Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

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(under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)

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”.

Officials without culture

Strange—not to say fatuous—goings-on in Pingyi county in Shandong.

I generally give Short Shrift to horror stories in the Western media about new clampdowns on “superstitious practices” in China, finding that they rarely have any perceptible long-term effect at local level. Indeed, I have it on good authority that this latest instance of interference from local government is only a blip, going against the current tide in these more laissez-faire times—but it’s still rather interesting.

A fine article “The endangered sound of suona” by Fu Danni, on the Sixth Tone website, reports on the recent ban on shawm bands at funerals in Pingyi county. But the official directive looks far more disturbing than that—it’s just one aspect of a far more ambitious attempt to limit the length of life-cycle ceremonies and extravagant spending therein. The Pingyi measures even castigate the zacai decorations at the funeral altar as a “corrupt feudal practice”. Similar leftist campaigns, effectively seeking to deprive villagers of their traditional funerary observances, have occasionally been touted ever since traditional life-cycle events revived in the 1980s—a related article makes an ominous comparison with the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.

But there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Campaigns aimed at enforcing frugality at life-cycle ceremonies have a long and mostly futile history, long before funeral strippers became a routine and salacious media topic (as a quick Google search will reveal). So it’s good to see twenty-one noted Chinese academics protesting at the fatuous recent official directive in a detailed open letter (Chinese text here). Note how adroitly it adopts the language of both Confucian and current CCP values—reminiscent of the recent online rebuffs to the Chinese FA over their attempt to ban Daoist ritual at a football match. The open letter has stimulated much online discussion, in which voices in support of the restrictions are largely drowned out.

Still, however isolated and fleeting such instances of local implementation may be, it’s remarkable that even in 2017 the Pingyi county government announced that it would confiscate musical instruments played at funerals. Sure, this kind of thing has happened occasionally since the 1980s’ revival; generally, as here, the musicians manage to get them back after a while.

Wang Ruiyong’s shawm band in Pingyi, suffering from the recent directive. From Sixth Tone article.

It may be that in Pingyi the shawm bands have unfairly taken the blame; some scholars too have reservations about “other, more vulgar, funeral practices” (like stripping, perhaps), though it’s unclear how a criterion for vulgarity might be policed, short of inculcating norms of public decency—for which cadres are not renowned.

Xingyuan 2011
Burning paper ritual money for the deceased before the coffin—village funeral, Yanggao 2011.

The article on the Pingyi nonsense observes the flagrant irony of the simultaneous [albeit formalistic and superficial, I should add!] brief of the cultural authorities to document such bands as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project—whose agenda has anyway never been exactly ethnographic. But by contrast with the project’s kitsch nostalgic dreams, shawm bands all over China are far from a bastion of tradition. They’re always innovative: for several decades, they have themselves been spontaneously adapting to the times by replacing their traditional repertoire with popular melodies and supplementing their instrumentation with trumpet, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. You can read all about shawm bands in my post Walking Shrill, and in my books on Yanggao and Shaanbei (both with DVDs); there I documented the rapid substitution of the majestic old suite repertoires with pop music before my very eyes and ears. There are tracks on the playlist too, with notes here.

Were I just a tad cynical [surely not—Ed.], I might say that the Chinese are perfectly capable of diluting their own local traditions without government assistance. This cultural shift has been taking place ever since the early 1980s, as a result not of state interference but of changing popular tastes. And when the article comments that “most suona players have started to take on other jobs”, such as in factories and construction, this too is part of a much wider and longer trend, not some sudden response to the directive—as I noted for the Li family Daoists, the choice to abandon a hereditary tradition is complex.

Though the Sixth Tone article uses the nationally standard term suona for the shawm, it’s good to see the local term wulawa—one of many such names by which this most ubiquitous instrument is known (hence my adoption of the English term shawm, avoiding official vocabulary). And I was glad to see a reminder of the technique of blowing through a hollow reed into a basin of water—standard device for teaching circular breathing to young students.

The article doesn’t mention liturgical performance (such as household Daoists) at funerals, which generally alternates with that of the “secular” shawm bands, but it’s quite possible that there aren’t any ritual groups in this area. Anyway, hiring such bands is only a minor item in the total budget for the funeral family.

Keep calm and carry onMeixian funeral
Back in 1990 I attended an impressive funeral in Meixian county-town in Guangdong province, with accomplished young xianghua household Buddhist ritual specialists presiding. Above the road outside (where they performed many of their rituals) was draped a slogan advertising a campaign against spirit mediums. Of course mediums and liturgical specialists (not to mention shawm bands) provide very different services, but one might suppose that there’s a risk that blanket directives may throw out the baby with the bathwater.slogan Meixian 1990So while there are complex issues at work here, the recent directive illustrates a common befuddled knee-jerk response from local government. If they’re so keen on harking back to Maoist values, they might instead consider a re-education campaign for cadres—it is they who now lead the way in “vulgarity” and “lack of culture”.

Still, I can’t quite join in the general moral outrage over the Pingyi campaign. While it is quite right for scholars (both Chinese and foreign) to protest, at the same time we shouldn’t overestimate the long-term effect of such fatuous official measures. Observers have been lamenting “cultural impoverishment” in China for many decades—indeed, further afield, nay worldwide, the call to “rescue endangered traditions” went out a nanosecond after the birth of anthropology. But change is a constant. As is clear from my recent film and book, since the 1980s’ revival—in both ritual and music—any dilution takes place not so much as a direct result of sporadic leftist campaigns, but under more pervasive socio-economic pressures (to be sure, related to wider political currents) such as urban migration, modern secular education, and the changing tastes of rural patrons as they aspire to the modernity of pop and media culture. Since these are trends with which few seekers of hallowed Chinese traditions tend to engage, the state may seem to make an easier scapegoat.

For a prequel to this story, see here.

Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

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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

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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