Rain rituals in north China

From Xiao Mei’s DVD footage of rain processions in Shaanbei.

In barren mountains barefoot males, stripped to the waist, adorned with head-dresses of willow branches, kneel in the dust to pray hoarsely to the Dragon Kings.

That’s the closing scene of Chen Kaige’s 1984 film Yellow Earth, evoking Shaanbei in 1939. An iconic image, of course it’s romanticized, but it’s based on an enduring reality; while successive waves of social change have occurred, processions to pray for rain are still widely performed today

* * *

Images of the Dragon Kings in temple iconography are all the rage (see also my post on Elder Hu), but the practical purpose of veneration for such deities is expressed in performance—in this case, rituals to pray for rain.

Daniel Overmyer collects early sources on rain rituals in Chapter 1 of his Local religion in north China in the twentieth century. A slim tome by Dong Xiaoping and David Arkush also gives interesting clues for north China, including Gansu, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei. [1]

Apart from calendrical rituals like temple fairs, the most important occasional observances are funerals—for which demand, of course, has remained constant. Another important ritual occasion until the 1950s was the ritual procession to pray for rain, held in the summer months—broadly to be subsumed under “rites of affliction” (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.9). On behalf of the whole community, it is organized by the village leadership.

The extreme weather of north China has long prompted processions to beseech the gods for rain. There is rarely any rain at all from September through to the following June; drought is common—although when it does rain in the summer, it is often torrential, and floods become a serious problem. So rain processions may be held in the summer during times of exceptional drought. But in many areas they may also be calendrical, part of temple fairs (see below), subsumed into Fetching Water (qushui) rituals there. [2]

Indeed, Fetching Water is a routine segment of funeral rituals; in such cases it commonly represents a more generalized prayer for well-being.

Here I’d like to pursue the story through Maoism and the reform era since the late 1970s. As with other areas of religious culture, we can’t simply assume that rain processions ceased after the Communists took power in the 1940s. We may question the official version that they became naturally obsolete after irrigation projects became efficient, but the general picture is that such public “superstitious” extra-village activities were severely restricted.

In some regions such processions restored from the 1980s along with the revival of tradition, but since such demonstrations require significant mobilization, as time went by they became less common. The close links between secular and sacred village leaderships had already been attenuated under Maoism; under the reforms urban migration and the loss of community cohesion, along with ever-diminishing reliance on agriculture, have had a major impact. Even so, the “sufferers” left behind still occasionally hold rain rituals.

These rituals are not liturgically complex. Texts to bring rain appear in the Daoist Canon, and local scholars in Tianshui (Gansu) have collected several rain scriptures, though sadly we have no notes on how, or if, they are performed (Dong and Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, pp.20–21). Indeed, rain-making, and the Dragon Kings, are just as much Buddhist as Daoist: there are texts in the Chanmen risong. Overmyer also describes clerics reciting scriptures. Some early sources mention jiao Offering rituals performed as part of the observances. However, in modern times rain ceremonies in north China seem rarely to involve Daoist or Buddhist clerics: even household ritual specialists play a minor role. In Hebei the shengguan ensemble of village ritual associations may perform “holy pieces”.

The Hebei plain
The case of the Hebei plain is rather exceptional, in that most villages had an amateur ascriptive public body for organizing rituals such as funerals and temple fairs, called yinyuehui and overlapping with various sectarian groups.

Our notes from many villages on the Hebei plain south of Beijing (links here; NB also Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.354–61, and Hebei tag) supplement Overmyer’s survey, showing how very common rain processions were before Liberation.

The letters of the Stimmatini Catholic priests from their parish of Yixian in the 1930s show the desperation caused by drought. Despite their faith in the miraculous appearance of the Madonna to protect the village of East Lücun, the priests mock the credulousness of the villagers. They often mention rain processions in Shannan village, in the southern part of Yixian county.

Rain ceremonies are held at a network of pilgrimage sites. These are often occasions when the associations go beyond the boundaries of the village, and establish or confirm links with other villages. As such, they have suffered with greater political control, since solidarity within the village may be threatened when worshippers leave the confines of the village. Thus the Xiaoniu Music Association continued to make the Houshan pilgrimage in the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, but in a smaller group, and not daring to bring their association pennants with them. Part of the significance of the rain procession, musicians observed shrewdly in Gaoluo, was to demonstrate their adversity to the county authorities, in the hope of remission of taxes.

Rain prayers are most common in mountainous areas, but besides temples, wells and rivers are generally the goal. Most of this area is rather flat, but the mountains in northwest Laishui and Yixian seem to invite rain prayers.

As elsewhere, the main deities worshipped for rain here are the Dragon Kings (Longwang), Guandi (Laoye), and Erlangye, as in Qujiaying.

Gaoluo
My ethnography of Gaoluo village, in Laishui county, has some notes on rain rituals there (based on Plucking the winds, pp.93–4):

Since droughts were frequent and often disastrous, summer processions to pray for rain were a major part of villagers’ ceremonial life. By the 1950s rain processions in this area were rare, but not non-existent—some nearby villages even observed them in the early 1960s, as the pressures of campaigns and famine forced them to seek divine help. There are still occasional observances in this area today, but they are far less common than in more remote, barren mountainous regions like Shaanbei or Gansu, where they are regular and imposing. As Communist analysts would say, such “superstitions” persist largely where economic progress and ideological pressures have been ineffective. One nearby village which we visited in 1994 had just held a rain procession as a protest against the exorbitant water rates charged by the local authorities.

To pray for rain before Liberation, Gaoluo villagers once used to make a pilgrimage to Baiyutang in the mountains of Fangshan, quite distant, about 60 Chinese li (30 km) north, where they “fetched water” from a big gulley where turtles swam, taking a statue of the Dragon King. They filled a gourd with the water and took it back to the village. Venerable Shan Zhihe also recalled a rain pilgrimage to Xianggai village 10 li to the south, near which there was an auspicious well in the grounds of the Dragon Kings Temple. Someone from Bailu village had to come and take water from the well, since the Dragon Kings’ mother was said to come from there; she had married to Xianggai. Villagers could only take water from the well when there was a drought. They lowered a jar made from willow branches into the water, drawing it up with a pulley. They then emptied the water into a gulley nearby, from where it flowed into the Juma river towards Gaoluo.

Before 1932 young Shan Zhihe had himself gone twice on the procession to Xianggai, and had seen how efficacious it was: “it usually rained even before the water could reach the river. If it didn’t work the first time, it always rained the second time!” Our friends knew of the custom of putting a god statue out to make it suffer in the sun until it rained, which is commonly attested, but no-one recalled having to do so.

The statues taken by the villagers on these processions were of the Dragon Kings or Guangong (Laoye). The statues used for pilgrimages were smaller portable versions of the big clay ones in the temples, about a metre high, but not every village had them, and so rain-prayers were sometimes known as “stealing the statue” (touxiang), since they had to borrow one from a nearby village. Of course, it was a formal ritual procedure. They made a sedan for the statue out of willow-branches and carried it on poles. The ritual association would lead the procession; Cai Fuzhong, father of Party Secretary Cai Yurun, had fired the three-cartridge cracker-firer. The borrowing village would usually repaint the statue; egg-yolk, also used for the animation of god-statues, was used. Finally they returned it to the temple with great ceremony.

When the village men went to pray for rain, the ritual association decked out its “public building” with god paintings and incense. The men parading in front of the sedan sang “songs of rejoicing” (xige 喜歌)—a rare admission of any former folk-song tradition. The association would lead the procession; Cai Fuzhong, father of talented Yurun, fired the three-cartridge cracker-firer. Part of the significance of such processions, our friends observed shrewdly, was to demonstrate adversity to the county authorities, in the hope of remission of grain taxes; the Baiyutang procession actually stopped off at the county government yamen.

The second time Shan Zhihe went on the Xianggai procession was in 1930, when he was 12 sui and studying at the village private school, just before the Catholic church was built. Erudite Shan Fuyi recalled that the village’s last rain procession was in the summer of 1949 just after [the village] Liberation, when he was in 2nd grade at primary school. Though it was quite a small-scale occasion, the ritual association played. The villagers toured a statue of Laoye which they had “stolen” from Xiazhuang village just east of the river. After parading through North and South Gaoluo villages, they had the statue repainted, inviting a painter and ritual paper maker called Yang, from South Dawei; he repainted the statue in the ritual association’s “public building”. Some musicians even recalled a rain pilgrimage when Shan Ling was at secondary school, which must have been in the mid-1950s, when collectivization was already under way. That time, they claimed, they made the more distant procession to Baiyutang.

A similar ritual which soon became obsolete in Gaoluo was “setting out the river lanterns” (fang hedeng), an exorcistic ceremony still performed today by ritual associations on the 15th of the 7th moon in several other parts of the region. Genial Shan Yude recalled seeing it in Gaoluo for the last time when he was 8 sui, around 1949. Lanterns were placed in a paper boat and in hollowed-out gourds to light the way for the souls of the drowned and avert flooding, while the association perfomed. The ritual may have been discontinued largely through official disapproval, though the river was anyway becoming more shallow.

Yixian county
Just west of Laishui county, in Liujing at the foot of Houshan, the guanshi assistants of the village’s four ritual associations go to a spring on Houshan called “water room” (shuifangzi) to offer incense and pray for rain. Menstruating women are forbidden to go, since they would offend the Dragon Kings and prevent rain falling. In 1985 the people made Dragon Kings and Dragon Mother statues. Around 1991 the four assistants were asked by the villagers to pray for rain; the cadres didn’t interfere, but the associations didn’t go because it would take too much arguing between the ritual representatives of the four villages.

Nearby in Baoquan, Li Yongshu (b. c1926) said they still performed rain ceremonies, burning incense and reciting scriptures—he said there was no special ritual manual, but the Ten Kings scroll was often used. They sang the Hymn to the Dragon Kings, inviting other gods like Laoye or even Houtu—the people decided which, depending on which they believe in. Li Yongshu had first prayed for rain when 17 or 18 sui (c1943), when five villages combined to take statues of the Dragon Kings and Laoye on tour.

Further south in Yixian, Shenshizhuang villagers used to go to the summit of Zijinguan, 100 li distant. They went in 1947, and again after the temples were destroyed in the Four Cleanups, around 1965. Then the brigade organized the ritual association to play on the pilgrimage; wearing hats made of willow branches, they took their own provisions, while locals provided firewood. They played any pieces, there was no fixed repertory. That very evening as they were walking home, it started to rain!

But most elderly villagers describing rain ceremonies remembered them only as a thing of their youth. Even Wei Guoliang in Matou described it thus. The last time his son’s wife recalled was in the 1950s. According to Wei, it was also called “catching the turtle” (zhua gui), just like an exorcism. There were two ritual sites on Houshan to seek water: Matou zhai and Taohua an. They used to go for three days, bearing aloft statues of the Dragon Kings, the ritual association playing in front. Daoist priests recited the Mantra to Mulang (Mulang zhou); Wei didn’t know what the Buddhist priests recited.

East Baijian village used to perform a rain ceremony called Offering for Hailstones (ji bingbao 祭冰雹). They went on procession to the Central Yi river to float lotus lanterns (or river lanterns?), with the ritual association accompanying. They still did it once after the Japanese invaded, but it became very rare thereafter. They had prayed for rain clandestinely in 1962 and even in 1964, by agreement with the village brigade, but they didn’t dare use the shengguan wind ensemble of the ritual association.

Remarkably, in the 7th moon of 1994 the East Baijian village men again prayed for rain, wearing headgear of willow branches and bearing aloft an image of Laoye. Unlike the clandestine observances of 1962 and 1964, this time the ritual association accompanied the procession with their shengguan. Despite the common official claim that irrigation has rendered such superstitious observances obsolete, this ceremony was precisely a kind of demonstration against the exorbitant water rates charged by the government. The authorities were charging the village 28,000 yuan for the irrigation of their land for only a dozen or so days—elders remembered when it only cost 300 yuan for a whole month! The villagers bore aloft an image of Laoye. So they still felt that they had to “rely on Heaven to eat” rather than on the government, or science.

Dingxing county
Zhang Mingxiang, former Daoist priest at the Donglin si temple in Dingxing county town, recalled their prayers for rain. The people bore aloft a statue of the Dragon King (Erlangye?), with a bell around its neck. They wore willow headdresses, went barefoot, even the county chief. There were wells at the Nanyin si and Longmu miao temples south of the town, one for praying for rain, the other for hailstone rituals. They took a bucket of water from the well, sprinkled it on the ground as they lit incense, set fire to an old gu tree, and recited the Zaotan shenzhou 早壇神咒 manual. If their prayers were answered, they staged an opera in the autumn. Here the last rain prayers were held in 1937–8—after that it became impossible because of the fighting.

Xiongxian and Renqiu counties
We found more clues to rain processions in the villages of Hanzhuang, Gegezhuang, Dabu, and Mihuangzhuang.

In Hanzhuang, Xie Yongxiang recalled rain ceremonies, which hadn’t been performed in the region since 1937—the last time was when Xie was 12 sui, his wife 15, the year they got married! For the first three days they took an image of Laoye (Guangong) outside the temple to expose it; after the third day the ritual association and the villagers, with willow branches on their heads, took it on a tour in a sedan. If it still hadn’t rained after nine days then they took the statue home. The ritual association played small pieces (lingqu 另曲), mainly three melodies given the acronym of Jin–Wu–Cui (Jinzi jing, Wusheng fo, and Cuizhulian).

Gegezhuang had last prayed for rain around 1945. They “beseeched Elder Wang”. The incense head (xiangtou, here the leader of the ritual association) was in charge. but the chaozi association played, not the ritual association. They went to the Yaowang miao temple, to beseech the three Wang Elders, of whom Liu Wangye (Yaowangye) was in charge. They took the Yaowang statue on a tour of the village—the last time was around 1945.

They had heard a story of nearby Dabu village praying for rain in the late Qing. There was not a cloud in the sky, but as soon as the incense head took the sword of fate (mingjian 命剑) of Yaowang and pointed it to the northeast, clouds appeared, and before long there was a downpour. But it fell only on the village; there was not a drop outside the village! In cases when it didn’t rain, they punished the incense head by locking him up for a few days.

Mihuangzhuang had a Yuwang miao temple (alas we omitted to clarify if this was Yu the ancient emperor or Yuhuang!). Two red poles, 5 or 6 metres long, were held horizontally, with a cover (mogai) hung from them. They brought out the statue of Guangong (Laoye) and placed it on the structure, parading to a large open space. People wore tabards. Everyone faced outwards in a circle, and the statue was paraded all round. Two people called “bridge-grabbers” stood on the poles, in the “eight-step zen position”, and while the carriers raced as fast as they could, they had to stand firm. There was no incense head—the organizer was just a senior villager. Again the percussion of the chaozi association, not the yinyuehui ritual association, performed.

Further south on the plain, North Hancun in the south of Renqiu county also went on a tour. Wherever the Dragon King Elder of a village was efficacious, they took it on tour around the villages, and the receiving villagers would provide refreshments of tea and snacks. The procession was accompanied by large drums, but no shengguan, and the nuns of the village didn’t take part. procession often went on for seven days, and if no rain, they extended it for three further days. There were “songs of rejoicing” for “red rituals” such as weddings and building a house—for which the village had a special singer.

Tianjin municipality
We have a description of rain-prayers “in the past” in the greater Tianjin area, in which Dharma-drumming associations (faguhui 法鼓会) playing shengguan music took part.  [3] One would like an update.

Praying to Dragon King Elder, the procession was led by pennant-bearers. A gong was sounded to Open the Way; four men carried a statue of the dragon, one carried on his back a tortoise-shell made from a sieve, holding a large mace in each hand; another man pulled along a leech (representing the aquatic kingdom); and a man dressed as a leech wore a leather coat inside-out, his face painted red and black, wearing a “god hat” (foguan, known as mazi) made of paper, with a painting of Dragon King Elder on it, attached to the head with red string.

Immediately behind followed the incense bowl, and barefooted villagers. The Dharma-drumming association with their shengguan music brought up the rear (Guo writes “blowing”, not just percussion). As they proceeded, the musicians played the percussion item Changxingdianr, as someone shouted “Black dragon head, white dragon tail, day and night come to bring water”. When they reached the riverside all made kowtows, burned incense, chanted prayers, and the association played various melodies. Finally they threw the Dragon King statue into the river and dispersed, making their way home.

Shanxi
For north Shanxi, I have given some clues to former rain processions in Yanggao, home of the Li family Daoists[4] Going south, in Xinzhou before Liberation, “rain-thanksgiving” (xieyu) did require Daoist and Buddhist clerics. Rain ceremonies continued there after Liberation, and were still performed in the 1990s, though it is unclear if ritual specialists took part; we were even told of a village that held a rain procession in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, rain ceremonies persisted in the Wutai area after Liberation, and even took place on the quiet through the Cultural Revolution, continuing since.

Catholics in Shanxi also hold ceremonies for rain, like the Catholic village of Wujiazhuang, Xinzhou county, that we visited in 1992. Henrietta Harrison’s fine work on the Catholics of central Shanxi contains several instances. [5]

Daoists took part in rain prayers in the Liulin area of the Lüliang region in west Shanxi (Dong and Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, p.74), which belongs culturally with Shaanbei.

Shaanbei
In Shaanxi, pilgrimages to the mountains south of Xi’an in the sixth moon remain popular: see map here[6] But we have more detailed reports from Shaanbei, the northern part of the province. [7]

Rain processions in Shaanbei are commonly referred to as “shouldering the god sedan” (tai shenlou) or “shouldering the Dragon Kings” (tai Longwang). They mostly take place in the searing heat of the 6th moon. They are organized by a committee of senior male villagers, with all households contributing—except that the women are not allowed to observe. The route is thought to be determined by the gods: in one village they had to stop because the gods were leading them over a cliff.

As to soundscape, male villagers sing (or “shout”, as they say) in solo and choral response, the “rain master” playing gong, another villager playing drum, while shawm bands may play on arrival at ritual sites. Since many Dragon King temples are on remote hillsides, opera stages are often in the village; on return to the village an opera troupe is commonly invited to perform to thank the gods.

Notes from our 2001 visit to the Jiaxian opera troupe (my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, pp.17–19):

They take work all over the southern Yulin region. Sometimes (mainly in the winter) opera troupes are invited for weddings and funerals, costing around 1,000 yuan. But their main context is temple fairs from the 1st to the 8th moons, mainly in the six southern counties of the Yulin region—without temple fairs, as Li said, they would be out of business. They take part in over thirty temple fairs, large and small—most such contexts demand that they perform a series of items over three days. They also perform “three or five times a year” for villages holding rain prayers, from the 5th to the 7th moons.

Guo Yuhua‘s chapter on Yangjiagou in her Yishi yu shehui bianqian opens with an account of a rain ritual there. A chapter on Shaanbei rain rituals by Xiao Mei 萧梅,

  • “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” [The buzz of praying for sweet rainfall: field survey on ritual and music of rain prayers in the northwest (Shaanbei) region], in Tsao Poon-yee [Cao Benye] (ed.), Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, Northwest vol.] (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD), pp.419­–88,

is enriched by two sequences on the accompanying DVD, filmed in 2000 at Longyangou and the Black Dragon Temple (for which Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response is a must-read), and documented in her chapter. As ever, even a short film is worth hundreds of pages of silent, static textual accounts. Some screengrabs appear at the head of this article.

Xiao Mei begins her account like a traditional sinologist, with a useful survey of early historical sources, complementing those of Overmyer. But then she pursues the theme with a rare participant’s description, using an anthropologist’s eyes and ears. The only woman allowed to participate was a spirit medium (p.443).

And while you’re about it, do read Xiao Mei’s long article on spirit mediums in distant Guangxi (again with DVD), cited in n.4 here.

This documentary, filmed at a village in Hengshan county in 2005, is also worth watching.

Ningxia

Lianhuashan

Several volumes of the Anthology gives further slim leads to rain ceremonies, such as that for Ningxia, which has photos of the qingmiao shuihui Green Shoots Water Assembly procession on Lianhuashan mountain in Tongxin county—grandest of a network of calendrical observances for rain, with its main day on 4th moon 15th. [8]

I may add that the photos in the Anthology often surpass the texts in suggesting promising leads—even if in this case they considerably predate the iniquities of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, this event was recreated and elaborated quite soon after the 1980s’ revival with involvement from cultural cadres.

* * *

These piecemeal instances merely hint at the ubiquity of rain rituals in north China before the 1950s. As ever, such rituals might be large or small in scale. But as with all aspects of religious behaviour, they have undergone a fundamental change, not just since the 1950s but under the reforms, with rural populations depleted and community cohesion attenuated. Still, those rituals that are still performed are not some exotic vestige of “heritage”, but a sign of ongoing suffering. Contemporary ethnographic accounts are not just a means of imagining the dry accounts of past rituals, but a major part of our understanding current society.

 

[1] Dong Xiaoping and David Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, pp.20–22, 72–5, 106–13. For further early sources, see articles by Zhang Zhentao and Xiao Mei in this post.
[2] E.g. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, ch.3; see also Yuan Li, “”Huabei diqu qiyu huodongzhong qushui yishi yanjiu” [The Fetching Water ritual in north Chinese rain ceremonies], Minzu yishu (Guangxi) 2001.2, pp.96–108 and 121. For Fetching Water in Yanggao funerals and temple fairs, see also my film, and the DVD with my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.
[3] Guo Zhongping 郭忠萍, Fagu yishu chutan 法鼓艺术初探, p.10.
[4] See my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.72–4; Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, ch.3. Further leads for other areas of Shanxi are to be found in Wen Xing 文幸 and Xue Maixi 薛麦喜 (eds.), Shanxi minsu 山西民俗 (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin cbs, 1991), pp.399–400. Cf. Wang Lifang 王丽芳,”Minzhong qiuyu xisude shengtai jingjixue sikao: yi Shanxi minjian qiuyu xisu weili” 民众求雨习俗的生态经济学思考——以山西民间求雨习俗为例, Shengchanli yanjiu 2006.6.
[5] E.g. The man awakened from dreams: one man’s life in a north China village, 1857–1942and The missionary’s curse, pp. 104–7.
[6] Tiny clues in Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan: text 920, transcriptions 926–7.
[7] For some sources, see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, pp.22–3. Cf. Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan, text p.572, transcriptions (from Dingbian, Jiaxian, and Fugu) pp.606–8.
[8] Transcriptions, with texts, from Lianhuashan and Xiangshan, as well as Pingluo and Yinchuan, in Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Ningxia juan, pp.713–46. See also Zhang Zongqi 张宗奇, Ningxia daojiao shi [History of Daoism in Ningxia] (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua cbs, 2006), pp.210–11, 261–7. The term “water association” (shuihui) is quite common; though some such urban groups were more or less secular—local militia for protection against fire and robbers—in rural north China they were often associations for rain, as in the pilgrimages just south of Xi’an (for refs. see my In search of the folk Daoists, p.81). The term Green Shoots has only been attached since 1983.

Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures

Left: Dom (photo: SCMP). Right: Matt jamming at home.

The support network enjoyed by fieldworkers rarely intrudes into scholarly accounts, except as dry lists in the acknowledgements to musty tomes. So to follow my posts on recent encounters with Chinese scholars (Notes from Beijing, 1, 2, 3), here are some vignettes on expat life in Beijing—perhaps reminiscent of Nigel Barley’s remarks on the missionary veranda.

The laidback hospitality of Matt Forney has long been a delight whenever I return grubbily to Beijing from the countryside. This time, after my fruitful stay with the great Li Manshan (see a whole flurry of posts from March–April 2018, some linked here), amidst the unprecedented experience of an almost daily lecture schedule, I find expat life a jovial counterpoint to meeting inspiring Chinese teachers and students.

* * *

After a fond farewell with Master Li, I arrive at Beijing station at midnight to join a long taxi queue—rogue drivers touting for business all along the line. Maybe not so much has changed…

I miss Li Manshan and Yanggao already, and am tempted to get straight back on the train. But over the next few days I gradually acclimatize, coming on as “civilized”. I soon stop finding it weird when people say ni hao, xiexie, and zaijian (hello, thankyou, goodbye)—words never heard in rural China. And after acclimatizing to the lunar calendar, I’m back with “normal” dates, even days of the week and the concept of the “weekend”!

Settling in at Matt’s place, next morning I take a welcome shower and put my filthy clothes in the washing-machine. Matt’s wonderful lodger is film-maker Dominique Othenin-Girard, who, finding inspiration in China, has lived in Beijing since 2013. Their door is always open, and they also have the lovely Italians Gabriella and Nelly staying. It’s good to get back to the style and topics of conversations in English (bear in mind that in London I rarely have any company…), and I enjoy cranking up my crap Italian (hallucinante)—though since much of my energy still needs to be invested in Chinese, trying to switch between three languages is perhaps a challenge too far.

The donne italiane are much given to home cooking. Much as I relish meals with Li Manshan and his wife (noodles and baozi dumplings and steamed bread), breakfast of espresso with home-made crostaccia is a treat.

After my first film screening at Beishida, Ju Xi and her students take me to the campus bar round the corner. Already pleasantly pissed (“I drank a little beer”; cf. Some Portuguese epigrams), I take the subway home (so much more civilized these days) to a sumptuous Italian supper over copious wine and a political discussion: why is Italy so totally fucked, in a different way from the US and UK? At least we have been lately stimulated to resist: Italians seem somehow resigned to their fate.

I still find no evidence of a cowed population, either in Beijing or in the countryside. Xi Jinping seems an irrelevance, for both locals and expats. If there is little evidence of him on the street, I do pass an intriguing sign on my walk to the subway:

Pu'an Pharm lowres

The Song-dynasty Buddhist monk Pu’an is remembered throughout Hebei villages (and further afield) in the long pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou 普庵咒 sung with shengguan accompaniment for exorcistic healing over the New Year’s rituals; so (allowing for typical folk variation of the second character) it seems suitable that a pharmacy should be named in his honour.

After my second Beishida show, on the walk home I pass a group of deaf-mutes signing in heated debate.

What should await me back home but a vision of pan-European elegance, the force of nature that is the multi-talented Miranda Vukasovic, having supper with the Italians and Dom—or rather holding court. Alongside his day-job, Matt is a brilliant old-time banjo player, and he used to play guitar in Miranda’s band. Miranda (like Dom, a roving soul) is a born performer—I can’t wait to see her on stage. She regales us with the long story of the impressive collection of gaily-coloured cazzotti—phallic bottle-openers—that she found in Bali.

I can’t resist trying out my chat-up line “You’re almost as beautiful as Li Manshan!” Yeah I know, I’m such a smooth talker.

(For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, see here).

Preparing with casual expert rapidity, Miranda floats off to go clubbing, leaving me shell-shocked. Aargh, young people. But I can’t possibly expect her to share a stage, so I’ve written a separate homage to her.

Of course, there are cultural bazaars everywhere, but this gives me a glimpse of why people find Beijing such a lively scene these days—like Xi’an in the Tang dynasty?! Sure, there are always challenges—sponsors who are all mouth and no trousers, the arcane ways of bureaucracy, and so on. But beneath all the political flapdoodle there’s an energy here that I’m not sure is so easy to find in a depressed declining Europe (like I’d know). My ailing friend the cult novelist and musician Liu Sola—who should know—says there are a lot of funky people here too.

Another evening, Hannibal and Hannah come over for an aperitivo. Browsing the shelves at April Gourmet I’ve snapped up a bargain bottle of Bombay Sapphire (which features in my fantasy address at the foot of my homepage, with its Chinese name), served complete with Schweppes, ice and slice—”if a job’s worth doing…”.

Then we meet up with the splendid Andrea Cavazzuti at the Ganges; I have the opportunity to introduce him to Dom, a fellow film-maker. Andrea is a long-term resident of Beijing, and an old friend of the Li family Daoists; with Hannibal and Hannah we reflect on change in the Shanxi countryside. Back home we have a little party—my tipple this evening is a beer sandwich, with gin standing in for the bread.

Italian group

With Andrea, Gabriella, and Nelly. Photo: Domenique Othenin-Girard.

Never mind the tribulations of my fellow-students in Beijing in the 1970s—even in the 90s, when my Chinese friends were still terribly poor, such a lifestyle felt like an unwarranted luxury, a failure to Become at One with the Masses. But now that most of us have become poor foreign cousins to the locals (cf. fieldwork too)—and even Li Bin’s circle in Yanggao county-town have become conspicuous consumers—“long gone are the days when” [Molvania] one might feel ashamed at indulging in such expat decadence.

At the same time I’m always aware that I’m only passing through, and I respect the experience of long-term Beijing dwellers like Matt, Andrea, or the redoubtable Ian Johnson (another groupie of the Li family Daoists!).

At one film screening I’m received by a seriously cool Uyghur student, considerate and lovely. After setting up, we sit outside in the courtyard and we check out cool tracks on his tablet. He loves Billie, Amy, and punk—and he takes to heart Nowhere man:

I tell him how I used to play ghijak in London (we are eliptical with words), and we listen to intense muqaddime on satar.

After the film, and astute questions from the students, a bunch of us take cabs to a great upper-storey bar, mates of my new friend. Yet again I get pleasantly pissed, loving their chat—such a great scene here. Adept with their fancy phones, they insist on prepaying for a cab for me back to the hotel. Thankyou all for the inspiration, teachers and students!

Despite my culture-shock on returning from Yanggao, Beijing seems great—overlooking the “architecture”, obviously. But I still miss Li Manshan. He was getting a cold as I was leaving, so I call him up to see if he’s on the mend. I tell him his name is on everyone’s lips here; and I’m happy to report that I met a “Chinese bloke—big cheese” (see here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Next evening I take Matt for a curry, then more laughs with Dom and the Italians. The warmth of their interaction is precious.

Friday is Good Friday—better for us than for Jesus (I suppose that’s the whole point). After our round table at Beishida, we all go for an informal and boisterous meal. The splendid Cao Xinyu wonderfully insists on making a detour to take me home in a cab. My Beijing friends find my commitment to public transport an affectation; I get used to my erstwhile poor Chinese colleagues ferrying me round in cabs and their own gleaming posh cars, the like of which I never see among my friends in the UK.

Back home there’s yet another party going on (a juerga, if you like), to which I contribute Prosecco. I tell the Mantua joke for our Italian maestre della cucina. Matt gets in the groove with some blues, and Stones numbers; after a rendition of I’m a pheasant plucker, he sings an amazing I’ve been everywhere, along the lines of Johnny Cash (“tight but so loose”, as Matt observes)—Country, like flamenco, making another instance of “license to depart from behavioural norms”:

—itself based on the Hank Snow version. So it’s a “catalogue aria” (here I go again)—as in Don Giovanni (immortalized by Michael Nyman!), or Chinese folk-songs—including ritual items like the Song of the Skeleton and the Twenty-four Pious Ones. So there.

Matt shares the true guitar aficionados’ love of open tuning, and we sing the praises of Keef.

Chez Matt cropped

Gabriella, Dom, Nelly, Matt.

International cultural exchange, eh. On my last day in Beijing my lighter runs out at the same time as my notebook—most satisfying. Then back to London for another dose of culture-shock.

China and Europe: local society and politics

 

 

My article on Guo Yuhua leads to several related posts on my blog—many collected under the Maoism tag in the sidebar.

For further alternative grass-roots accounts of Chinese society, see

For the troubled maintenance of local ritual life under changing regimes:

On recent conflicts between state and society, see e.g.

In Guo Yuhua’s interview with Ian Johnson she gives short shrift to the Intangible Cultural Heritage—as do I. Some tasters among the numerous posts under the heritage tag in the sidebar:

* * *

For Chinese parallels with authoritarian regimes in Europe, see e.g. my posts on

 

For another handy digest on a variety of topics, see here.

Notes from Beijing, 2

Further to my post on the Beishida ethnographers, and my seemingly underwhelming maxim that

If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

in between my lectures at Beishida in March I sallied forth (cf. Cheeseshop sketch) to show my film at People’s University and Peking University for two fine scholars from whom I also have much to learn: Cao Xinyu (left) and Wang Mingming.

Cao Xinyu
I’ve already mentioned Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (b.1973) in a previous post (just updated). Professor of the Qing History Research Institute in the History department of People’s University (Renda), he’s a most supportive teacher—and for me he has the added cachet of being a scion of Yanggao, home of my Daoist master Li Manshan! Talking of Renda, I was happy to tell Cao Xinyu of Li Manshan’s ingenuous repunctuation of 中国人大代表 (here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Sectarian activity is an important aspect of the picture of religious life in China, both in imperial and modern times—indeed right now. Cao Xinyu combines detailed textual research on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups and fieldwork on their modern fortunes. In addition to his series of books on sectarian history, notably the Way of Yellow Heaven, you can also read astute articles such as this survey.

1958 fanguan

In a salient reminder of Maoist history, we had lunch at the Russian restaurant “1958” on the People’s University campus, opened in 2013 (with how much irony, I can’t fathom) to commemorate the Russian experts then at the university—shortly before they were all expelled.

Wang Mingming
Just up the road at Peking University is the eminent anthropologist Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (b.1962). [1] He’s a native of Quanzhou in Minnan (south Fujian), whose ever-vibrant ritual culture (temple fairs, Daoist ritualnanyin, and so on) has always informed his research.

From 1981 he studied archaeology in Xiamen University, going on to embrace anthropology as it was incorporated into the department there. He came to London in 1987 to study for a PhD in anthropology at SOAS; this was also the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with the great Stephan Feuchtwang. He returned to China in 1994 to make his base at Peking University, becoming a full professor there in 1997.

With Stephan he wrote the fine book Grassroots charisma: four local leaders in China (2002) on the linking of religion and politics in two villages in Quanzhou and north Taiwan. Wang’s historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou, Empire and Local Worlds, was published in English in 2009.

His article on the Fazhugong festival makes an introduction to the tenor of his work:

  • “Lingyande ‘yichan’ ” 灵验的“遗产” [Efficacious “heritage”], in Guo Yuhua (ed.) Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs, 1999).

Like Guo Yuhua (his fellow anthropologist at Tsinghua next door), he combines detailed ethnography with a thorough grasp of theory. As Stephan writes:

Through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology.

His theoretical mission to re-historicize anthropology over a long time-frame, and in a global context, may be seen in

  • “To learn from the ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners: China’s self-identity as a modern civilization”, Critique of anthropology 34.4 (2014).

as well as

  • “Minzuzhi: yizhong guangyi renwen guanxixuede jieding” 民族志:一种广义人文关系学的界定 [Ethnography: a redefinition from the perspective of extended human relations], Xueshu yuekan 47.3 (2015).

Among his recent projects, he has directed analytical fieldwork on the ritual life of Hui’an county in Minnan:

  • Wang Mingming et al., “Dili yu shehui shiyezhongde minjian wenhua: Huidong Xiaozuo kaocha” 地理与社会视野中的民间文化——惠东小岞考察 [Folk culture from the viewpoint of geography and society: survey of Xiaozuo, east Hui’an], Minsu yanjiu 2017.2,

as well as a study of towns of the “Tibetan–Yi corridor” (藏彝走廊):

  • Wang Mingming and Zhai Shuping 翟淑平, “Songpan, Batang, Zhongdian: ji sange xibu chengzhende yanjiu” 松潘、巴塘、中甸——记三个西部城镇的研究 [Songpan, Batang, and Zhongdian: studies of three towns in southwest China], Xibei minzu yanjiu 2017.2.

Wang’s diachronic approach has much to teach us (including scholars of ritual and music) about changing local societies through imperial, Maoist, and reform eras, not least on their relations with the state and “cultural” authorities. In utter contrast with the reified salvage-based “living fossil” flapdoodle of the “heritage” authorities, such study is based both on thorough fieldwork and on detailed research into sources since the late imperial era.

I can’t help noticing that Peking University has changed somewhat since my last sojourn there thirty-two years ago. In Wang Mingming’s interaction with his students he has a wonderful informal style; he clearly makes a fine fieldworker. Both he and Cao Xinyu encourage their students to think; at both events—and in the pub afterwards—I relished their lively exchanges.

 

[1] Many of Wang Mingming’s articles are collected on the aisixiang site here. For an English introduction, watch this 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane, transcribed here; and Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, “Some Chinese directions in anthropology”, Anthropological quarterly 83.4 (2010).

 

 

 

 

Notes from Beijing, 1: some fine ethnographers

On my recent trip to China, I was having such a great time with Li Manshan in rural Yanggao [1] that I was somewhat reluctant to take the train back to Beijing—but thanks to encounters with some fine scholars (and home-made Italian cakes) I soon acclimatized. For me to observe

If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

may not be quite as fatuous as it sounds—given the hangover from the old image of Red Guards and the new one of a cultural desert watered only by Xi Jinping Thought, both perpetuated by Western sinologists.

I’ll outline the work of these scholars in turn, beginning with my main host, the ethnographer Ju Xi 鞠熙 (b.1981), of the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at Beishida—or Beijing Normal University, as it is quaintly known (now, to invite me to talk at an Abnormal university, that I might understand). With great imagination, she invited me to show my film as part of a series of talks in which I could reflect on fieldwork and rural ritual amidst social change, focusing on my two long-term projects: the Li family Daoists and the ritual association of South Gaoluo.

Ju Xi group

Ju Xi with ritual leaders, Daohui village, Zhejiang 2017.

Quite apart from making an articulate and supportive moderator to my talks, Ju Xi’s own research is distinguished. With Marianne Bujard, she has long been involved in a major collaborative project with the EFEO in Paris (four of eleven volumes published so far!):

  • Epigraphy and oral sources of Peking temples: a social history of an imperial capital.

In addition to a succession of fine works on old Beijing like that of Susan Naquin, all this makes an important complement to research on its ritual life, including the Zhihua temple.

Ju Xi 1

Ju Xi’s wisdom was encapsulated at an unpromising one-day conference in March, which she transformed with a succinct and brilliant speech explaining the significance of local religion in current rural China—that should be compulsory reading for cultural pundits and cadres at all levels:

Criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, Ju Xi observed that local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a kind of cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.

She outlined the role of local religion in ecological conservation, building techniques, and handicraft taboos, and pointed out its tight social structure, close interpersonal and reciprocal relationships—a valuable resource for today’s poorly-organized rural society. She stressed the importance of temple fairs, pilgrimages, ancestor worship, ritual associations, and clan organizations, noting the “grassroots charisma” of ritual specialists. She explained local religion as practical strategy, and observes how peasants are now availing themselves of the mask of “intangible heritage” to express their own requirements and views, making local religion a new pivot of cultural identity.

Thus local religion should be seen as an important basis upon which the peasants can construct their social order, organize their social relationships, take part in social practices, and articulate their own life styles. It makes an essential pattern through which multiple actors in rural society can express their own requirements.

 Ju Xi’s students are most fortunate.

* * *

Beishida has a noble tradition of folklorists, including Dong Xiaoping 董晓萍 (b.1950), herself a pupil of the great Zhong Jingwen 钟敬文 (1903–2002). Among Dong Xiaoping’s books are

  • Tianye minsuzhi 田野民俗志 [Folklore ethnography] (Beijing Shifan daxue cbs, 2003),

and a slim but useful tome with David Arkush (欧达伟),

  • Huabei minjian wenhua 华北民间文化 [Folk culture of north China] (Hebei jiaoyu cbs, 1995).

In English Dong Xiaoping’s acuity may be admired in a short review in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.343–67.

* * *

CZA

Chen Zi’ai.

At Beishida I was also delighted to meet Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾 (b.1933), part of an illustrious generation of scholars whose academic careers might have been more fruitful but for the vagaries of Maoism. A native of Hunan, her experience of local Daoism there and in Jiangxi has left her with a deep impression. She is a contributor to the lengthy series of publications on Hunan Daoism edited by Alain Arrault.

In a lengthy and mesmerizing impromptu speech after my second presentation, Chen Zi’ai touched candidly on crucial aspects of research on religious behaviour in the PRC, observing the riches of the topic as a window on folk culture, by contrast with the incongruity of her generation’s ideological indoctrination; and the more recent benefits of Chinese–foreign collaboration on such projects.

* * *

Such research on folk religion and temple fairs builds on an influential volume edited by

  • Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (2000),

and the work of Zhao Shiyu 赵世瑜, notably his 2002 book

  • Kuanghuan yu richang: Ming–Qing shiqide miaohui yu minjian wenhua 狂欢与日常——明清时期的庙会与民间文化 (2002).

Another Beishida scholar is Xiao Fang 萧放, co-editor with Zhang Bo 张勃 of another book discussing temple fairs around Beijing, including Miaofengshan:

  • Chengshi, wenben, shenghuo: Beijing suishi wenxian yu suishi jieri yanjiu 城市,文本,生活: 北京岁时文献与岁时节日研究 (Zhongguo shehui kexue cbs, 2017),

* * *

YYY

Yue Yongyi, 2002.

Yet another brilliant fieldworker and ethnographer at Beishida is Yue Yongyi 岳永逸 (b.1972), who has a prolific list of publications based on his fieldwork in rural Hebei.

His detailed work on the Miaofengshan temple fair

  • Zhongguo jieri zhi: Miaofengshan miaohui 中国节日志: 妙峰山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2012)

complements the ongoing research of Ian Johnson. Like Ian, he too reflects on more recent changes, such as tourism and the Intangible Cultural Heritage[2]

Other Hebei temple fairs on which Yue Yongyi has published include two in Zhaoxian county—on the Dragon Placard Association (longpaihui) of Fanzhuang village: [3]

  • “Xiangcun miaohuide duochong xushi: dui Huabei Fanzhuang longpaihuide minsuxuezhuyi yanjiu” 乡村庙会的多重叙事: 对华北范庄龙牌会的民俗学主义研究 [Multivocal discourses in a rural temple fair: a folkloristic study of the Dragon Placard Association in Fanzhuang, north China], Minsu quyi 147 (2005), pp.101–60;
  • (with Cai Jiaqi 蔡加琪) “Miaohuide feiyihua, xuejie shuxie ji zhongguo minsuxue: longpaihui yanjiu sanshinian” 庙会的非遗化、学界书写及中国民俗学: 龙牌会研究三十年 [The heritage-ization of temple fairs, academic writing and Chinese ethnography: thirty years of research on the Dragon Placard Association], Minzu wenxue yanjiu 35 (2017.6), pp.36–52;

and on the temple fair to the Water temple goddess in Changxin village:

  • “Dui shenghuo kongjiande guishu yu chongzheng: Changxin Shuici niangniang miaohui” 对生活空间的规束与重整: 常新水祠娘娘庙会 [Restriction and regeneration of living space: the festival of the Water temple goddess in Changxin village], Minsu quyi 143 (2004).

Most notable is his detailed work on the temple fair of Cangyanshan in Jingxing county—which we may add to our bibliography on south Hebei:

  • Zhongguo jieri zhi: Cangyanshan miaohui 中国节日志: 苍岩山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2016).

Like Yue’s book on Miaofengshan, it contains detailed subheadings on temples, gods, ritual associations and other performers, activities, and artefacts, with rich material on spirit mediums (xiangtou, cf. north Shanxi) as well as on the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu (widely found in Hebei, e.g. in Xushui and Yixian counties) and (in the case of Cangyanshan) Third Princess (sanhuang gu 三黄姑).

WSLM

Wusheng laomu statue, Cangyanshan.

In English, note his

  • “The nation-state, the contract responsibility system, and the economy of temple incense: the politics and economics of a temple festival on a landscaped holy mountain”, Rural China 13 (2016), pp.240–87,

which also includes a useful bibliography. More general, but no less thoughtful, are his books

  • Xinghao: xiangtude luoji yu miaohui 行好: 乡土的逻辑与庙会 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue cbs, 2014)
  • Chaoshan: miaohuide ju yu san, yingshechu minjiande shenghuo yu xinyang 朝山: 庙会的聚与散, 映射出民间的生活与信仰 (Beijing daxue cbs, 2017).
  • Jutou sanchi you shenming: manbu xiangye miaohui 举头三尺有神明——漫步乡野庙会 (Shandong wenyi cbs, 2018).

With his rich experience, Yue Yongyi made a fine discussant in our unlikely one-day panel at Beishida.

* * *

All these fieldsites provide rich material for ethnographers, even if they share a paucity of complex liturgical sequences such as those I generally find. My encounters with these scholars make a welcome change from the insidious infiltration of romanticized “living fossil” ICH flummery into music studies. Given the understandable dominance of research on religious activity in south China, they also form a community of scholars working on changing ritual life in north China (see also Goossaert article cited here).

While I entirely recognize the ongoing erosion of rights under the current regime, the current Chinese academic scene is far from emasculated. Fine scholars like these, undaunted, continue to seek the truth about modern history, at a great remove from the supposed brainwashing from Xi Jinping Thought trumpeted in the Chinese and foreign media. This theme continues in my following posts on the Beijing scene (here and here).

 

[1] See my series of posts starting on 14th March 2018, summarized here.

[2] Another recent book on the incense associations of Beijing is Zhang Qingren 张青仁, Xingxiang zouhui: Beijing xianghuide puxi yu shengtai 行香走会: 北京香会的谱系与生态 (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue cbs, 2016).

[3] For earlier refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.8 n.14.

The cult of Elder Hu

* Yet another in a series of vignettes (starting here) from my recent stay with the wonderful Li Manshan (for similar excursions, see here and here). *

Hutu statues

Altar to Great Lord Hudu, Lower Liangyuan temple 2018.

My time with Li Manshan last month also gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Elder Hu, most intriguing of local deities in the region.

Surveying “cultic buildings” just northeast of Yanggao in the troubled 1940s, the intrepid Belgian missionary Willem Grootaers drew attention to a local cult of the deity Hutu 胡突 or Hudu 胡都, aka Elder Hu (Hulaoye, Huye, Hushen 胡老爺, 胡爺, 胡神) or even Dragon Hu (Hulong 胡龍). His temples are often known as Hushen miao 胡神廟. See

  • Willem A. Grootaers, “The Hutu god of Wanch’üan, a problem of method in folklore”, Studia Serica VII (Chengdu, 1948), pp.41–53. [1]

Around the Xuanhua region Grootaers and his Chinese assistants found fourteen temples devoted to Elder Hu, as well as six more with tablets in the temples of other gods; as a lateral image in Dragon King temples he appeared sixteen times.

I have already published brief introductions to the cult in Yanggao. [2]

In south China one often find “cults,” in the common sense of groups (whether voluntary or ascriptive) devoted to a particular deified local territorial personage. Much work on southern Daoism is complemented by studies of such gods. One finds some cults in north China too, although they are more often to “national” deities. Such groups may or may not include ritual specialists performing complex sequences of ritual and liturgy.

But one important regional deity whom people in north Shanxi and northwest Hebei do worship is Elder Hu. Perhaps an ancient general, his proper name Hutu (or Hudu) may be Mongol. Closely related to the Dragon King deities, he too is thought to have power over rain and the elements. In Upper Liangyuan there was a statue of him in the Temple to the Three Pure Ones (my book, pp.46–9), but in Yanggao the main sites for his worship, still today, are the temples of Zhenmenbu (for recent images from Hannibal Taubes, see here), Xujiayuan, and Lower Liangyuan. Here I introduce the latter two.

Xujiayuan
The Xujiayuan temple (formally named Temple of Clear Clouds Qingyun si 清雲寺, though as usual it is commonly identified simply by the name of the village) is part of a network of early temples lining the border north of the county-town, just beneath the remains of the Great Wall. From our 2003 notes:

In the main temple the three god statues (from left to right) were Pineapple Tree King God (Boluoshuwang fo, responsible for water), Watery Heaven God (Shuitian fo, one of the Heavenly Officers tianguan), and Elder Hu (Hulaoye, responsible for rain, not water in general). On either side of Elder Hu were small dragon statuettes. There was also a portable statuette to Elder Hu to be taken on procession.

XJY 03 clothing statue 1

Clothing a god statue, Xujiayuan 7th-moon temple fair 2003.

The various local legends about Elder Hu are not consistent. Xujiayuan villagers said that his old home was Hujia village quite far further east in Tianzhen county (see map below), so the village always donates to the Xujiayuan temple fair (in 2003 they gave 300 yuan). According to the temple’s abbot Miaoyun, Elder Hu was an ancient general called Hutu; the common people erected a temple to him after he was wrongfully executed by an emperor and the climate went awry (xingfeng zuolang 興風作浪).

Several online sources on the temple claim that Elder Hu was a grand court official called Hu Tu 胡秃 [sic] in the Warring States period. Unjustly executed, his soul wouldn’t disperse, whereupon The Jade Emperor enfieoffed him as a god. In the early Tang dynasty, during natural disasters in the 6th year of the Zhenguan era (632 CE), Elder Hu rescued the populace by scattering buckwheat, and they built a temple to him in thanks.

Most village temples in the region are unstaffed, but the Xujiayuan temple had about eight resident Buddhist monks when we visited in 2003. The main day for the temple fair is 7th moon 3rd; it begins on the 1st and finishes on the 4th. This is a most vibrant event, with many stalls, and an opera troupe, shawm bands, and the temple’s own monks all performing an impressive nocturnal yankou ritual (see the DVD Doing Things with my book Ritual and music: shawm bands of Shanxi, §B5).

Another major ritual of Xujiayuan is the rain procession on 5th moon 18th, bearing aloft the statuette of Elder Hu. The temple is the centre of a parish (she 社) of twelve villages (still known as “brigades”—note the casual elision of imperial and Maoist vocabulary), although by 2003 it was mainly the four nearby village that were taking part actively. Elder Hu “deputes the dragons” (fenglong 封龍) to release rain.

Lower Liangyuan
Today on the plain southeast of Yanggao county-town, with no temples still standing in Upper Liangyuan, the most important temple in the area is in the sister village of Lower Liangyuan just north. Its formal name is Temple of Efficacious Source (Lingyuan si 靈源寺).

XLY 03 temple name

7th-moon temple fair 2003.

The survival of the temple is due in large measure to the sprightly Yuan Xiwen 袁喜文 (b.1934!), still blessed with a youthful spirit within the body of a fit 50-year-old.

Yuan Xiwen 2013

Yuan Xiwen, 2013.

Serving as a brigade accountant and cadre under Maoism, he did what he could to protect the temple, and led the revival of its temple fair upon the 1980s’ reforms. He has recently compiled a detailed genealogy of thirteen generations of the Yuan lineage (my film, from 57.46). Local society depends on men with such charisma.

The village has long had a larger population than Upper Liangyuan (1,120 in 1948, 1,805 in 1990, according to the county gazetteer), although since then it continues to suffer from the inevitable drift to the cities.

Back in 2013 we strolled over there to find Yuan Xiwen sitting in lotus posture on the kang in his bare house. He too told us a charming local legend about Elder Hu, detailed enough to have a certain authentic value:

Dragon Hu came from Jiaocheng village, southwest of Datong. [3] He held the post of looking after the cabinet official (geyuan 閣員) Wang Qiu 王囚 in Shandong province. Wang agreed to his request to return home for a visit to his old home. So Dragon Hu began the journey home, riding the clouds (jiayun 駕雲) from Shandong to Jiaocheng. Once he reached north Shanxi, he passed through “nine dragon mouths” (jiu longkou) in all.
[For villages marked * below I know of active temples today; the others remain to be explored. The legend doesn’t track his earlier progress from Shandong—however did we manage before satnav?!].

At Wayaokou (Tianzhen county) there was a heavy downpour; he rode on through Zhendagou 镇大沟 (?), Zhenmenbu*, and Xujiayuan*, where he rested his horse (yinma 飲馬). Continuing his journey south, he rested his horse again at Liujiaquan, then at Lower Liangyuan* at midday, then on to Tailiang 太梁 (?) [which, said Yuan Xiwen, still had a decrepit old temple to him], to Lower Shenjing (?), and one other village which escaped me.

Throughout Dragon Hu’s progress, all the places he passed through were beset by hailstones. The Heavenly God (Tianshen) was angry, and made him pay a forfeit. So Dragon Hu pinched three ears of wheat into the shape of a shuttle, creating what is now buckwheat…

There’s clearly a lot more fieldwork to be done here—but how exciting it may be for someone to pursue!

Towards a modern history of the temple
Yuan Xiwen recalled the village’s last rain procession, and temple fair, before Liberation. In the 7th moon of 1947 some three hundred villagers went on procession to the Xujiayuan temple, with big drums, gujiang shawm bands, and banners bearing the characters “Silence!” (sujing 肅靜), both there and back. From 1st to 3rd they stayed at Xujiayuan, returning on the 4th, holding their own temple fair from 5th to 7th.

The temple only had around a dozen mu of land; it was common land, not “owned”, and anyway there were no resident clerics, only one shabby temple keeper. This was surely typical—far from the great temple estates further south.

As collectivization escalated, the temple buildings were taken over by the Supply and Marketing Co-op (Gongxiao she 供销社). The god statues were taken away in 1956, to a little shrine in between the Lower and Upper villages; people still worshipped surreptitiously before them. The temple was only assaulted in 1966 at the opening of the Cultural Revolution; the murals were further damaged while it was used as a classroom. It was not until 1987 that Yuan Xiwen was able to lead the first temple fair there after the revival.

The modern religious history of this and other villages is closely related to the fates of sectarian groups. Though village temples were public sites, they made a natural base for sects like the Way of Yellow Heaven and the Way of Nine Palaces. [4] By the 1940s Lower Liangyuan was a hotbed of such groups. After the Yiguan dao sect was introduced to Yanggao in the 1940s, 200 of the 240 households in Lower Liangyuan are said to have belonged. While the villagers’ more public religious activities were somewhat separate, the sectarian persecutions of the early 1950s inevitably affected their spirits. Still, the sects survived underground until reviving along with more public ritual behaviour from the 1980s.

I should add that (as far as I know) there is no separate “cult” of sectarians worshipping Elder Hu, nor  any scriptures to him.

March 2018
Over the years I’ve often passed by the temple—for instance when the Treasuries are burned before it during funerals (my film, from 1.03.56). But it’s been ages since I took a close look at the interior, so Li Manshan calls up the wonderful Yuan Xiwen and we stroll over there. They’re in the middle of a meeting of the clansmen—his younger brother is there. I’d have learned more about the temple images if Yuan had come to the temple with us, but he’s too busy with his family. Later Li Manshan tells me the temple committee had recently lost the temple’s old divination list, [5] and how rumours flew around about an inside job—until they found it again.

XLY list main

Divination list, 1882 (Guangxu 8th year).

The villagers don’t seem to know of any surviving steles—though after our discoveries in the Upper village, there may still be room for exploration in nearby ditches.

The temple has belatedly been taken under the wings of the county Bureau of Cultural Preservation, and (judging from my 2003 photos) some of its old murals seem to have been retouched. Though they clearly date from the late Qing (not the Ming, as the temple minders airily claimed), their beauty is rare in Yanggao villages—by contrast with the amazing wealth of such murals in nearby Yuxian.

XLY 03 outside

The front complex during the 7th-moon temple fair, 2003.

XLY temple exterior

March 2018.

The interior complex
Inside the temple the main complex facing south onto the courtyard now has two rooms: a central hall to the Dragon Kings, and an east room to Elder Hu.

Rear block from courtyard

View of main rooms from courtyard.

The main altar of the central hall has statues of six dragon gods before a mural of the Jade Mother of the Five Dragons (Yulong shengmu 玉龍聖母):

Rear central room central gods

Central hall, 2018.

XLY Rear central mural 2003

Jade Mother of the Five Dragons, 2003.

On the rear wall, to the west and east of these central images, are further murals to the mythical emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu:

My 2003 photos of the above:

Further murals adorn the side walls—for the River God (heshen 河神) to the west, Efficacious Immortal (lingxian 靈仙) to the east (I think):

Rear hall central west wall

Central hall, mural on west side wall.

To the east of this central hall is the room to Hutu (photo at top of article). To one side of the main altar is a small portable statuette for processions, carried in a palanquin that rests by the west wall:

The side walls bear murals depicting the progress of Hutu through his domain:

Hutu west wall mural

Outside, to the west of the rear complex an old pillar capital survives (for much, much more, cf. Hannibal’s photos from nearby Hunyuan, and Yangyuan):

Rear block exterior west carving

The front complex
At the main entrance of the complex is a central room to Śakyamuni, flanked by his attendants Mañjuśrī (Wenshu) and Samantabhadra (Puxian). To its west is a room to Dizang and the Ten Kings:

Dizang statues

The west and east side walls bear Ten Kings murals repainted since the 1980s—here are two details:

Dizang west wall Kings

Dizang east wall murals

For even more recent images from Hannibal Taubes, see here)

* * *

But in the end I want to return to real human beings. As disembodied “cultural relics” these images may have no particular artistic merit; however numinous they may be, they’re still silent and static. In between the common fates of falling apart or becoming museums, temples are for living people, for interaction under changing social conditions; their gatherings are full of life, “hot and noisy“.

I can’t help thinking back to August 1992, my second visit to Li Manshan’s father the great Li Qing, when I even attended a funeral he led at Lower Liangyuan—alas, I had only just missed the village’s 7th-moon temple fair! Li Qing told me that two Daoist bands took part (later the temple committee only invited one). All his colleagues, with whom he had been performing rituals since the 1930s, would have taken part, like Li Yuanmao, Li Zengguang, Kang Ren, and so on.

After the 1980s’ revival I suspect they didn’t restore a fuller sequence of the jiao 醮 Offering, for whose segments Li Qing had recently recopied ritual manuals (I doubt they chanted any of the jing scriptures, for instance)—but still, their ritual programme may have been rather more complex than it later became (my book, pp.237–43). For Hoisting the Pennant, did they sing the hymn Yuyin 玉音 at the central pole? And how I would have loved to witness their Communicating the Lanterns; by the time I attended it at the temple fair in 2003, Li Qing was no more, and his pupils were less than familiar with the ritual.

XLY yangfan 03

7th-moon temple fair 2003, Hoisting the Pennant: the final chase. Front left, on nao cymbals: Erqing, shortly before he was lured away to become a migrant labourer. Photo: Wu Fan.

* * *

So this little introduction to Elder Hu gives you an idea of what we were up to before our brief yet charming encounter with the local constabulary on the walk home to the Upper village.

 

[1] Part of an extraordinary series that also includes

  • “Les Temples Villageois de la Region au Sud-est de Ta-t’ong (Chansi Nord), leurs Inscriptions et leur Histoire”, Folklore Studies 4 (Beijing 1945), pp.161–212.
  • with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Temples and history of Wan-ch’üan (Chahar); the geographical method applied to folklore”, Monumenta Serica 13 (1948), pp.209–316 (for Hutu, see pp.272–274).
  • with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Rural temples around Hsüan-Hua (South Chahar), their iconography and their history”, Folklore studies 10.1 (1951), pp.1–116.
  • with Li Shih-yü and Wang Fu-shih, The sanctuaries in a north-China city: a complete survey of the cultic buildings in the city of Hsuan-hua (Chahar) (Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques vol. 26), Bruxelles: Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1995 (for Hutu, see pp.7–9, 70­–73, 109–10).

[2] Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.73–84; Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.49–50; Wu Fan provides further detail (Yinyang, gujiang, pp.61–71, 150–59).

[3] Yuan Xiwen said it was in Shanyin county, which it isn’t now—but anyway, judging by the logic of the route, and the limited radius of the cult, not the county considerably further south.

[4] See Yanggao xianzhi, pp.610–15; Zhao Jiazhu, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng, pp.159–62. The Yiguan dao was a particular scapegoat; though in some respects inquisitors were quite meticulous, I suspect the name served as an umbrella term, a rallying-call for persecution. The early 50s’ campaigns are a growing theme of research; note Barend ter Haar’s site.

[5] Cf. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, pp.280–85.

Zhihua temple group in London!

ZHS BM

Following the 2014 performance of the Zhihua temple group at the British Museum, I’m looking forward to their repeat visit this coming Monday! I’ve just added it to the events calendar in the sidebar.

In addition to the hauting shengguan wind ensemble, we’ve now incorporated vocal liturgy as well as percussion items with large cymbals into the programme, to give a flavour of the whole ritual soundscape.

Do try and come along, both to the concert and the chat beforehand. And meanwhile, Read All About It here in posts like:

https://stephenjones.blog/2017/02/23/a-slender-but-magical-clue/

https://stephenjones.blog/2017/03/23/ritual-life-of-beijing-temples/

https://stephenjones.blog/2018/01/19/arhat/

https://stephenjones.blog/2018/03/03/notation/

And on the Qujiaying connection:

https://stephenjones.blog/2017/03/20/obituary-of-a-determined-village-leader/

https://stephenjones.blog/2017/03/22/lin-zhongshu-a-sequel/

which leads onto the Hebei village associations and further afield (under Local ritual)…

ZHS 1992

The Qujiaying recruits, and me, learning from former monk Benxing, summer 1992.