persuading Cai Ran to escort us to the ritual building, and having gained the musicians’ approval to record and take photos (alas, I didn’t yet have a camcorder!), I had just set up my recording equipment when in walked a severe-looking policeman in uniform. Knowing the sensitivity of what the musicians were doing, and of what I was doing in watching them doing it, my heart sank: feeling irrationally as if I’d been caught in the act (fan cuowu “made a mistake”, as the eloquent Chinese expression goes), I prepared for further lengthy negotations. But the policeman, the splendid Shan Rongqing, back in the village for the New Year holiday, immediately picked up the large ritual cymbals and joined in with feeling. He later took part keenly in our studies of the village traditions; we often admired his musicianship on the ritual percussion, and later too on the “old fellow”, the bowed fiddle on which he accompanied the local opera.


Shan Rongqing, 1989.

That day we felt lucky enough to have been allowed, eventually, to witness the association’s afternoon ritual, and since we had business in the county-town that night, we agreed to return the next day to talk with the members. That next day they were friendly, as always with such amateur associations; we recorded them “singing the score” of some of their shengguan pieces for us, and learned the bare bones of the New Year’s rituals and the history of the association—material which later, in view of all that we would gradually learn, came to look ludicrously sparse. And again we took our leave—the time still had not come for in-depth work, since we were only making a general survey.

Somehow, that first visit to South Gaoluo left us with a deep impression: the village seemed isolated (a view we later corrected) and its ritual life intense, with all the beautiful hangings decorating the temporary temple and the alleys outside. But it was not until the summer of 1993 that we were able to go back there. By now we were engaged on a four-year project to document the Music Associations throughout the area; but while we continued to collect basic data on new villages, we naturally felt the need to dig beneath the surface, not just to “gaze at flowers from horseback”. Gaoluo became a magnet for us, and over the following years we made many stays there, having a fantastic time as we learn more about the turbulent experiences of the village and its musicians throughout the 20th century.

Wang Zhanlong
The very next day after those first visits to South Gaoluo at New Year 1989, in the adjacent county of Yixian, home of the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, we visited the office of the Bureau of Culture to seek clues to local ritual associations. There we found the splendid and unassuming Wang Zhanlong. Like Liu Fu, he too relished the task of collecting material, riding his bicycle through poor villages with a crummy little tape recorder and a notebook. Wang promptly took us to Liujing village, also in the midst of their New Year’s rituals.


Xue Yibing documents pantheon, Liujing, New Year 1989.

This was the start of our studies of the Houshan pilgrimage and the cult of the goddess Houtu (see my In search of the folk Daoists, Part Three).


Wang Zhanlong and Xue Yibing, Houshan 7th-moon temple fair, 1993.

Houshan is just one of those numerous local mountain sites attended several times each year by vast throngs of pilgrims, ritual groups, spirit mediums, and beggars, yet (unlike Miaofengshan to the northwest of Beijing), but which had never attracted the attention of outsiders.


Houshan temple fair, 7th moon 1993. Matou village ritual association (left) accompanies a spirit medium (front centre) and disciples  (whom she has healed) for boat-burning ritual as they pray.

Right through the 1990s Wang Zhanlong made a wonderful sincere companion on our regular visits to Houshan and the ritual groups of Yixian county, always in sympathy with our project. Here we are in 1995 with erudite ritual specialist Li Yongshu in Baoquan village near Houshan, learning the details of the complex performance practice of the “precious scrolls” to Houtu, the Ten Kings, and so on.

Li Yongshu, Baoquan 1995


Pantheon, Liujing, hung out for rituals on the 1st day of the 3rd moon, 1995. Right: envelope with petition, to be burned in supplication to the goddess Houtu.

More on Hebei

I’ve been revisiting my account of the amateur ritual association of South Gaoluo, my fieldbase through the 1990s, and I’ve just added a page on two major characters in the association.


The New Year’s rituals 1989, our first visit

In my time with the Li family Daoists in Yanggao I am mainly talking with one extended family, seemingly detached from politics—not even on my early visits in 1991 and 1992 did we ever have any contact with local leaders. The headquarters of the village “brigade” has long stood derelict. Indeed, the experience of household Daoists—as freelancers, like shawm bands or carpenters—was different from that of peasants tied to the land, and they largely felt at a distance from the efforts of the leadership to rebuild society, more concerned for their own livelihood, always straining to gain some independence from the production teams. Moreover, Li Qing’s family was among the “black elements” in the village, suffering discrimination. Even if I had spent more time with the senior generation, I suspect their experiences of Maoism would have been similar: though inevitably deeply affected by political vicissitudes, they had little investment in the public affairs of the village.

By contrast, through the 1990s our team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing was doing a survey of villages on the plain south of Beijing, documenting amateur village ritual associations. These groups perform vocal liturgy, ritual percussion, and haunting shengguan wind music, mainly within their own village for funerals and calendrical festivals for the gods, so they are basically supported by the whole village.

While doing “hit-and-run” missions to several dozen villages in the area, I was increasingly drawn to one, South Gaoluo. Apart from the well-preserved condition of all aspects of the association’s ritual practice, I was drawn by the musicians’ personalities, and I ended up doing a detailed study on the fortunes of the village and its ritual association through the 20th century. What I tried, and failed, to write was a kind of cross between The Archers, Wild Swans, and Philharmonia.

As I compiled the history of the association, several sources helped me to put its ritual and social culture in political context. There, many of the members of the association held positions of authority under all three periods of 20th-century history, so we naturally talked with the village leadership. With their detailed knowledge of the modern history of the village, several men were able to offer clear accounts of major events in the area and to connect them to the village’s ritual association.

But in both cases (occupational household Daoists and village-wide amateur ritual associations) the complexities of local relations can have a deep influence on ritual practice. Perceived cultural capital also changes. As with my work on the Li family Daoists, dry timeless disembodied lists of ritual sequences and vocal and instrumental items are far from adequate. What is fascinating is the interaction of personal biographies, the whole social and political environment, with changing ritual practice.

So on the new page I illustrate all this with the stories of two outstanding members of the South Gaoluo association, Cai Fuxiang (c1905–79) and Cai An (1942­–2012). In the official discourse, Cai Fuxiang would merit a polite footnote as an “old revolutionary” who preserved the ritual manuals and the performance of the vocal liturgy under Maoism; whereas Cai An might hardly feature at all.

Hebei: new discoveries

In the recent fieldwork project continuing our work on the Hebei ritual associations, led by the energetic Qi Yi 齐易, most exciting for me so far is new material on Hubenyi 虎贲驿 village.


In Plucking the Winds (pp.90–92) I told how the beautiful surviving copy of the Houtu scroll of Gaoluo village was copied by Ma Xiantu, a cultured teacher and sectarian from Hubenyi village just further northeast. Then teaching in Beijing, he first borrowed the old copy of the scroll from South Gaoluo “to supplement the deficiency of my village’s Hongyang Holy Association”. His brother-in-law, South Gaoluo villager Shan Hongfu, was also staying in Beijing, and watched Ma Xiantu copying the scroll; he then bought more paper and asked Ma to make another copy for South Gaoluo. So Ma Xiantu copied it every day after school. He started copying the scroll in the 6th moon of 1942, and completed it in the 1st moon of 1943, finally adding the punctuation in red while he visited South Gaoluo to hand it over formally to the Association for the New Year’s rituals.

The 2015 fieldwork at Hubenyi, though not mentioning Ma Xiantu or the Houtu scroll, revealed further Hongyang scriptures, including an old copy of the Hunyuanjiao Hongyang zhonghua baojing 混元教弘陽中華寶經. Qi Yi and Song Yingtao 荣英涛 have collected basic data, so with bated breath I await a study from scholars of folk sectarian religion, for whom this whole area is such a rich field… And who will supplement our work on the Foshihui 佛事會 ritual associations around Yixian county?

For Hunyuan and Hongyang sects in the region, see my In Search of the folk Daoists of north China, Part Three.