Buddhism under Mao: Wutaishan


After an interlude on ritual around south Jiangsu (notably the great Daoist ritual held in Suzhou in 1956), here I return to my home base of north China, focusing on the Maoist era as a kind of prequel to my post on the Wutaishan Buddhists.

As always, I note the tension between studies of ritual and “music”. Whereas scholars of religion tend to focus on early doctrine and silent texts, Chinese music scholars set forth from the living soundscapes of ritual. At the same time, they have tended to collect reified “pieces of music”, only paying attention to ethnography quite recently. However, at least they do the fieldwork, stressing the actual performance of ritual, and we can glean clues to the changing life of religion in society.

Wutaishan is one of the foremost sites for Buddhism in north China. Since the 1980s, the history of its temples has become a major research topic, [1] and Chinese music scholars have documented their rituals (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.213–25). But already in 1947, amidst civil war and land reform, Ya Xin spent three months on Wutaishan documenting the ritual soundscape (whose features in north China I introduce here).

Following the national Communist victory in 1949, major projects to document a wide range of folk musical genres were initiated right across China. In March 1954 Ya Xin took part in a conference in Chengdu to discuss the enterprise, prompting him and five others to spend August doing fieldwork in the temples of Emeishan in Sichuan. In 1955 he edited a 508-page volume of transcriptions, including both that material and his 1947 work on Wutaishan:

  • Ya Xin 亞欣, Siyuan yinyue 寺院音樂 [Temple music], Zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui Chengdu fenhui, 1955.

By the 1950s, scholars like Yang Yinliu studying “religious music” found it obligatory to defend the “value” of the topic, and Ya Xin prefaced his introduction (pp.1–15) with such a defence. The following transcriptions for Emeishan (pp.16–297) include the major Yuqie yankou ritual, daily services, and other vocal liturgy. [2]

But back in 1947 (just as Bill Hinton was embedded with the land reform teams in a village further south in Shanxi), Ya Xin had carried out fieldwork on Wutaishan while serving as a cultural cadre for the Jin–Sui Liberated Area. The conditions were most taxing: amidst ongoing battles with Nationalist troops, the Communists were implementing land reform. So Ya Xin notes that his work was imperfect. But it was a bold initiative: while collecting folk music had been a major project in the Shaanbei Base Area, temple ritual was not on their agenda.

For Wutaishan (pp.299–454), Ya Xin transcribed the main items from the Yuqie yankou ritual, shengguan wind ensemble melodies for both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles, and the Three Days and Nights (san zhouye) mortuary ritual. With the book’s many transcriptions of hymns (zan 讚), gathas (ji 偈), mantras (zhenyan 真言), and so on, it provided an early framework for understanding the mechanics of vocal liturgy.

YX score

From Ya Xin’s transcriptions of the Wutaishan yankou: Daochang chengjiu hymn,
and opening of Huayan hui, showing melisma with padding characters.

Finally, visiting Du Wanzhongshan’s gufang 鼓房 folk wind band in Dongye town at the foot of the mountain Ya Xin notated their “eight great suites” (pp.455–508), derived from the shengguan of the temple monks (Folk music of China, pp.218–19)—although unlike groups of household ritual specialists, they don’t perform vocal liturgy.

Since Ya Xin wasn’t equipped with a recording machine, one both admires his diligence in transcription and wonders at its accuracy. I surmise that much of his work on the vocal liturgy was done with individual monks singing items for him repeatedly, rather than in the course of rituals—not least because the Buddhist texts themselves are highly complex, so he clearly had access to ritual manuals; and he seems to have consulted gongche scores of the shengguan music too. But he didn’t list the temples where he made his transcriptions, or provide names of monks.

We should bear in mind the wider history of Wutaishan around the time. Here I seek clues in the 1988 Wutai county gazetteer. [3] Though such sources are “history of the victors”, they contain some useful material.

Warlord conflict from the 1920s, with Yan Xishan’s troops active, already made the region unstable. But in 1936 Wutaishan had 130 active temples with 2,200 registered clerics (including 800 lamas)—many of whom were doubtless fleeing from warfare. John Blofeld spent time there in 1936–37.

The early architecture of the Wutaishan temples had attracted historians for some time. Japanese scholars found some important temples early in the 20th century, though the Danish Johannes Prip-Møller was unable to visit during his 1929–33 temple survey. In 1937, on the eve of the invasion, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin rediscovered the Tang-dynasty Foguang si temple. The search for “living fossils” would later become a major industry in Chinese musicology.

Japanese troops invaded the area in October 1938, carrying out several massacres. This was an early base area for the Communists in the resistance against Japan. Both patriotic and quisling Buddhist associations were formed in the temples. Many of the monks assisting the resistance were Tibeto-Mongolian lamas, such as those of the Zhenhai si temple, who in 1938 handed over to the 8th Route Army an entire arsenal of weapons that had been given by Chiang Kai-shek to the bodyguard of the Zhangjiafo lama. Monks handed over another cache of weapons in 1942.

The Nationalists fled in 1943, and the Japanese were in retreat from 1944. By July 1946 the Communists were in complete control, and began carrying out land reform. The monks now lost much of their land and income, and some temples were destroyed. By 1947, with little patronage, tilling the monks’ remaining land constituted 89% of their income.

Yan Xishan’s forces returned in October 1946, but retreated again in November. Even in February 1949 they committed a massacre in Dongye town.

During this whole period from 1937 a succession of Communist leaders had passed through. After Chairman Mao’s 1947 visit to the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, on a trip to Wutaishan in 1948 he expressed appreciation of the cultural heritage of Buddhism (for many such comments see e.g. here). Such utterances might have offered a certain intermittent validation for research, though they are utterly paltry alongside the Party’s long-term onslaught on religion.

Upon Liberation and over the following years, most temple clerics were laicized, with their traditional patronage severely reduced. The remaining monks on Wutaishan (a 1956 survey lists 445) [4] received a monthly income of 20–40 yuan from the county government. During the Maoist era ritual life was doubtless much impoverished, though the authorities sanctioned occasional visits from overseas Buddhist delegations.

Meanwhile, away from the temples, household ritual specialists, their numbers now boosted by clerics returning to the laity, maintained a certain activity. And although the influence of Wutaishan made Buddhism dominant around the region, Daoist ritual specialists were also active, such as in nearby Xinzhou.

Sectarian groups are another major theme in religious life throughout China. The sectarian connections of the amateur ritual associations in central Hebei, whose liturgy was transmitted from temples, are a separate case. But all these sects should interest us, since while not all of them performed complex liturgy, they show a link between temple and lay practice.

It is not that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests were usually sectarian; often, as in Yanggao, occupational ritual specialists are clearly distinct from the sects. But I have a growing list of temples where clerics belonged to such groups (Tianzhen, Xinzhou, Baiyunshan).

The recent county gazetteers, however partial, are often a useful source on the sects. Major campaigns were held from 1950 to 1951, and continued through into the Cultural Revolution. Of course, campaigns against “heterodox teachings” were nothing new, having been frequent under both imperial and republican governments, but the new campaigns were far more ruthless. Still, the sects went underground as usual, and have revived since the 1980s. However partial such recent accounts may be, it is important to bear in mind this perspective on local religious organizations when we consider the practice of folk ritual over the last century; this background still colours local society, and our discussions, today.

In the Wutai region, despite campaigns since 1945, intensifying in 1949 and 1950, a variety of sectarian groups were still active through the 1950s, including the Jiugong dao, Huanxiang dao, and Houtian dao. [5] They had a firm base in the temples as well as throughout the countryside. A brief biography of Zhang San Baotai 张三保泰 (1890–1958), [6] leader of the Houtian dao sect, is so rare as to be worth summarizing.

After joining the sect in 1924, Zhang became a monk at the Yuanzhao si temple on Wutaishan in 1938. The following year he declared himself a living Buddha, but his plot with Yan Xishan’s troops to organize an underground arsenal was exposed. In 1941 he travelled through Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, recruiting over ten thousand followers. His activities continued under the PRC, despite the campaigns of 1950–51. After returning to Wutai from Yuxian in Hebei in 1955, he prepared a major armed uprising for 1960, planning to establish a capital at Dingxian in Hebei, and mobilizing in Shandong; but he was captured and executed in 1958.

Apart from the general persecution of “orthodox” religious practices, the sectarian connection would have further darkened the cloud hanging over the temples.

Research in the 1950s
I know of no fieldwork on the rituals of the Wutaishan temples after Liberation. Still, eighteen monks from Wutaishan took part in a provincial festival of folk music at Taiyuan in 1958, winning a prize. Provincial scholars were hoping to do fieldwork from the mid-1950s, but were unable to do so. [7]

The “eight great suites”
The folk shengguan instrumental bands made a more palatable topic than the vocal liturgy of the temples, and this style did go on to achieve wider fame. In 1953 the Shanxi Radio Station revisited Du Wanzhongshan’s band in Dongye to record, which were widely broadcast, and Liu Shiying 刘士英 published transcriptions.


Bapaizi melody for shengguan, in Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian.

Indeed, early in the War against Japan a friend of Bo Yibo, then a major Communist resistance leader in Shanxi, had lent a 1926 gongche score of this repertoire to Lü Ji, who would become the pre-eminent official pundit of Chinese music. After Liberation Lü Ji lent the score to Yang Yinliu; [8] a page was reproduced in vol.4 of the 1957 Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片, spreading awareness of the genre in music circles.

Even as the enforcement of the commune system was leading to desperation, further recordings of the suites, along with transcriptions, were made from 1959, with Du’s son Du San now leading the band.

When I first visited Wutaishan in 1986 it was still far from a bustling national and international tourist attraction. Indeed, I needed a special permit to travel there. Even the town of Taihuai was still a tranquil retreat. But my attention soon turned from the temples to folk ritual practice, and on my later trips I explored household groups in the surrounding region, including a fine shengguan band in Dongye town, led by Xu Yousheng. In 1992, having followed them round on funerals, we held a recording session (#5 on CD1 of my China: folk instrumental traditions; or a shorter version as #5 of the CD with the 1998 paperback of Folk music of China).

Since the reforms
The provincial scholars who had planned fieldwork on Wutaishan in the mid-1950s were only able to realize the project after the end of the Cultural Revolution, leaping into action as early as 1978. A group of senior monks was invited to the Shanxi Music and Dance Research Institute that year, and the precious recordings (as well as some further tracks from 1988) were issued on the five-cassette series

  • Wutaishan foyue 五台山佛乐, with notes by Liu Jianchang, in The Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China series, ed. Tian Qing (Shanghai yinxiang gongsi, 1989; reissued on CD since 1998). [9]

The set includes both vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble music, with excerpts from the yankou ritual and examples of both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles. Like the group that came to England in 1992, most of the performers had been ordained on Wutaishan but had spent much of the Maoist era elsewhere in Shanxi, doing rituals sporadically among the folk. And meanwhile the “southern” style of vocal liturgy was replacing the distinctive regional styles of northern temples (such as Beijing and Shenyang).

1978 mim

From 1978 to 1980, Chen Jiabin and Liu Jianchang published transcriptions in mimeograph, and by the 1980s, along with the Anthology fieldwork, several provincial scholars were undertaking studies. The most extensive research is

  • Han Jun 韩军, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun 五台山佛教音乐总论 (2012).

The Anthology coverage is also substantial:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 山西卷 (2000), introduction pp.1543–53, transcriptions 1554–1768.

The yankou: opening of Huayan hui hymn, from Anthology. For variant renditions, see Han Jun, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun, pp.152–5.

Such studies suffer from the usual flaws of Chinese research, consisting mainly of reified transcriptions rather than ethnography, but they contain some clues to the changing fortunes of religious life.

Meanwhile, as with groups such as the Zhihua temple, media coverage steered clear of the ritual basis of the tradition by highlighting the shengguan instrumental ensemble, with glossy performances on stage.

  • Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012)

also mainly focuses on the shengguan ensemble, but she takes a more ethnographic approach, with useful sections on the vocal liturgy; notes on actual rituals observed, including a funeral; and astute comments on the ideological baggage of Chinese studies and the recent commodified market.

* * *

In the West the study of Chinese ritual is often considered to date from the work of Kristofer Schipper in Taiwan in the 1960s; and in the PRC much of the vast energy in researching local ritual traditions has taken place since the 1980s.

However, long before scholars of religion, fieldworkers in mainland China, in the Republican era and under Maoism, were hard at work documenting ritual practice—their studies conducted under the discreet guise of “music”. [10] It was the intrepid fieldwork of such scholars before 1965, despite all the ideological obstacles then placed in their way, that formed the background to the monumental Anthology project of the 1980s. While most Chinese music scholars working on northern ritual traditions stress the shengguan ensemble, they don’t neglect the vocal liturgy.

Most scholars of Buddhism, and indeed Daoism, are more concerned with early doctrinal issues and the material heritage than with ritual performance. But as I constantly stress, if we wish to study religion in China, we must get to grips with its soundscape. And even this barely addresses my main concern—the changing ritual life of local communities.


[1] Note e.g. the journal Wutaishan yanjiu 五台山研究, and the recent volume Yishan er wuding: duoxueke, kuafangyu, chaowenhua shiyexiade Wutai xinyang yanjiu 一山而五頂:多學科,跨方域,超文化視野下的五台信仰研究 [One mountain of five plateaus: studies of the Wutai cult in multidisciplinary, crossborder and transcultural approaches], ed. Miaojiang 妙江, Chen Jinhua 陳金華, Kuan Guang 寬廣 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2017).

[2] Yang Yinliu had visited Qingchengshan in the summer of 1942, but his attempts to transcribe vocal liturgy there were frustrated by an unhelpful abbot (see his 1961 essay “How to treat religious music”). BTW, folk and temple ritual in the vast province of Sichuan is also a major topic that I can’t begin to address—as ever, the Anthology is one starting-point, and Volker Olles can provide leads.

[3] Besides other essays in the Wutai xianzhi, for “major events” of the Republican and Maoist eras, see pp.696–714. See also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012), pp.10–21. For more background, see Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (1972).

[4] Wutai xianzhi, p.581.

[5] Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.

[6] Wutai xianzhi, p.643.

[7] Liu Jianchang 刘建昌, Chen Jiabin 陈家滨, and Ren Deze 任德泽, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告, Yinyue wudao 1990.1.

[8] Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji (1986), prelude by Lü Ji, p.3.

[9] Cf. Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries, pp.128–9. Of course, rituals such as the yankou, with its complex Tantric mudras, cry out to be documented on film. For a brief 2003 excerpt from a yankou in a minor temple in Yanggao, led by a monk trained at Wutaishan, see my film Doing Things.

[10] Cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.20–26.

A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956


SZ 1956

The Daoists who took part in the jiao ritual, with the study team. Suzhou, August 1956.

From the early 1950s to the eve of the Cultural Revolution, notwithstanding constant political campaigns, the fieldwork of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing was largely based on ritual traditions. The grandeur of religious life around south Jiangsu was, and is, comparable with that of southeast China and Hunan. Yang Yinliu had long experience of Daoist ritual in Wuxi; but another definitive project in Suzhou in August 1956, while Yang was leading a survey in Hunan, was quite separate:

  • Suzhou daojiao yishu ji 苏州道教艺术集 [Daoist arts of Suzhou], Zhongguo wudao yishu yanjiuhui yanjiuzu 中国舞蹈艺术研究会研究组 (mimeograph 1957, reprint Shanghai shehui kexueyuan, 2009)

Daoism in the whole Suzhou region has an illustrious history. And by the 1950s, by contrast with most other regions of China, the city already had a history of research and training institutions. In the Republican era and even in the troubled 1940s, several such groups were formed, such as the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 and its short-lived successors Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, Yunji she 雲笈社, and Ziyun daoxue yanjiushe 紫雲道學研究社. After the 1949 revolution, under the watchful eyes of Party officials, the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group was formed in winter 1952, recruiting many distinguished Daoists.

Under the PRC, despite my reservations about the term “religious music”, a focus on music served to distract from the taint of religion: while Daoist ritual might be suspect, study under the guise of “Daoist music”—particularly its instrumental component—was more palatable to the authorities. Indeed, this was still true when I began my fieldwork in the late 1980s.

In August 1956, Wu Xiaobang 吴晓邦, head of the Chinese Dance Research Association in Beijing, brought a team to Suzhou, where with the assistance of the Bureau of Culture they worked with the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group to organize a complete large-scale jiao 醮 Offering ritual.

This was a major undertaking. Far from reducing the topic to a simple commodified programme of instrumental melodies (as was still common in the 1990s), they documented the ritual in detail, both in the 330-page book and in a complete documentary film. This was all the more remarkable considering the escalating political campaigns, with people increasingly anxious as the commune system was enforced ever more rigorously. Later, alas, the film seems to have been destroyed, though the editors of the 2009 reprint of the book claim that it was preserved at the Dance Association in Beijing.

Of course, it was a work of salvage. While minimal Daoist rituals were still performed around the region, this was a rare opportunity to assemble leading Daoists to perform a complete jiao—perhaps the grandest religious ritual held in China from 1949 to 1979. Indeed, since the 1990s similar digital salvage projects have been initiated, involving a core of senior Daoists—some of whom had taken part of the 1956 project. But documenting routine ritual practice in socal life, in the 1950s or today, is a separate topic.

XMG 1956

The Xuanmiao guan temple, 1956.

The ritual was held at the Wanshou gong 萬壽宮 temple just south of Suzhou’s main temple the Xuanmiao guan 玄妙觀, which was being restored at the time. The Wanshou gong was itself in disrepair by 1949 but had been converted to a People’s Cultural Palace in 1951, so it was now requisitioned for the ritual.

The book contains three main parts:

  • The segments of the jiao, with its three overarching ritual sections Quanfu 全符, Quanbiao 全表, and Huosi chao 火司朝 (pp.1–61), including diagrams of “dance” postures; followed by long lists of performers and their division of responsibilities, including fashi 法師 ritual masters, instrumentalists, and helpers (pp.62–70).
  • Detailed transcriptions of the vocal and instrumental music in ritual sequence (see below)
  • Plates (pp.276–330), including the jiao itself and its ritual equipment, as well as statues and ritual paintings (with some from other Suzhou temples).

Jifu guan

ritual pics

ritual 2

placard 1placard 2Placards proclaiming the Offering ritual.

Such photos make suitably surprising additions to my post Images from the Maoist era.

The main editors of the volume were Jin Zhongying 金中英 and Yu Shangqing 余尚清. Jin Zhongying (1925–96), a hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, headed the official Daoist Music Research Group from 1953. With his extensive personal collection of ritual manuals, he provided the Juntian miaoyue 鈞天妙樂, an important compilation of gongche scores of Daoist instrumental melodies, compiled by Wu Ding’an 吾定庵 and edited by Cao Xisheng 曹希聖 in the late 18th century. Meanwhile many other experienced Daoists were recruited to the Research Group.

SZ daoshi

Zhao Houfu, Cao Yuanxi, Zhou Zufu, and Mao Zhongqing in later years.
Source: Suzhou Daojiao yinyue gaishu.

The Daoists who were assembled in 1956 to perform the jiao came from hereditary backgrounds; until the 1950s, some had been temple clerics, while others had served as freelance household Daoists. Despite the forming of the research group, the authors note a certain depletion of personnel as outstanding Daoist instrumentalists were recruited to state performing troupes. Still, it was a stellar cast of Daoists who took part in the 1956 ritual—including Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?), Cao Yuanxi 曹元希 (1913–89, descended from Cao Xisheng!), Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (b.1913), Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (b.1915), and Jin Zhongying himself. Indeed, some of them were recalled for the occasion from their jobs in the troupes. And apart from the instrumentalists, note also the list of eminent fashi 法師 masters (pp.63 and 64) who presided over the liturgy—I would love to learn more about their backgrounds and fortunes under Maoism.

The introduction to the history of “Daoist music” in Suzhou (pp.71–87; note pp.79–80) makes an impressive early account of the subject. The long following section (pp.88–275) provides gongche solfeggio notation for the different ritual segments, showing the whole unfolding sequence of the sung hymns of the vocal liturgy (with their texts shown alongside the melody) and the chuida (Shifan) instrumental items that punctuate the ritual (also a speciality of the former tangming bands). Indeed, even for scholars of Daoist ritual who prefer to study texts in isolation from their performance, volumes like this, and the later Anthology, provide a wealth of ritual texts. Note that traditionally only the instrumental melodies were notated, not the vocal items; and of course, gongche is anyway only an aid to memory.

The authors’ choice of gongche, rather than the cipher notation that was already commonly used in Chinese musicology, is interesting. It may derive from the Daoists’ own familiarity with it—though they made a fine innovation by adding detailed rhythmic markers in the style of cipher notation, which they also used alongside mnemonic characters to notate the complex drum sections.

This is a rare insider’s account of the building blocks of Daoist ritual, thoughtfully annotated. Wonderful as it is, to most scholars of Daoism it will be even less intelligible than cipher notation—even conservatoire students are unfamiliar with gongche.

Songjing gongde gongcheOpening of Songjing gongde, a widely used hymn in both temple and household Daoist groups.

Tianshi hymn gongcheOpening of Quanbiao ritual: instrumental Yifeng shu leading into Tianshi song hymn, whose text is the generational poem for the priestly lineage.

For the vocal liturgy, somewhat more accessible (if only somewhat) are later transcriptions into cipher notation such as the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1473–1645):

Songjing gongde JCOpening of Songjing gongde hymn, transcribed by Anthology collectors from a 1990s’ rendition, also showing percussion accompaniment.

Tianshi hymn JCTianshi song hymn as transcribed by Anthology collectors.

and other modern studies like Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 苏州道教科仪音乐研究 (1999)—here’s his transcription of the Buxu hymn Taiji fen gaohou, another commonly performed item throughout China sung to differing melodies by region (see e.g. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.273–4, and my film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38):


Taiji JCOpening of Taiji fen gaohou hymn as transcribed in the Anthology.

The 1957 volume’s extensive transcriptions are deeply impressive, clearly a labour of love on the part of Jin Zhongying and Yu Shangqing—even recently, scholars of Daoism are often content to reproduce lengthy ritual manuals with scant explanation of how they are performed. So it would be churlish of me to note that this long section (apart from the brief chanted introits to the hymns) provides only the melodic sections, not including the many recited texts which are also a vital aspect of the ritual. It is best read in tandem with the summary of ritual segments on pp.57–61.

Despite the laudable (and rare) focus on soundscape, the volume still falls short of being a complete account of the Suzhou jiao. It would be over thirty years before scholars like Yuan Jingfang began documenting the texts and music of complex rituals still more systematically (see e.g. her volumes on the Beijing yankou and the jiao of household Daoists in south Hebei).

But of course, nothing is so valuable as film, and I still gnash my teeth (a Daoist practice of cosmic visualization, by the way!) over the loss of the 1956 documentary. In its absence, major projects to document Suzhou Daoist ritual on film have resumed in recent years. We can gain a flavour by watching a 2011 excerpt from the Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 发符) ritual segment here.

What was not on the agenda was a description of ritual activities in the wider society around Suzhou at the time—more on that story later. Meanwhile, let’s pause again to marvel at the energy of ritual research under the taxing conditions of Maoism.


With many thanks to Tao Jin






Images from the Maoist era

Xi'an village festival, 1950s.

Village festival near Xi’an, 1950s.

One of the main themes of this blog, and my whole work, is the tenuous maintenance of expressive culture through the decades of Maoism.

There are many sources for visual images of the period, including the site of Covell Meyskens (see this interview). But photos of folk performance activity in the countryside during the period (like the one above) are less common. One useful source is the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, under the rubrics of folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance; indeed, the volumes have rare images from the Republican, Maoist, and reform eras.

My posts include many such photos. Here’s a sample—do click on the links for background, and get to know the soundscape through recordings.

Several precious photos derive from the definitive work of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing, such as

Zhihua temple 1954

My tribute to Yang Yinliu includes several numinous images, such as

  • Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe immersed in research at the Institute, 1961:


  • A brief excursion to Huashan amidst the gathering political clouds, May 1965:

Huashan 1965

  • Shifan groups in Jiangsu:
  • Fieldwork in Hequ, Shanxi, 1953


Confucian ritual in Hunan https://stephenjones.blog/2019/03/28/hunan-confucian-ritual/

  • Meanwhile in Suzhou, a remarkable 1956 project documented a complete Daoist jiao ritual:

LQM shiban

  • More from Xi’an: former Daoist priest An Laixu leading a 1961 visit to Beijing:

ALX group lowres

  • Recreational ensembles in Yulin, Shaanbei:
  • including this wonderful 1962 photo of the Qiao family:

Qiao family 1962

  • Images of rural narrative-singing include the model bard Han Qixiang in Shaanbei, and Xihe dagu in Hebei:

A wealth of photos of qin zither players from the period is available, such as

For the Li family Daoists in Shanxi,

LPS and wife

  • and the only early photos of the great Li Qing were taken during his brief sojourn in the secular regional troupe in 1959:

If only we had images (or films!) of them performing rituals in the period!

Still in Yanggao,

  • the wonderful Li Jin during his time as an errentai operatic clown:

Meanwhile in Hebei, photos of ritual groups from the period are again rare. Perhaps the most remarkable image of all is

  • former Buddhist monk Daguang with his disciples in North Xinzhuang village in the Beijing suburbs, 1959:

North Xinzhuang 1959

1981 photo

In addition, over the period folk ritual groups recopied many gongche scores of the wind ensemble music that accompanies ritual, many of which appear in my many notes under local ritual.

I’m still curious to learn if such images might be available for expressive culture in Stalin’s Russia. Supplementing our talks with people who recall the Maoist era, it looks as if despite their appalling sufferings, folk traditions in embattled local communities in China were maintained with more resilience, however tenously. Do read the posts in which these photos appear!



Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative. Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the Gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The Gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the Gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Fujian, 1961 and onwards

LQM shiban

Shiban ensemble, west Fujian 1962.

I’ve already introduced important early fieldwork projects after “Liberation” under the auspices of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, led by the great Yang Yinliu. Such work continued even after the chaos caused by the Great Leap Backward.

In late 1961, soon after the publication of Yang’s major survey for Hunan (and as the Morris dancing revival continued in England!) Li Quanmin 李佺民 (1924–83), who had already taken part in the 1953 survey of folk-song in northwest Shanxi, was dispatched to the far south on a trip to Fujian province, whose vibrant folk cultures were still quite unknown to Beijing scholars. [1]

  • Fujian minjian yinyue: caifang baogao 福建民间音乐采: 访报告 [Folk music of Fujian: field report] (Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1963, mimeograph, 155 pp.)

LQM cover

Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Hunan had utilised both his own team from Beijing and regional cadres, considering a broad range of genres, pervaded by ritual. But Li Quanmin arrived alone in Fujian, and travelled only in the company of the young regional music scholars Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华 (who went on to become leading authorities on the musics of Fujian), so this project was less ambitious. In their survey from 12th November 1961 to 28th January 1962 they conducted both overviews for particular counties and interviews on specific genres. Their fieldnotes are reproduced more or less as they were taken at the time.

Even today, outsiders’ impressions of the musical cultures of Fujian may largely be based on the glorious nanyin chamber ensembles of Hokkien communities around Quanzhou and Xiamen, but the report was the first to provide a window on the huge variety of expressive cultures throughout the province. Indeed, while the history, music, language, and ethnography of nanyin alone are a topic for several lifetimes, the 1986 survey Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun can only spare 22 of its 611 pages for the topic!

The cultures of Fujian may profitably be studied alongside those of the diaspora (notably Taiwan); while these have preserved many traditional features that were under attack on the mainland, the resilience of tradition in the PRC is remarkable.

They began by meeting representatives of official state troupes in cultural offices, noting studies by local scholars, and going on to assemble performers to make recordings. They focused on vocal and instrumental chamber ensembles; while, as everywhere, such groups mainly served life-cycle and calendrical rituals, the social contexts receive limited attention. The team got glimpses of the riches of local opera, but merely noted the researches of regional scholars—who, indeed, had been busy collecting material ever since the 1949 Liberation.

Though ritual connections are constantly apparent, the report gives only brief mentions of temple and household ritual specialists. The activities of household Daoists are only mentioned in passing; only since the 1980s have detailed monographs shown what a major feature of life they are throughout the region—indeed, this was the first region that scholars began to study once they were able to expand their studies from Taiwan to the mainland across the strait.

I’ve already noted the need to oscillate between wider generic surveys for a whole province or region (“gazing at flowers from horseback” 走马观花) and more detailed reports on one county, village, or family (see also under Local ritual).

As yet more political campaigns unfolded after the brief lull following the disasters of the Leap, this was to be among one of the last fieldwork projects until work resumed in earnest from the late 1970s.

Part One of Li Quanmin’s report contains reports from the southeast coastal region of the province. In Xiamen they visited the great nanyin expert Ji Jingmou 纪经畝 (1899–1986, or 1901–87), [2] recording him leading the Jinfeng group 金風南樂團.

Just west in Zhangzhou, after gaining brief introductions to jin’ge 錦歌 and shiba yin 十八音 (cf. the shiyin bayue 十音八樂 of Putian), they give a rather more detailed account of nanci 南詞 and the related instrumental shiquan qiang 十全腔. The occupational groups performing nanci were known as tangban 堂班, performing items like The Heavenly Officer Bestows Blessings (Tianguan cifu 天官賜福) before a painting of Heavenly Master Zhang; the genre seems to have spread from Jiangxi.

For the wider Longxi region around Zhangzhou, Liu Chunshu gave them an overview of various genres, including Songs to Wash the Gods (xifo ge 洗佛歌), presented as a superstitious genre from “the past”, sung during the first five moons by itinerant duos, one with a god image on his back; [3] dragon-boat songs in praise of Qu Yuan, noting ritual connections; and musics deriving from Chaozhou just south.

In Quanzhou they gained a further outline of nanyin (on which there was already a substantial amount of local research), as well as briefer impressions of shiyin (for a photo from my 1990 trip see here); they mention the Assault on the Citadel ritual drama (dacheng xi 打城戲) [4] and itinerant sijin ban 四錦班 bands of blind female singers. They also studied the venerable “casket winds” (longchui) shawm bands (on which more below)—I’ve now added one of Li Quanmin’s 1961 recordings to the playlist in the sidebar (#15), with commentary here.


The longchui casket. My photo, Tianhou gong temple, Quanzhou 1990.

In Quanzhou they also talked with the Buddhist monk Miaolian 妙蓮 (see below), making notes on his master the renowned Hongyi 弘一 (Li Shutong李叔同, 1880–1942), an authority on ritual music, and visiting the Kaiyuan si temple.

In Putian and Xianyou—another highly distinctive cultural sub-region—they learned of shiyin bayue 十音八樂, related to the local opera—itself a rich ancient tradition most worthy of study. Folk-song genres included shan’ge 山歌, itinerant lige 俚歌, and “singing the nine lotuses” (jiulian chang 九蓮唱). Li Quanmin reproduces a local draft for the new Putian county gazetteer, which includes a section on “ritual music” (fashi yinyue), outlining Buddhist and Daoist groups.

A clue now led them to make a detour to the poor Badu region of Ningde, north of Fuzhou, to record the two-part folk-songs of the She 畲 minority there—just one of the regions where they dwell through Fujian and adjoining provinces. Li Quanmin lent his recordings of the songs to the provincial Broadcasting Station in Fuzhou for copying—who promptly lost them.

The whole of Part Two is dedicated to the largely Hakka cultures of southwest Fujian further inland. Even their studies around this region involved lengthy journeys. Incidentally, this is yet another region where household Daoists still have impressive traditions.

Here the team focused on the shiban 十班 (in some areas known as shifan 十番) and jingban 靜班 groups. They soon discovered the complexities of local terminology. Mostly amateur groups, with a core of stringed instruments, they are often based on local drama; but usually there is also a strong link with occupational shawm bands and percussion groups.

In the Longyan region the jingban were related to Raoping chui 饒平吹 shawm bands, named after the region further south in Guangdong. Moving west from the regional seat, in Shanghang they noted the effects of historical migrations. In Liancheng they learned from Luo Xuehong, head of the county song-and-dance opera troupe, an erstwhile accompanist of Buddhist and Daoist ritual specialists and marionette bands—reminding us that state troupes were then full of such experienced “old artists”.

They continued their studies of the jingban in Changting—where they also gain a tantalizing clue to the furen jiao 夫人教 (or “singing Haiqing” 唱海青) exorcistic ritual performed by household Daoists to protect children (cf. guoguan). In north China Haiqing 海青 is a common subject of ritual shengguan wind ensemble pieces, but it has been assumed to be a bird of prey; however, material from Fujian shows that he is a deity there: Thunder Haiqing (Lei Haiqing) is a manifestation of Tiandu yuanshuai 天都元帥.

Still in Changting, they gained further material on shiban groups, visiting Dapu 大浦commune to learn of the temple fair to the Great God of the Five Valleys (Wugu dashen 五谷大神). Returning to Longyan they continued to explore the relation between the jingban and shiban groups. Hearing of the lively scene in Kanshi town in Yongding, based on its temple fairs, they moved on there. Back in Longyan again, they ended their trip with a visit to a jingban group in Dongxiao commune.

Throughout the trip, in addition to occupational performers, they met amateurs— factory and manual workers, traders, and peasants—whose livelihoods had been in flux for several decades. But alas, what we can’t expect from such sources is discussion of the changing society (though see here, and for more revealing official sources, here). Fujian was far from immune from the famine, [5] with migrants fleeing in all directions—though the report discreetly refrains some such topics. A desultory sentence on the itinerant singers of lige claims:

Before Liberation most people weren’t keen on singing it [?!], but after the Great Leap Forward in 1958 the government esteemed it and [sic] used it for propaganda.

But in contrast to propaganda, this is just the kind of folk activity that was reviving among migrants in the desperation following the disasters of the Leap.

Since the 1980s
While Li Quanmin’s survey is less impressive than Yang Yinliu’s earlier report on Hunan, it laid a groundwork for later studies of Fujian. After the interruption through the Cultural Revolution, the liberalizations of the late 1970s allowed fieldwork to resume on a large scale, largely under the auspices of the national Anthology project.

Even before the publication of the latter, a single-volume survey appeared by two provincial scholars who had accompanied Li Quanmin in 1961–62:

  • Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华, Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun 福建民间音乐简论 (1986).

FJ book

Its 611 pages not only give more informed accounts of the genres introduced in the 1963 survey, but provide more extensive coverage of a wider range of regional genres, including the lesser-known north of the province. The volume adopts the overall classification that had been developed from the 1950s, now enshrined in the Anthology—and as ever, most of them are strongly interconnected:

  • folk-song (with a wider coverage of the She minority, pp.199–­229)
  • narrative-singing (nanyin appears here, alongside genres such as jin’ge, nanci, and beiguan)
  • opera, including Minju, Gezai xi, Pu–Xian xi, Liyuan xi, Gaojia xi, marionettes, and shadow puppets
  • instrumental music: various shifan and shiban genres, longchui, and so on.
Liu and Wang shiban route

A helpful map of the transmission of shiban.

There is no separate section for “religious music” [sic], but some “religious songs” are briefly introduced (pp.144–63), and ritual genres pervade all the categories.

On a very different note, Wang and Liu end with an introduction to the Fujian tradition of the qin zither, which had also formed part of Zha Fuxi’s national survey in 1956.

Fieldtrips, 1986 and 1990
On my first stay in China in 1986, after exploratory trips to Wutaishan, Xi’an, and Shanghai, I visited Fujian, gaining a preliminary glimpse of nanguan and learning much from Ken Dean, then based in Xiamen. Ken was among the first scholars to cross the strait from Taiwan to the mainland to study local Daoist ritual traditions, and his detailed early field reports are most inspiring:

  • “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 2 (1986), pp.191–209
  • “Funerals in Fujian”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988), pp.19–78
  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall, 1985”, in Tsao Ben-yeh and Daniel Law (eds.), Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken’s fieldwork led to major monographs:

  • Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China (1993)
  • Ritual alliances of the Putian plain (2 volumes, 2009)

and most illuminating of all, his vivid 2010 film

  • Bored in heaven, on ritual activity in Putian (for differences between his approach and more text-based Daoist scholarship, see here).

With Ken I attended a nocturnal ritual in a Quanzhou temple, with marionettes (on which, note Robin Ruizendaal’s wonderful 2006 book Marionette theatre in Quanzhou—with rare coverage of the fortunes of such groups under Maoism):

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986.

And I visited the beautiful county of Hui’an on the coast:

Hui’an 1986: left, nuns; right, the distinctively-clothed women of Hui’an.

After my first serious survey of ritual associations on the Hebei plain in 1989 with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, he accompanied me on my return to Fujian in early 1990, moving north from fieldwork around Guangdong on a reccy for what became chapters 14 and 15 of Folk music of China. Xue Yibing’s careful notes were as precious as ever. Like Li Quanmin, we often began by visiting local experts; but we also sought out local ritual practice, such as temple fairs—and by contrast with most regions of north China, such activity was ubiquitous despite all the traumas of the intervening twenty-eight years.

In Quanzhou city we spent wonderful time with nanyin groups, and learned more about longchui, still magnificent, with the versatile ritual accompanist Wang Wenqin 王文钦 (then 66 sui) and shawm master Huang Tiancong 黃天從 (67 sui, son of Huang Qingquan who led the 1961 recording) as our guides. In Puxi village nearby we found shiyin (see photo here), and in Hui’an we visited one of many groups performing beiguan—a major genre in Taiwan.

As always, folk ritual is the engine for expressive culture, and a variety of such groups assemble for a wealth of temple fairs. In many communities around Fujian the extraordinary ritual revival was stimulated by funding from the overseas diaspora.

At the Tianhou gong 天后宮 temple in Quanzhou city we attended a vibrant Dotting the Eyes (dianyan 點眼) inauguration ritual for the goddess Mazu—with pilgrim groups from all around the surrounding area as well as Taiwan (including palanquins holding god statuettes, shiyin bands and a Gezai xi drama group), a Daoist presiding, ritual marionettes inside and outside the temple, along with magnificent nanyin and longchui.

Above: (left) ritual marionettes; (right) a Daoist officiates.
Below: longchui led by Wang Wenqin on foot-drum and Zhuang Yongchang on shawm.

Later the longchui performers invited us to a gongde funeral at which they alternated with three household Daoists performing a Bloody Bowl (xuepen 血盆) ritual, as well as a lively Western brass band. And the distinguished marionette troupe performed moving excerpts from Mulian 目連 ritual drama for us: [6]

puppet at grave

puppets group

Having recently found the sheng-tuner Qi Youzhi in a town south of Beijing thanks to Yang Yinliu’s precious 1953 clue, we now visited the Buddhist monk Miaolian, whom Li Quanmin had visited in 1961. Now 78 sui, he was still at the Kaiyuan si temple; indeed, he had even remained there throughout the Cultural Revolution, when he was among a staff of over twenty resident monks.

Miaolian and XYB

Miaolian with Xue Yibing, 1990.

We ended our visit in Fuzhou, gaining further clues to the chanhe 禪和 (doutang 斗堂) style of folk ritual (see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan, pp.2086–2243).

As for Li Quanmin previously, the trip merely allowed us to gasp at the enormity of the expressive cultures of Fujian. As I began focusing on north China, I was increasingly aware that local ritual activity must be a major topic there too.

Meanwhile the anthropologist Wang Mingming was doing detailed work on the history and ethnography of the culture of the Quanzhou region.

The Anthology
And meanwhile the monumental Anthology was being compiled, with volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance each weighing in at between one and two thousand pages—and as usual, the published material is only a small part of that collected. To be sure, much of this consists of transcriptions (which anyway are of limited use if we can’t hear the recordings), but even the textual introductions (as well as the vocal texts, often orally transmitted) offer valuable leads.

Coverage of nanyin, the subject of a vast wealth of separate research, is distributed through the volumes on narrative-singing, instrumental music, and indeed opera. The Fujian folk-song volumes are among the most impressive in that category; the songs of the She minority are covered at some length (pp.1240–1412).

JC shawms

Shawm bands of Changtai county, and (lower left) of Putian county.

In the instrumental music volumes, besides the string ensembles much of the coverage yet again describes shawm and percussion bands. As ever, we find leads to genres that are still largely unknown outside their vicinity. And of course any single county has several hundred villages, all with their ritual and entertainment performance traditions. In 1986, for instance, at least 139 village nanguan societies were active in the single county of Nan’an.

beiguan JC

Beiguan, Hui’an county.

While the coverage of “sacrificial” and “religious” musics (pp.1757–2683) has now been eclipsed by the detailed projects on household Daoists led by scholars based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the Anthology offers some leads. After a very brief introduction, we find transcriptions of items from the rituals of household Daoists in Putian, Xianyou, and Nan’an counties (pp.1757–1836, 2448–2683). Also introduced are xianghua 香花  household Buddhists of Fuzhou and Putian (pp.2086–2423); and the She minority feature again (pp.1836–93).

For all its flaws, the Anthology is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement.

* * *

Although field research since the 1980s has taken the study of the diverse sub-cultures of Fujian to a new level, it’s important to note the energy of the years before the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, apart from the riches of its performance traditions, Fujian has long had a deep tradition of local scholarship.

Of course, in the context of the pre-Cultural Revolution period, brief visits inevitably focused on reified “genres” rather than on documenting social activity. And “hit-and-run” trips by fieldworkers from Beijing or London can never compare to the long-term immersion of local scholars, like Wu Shizhong for nanyin, or Ye Mingsheng for Daoist ritual. Ye’s account of one single ritual performed by one group of Lüshan Daoists (even while hardly addressing their lives or ritual vicissitudes since the 1940s) occupies a hefty 1,418 pages!

As always, expressive culture—based on ritual—makes an important prism on the changing social lives of local communities.


[1] See my Folk music of China, ch.14, with extensive refs. up to the mid-1990s; to attempt an update would be a major task. I have fallen back on pinyin, rather than attempting to render terms in local languages.

[2] See Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成,福建卷, pp.2703–4.

[3] Cf. Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun, pp.130–­36.

[4] For some refs., see my Folk music of China, p.293 n.17.

[5] For the Quanzhou region, see e.g. Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan (2011), ch.4.

[6] Among a wealth of research on Mulian drama, see David Johnson (ed.), Ritual opera, operatic ritual: “Mulian rescues his mother” in Chinese popular culture (1989).




New tag: famine


Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

Two recent themes


Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

And further posts followed:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.