Calendrical rituals

Easter Passions, Holy Week in Spain and third-moon pilgrimages in China

Stephen Jones: a blog

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
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:
Dein Jesus ist tot!

Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
to honour the Almighty!
Tell the world and heaven your distress:
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…

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Funerals in Hebei

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(under Themes > Local ritual)

GL procession 95

Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two, as in this composite funeral sequence for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region south of Beijing.

Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. While we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves. In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.

A gradual dilution of ritual practice has  undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone.

Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

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GGZ xu 1

Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.

As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.

Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but there is rich material here, not only on the ethnography of local ritual in modern times, but for scholars of the late imperial period.

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

More housekeeping

My well-meaning initiative of setting up a separate sub-menu for Ritual paintings has promptly been thwarted by my desire to incorporate the whole ritual practice of which such images are part.

So I’ve retained the original introduction, but I’ll subsume paintings from elsewhere (mainly Hebei) in posts under “Local ritual” in Themes. I’ve moved Ritual images: Gaoluo to go with the other pages on Gaoluo under “Other publications” in the top menu.

You can still use the tag for “art”…

N. Xinzhuang gods 2

Ritual images: Gaoluo

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GL Dizang

This first page under a new series on ritual images again concerns Gaoluo.

Apart from their ritual manuals and gongche solfeggio scores, all four ritual associations in North and South villages of Gaoluo have collections of images, including god paintings, diaogua hangings and donors’ lists, from various stages since the 19th century—displayed for calendrical rituals of the village community.

Ritual paintings of north China

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SGL old pantheon detail

For aficionados of visual culture:

The main focus of our fieldwork on the Hebei plain through the 1990s was the ritual performance of amateur village-wide associations there. But of course we also documented the material artefacts of these groups—including ritual manuals, gongche solfeggio scores for the shengguan wind ensemble, donors’ lists, and so on.

I now realize that by comparison with elite painting, temple murals, and so on, what we may call “folk art” is not so well represented—either in print publications or online. So this is a new sub-menu for ritual paintings of village groups, mainly from Hebei. I’ve already included some of them in various posts/pages, but now I’m adding many more (mostly from the period since the late 19th century, but also some painted since the 1980s).

Most of these images are displayed for calendrical rituals (notably the New Year) and/or for funerals—the Ten Kings images are used for both.

Of course, these material artefacts are a sub-theme; our main material consists of a rich archive of audio and video recordings of ritual performance. Contemplating such images in a museum is a last resort: they are the backdrop to the ritual soundscape of vocal liturgy and “holy pieces” of shengguan wind ensemble, and a representation of the changing spiritual life of local communities. As you digest these pages, you might even listen to the items of vocal liturgy and shengguan on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

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Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

“Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”