Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums

The male domination of rural performance genres appears stark. [1] I’ll outline the overall context in my third article, but for now let’s focus on ritual.

As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.

Ritual and Religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.

Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. [2]

Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. [3]

Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.

Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.

But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion; [4] and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role.

Houshan medium

Medium praying to the female deity Empress Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Houshan disciples

Medium’s disciples, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Yanggao
In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙) are as common as everywhere else.

XLY mediums

Worshippers cluster round mediums in a sideroom at the new temple at Lower Liangyuan, 2011.

Some of them also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.

Shanxi sect

Sectarian ritual, north Shanxi 2003.

Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).

They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.

The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently.

 

[1] This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40.

[2] Note Xiao Mei, “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu”, in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003), with DVD.

[3] See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.

[4] See ibid., n.40.

New paperback out!

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-07-19

Just received the new paperback edition of my 2010 In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and very handsome it looks too. Which is the main thing…

Apart from addressing a vast area of ritual practice that has hitherto been neglected, I haven’t yet noticed scholars taking on board a basic point, that besides our usual image of household Orthodox Unity Daoists, household (not just temple-dwelling) Complete Perfection Daoists are also common.

Do rush online and buy it! LOL

Ritual life in south Hebei

Separately from his new book, Ian Johnson has written a vivid article about Chasing the Yellow Demon, a community New Year’s ritual in Guyi village in the Handan region of south Hebei.

He updates work by David Johnson [no relation!]—whose own study was based on the work of local scholar Du Xuede 杜学德.

  • Ian Johnson, “Chasing the Yellow Demon”, in Journal of Asian Studies 2017, after
  • David Johnson, Spectacle and sacrifice: the ritual foundations of village life in north China (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp.92–143.
    For the latter, see reviews by Vincent Goossaert and Adam Chau, Journal of Asian Studies 70.3 (2011). See also
  • Daniel L. Overmyer [Ou Danian] and Fan Lizhu (eds), Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu: Handan diqu minsu jilu [Studies of the popular culture of north China villages: folklore records of the Handan region] (Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2006), including articles by Du Xuede.

Ian Johnson found that Chasing the Yellow Demon has lately become reified and commodified; he makes further fine comments on the Intangible Cultural Heritage flummery.

***

Yet the whole area of south Hebei also remains a major site for occupational household Daoists, not part of David Johnson’s purview—indeed, in finding village ritual largely independent of the practice of Buddhist and Daoist ritual specialists (whom he describes simply as clerical “elites”), he sets himself at odds with scholars of religious life in both north and south China.

In counties throughout the Xingtai and Handan regions, household Complete Perfection Daoists continue to perform impressive jiao Offering rituals for their communities. While we await a new volume in the Daojiao yishi congshu series from Luo Dan and Xu Tianji, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.88–94, citing work by local scholars such as Pan Zhonglu 潘忠禄, and major works by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

Temple fairs: Miaofengshan and Houshan

Further to my remarks on temple fairs and Houshan, one of Ian Johnson’s main topics in The souls of China is the pilgrimage to Miaofengshan just northwest of Beijing.

It’s been a popular subject ever since Gu Jiegang’s early study, published in 1928. The fine film-maker Patrice Fava has just made a handsome film about it too, for the Chinese Ministry of Culture—making an intriguing comparison with Ian’s own recent footage. Rather than idealizing, Ian takes a more personal ethnographic approach, documenting the changing nuances of people’s lives.

How wonderful to see Sidney Gamble’s footage from 1927! Visitors to Miaofengshan in 1925 included not only Gamble with Li Jinghan but also Gu Jiegang’s team. Even then, despite the wealth of devotional performing associations (huahui, xianghui etc.), they found hardly any performance of complex liturgical sequences. Gu Jiegang’s list of 99 associations making the pilgrimage in 1925 contains only one yinyuehui ritual associationwhich he, like most educated urbanites, would have assumed to be an entertainment group; his list mainly consists of huahui and “incense associations” (xianghui), mostly voluntary pilgrim groups from Beijing. On the Hebei plain, by contrast, the Houshan temple fair has many more ritual associations alongside the huahui. [1]

***

Along with scholars’ attention to the temple fair of Fanzhuang in Zhaoxian county, [2] a misleading image may arise of north Chinese religious life, whereby liturgical sequences performed by occupational ritual specialists and amateur sectarian associations are downplayed.

From my experience of ritual life around Beijing and on the plain to the south, the dominance of semi-secular “entertainment associations” at sites like Miaofengshan seems curious. I think, for instance, of the temple fairs on Houshan in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, so much less publicized in the media. Unlike on Miaofengshan and the other sacred mountain sites just north of Beijing, Bixia yuanjun is a minor deity in this region, which instead is dominated by the cult of Empress Houtu.

But the differences aren’t only their respective deities. The two major annual fairs of Houshan are also attended by vast throngs. Apart from the diverse huahui performing groups (martial arts, stilts, and so on) that one finds on Miaofengshan, amateur ritual associations from many villages throughout the area (our project through the 1990s) also make the pilgrimage. They perform devotional hymns to the patron goddess Houtu, as well as their solemn style of shengguan instrumental suites. The elders recall performing in full the “precious scroll” (baojuan) to Houtu—a lengthy process, though this may have lapsed on the mountain itself. But as I noted in Plucking the winds (p.363),

Despite considerable interest in village sects in imperial times and even until 1949, we find rather little on the observed performance of ritual. One scholar wrote laconically in 1948:

During the recitation of canons and divine rolls [viz. precious scrolls] musical instruments were probably used. In the country districts in North China there are still some similar organizations. They perform on musical instruments when they recite their canons.

Why write “were probably used” when he could have gone and observed them performing the scrolls?!

Houshan is also heavily patronized by spirit mediums, many of whom also have “precious scrolls” from which they perform devotional songs.

I note en passant that whereas the “tea-tents” on the route to Miaofengshan are precisely that, in the Xushui—Dingxing—Xiongxian area south of Beijing the Tea tent association is often an alternative name for sectarian groups like Hunyuan and Hongyang associations; and they perform complex rituals with vocal liturgy and shengguan instrumental music.

The more popular, quasi-secular entertainment groups tend to influence our image of north Chinese religious activity; the cliché is that ritual life is far more complex in the south than in the north. I don’t dispute this (my book pp.367–8)—some scholars of southern Chinese religion will ask “Where are all the grand jiao Offering rituals?” But we should bear in mind that in the north too, complex vocal liturgy, such as one finds further south in China, is widely performed by groups of occupational Daoist and Buddhist household ritual specialists and amateur ritual associations (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China).

In other words, it’s another case of “customs differ every ten li” (shilidi butong su). Of course, whether or not we find complex ritual sequences, we still need to document all kinds of activity.

As I noted for Houshan and Baiyunshan, state departments compete with local interests for economic control of the substantial profits from such temple fairs.

***

There’s also a puzzle that I mentioned in In search of the folk Daoists. We know there were constant transmissions, in both directions, between Buddhist and Daoist temples in metropolitan Beijing and Tianjin (on the one hand), and (on the other) the myriad local temples and amateur sectarian ritual associations in the surrounding areas. But from our material so far it looks as if these exchanges were largely limited to the plain south, hardly in other directions—like northwest, in the case of Miaofengshan. I surmise that this is related to topography, trade links and transport. Northwest of Beijing the land is hilly and poor. The plain to the south, while also poor, was at least more accessible, and on trade hubs.

But there’s always more fieldwork to be done!

 

[1] For further sources, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.118 n.3.[2] See ibid., p.8 n.14.

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.