The notation of ritual sound


In articles on this site I often stress how soundscape is basic to ritual performance. In north China ritual specialists identify three types of organized ritual sound, “blowing, beating, and reciting” (chuidanian): melodic instrumental music, percussion, and vocal liturgy—in reverse order of importance, with vocal liturgy primary. Some groups accompany their vocal liturgy only with percussion, but where melodic instrumental music is performed, it is an essential component of ritual: “holy pieces” (shenqu), transcending language. Whereas vocal liturgy is not notated—most ritual manuals document only the texts, not the melodies to which they are sung—the outline of the melodic (and indeed percussion) instrumental music that punctuates and accompanies it is recorded in scores of gongche solfeggio. [1]

When the Qujiaying village ritual association, south of Beijing, was “discovered” in 1986 we already knew about the shengguan ensemble and its gongche solfeggio scores (notably those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing) thanks to the ground-breaking work on Yang Yinliu in the early 1950s, later comprehensively studied by Yuan Jingfang. In our project on the Hebei plain, we soon broadened our attention to ritual manuals, but the shengguan wind ensemble and the scores of village ritual associations were always among our major concerns.

In the fine tradition of anthologies that Chinese musicologists do so well, the major new compendium

  • Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 [1]

collects some of the most important scores of gongche solfeggio. It provides rich material on the continuity of early history with modern folk practice.

The anthology is based more on northern shengguan than on southern genres—the distinctive scores of nanyin in Fujian and Taiwan are already collected in many separate anthologies.

The compendium comprises ten volumes to date:

  • General (a fine introduction to historical variants of notation and metrical markers)
  • Beijing (2 vols)
  • Hebei (3 vols)
  • Shaanxi (2 vols, for the major repertoires of ritual groups around Xi’an)
  • Jiangsu (including major early Daoist scores)
  • Liaoning (including scores for both shengguan and the amazing shawm bands there)

The scores of Beijing temples, and those of the related village ritual associations on the Hebei plain just south, take pride of place. The detailed commentaries on the Hebei and Beijing material are the work of Zhang Zhentao, continuing the masterly chapter in his book Yinyuehui.

Hanzhuang XWJ

Most volumes further include useful tables of qupai labelled melodies.

Such scores also often contain precious prefaces bearing dates of transmission, as we saw in Xiongxian.

Hanzhuang xu 1

Gaoluo 1989


Of course, like the Daoist Canon, and like the ritual manuals of living groups, scores are merely silent artefacts. They should be combined with recordings of their transmitters, who have long experience of bringing them to life—first by decorating the skeletal notes of the score by singing in unison, and then in ritual performance, taking the instruments up to play them in heterophony suitable to the different instrument types. While some musicians learn mainly by ear, the score is an important repository representing the tradition.

But just in case you think the silent score is somehow equivalent to “the music”, then don’t just consult my transcription of Hesi pai under West An’gezhuang here (§2), but listen to the shengguan tracks on the playlist in the sidebar (including tracks 8 and 9, showing the progressive decorations)!

I should also add that notation is not a criterion for excellence. Many musicians, and ritual specialists, in the great and small traditions of the world don’t need it at all, and for others it is merely an aide-memoire, as in this case.

Indeed, this isn’t just an issue for music. This is not the place to discuss wider issues of oral and literate cultures, but this radical comment from Plato, no less, is suggestive:

This discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will remember nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As Paul Cooper comments,

I love that when Plato complains about the spread of the written word in 370 BC, he sounds like my granddad complaining about the internet.

Such issues are thoughtfully explored by ethnomusicologists—for leads, see the fine chapters of Ter Ellingson and Richard Widdess in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), and Bruno Nettl, The study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, chs. 20 and 26.

These gongche scores are a major aspect of the study of ritual. But that’s enough writing—wouldn’t want to offend Plato…



[1] See e.g.,,
[2] I gave an overview of gongche notation in my Folk music of China (ch.7); cf. my article “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.375–88.

The art of the sheng repairer

GGZ Fan Huilai 93

Fan Huilai overhauling sheng, 1995.

An important theme in our fieldwork on ritual associations around the Hebei plain is that of the itinerant occupational sheng mouth-organ repairers (dianshengde 点笙的). They make cameo appearances in several pages on Local ritual, so here I’d like to collect some of the material. [1]

While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).

Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.

On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.

When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pin sheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.

So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.

Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.

Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai
Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.

We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.


Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.

Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 7, and here)—the Shang family sheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.

In Xiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.

GGZ sheng stuff 2GGZ sheng stuff 1

Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.

In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.

E. Jiangcun sheng

Sheng parts, East Jiangcun, Renqiu county. Photo: Music Research Institute, 1993.

Xushui and Yixian
In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.

E. Yuzhuang chui

The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, East Yuzhuang 1995.

In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.

Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.

Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.

Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.

A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!

Further south
Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.

In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang, [2] which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.

Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.

I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.


I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.


[1] See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g.
[2] See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.

A tribute to Li Wenru

Li Wenru

Li Wenru (1924–2016).

Many of us are nostalgic for the old days of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, in the days when it was still at its original home in Dongzhimenwai—bare dingy corridors, peeling plaster and all.

As I pore over the substantial collection of ritual manuals and gongche scores that we found among village ritual associations in Hebei, I’m reminded of yet another MRI luminary. Through the 1950s, while a stellar team of great scholars like Yang Yinliu, Cao AnheZha Fuxi, and Yuan Quanyou were dedicating themselves to ground-breaking research, the MRI’s remarkable archive was maintained, indeed developed, by the kindly and unassuming Li Wenru 李文如. [1]

Li Wenru spent his youth helping his father in antiquarian bookshops in Liulichang. After the Communist Liberation, the MRI recruited him from 1953 to seek out and buy old musical scores—including precious early manuscripts for the qin zither—and to preserve, bind, and reproduce them. The treasures of the MRI archive owe much to his careful work. Ever reliable, he was much respected by the scholars there, and he remained loyal to them in periods when they were under a political cloud. Over more than four decades he also edited many catalogues and articles on Chinese music periodicals, notably his comprehensive Ershi shiji Zhongguo yinyue qikan bianmu huibian 二十世纪中国音乐期刊篇目汇编 (2005).

From 1986, as I visited my mentors at the MRI—Qiao JianzhongTian QingXue Yibing, Zhang Zhentao, all then still living in very modest circumstances—we would explore the library’s treasury of material on early and traditional music from all over China, in search of leads to local folk musical cultures. Even in the early 1990s the MRI was still poor, retaining the leisurely old-world atmosphere of the commune system.

Far from our modern equipment that allows us to take and store infinite photos, in my early years of fieldwork in rural China I had to bring several dozen films for my camera (not to mention all the audio and video tapes). On our project in Hebei, where possible I photographed ritual manuals and scores complete, but occasionally when we found lengthy fragile volumes that clearly deserved careful copying, we asked the association leaders if we could take them back to Beijing to photocopy. They were sometimes anxious about this—quite rightly, since several local cultural cadres had “borrowed” scores and never returned them.

YMK jing

Such texts, copied at various stages since the late 19th century, were often in precarious condition.  Though by then nearly 70, Li Wenru relished the tasks we gave him of preserving the Hebei manuscripts, painstakingly handling the damaged pages from his little room behind the library. Finally he would bind three copies—one for the MRI, one for me, and an extra copy for the home village when we returned the original to them.


Just a few of the Hebei ritual manuals and scores bound by Li Wenru.

By 1993 the MRI had basic computers, so Li shifu could add a succinct printed preface by Zhang Zhentao or Xue Yibing.

ZZT xu

Zhang Zhentao’s preface to the Gaoqiao score.

Gaoqiao score

From my partial photos of the Gaoqiao score.

Many of the gongche scores in the major recent anthology Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 passed through Li Wenru’s expert hands—the Hebei scores that we consigned to him appear in the three weighty volumes for that province.

With his modest and industrious demeanour, Li Wenru (like performer-turned-cadre Li Jin in Yanggao) was one of those unsung generous workers who managed to contribute to the new society despite the futile interruptions of Maoist campaigns. Quite separately from official slogans, such integrity was always much valued: local moral values endured.


[1] See e.g., and


Ritual groups of Jinghai

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YMK jing

Continuing our surveys of ritual associations on the Hebei plain,  the Jinghai region of Tianjin is an extremely fruitful area for fieldwork. Even by the 1990s Tianjin municipality (like Beijing) was largely rural, way beyond the city itself.

This article introduces two ritual groups in Jinghai, those of Lesser Huangzhuang and Yuanmengkou, both richly deserving more fieldwork than our team could manage in 1994 and 1995.  Through the latter we found a network of Heaven and Earth Teachings sectarian associations—continuing our acquaintance with sectarian groups (Laofomen, Hunyuan, Hongyang, and so on) elsewhere on the Hebei plain.

As ever, such research requires a blend of fieldwork, textual study, local history for both imperial and modern eras, and an understanding of folk religion and the ritual soundscape.


Ritual groups of Langfang

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S. Hancun 1993 heying

Here’s yet another article in my series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing, gradually filling in some of the gaps on the map.

I’ve noted the contrast between the occupational household Daoist bands of north Shanxi and the village-wide amateur ritual associations that are typical of the Hebei plain. Just southeast of the capital, on the way to BazhouLangfang municipality (formerly the county of Anci) is another lively area for ritual. Village associations here seem to feature elements of the ritual scene in suburban Beijing, with some occupational Daoist and Buddhist groups alongside the amateur associations that are common just further south and west. The Langfang region is also famed for its involvement in the 1900 Boxer uprisings.

These groups too had learned from temple clerics. Unlike the particular case we found in Daxing, most ritual associations here, as south and west on the plain, maintained the amateur tradition of “practising good” by performing rituals as a social duty without reward, though some were beginning to accept modest fees. As usual, such amateur groups were active mainly in the home village and a very small radius.

Ritual groups of Xushui

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QMZ 1958

While ritual groups all around the Hebei plain survived Maoism to revive under the reform era since 1978, the county of Xushui makes a particularly intriguing case, notable both for its ephemeral fame with the razzmatazz of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and for its more long-lived ritual groups.

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religious activity, notably the cults of the sectarian creator-goddess Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm Granny (Cangu nainai 蚕姑奶奶)—the latter a popular deity in this area, rarely featuring prominently elsewhere on the plain. Associations commonly display ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings and the Water and Land series, and perform vocal liturgy. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the rather distant pilgrimage to Houshan, though they more commonly visit the nearer Western Summit (Xiding 西頂) on Langyashan further southwest from Houshan. Again we found a rather complex overlap between the village-wide ritual associations, sects, and yinyuehui.

Further to my brief introduction in my post on Festivals, here I introduce some of the groups we visited from 1993 to 1996. 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 Beijing.” 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.


Funerals in Hebei

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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.