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:

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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

The heritage schtick

Just added a convenient new tag (in the sidebar) for “heritage”:

https://stephenjones.blog/tag/heritage/

collating my observations on the troubling effects of the Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut on north Chinese ritual—also taking in Stella Gibbons, “Mediterranean diet”, the deep-fried Mars bar, and the Lake District…

I once attended a conference on the ICH at which a wry Chinese scholar asked, “So are we going to inscribe Spring Festival, then?!” I hereby nominate Breathing, indeed Life. Beat that.

Taxonomy eh—dontcha just love it.

 

More heritage flapdoodle

UNESCO is at it again.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/09/lake-district-is-uks-first-national-park-to-win-world-heritage-status

Lakes fell.png

Now of course we all love the Lake District. But as usual, such recognition is considered as a triumph, willy-nilly. This quote is as bland and simplistic as any from a local Chinese cadre:

This decision will undoubtedly elevate the position of the Lake District internationally, boosting tourism and benefiting local communities and businesses.

The BTL comments provide salient contrary views, notably

http://www.monbiot.com/2017/05/19/fell-purpose/

And now

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/11/lake-district-world-heritage-site-sheep

 

Ritual, food, and chastisement

Having just naively queried the choices of heritage pundits,  I am further reminded of my 2011 visit to Mount Athos by the difficulty of savouring one’s meal in a fado club while concentration is justly demanded on the saudade of the singing.

Attending matins—lasting several hours—in a monastery high above the sea is magical. We make our way to the chapel in darkness, finding the doorway by a tiny glint of candlelight in the inner sanctum beyond. Thuribles fragrant, icons glowing, elusive shadows of black-robed bearded monks flitting past. I find a place in a high narrow wooden stall, ornately designed to deny comfort.

To cite Leo Kanaris’ fine crime thriller Blood and Gold (pp.198–92):

It was all stage-managed for maximum effect: the light of truth scattering the night of ignorance, the Holy Fathers hovering in the shadows, their faces reflecting the candle’s rays, while Chirst gazed down from the heavens. Beyond the walls of the church lay the world, unseen, unknown, an immense and incomprehensible universe.

As we stand/lean/doze in our stalls, the incense, lugubrious chanting, and deep singing are intoxicating. After an eon the first shafts of sunlight begin to illuminate the scene, the mosaics on the dome beginning to shine down on us.

Athos ritual

The chanting continued. Another candle was lit on the far side of the church and a second monk added his voice. The effect was dramatic. Suddenly there was a dialogue. The two melodies alternated, joined, drew apart, curled around each other like the tendrils of a vine. George was lulled into a state that resembled hallucination, where one sense entered his mind in the guise of another. Sound became colour. The smoke of incense, burning every day here for centuries, became his own memories. Past and present fused in a molten river of darkness and gilded flames.

For those who have been to Chinese temple rituals, attending an Orthodox ceremony will seem rather familiar—even down to the wooden semantron that calls people to prayer. The rhythmic click of the thuribles may even remind us of the sepaye of the ashiq in Xinjiang.

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Such a ritual also gives the motley crew of pilgrims a healthy appetite for a friendly reflective chat at the following meal in the trapeza refectory, over what one might expect to be a wealth of succulent local produce. Well, forget it—silence is rigorously imposed among the “diners”, while from a lectern a monk lugubriously intones a passage from the gospels; worse still, the food is both meagre and inexplicably inedible.

Athos trapeza

So the only “blessing” is that one has to wolf it all down in a considerable hurry—not so much Mediterranean “buon appetito” conviviality, delighting in the copious blessings of the earth that our Good Lord has bestowed; more a 1950s’ English embarrassment at this unfortunate necessity that confronts us.

Reminds me of

That was inedible muck. And there wasn’t enough of it.

I’m not knocking Athos. OK, it’s not exactly at the forefront of gender equality, but the rituals, architecture, ancient glowing icons, tranquillity, and stunning scenery all make for an unforgettable experience—and even the meals are indeed a reflection of the world-view that we go there to absorb. Just don’t expect an urbane refined dining experience, that’s all.

A suitable penance for the UNESCO committee that elected “Mediterranean diet” for Intangible Cultural Heritage status might be to consign them to Mount Athos for a few days. That’ll sort ’em out. They will come down from the mountain with a healthy (sic) appetite for a deep-fried Mars bar.