Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Our material on ritual groups in north Shanxi relates mainly to the area east and south of Datong city. But Zuoyun county, just west, has potential—indeed, the whole area west of Datong would be worth exploring.

What little material we have so far suggests a Buddhist temple tradition, but it is too early to assess the scene around Zuoyun. Typically, the material focuses on a single temple, the Lengyan si, conveniently packaging its rituals merely as “temple music”. So my brief article becomes another critique of the cultural heritage flummery.

Where there are temple groups, I expect there to be household groups too; and where there are Buddhist bands, there are likely to be Daoist ones too.

Lengyan si

 

Buddhist ritual in south Shaanxi

***Link to this page!***

Most of my accounts of local ritual in north China (under “Themes” in main menu) concern Daoist practice. This new page mainly concerns folk Buddhist ritual traditions transmitted by former temple monks around Yangxian county in south Shaanxi.

It’s even more sketchy than my introductions to some other areas that I haven’t visited, but again, as I continue to regret the superficiality of the ICH material, I’m hoping to entice people to go and do some serious research. I’ve also revised the introductory page on Buddhist ritual.

Yangxian nianjing

 

The brief of ethnography

Gaoluo 1989

Recently on Twitter, following a post on my work with the Gaoluo village ritual association, an urban Chinese worker sent me a succinct and intriguing reaction:

中国农村地方的风俗,我不喜欢!— I don’t like local Chinese rural customs!

Well, tough! 罗卜青菜各有所愛, chacun à son trou, “it’s a free country”… But actually it’s a valid point, highlighting an important issue.

Rural customs are what rural dwellers do; it’s hard to belittle the former without rejecting the latter. It’s not just a lack of tuanjie solidarity within the Labouring Masses, between the gong workers and the nong peasants; there has long been a more general alienation anyway among the urban educated. This feeling that Chinese tradition is “backward” dates back well before the 20th century, despite the efforts of Chinese folklorists since the 1920s to document the, um, heritage.

Today those older urbanites who endured banishment to impoverished villages under Maoism (like Kang Zhengguo, or the countless, and hapless, zhiqing educated youths from 1968) have good reason to feel ambivalent about rural culture (see also here).

Younger cityfolk may not have had to endure rural life like their elders. But steeped in pop music and video games, when they are dragged back to the poor countryside to attend the funeral of a grandparent, they too may find village customs irrevocably tainted by poverty and backwardness.

Moreover, apart from those duped by the media into regarding folk culture as a theme park, those younger cityfolk (not least those bravely seeking social justice) have been further alienated by rosy state cultural propaganda—quite understandably.

Of course, the arcane concerns of academia generally may not float their boat. Anyway, they’re unlikely to be excited by the links of some Daoist ritual to manuals from the Song dynasty.

But ethnographers don’t have to be misguided mouthpieces for official patriotism. It’s not about praising traditional culture—more about documenting it, complete with all the problems of rural life. Ethnography aims for the descriptive, not the prescriptive. I’ve already given some traumatic examples of participant observation in fieldwork—Germaine Tillion’s notes on her own incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Sudir Venkatesh’s work among Chicago street gangs.

So it’s always worth documenting society, and history, without romanticizing it as some ideal “living fossil” of an illusory golden age. Along with any grandeur that pundits may impute to ritual in rural China, there belong power struggles, violence, the plight of women and blind outcast shawm players, and all kinds of tribulations under imperial, Maoist, and modern regimes. And while studying folk culture, it’s proper to note the alienation of younger urban dwellers from it, as I do. Indeed, I’m not naturally thrilled by Morris dancing—but when you get to know a little about it, you can see how it fits into the changing social culture of rural England.

However rapidly the Chinese rural population has been diminishing since the 1980s, documenting rural life is just as important as studying urbanites, of all classes—including the workers’ struggle and their expressive culture. We don’t have to “like” ♥ (grr) the songs of either those workers or household Daoists, but they all need documenting.

Descriptive ethnography doesn’t necessarily imply standing aside entirely from judgment. Now, as it happens I do indeed admire many aspects of village ritual, but that’s not the point. More adventurous fieldworkers (like De Martino) may seek to spell out some respects in which ritual is life-enhancing, offering consolation and cohesion; or, conversely, ways in which it serves to entrench delusion and conflict, or fortify irrational power. Or—quite likely—they may entertain both hypotheses at once. And both need to be tested, not assumed.

So to that underwhelmed Chinese worker on Twitter, I might say: as Guo Yuhua (great Tsinghua-university-based anthropogist: see her blog) can tell you, far from obstructing the quest for social justice, ethnography can be a contribution to it. Apart from urban workers, if anyone has been downtrodden, it’s the peasantry.

However much the official version may seek to reify and sanitize culture, yet factory workers, household Daoists, village cadres, spirit mediums, army recruits, sectarian groups, vagrants, and entrepreneurs are all part of the social spectrum, whose lives deserve to be documented.

All this reminds me of another gem from Nigel Barley. Arriving at his field site in rural Cameroon, he grapples with police bureaucracy (The innocent anthropologist, p.38):

The commandant turned out to be a huge Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely.  What was my reason for being here? […] He was clearly very unhappy as I tried to explain the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. “But what’s it for?” he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the “Introduction to Anthropology” lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, “It’s my job.”

 

 

 

Ritual and sport: the haka

Since I am wont to make blithe analogies between the performances of ritual and sport, the pre-match haka of the All Black rugby team makes a fine illustration, also revealing the enduring depth of folk culture. In its constant adaptations, both in sporting and other ceremonial versions, it’s deeply impressive.

The wiki articles on the traditional and sporting versions make a useful introduction, and there are many fine youtube clips.

As a Māori ritual war cry the haka was originally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess in order to intimidate the opposition. But haka are also performed for diverse social functions: welcoming distinguished guests, funerals, weddings, or to acknowledge great achievements, and kapa haka performance groups are common in schools. Some haka are performed by women.

Its social use has become widespread. In 2012 soldiers from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment performing a haka for fallen comrades killed in action in Afghanistan:

In 2015 hundreds of students performed a haka at the funeral of their high-school teacher in Palmerston, New Zealand.

In 2016, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, New Zealand firefighters honoured the victims with a powerful haka.

And here’s a moving recent wedding haka:

***

The New Zealand native football team first performed a haka against Surrey (!) on a UK tour in 1888. The All Blacks have performed it since 1905. After witnessing the haka in Paris in 1925, James Joyce adapted it in Finnegan’s wake.

It’s no “living fossil”, being subject to regular adaptation. In 2005, to great acclaim, as an alternative to the usual Ka mate the All Blacks, led by Tana Umaga, introduced the new Haka Kapa o pango, modified by Derek Lardelli from the 1924 Ko niu tireni:

The adaptation of the haka to the sporting event compares favourably with Chinese concert versions of ritual. However it’s done, it never descends to the kitsch of such adaptations—it’s always performed with great intensity and integrity, giving an impressive glimpse of a serious ritual world. In its practised commitment it contrasts strangely with footballers singing their national anthems—even the Brazilian team.

As a spurious link to a fine story, I note that the team performed a kangaroo version in July 1903:

Tena koe, Kangaroo                 How are you, Kangaroo
Tupoto koe, Kangaroo!           You look out, Kangaroo!
Niu Tireni tenei haere nei       New Zealand is invading you
Au Au Aue a!                             Woe woe woe to you!

***

From the sublime to the ridiculous… Several youtube wags have suggested suitable responses from opposing teams: a burst of Riverdance by the Irish team, or (from the English) the hop-skip-hand-behind-the-back routine in Morecambe and Wise’s Bring me sunshine.

Morris dancing might unsettle the All Blacks too. The Intangible Cultural Heritage rears its ugly head again—perhaps the English team could emulate the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, a 150-year-old troupe of Lancastrian clog dancers.

Not quite à propos, and Don’t Try This at Home—or in the Matthew Passion:

As a further riposte to the haka, even I can’t quite imagine the Daoist “Steps of Yu” (Yubu 禹步), but how about the Sacrificial dance of The rite of spring, complete with Roerich’s costumes and Nijinsky’s choreography? That really might take the lead out of the All Black pencil.

But we should celebrate the deeply serious nature of folk culture, and the evolving transmission of performances like the haka.

Kulture

As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.

Li Bin’s brilliant joke (keep watching after the final credits of my film) subtly satirizes the gulf between peasants and intellectuals. Here’s a fuller English version (my book, p.ix):

So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.

He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant, “I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?” The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”

The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks, “OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”

The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.

The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”

The peasant scratches his head and goes, “Hmm… nope, I dunno—OK then, I can’t answer your question either, here’s 100 kuai!”

As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres.

But the whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, they’re all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism—in China and elsewhere.

Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

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

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

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

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

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

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

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

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

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

 

[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from http://photo.xinzhou.org/2010/0717/picture_1826.html