Documenting religion in China

Gansu miaohui FK

Temple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Ian Johnson’s recent book The souls of China is just as fine as its many reviews say. I’ve praised it in some detail in several posts (notably here and here), so here I’d like to discuss responses to it; my comments here also relate to my article on the brief of ethnography.

The religious revival in China since the late 1970s is hardly news: it has long been a major topic within the confines of academia. Scholars like Ken Dean have described local temple organizations as “China’s second government”. But by contrast with most studies within a narrow scholarly milieu, the great strength of Ian’s book is that he engagingly places religious practice within the changing context of Chinese society, blending the personal and the political with rare insights into the lives of Real People.

The souls of China has already been reviewed by some noted scholars of Chinese religion (such as here and here), but given that it laudably reaches out to a wider audience, some reviews have come from more general observers of contemporary China and the modern world. While this is clearly A Good Thing, amidst some fine reviews I find others that tend to somewhat misrepresent the book.

Preaching to the converted?
A comment in the publisher’s blurb gives me pause:

This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.

Such an evangelical tendency may be Buddhist or Daoist (or indeed Islamic—Ian’s book wisely focuses on the Han Chinese), but it will often be Christian commentators who see the revival simply as “an astounding miracle”. Even less doctrinal readers may read The souls of China as a mere paean to “freedom” and some abstract “spirituality”—as if the Chinese revival represents some great victory for Western liberal values. This constitutes a handy stick with which to beat the Communist Party, quite lacking the nuance of Ian’s writing. Would pundits latch with such enthusiasm onto a notional (and unlikely) resurgence of religious faith in north Europe? It seems unlikely too that a study on the growth of atheism in China would be so enthusiastically received abroad.

To be sure, religious groups in China have often taken a stance against the regime, notably at times of extreme pressure, like collectivization, famine, and the Cultural Revolution—well, that just about covers the whole Maoist period. And more recently too, religion may indeed—in particular cases—act as an alternative sphere upholding moral values in public life, as is clear from Ian’s chapters on the Early Rain Christians of Chengdu.

His fieldwork sometimes blends with his own personal search for some kind of purpose—engaging in fine “participant observation” through involvement in meditational retreats and qigong (which indeed the CCP leadership first seized on with enthusiasm and then sought to suppress; note also Ian’s book Wild grass). But The souls of China manages to be both involved and dispassionate—covering a range of behaviours within what several scholars have called the “religious market”, with rich ethnographic detail on the diverse, messy, and inconvenient grass-roots situation.

Religion can be a lucrative business. And—just like the Communist Party—it may sometimes serve as a cloak for highly reprehensible behaviour. The Party pounces on (and sometimes fabricates) instances of financial scams and sexual crimes among religious groups, although Party members themselves are renowned for such abuses. But they’re covered by the criminal code—even if it may be easier for Party members to escape the long arm of the law; so it makes no more sense to ban sectarian groups than it does to outlaw the CCP (now there’s a thought).

Religion may serve as spiritual inspiration, or to spur social action; but (as we can see in “democratic” societies like the USA or India) it can also be a socially conservative force—which is why in China (and Russia) the Party now co-opts its “traditional values”. During fieldwork in China, like De Martino in post-war Italy, I’ve sometimes been shocked at the delusions of religion, observing cripplingly poor rural familes unable to afford even basic healthcare yet spending vast amounts over New Year on a barrage of deafening and evanescent firecrackers. Or a vignette from my book on Shaanbei (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.

The souls of China does indeed document some of the less noble aspects of religious practice in China. Few commentators would regard the sectarian groups (including many Christian sects, indeed) like Eastern Lightning (ch.25) as a paragon; some of them are no less weird and worrying than they are elsewhere in the world. We do indeed need to describe them, but not necessarily to praise them; Ian’s account is admirably balanced.


Catholic vespers

Gender-segregated Catholic Vespers  in a Hebei village house-church, 2001.

Permeating Plucking the Winds, my history of the ritual association of a Hebei village (see also Gaoluo tag), is the intriguing sub-theme of the underground Catholic community there. I note the complexities of their troubled relations with both the village association (whose conflict goes back to a massacre in the Boxer uprising) and the local state:

Their presence might be seen as somewhat akin to that of a Hindu temple in an English village, which has also created frictions.

One might both admire them for their obstinacy and worry at their intransigence.

Household Daoists
All this puts in perspective my work on the Li family Daoist band (as in my recent book and film). Ian’s splendid vignettes in The souls of China (cf. also his own video clips) focus on the life of Li Bin (b.1977), who is gradually taking over the leadership of the band from his wonderful father Li Manshan (b.1946); apart from all the material in my book and film, I’ve updated the story here, as well as explaining how unlikely it is that there will be a tenth generation of Daoists in the family.

Inasmuch as they are hereditary occupational ritual specialists, they don’t quite fit into the “faith” picture—although such groups are an ubiquitous part of the religious scene throughout China. They have been doing good business since the 1980s’ revival, and particularly since around 2009—not due to any resurgence of faith, but mainly, as Li Manshan sagely told me, because the demographic is such that it’s been a busy few years for funerals. Li Manshan still needs to choose the correct date and site for the burial; for the funeral proper, his band is invited more as a duty towards ancestral tradition (“the old rules” lao guiju) than as a sign of any resurgence of “spirituality”—funeral audiences now pay scant attention to their liturgy, only crowding round for the “red-hot sociality” of the (few) entertainment interludes over the day. When the kin are required to kneel and kowtow for the Daoists’ rituals at the “soul hall”, they are reluctant to drag themselves away from the pop routine outside the gate (do watch the eloquent vignette in my film, from 30.32!). Often I am the only audience for the magnificent vocal liturgy before the coffin.

But scholars of Daoism are unlikely to rejoice in this, since it’s “the wrong kind of Daoism”; nor does this quite fit into the kind of spiritual devotion sought by other foreign aficionados of religion. The current vibrancy of the band takes place amidst the depletion of the countryside and the discrediting of traditional rural values. I can see that Li Manshan’s services have considerable value for those “left behind” in such declining village communities, but that doesn’t mean that I wish to parade them as some kind of model for Chinese society.

Following Geertz, I described a “flawed funeral” I attended with the Li band (my book, pp.343–56):

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on.

What we might call the “hippy tendency” has a foothold in Daoist studies too, from Bill Porter’s intriguing work to more scholarly quests for the timeless wisdom of white-bearded temple-dwelling sages (and again, Ian well describes the solitary truth-seekers). The gritty realities of rural society, and household ritual specialists like Li Manshan, don’t quite mesh with such a picture. To use Ian’s book to “celebrate” religious faith ignores the serious social problems he notes, that such fervour won’t solve.

One can still be amazed at the vibrancy of temple festivals in areas like south Fujian or Gansu, but the religious “revival” of the last four decades has been taking place in the context of the depletion of the countryside and rapid urbanization, along with the pervasive spread of pop and consumer culture. So while many rural dwellers have used the liberalizations to reinvent their local traditions (not necessarily “faith”), those traditions are threatened by the migrations that liberalization also engendered. Ian covers both rural and urban pictures, but the “hope” of the faithful may reside more in the latter, with their wider online networks and more “modern” discursive modalities.

Let’s hear it for secular humanism
While freedom of religion may be a good principle, it’s not the same as extolling all its manifestations. Today, vapid materialism and blind faith in the supernatural are not the only choices; religion is not the only remedy for moral decay. As I observed in my book,

By comparison with the years of Maoism, people now have more decisions to make, choosing from a range of options. They may have rituals performed and seek consultations to determine the date and select auspicious sites, but they are not entirely fatalistic. They tend their fields, save money, gamble, watch TV, play video games online, eat out in restaurants, establish guanxi networks, set up businesses, deplore and exploit corruption. State education here may lag far behind the big cities, but it has become ever more important since the 1950s.

Whether or not people engage in meditation, prayer, or charitable projects for the common good, they can and do lead ethical lives, taking part in their communities and finding meaning without creating imaginary supernatural beings. It would take courage to argue with the long-term and ongoing humanist secularization of north Europe—a choice that has followed many centuries of violent religious persecution like that lamented in the blurb I cited above. People’s faith in imagined beings (Richard Dawkins’s “flying spaghetti monster”) needs to be documented, all over the world, but evangelism is best excluded—all the more on the part of romantic outsiders.

The purpose of ethnographies of religious practice, for any society, is not to Praise the Lord; scholarship like this shouldn’t be exploited by adherents of Western religious faith. Such faith is by no means universally admired—observers like Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens (whose work may be disputed, but can’t be dismissed as merely eccentric) might be shocked by any such revival of delusion and superstition.

I’d like to see a review of The souls of China from a committed secularist like the anthropologist Mobo Gao. In his fine book on his home village where he grew up, he comments approvingly on the hygiene and healthcare campaigns under Maoism that sought to lessen popular belief in mediums, noting the 1980s’ religious revival in measured tones (Gao village, pp.77–8, 89–90, 227–31). In similarly leftist vein, on William Hinton’s return to Longbow village, where he had documented the 1940s’ land reform in rich detail, he was disturbed by many social consequences of the 1980s’ liberalizations—not least the major Catholic revival there (see also his Through a glass darkly, pp.180–82, 209). While some anthropologists may dispute such views, they are valid and quite widely held—both in China and the West.

Many will feel that religious freedom is only a minor aspect of the freedoms that China needs—basic human rights, control over corruption, freedom of the press and the judiciary, and so on. Indeed, Ian is a leading observer of these movements, as is also clear in The souls of China. In some cases religion may contribute to such freedoms, but in others it is irrelevant or even obstructive. Given the diverse social problems of Chinese people today, it may seem whimsical to trust in gods to rescue them from adversity. And such issues are far from unique to China: the current persecution of atheism in Russia is worrying.

Ian’s book is exemplary in its rapport with religious practitioners, its ethnographic detail, and its involved yet dispassionate stance—that readers would do well to note.


Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign

In my post on the brief of ethnography in response to a jaded urban Chinese worker, I mentioned the tribulations under Maoism of many urbanites on being sent down to the countryside.

The memories of my splendid Chinese fieldworker friends are just as painful. Among various Beijing colleagues who have accompanied me over the years, one recalls his family starving as a young boy in Shandong around 1960; another, witnessing colleagues being crushed to death in dangerous mines in Gansu in the Cultural Revolution; yet another, being exiled to a rural “May 7th Cadre School”.

For our local assistants, the countryside may have even more direct associations: I sometimes found myself taking them back to the very villages where they had taken part in “tempering through manual labour” during the Four Cleanups campaigns of the early 1960s.

From bitter personal experience, they have no reason to idealise rural life. Thankfully, the bright new generation of Chinese fieldworkers have been spared such sufferings—though this also makes it harder for them to empathise with the life stories of our peasant masters.

So as our fieldwork in Hebei and Shanxi took off in the 1990s, my friends must have felt as if they were being dragged back into “going down to the countryside to join in the brigade” (xiaxiang chadui 下乡插队). But it wasn’t me who was dragging them—I was following them—and they too were following in the footsteps of intrepid previous generations of Chinese fieldworkers.

XYB Huaiyin 1992

Xue Yibing (centre) with villagers in Huaiyin, Shanxi, summer 1992.

We were all aware of the phrase attributed to Confucius, no less:

“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”
   li shi qiu zhuye 礼失求诸野。

Indeed, the thoughtful and prolific Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 called an early collection of his articles “Records of seeking music in the countryside” (Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录).

ZZT Houshan 1995

Zhang Zhentao with members of the Xiaoniu village ritual association, Houshan temple fair, Yixian 1995.

Still, occasional forays were all very well, but I began to feel the need for longer stays. For me—safely armed with my passport and return air-ticket—sleeping on the kang brick-bed of my wonderful host Cai An in Gaoluo, fetching water from the well, slurping noodles with doufu and cabbage from chipped bowls at funerals, and even visiting the latrine by the pigsty, still had a certain exotic frisson.

While my Chinese friends shared my excitement at discovering such a wealth of material on ritual life in society, their other consolation was that this new rural exile was (semi-?!) voluntary—and that there was a clear time-limit on it. In those days their living conditions in the dilapidated Music Research Institute in Beijing were far less comfortable than they were later to become, with the huge improvement in living standards and their own growing reputation. But apart from the demands on their time in Beijing, extended stays might be somewhat beyond the call of duty. Still, they entered the fray with spirit, and the fruits of their labours are outstanding.

Zhuanlou 1992 caifang

Learning about shawm fingerings with the Hua family shawm band during a break at Zhuanlou village funeral, 1992. Holding shawms: Xue Yibing (left) and Jing Weigang (right).

See also my Plucking the winds, pp.234–5.

At the barbers

“Barber” by Sidney Gamble, Wenchuan, Sichuan (Item ID 43A-231). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.  Reproduced by permission.

Notwithstanding the constant transformation of Chinese society, Sidney Gamble’s photo from around 1917–19 shows a scene that is still common in rural China today (for his remarkable collection, see here; and for the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, including Gamble’s early film footage, here. And for more fine historical images, see this site).

I was wont to have my head shaved even before I began doing fieldwork in China. But since the older generation of peasants in north China tend to do so (mainly for the sake of hygiene), I emulate them while I’m there.

Early in the course of my long-term work with the ritual association of Gaoluo, one demonstration of our developing relationship was my decision to have my hair cut in the village. From my Plucking the winds (pp.205–6):

Our visits through the hot summer of 1993 were our first since our initial one in 1989. Though now engaged on a general survey of many villages, we were increasingly drawn to Gaoluo, returning there frequently, and despite the recent theft, we spent many happy times together. We used to sit outside on low stools in the shade of He Qing’s courtyard, with Cai An, Li Shutong, and others gathering round for a chat and a smoke. This was the time when we appreciated the depth of He Qing’s knowledge. And our major musical discovery that summer was the vocal performance of the magnificent Houtu scroll (audio playlist, track 6, and my notes here].

GL haircut

He Junqi prepares to cut my hair. Left: our fine MRI driver Little Deng; behind him, in white, maestro He Qing.

I admired the closely cropped heads of many of the musicians, and tend to do without much hair in the summer myself. He Junqi (then 54), a regular visitor to He Qing’s house, son of the sweet elderly flautist He Yi, used to cut the musicians’ hair for them, so I asked him if he’d like to do mine. Everyone stood round having a good laugh, while He Junqi gave me the most meticulous haircut and shave of my life, scouring my scalp with local “White Cat” washing-powder.

And since 2011, a regular haunt of mine on visits to Yanggao to hang out with Li Manshan and his Daoist band is the Barber for Old, Middle-aged and Young (Laozhongqing 老中青) in town, just round the corner from Li Bin’s funeral shop.


Photo: Li Bin.

Since we all agree that I look years younger with my head shaved, we soon glossed the name as “Old Jonesy is younger” (Lao Zhong qing 老钟轻)—yet another in our series of merry puns

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 钟思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Beijing University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 钟馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 钟子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname, but hey.

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen” (transliteration of Stephen).** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

As my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.


One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, dier “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange”.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”.


**Talking of transliterations of foreign names, “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Gaoluo: a restudy, and my role

Thankfully, I am rarely the object of interview—far more often the interviewer asking fatuous questions. I mentioned one such encounter where I failed in my task of giving snappy predictable answers, as well as Jack Body’s original take on my stammer.

Far more in-depth in nature is the new PhD thesis

  • Zhang Lili 张黎黎, Lun Zhong Sidide Nan Gaoluo yinyuehui yanjiu 论钟思第的南高洛音乐会研究 [On Stephen Jones’s research on the ritual association of South Gaoluo] (Beijing: Zhongguo yishu yanjiuyuan 中国艺术研究院 2017),

on my own relationship with the ritual association of South Gaoluo village, and my whole approach. Referring to my book

she consulted me over a long period with frequent and detailed emails, and it has been most stimulating for me to reflect on my fieldwork. Her thesis (supervised by the egregious Tian Qing) is enriched by several visits to Gaoluo—allowing her to make what is effectively a restudy, updating my history of the village and its ritual practice in the light of their later adoption into the dreaded Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) razzmatazz, with all the problems that it entails.

She reflects on the association’s memories of my visits—prompting further reflections from me here, leading to this page suggesting my challenge to the official narrative. She also discussed our work on Gaoluo, indeed our whole project on the Hebei ritual associations, with my fellow-fieldworkers Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao—a fruitful collaboration that stimulated us all.

MYL played

Taking part in the New Year’s rituals, 1998.

And my work in Gaoluo (from 1989 to 2001) may be seen as a blueprint for my later in-depth study with the Li family Daoists (going back to 1991, but intensive since 2011). The subject of the former was an amateur village-wide group, whereas the latter are an extended occupational family of household Daoist ritual specialists—but the principles of thick description and participant observation remain similar.

On my own “method”, at first I can’t really see what the fuss is about: isn’t this what anthropologists do?! Even in China there are many fine ethnographers, such as Wang Mingming, Guo Yuhua, Jing Jun; and in music (apart from Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao), Xiao Mei, Qi Kun, Wu Fan, and so on. They’re much better equipped than me for such work.

But sure, two decades ago my approach was more detailed, and personal, than was then the norm in Chinese musicology. The anthropologists whose work I was myself only beginning to digest—even those fine Chinese scholars who were later to become leading figures—were still hardly known in China. I was educating myself by reading up on both modern social-political background for China and wider ethnomusicological studies (Plucking the winds, Appendix 1). By now, such an approach is less remarkable, but then I found myself somewhat ahead of the game in ethnography—certainly within Chinese musicology, where the “living fossilsflapdoodle has remained hard to erase. Another approach that I took for granted was participant observation—a routine expectation in ethnomusicology, but still virtually unknown either in Chinese musicology or in studies of Chinese ritual.

Anyway, it will be good to see Zhang Lili’s restudy of Gaoluo, with further illustrations of the perils of the ICH.




  • I’ve just added a few more photos to the gallery in the sidebar, as is my wont. And now I’ve linked them to particular posts/pages so you can follow them up. Like so:
  • There are many more photos of the Li family Daoists here, and throughout my posts.
  • And DO listen to the ear-scouring audio playlist too, consulting my comments here.

Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

Further fodder for my distaste of the heritage shtick—thanks again to Helen Rees, my Word on the Street, I’ve been reading an interesting article by Ziying You,

  • “Shifting actors and power relations: contentious local responses to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in contemporary China”, Journal of folklore research 52.2/3 (2015).

Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. [1]

It’s a long time since we’ve featured The China Daily, so I’m delighted to cite a 2012 article here:

A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.

YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:

The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.

Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.

Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily“typical!”

Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions. [2] For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” [3] — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again. Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.

BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles.

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse.

Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.

Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.

The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.

Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.

My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.

As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!


[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from