Funerals in Hebei

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GL procession 95

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

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

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

Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake

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Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake:
the Medicine King cult

Zhaobeikou lake

On the Hebei plain, just south of the Xiongxian region, the Baiyangdian lake, and the ritual catchment area of the pilgrimage to the Medicine King temple in Maozhou, form a somewhat distinct area for ritual practice. This is highly topical since it is now part of the vast plan to build a megapolis there, expanding Beijing and Tianjin southwards amidst profound social and ecological change.

This was the southern boundary of our project on the Hebei plain, where we had found so many complex liturgical sequences, ritual manuals, and grand shengguan instrumental suites with scores derived from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin. Xiongxian turned out to be the heartland of the suites and scores, but around the lake just south, despite the lively Maozhou cult, the trail was becoming somewhat diluted—and I don’t believe this is merely because our visits predated more in-depth stays in the areas further north and west. Still, these associations were very much based in ritual and shengguan, and dated back to at least the 18th century.

This survey introduces ritual groups all around the lake, including villages of Anxin, Renqiu, and Gaoyang counties. The aquatic setting engenders plentiful rituals based on “releasing river [or lotus?] lanterns” (fang hedeng 放河/荷燈).

As ever, this article merely scratches the surface of our fieldnotes—themselves just a superficial survey of some village associations that came to our attention. There may be many more, and certainly were until the 1950s. Any one of these groups (and indeed the Maozhou temple) could, and should, form the subject of a detailed diachronic ethnography such as I did for Gaoluo.

Around the Baiyangdian lake we found further evidence for the connection not only with Buddhist monks and Daoist priests but also with the ritual and musical cultures of the Qing emperors in Beijing—a link that appears occasionally throught the Hebei plain, such as Yixian, and strongly suggested in Xiongxian just north.

Back in the mists of time, long before the internet, or even usable landlines—the 1990s—this ritual system still comprised the main cultural network of such regions. Having survived Maoism remarkably unscathed, there are complex reasons for the long-term decline of these associations—including not so much the recent urban development plan for the region, but migration, the whole commodification of society, and the secularizing pressures of the ICH. These notes are valuable for documenting local ritual life at a time when such transformations were still in their early days.

Alexei Sayle

Alexei Sayle never loses his surreal edge. In his brilliant Imaginary sandwich bar radio series he plans a sultry film noir aimed at the children’s market,

 Postman Pat always rings twice.

On rationing:

From 1939 to 1945 the government had permitted, indeed had positively encouraged men to bayonet people in the guts or set them on fire with flame throwers or bomb their houses from 20,000 feet, but when they came home they couldn’t have a tomato until 1957!

With the immaculate credentials of his upringing (see his fine memoir Stalin ate my homework), he reflects,

I think despite all the chaos we create, the famines, the gulags, left-wing people are basically good people. Admittedly left-wing regimes might over time devolve into authoritarian kleptocracies whose autocratic rule is enforced by terror and torture, but we do mean well.

Despite my strange enthusiasm for Strictly, I applaud his critique (relevant also to the Chinese heritage flummery):

Everything is wrong with ballroom dancing: the clothes, the music, even the expressions on the dancers’ faces, plus of course the dancing itself. The reason for this is simple—you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aethetic pursuit, an art form, which has been turned into a competition, the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges. The competitors must try and fit into a series of rules rather than display emotion, artistry and invention, and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. […] If you see a couple performing a proper Argeninian tango you are watching a dance created in the brothels of Buenos Aires that reeks of melancholy and sex. Then you watch the ballroom version of tango, all gurning faces and robotic, angular, hideous movements. You are seeing a great popular art reduced to a terrible travesty.

He elaborates on the Pannacotta Army line (“ancient figures of soldiers, sculpted out of soft white cheese”), and reminds me of the old Snow White and the Seven Samurai joke, which gave Tom Holt the title for his drôle book. Which might lead us to Nick Helm’s line:

I needed a password eight characters long—so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

To return to Alexei, this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:


Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

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GGZ xu 1

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

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

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

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

It’s that man again

More from Alan Bennett’s diaries. I’m filing this 2009 entry under heritage:

23 August. […] I’m glad I’m not a theatregoer living in Elsinore. All they must ever get are productions of Hamlet, while what they’re probably longing for is Move Over, Mrs Markham or Run For Your Wife.

His keen eye for footballers’ physiognomy is in evidence again (2010):

7 April. The open mouth of Frank Lampard, having scored a goal, is also the howl on the face of the damned man in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement.

This entry depends on a certain cultural knowledge that might challenge translators:

5th July. A child in Settle is said to have asked what the Mafia was and his grandfather said, “It’s like the Settle Rotary Club, only with guns.”

And he often shows his political involvement. When a speech in favour of the NHS from his early play Getting on is well received, he is encouraged to go on

25 July, Yorkshire. […] whereas nowadays the state is a dirty word, for my generation the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and want (and provincial boredom) and putting us on the road to a better life; the state saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too. “So when I hear politicians taking about pushing back the boundaries of the state I think”—only I’ve forgotten what it is I think so I just say: “I think… bollocks.” This, too, goes down well, though I’d normally end a performance on a more elegiac note.

Background and heritage

Further to Alan Bennett’s thoughts on faux nostalgia, his diaries often reveal the contrast between his own insecurity, inherited from his modest background, and the innate confidence of his Oxbridge peers. From an entry describing his appearance at the Tony awards:

11 June, New York. I am then bundled through a back door and across the street to Rockefeller Plaza where a whole floor has been given over to the press. I’m thrust blinking onto a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: “Do you think this award will kick-start your career?”

News of my lacklustre performance on this podium must have got round quickly because I’m then taken down a long corridor off which various TV and and radio shows have mikes and cameras and there is more humiliation. “Do you want him?” asks the PA at each doorway, the answer more often than not being “Nah”, so I only score about four brief interviews before I’m pushed through another door and find I’m suddenly back in the street in the rain and it’s more or less over.

Even his admiration for Neil McGregor is tinged with a sense of inferiority:

26 November. I go part of the way back in a cab with Neil and I ask him about his job, which he revels in and which is not simply confined to the British Museum. He’s practically a cultural ambassador or an UNESCO representative, just back from the Sudan where he’s one of a group surveying the antiquities likely to be submerged by a new dam, currently being constructed on the Nile. The problems though are not simply to do with cultural artefacts and he talks of the villagers the dam will displace, who, although they have been told what is to happen and for whom alternative accommodation has been provided, have nevertheless no idea of which this being uprooted will mean. The human and antiquarian problems in Sudan are mirrored in Iraq where the Director of Antiquities, a Syrian Christian, single-handedly defended his museums against the depredations consequent on the invasion and the war. Now in the aftermath he has to ransom his two sons who have been kidnapped and despairing of such circumstances has left Iraq for Damascus, ultimately hoping to get to America. As Neil pours this out, the words tumbling out of him as they do I feel both inadequate and ill-informed and it’s perhaps as well he doesn’t travel all the way but gets out at St Pancras to go to the Museum—looking, as he always looks, absurdly young but, I would have thought, one of the most remarkable men of his generation.

Another anagram

Following the magnificent Gran visits York (my personal fave among the musical anagrams by the Monteverdi choir) and my mélange of anagrams, here’s Angela Barnes:

I grew up in Maidstone. It’s no coincidence that an anagram of Maidstone is “I am stoned”. There’s nothing else to do. Just anagrams.

Reminiscent of the Great Plain in Molvania,

recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a “site of significant monotony”.