Lhasa: streets with memories

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Lhasa cover

Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:

  • Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).

Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.

The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflicting memories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.

He opens the Preface with some broad context:

Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…

Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.

Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that

some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.

In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.

Lhasa 1904Plan of Lhasa, 1904, by L.A. Waddell. Source.

Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent

not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.

Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.

A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).

Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.

Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:

Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.

Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.

Lhasa 1950s
Lhasa, late 1950s.

Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date

to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.

Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.

Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.

As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,

the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—

until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.

It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.

Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.

À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,

the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.

In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.

I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.

Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,

building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.

From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:

Comrade Editor,
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…

By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.

Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.

Lhasa 96

Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.

Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.

Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.

Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.

Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:

As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.

As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others

is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.

Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students

mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.

In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:

“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”

And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.

The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.

In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.

Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.

While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.

Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.

Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.

It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.

The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,

America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.

Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:

Pelosi

The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.

Mazu
Mazu. Source.

Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).

President Tsai also awarded Pelosi the civilian Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon (Qingyun xunzhang 卿雲勳章)—another ritual title (cf. deities such as Houtu, enfeoffed as Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝). Perhaps Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Italian-American background further enhances the ritual connection, recalling the Madonna pilgrimage (another niangniang female deity) of Italian Harlem.

And as to Pelosi and Catholicism, click here for a discussion of an extraordinary image from the Chinese embassy in France, depicting the Virgin Mary (Pelosi) as a baby-stealing witch. 

For Pelosi’s “long history of opposing Beijing”, including her 1991 visit to Tiananmen to commemorate the victims of the 1989 demonstrations, click here.

Pelosi Tiananmen

Meanwhile, as rabid nationalist Hu Xijin of the Chinese Global Times denounced Pelosi’s visit, Chinese netizens have fabricated an unlikely fantasy love affair between them:

Pelosi Hu

Just as unlikely, “back in the USA”, for once, Fox News and Mitch McConnell—normally Pelosi’s harshest critics—are full of praise for her initiative.

* * *

Around the time of Obama’s visit to China in 2009, “Obamao” T-shirts (“serve the people”) were sold in Beijing before being banned:

ObamaoSource.

While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.

The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).


I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!

Li Shiyu on folk religion in Philadelphia

來而不往非禮也

LSY cover

We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.

Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.

Grootaers heying

Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong. [1] Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).

After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.

And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 [2011], pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.

LSY opening

In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.

LSY and deputy mayorWith the Mayor of Philadelphia.

My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.

Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”. [2] Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).

In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”

Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.

To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):

Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).

I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into [3] when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:

After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.

Mother DivineMother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.

In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.

Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.

While Li Shiyu was in the States, Robert Orsi’s study of the Madonna cult in New York’s Italian Harlem was published, a book that would have impressed him.

* * *

Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.

Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.

Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.

Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.


[1] See the detailed critique on the site of Hannibal Taubes, in four parts starting here; for bibliography, see n.1 in my article on The cult of Elder Hu.

[2] The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.

[3] Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.

The headscarf, emblem of the Chinese revolution

Images from 1968 (left) and 1980 (right); see here.

In north China the white cloth that male peasants tie around their heads became an emblem of the revolution. The custom long predated the 1949 Liberation, but was another casualty of the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

While the headgear was common throughout the north Chinese countryside, it is often associated with Shaanbei, revolutionary base from the 1930s. In this 1981 group photo from Yulin, only a couple of shawm players were wearing them (see Walking shrill), outnumbered by the peaked caps which were a more modern image of the revolution:

1981 photo

In the hill village of Yangjiagou, here’s the shawm player Chang Bingyou (1916–98), father of our friend Older Brother:

Chang Daye

Though fashion moved slowly in the countryside, by the time I visited Shaanbei in 1999 headscarves were already rare. Here’s the Yangjiagou band at a funeral in 1999:

YJG band

So it was purely in a spirit of nostalgia that we took this photo with Older Brother and Chouxiao in 1999:

YJG trio

But some older people in the region were still wearing the headscarf—here’s a band from Linxian (across the river in Shanxi) at the Baiyunshan temple fair in 2001:

BYS shawm band

Here’s Guo Yuhua with the last Yangjiagou villager still wearing it in 2005:

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

In the countryside south of Beijing, headscarves were also rare in Gaoluo by the 1990s. The wonderful He Yi was virtually the only villager who still wore one:

In the depth of winter villagers often wore protective earflaps:

GL wentan

Vocal liturgists perform for funeral, South Gaoluo 1995.

In Gaoluo even I resorted to headgear, affecting an English proletarian flat ’at.

See also Funerary headgear.

* * *

Meanwhile, a world away from the Chinese revolution:

JEG

English Baroque Soloists rehearsal: see Barbed comments.

The fine line between irony and Looking a Complete Twat is lost on the repugnant Minister for the 18th Century, “eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party” (oh, I said that):

RM

And speaking of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, here’s an instance of his characteristic gravitas:

BJ hat

Irony was also in full flow during the recent Opening of Parliament, with a crown worth billions of pounds, delivered in a gilded carriage, on display during a speech that neatly sidestepped the cost-of-living crisis (government advice: “Why not try earning more money?”):

Crown

As to clothing, one might note that men are not only free to choose for themselves, but that they are also kind enough to decide on behalf of women.

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

Cultural Revolution jokes

CR jokes cover

While there’s an abundance of collections of satirical stories from around the Soviet bloc (see Hammer and tickle, with further links), I’ve noted the general neglect of the rich seam of subversive Chinese jokes debunking the Maoist decades, and indeed the following reform era. Serving as an outlet to defuse genuine distress, they constitute a major resource for understanding the “sentiments of the people” (minqing 民情).

In a substantial recent post on David Cowhig‘s useful website, he rounds up some fine Chinese sites for modern political jokes—notably this and this. He classifies them under headings such as Gang of Four jokes, dialect jokes, sex jokes, extreme political rituals, and historical revisionism. * Among David’s links are a site for Jiang Zemin and Li Peng stories, with more on the latter here (roughly translated here)—for some choice Li Peng stories on my own blog, click here, here, and here.

Admittedly, some of the stories are for the specialist and are hard to translate effectively, hinging on arcane Chinese puns. This one is worth bringing out when adopting the popular slogan jinburuxi 今不如昔 “things ain’t what they used to be” (as does Li Manshan at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20):

One evening the production team held a general meeting, and according to the instructions of the county committee and the commune, the old production-team leader expected the members to severely criticise the reactionary fallacy that “the present [jin] is not as good as the past [xi]”. But all evening no-one spoke up, because everyone felt that the present was indeed not as good as the past, so what was there to criticise? The old team leader had no choice but to prompt everyone: “How can the present be worse than the past? How much does gold [jin] cost a catty? How much does tin [xi] cost a catty?” So commune members came out with their criticism: “What a load of bollocks—of course gold is more expensive than tin!”

生产队晚上召开大会,老队长根据县委和公社的指示,要社员们狠狠批判“今不如昔”的反动谬论。可是开了大半夜,没有一个人发言,因为大家都觉得的确是今不如昔嘛,怎么批判?老队长没有办法,只好启发大家说:“怎么会今不如昔呢!金子多少钱一斤?锡多少钱一斤?”社员们一听,纷纷批判:“真是胡说八道,金子肯定比锡贵嘛!”

This related anecdote also links up with Tian Qing’s wonderful story:

There used to be a famous restaurant called Da Sanyuan in Changdi, Guangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, it was ordered to change its name to Jin sheng xi 今胜昔 [The Present Beats the Past]. When Hong Kong or overseas compatriots came back to Guangzhou, reading from right to left in the traditional manner, they read the name as “The Past Beats the Present” (昔胜今). So they didn’t know whether they should enter the restaurant.

从前广州市长堤有一间众人皆知的著名酒家 “大三元”,文革中被勒令改名为“今胜昔”。而香港或是海外侨胞回广州时,都按旧时从右到左读法,便把 “今胜昔” 读成 “昔胜今”。搞得他们不知道进去好还是不进去好。

Two stories on blind obedience:

During the Cultural Revolution, there were often mass criticism meetings. One day someone’s father was dragged up on stage and criticised. At the end of the meeting, he was asked to shout slogans to make a clean break with his father and draw a clear line between the two of them. He rushed to the front of the stage and shouted with his arms held high:
“Down with my father! Down with my father!”
At this point the crowd joined in, jumping up and raising their hands, yelling :
Down with my father! Down with my father!

And

The work unit held a meeting to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius. A tenor and a soprano got on stage to lead the audience in chanting slogans:
(leader) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(crowd) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(leader) “Down with Confucius!”
(crowd) “Down with Confucius!”
(leader) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
(Crowd) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
After the slogans, there was a brief moment of silence before the leaders spoke. Just then, old Zhang from the communications office rushed out backstage and shouted to the leaders seated on the podium:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”
So the whole crowd followed him by chanting:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”

Just like “Yes! We’re all individuals!” in The life of Brian:


* More generally, in The joys of indexing (a zany read, not least for introducing the Lexicon of musical invective) I outlined some of the main themes among my “Chinese jokes” tag in the sidebar:

Sihanouk

Stories of Prince Sihanouk visiting China, an intriguing sub-genre.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956;
Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.

Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”

As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.

Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.

After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.

Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.

A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.

The 1960s: swinging London
By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):

BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.

Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal caption (source):
Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club,
39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.

Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:

Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.

One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”

Opening the shop
By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.

RM shop
Ray’s shop, 1982.

Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:

Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band! 

Our paths converge
On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.

While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng 呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: [3]

In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.

By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.

RM band c1979
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s
(the music-stands revealing our novice status!).
Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.

After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.

Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as The Asia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.

Since the 1980s
The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).

The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.

Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. [4]

As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe shop in Chalk Farm.

In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.

Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.

[4] See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.

A domestic couplet

home duilian

While most domestic couplets pasted at the gateway of ordinary families are somewhat trite, this one caught my eye, at a peasant gateway in a north Shanxi village:

聖言興旺是正道
世事衰微盡蒼桑

For the Word of the Sage to flourish is the Proper Way
For worldly affairs to decline evinces chronic vicissitudes

This may seem to reflect an enduring pre-Liberation faith—the Word of the Sage apparently referring to a Christian worldview (“the Word of God”). But it’s combined with phrases adapted from a poem of Chairman Mao:

人间正道是苍桑
The Proper Way among humans is inconstant

—appealing, whether fortuitously or ingeniously, to political correctness. Shame I didn’t have a chance to chat with the host.

For a Buddhist meditation on impermanence in the vocal liturgy of the Li family Daoists, click here.

Free: coming of age at the end of history

Things were one way, and then they were another. I was someone, then I became someone else.

Ypi cover

With my knowledge of Albania largely limited to the improbable combination of Norman Wisdom, Mother Teresa, the mesmerising polyphony of the Tosk and Lab peoples (here and here), and rituals of the Bektashi order, I’ve been fascinated to read

Covering Ypi’s early years before she left Albania to study in Rome, it makes a fine addition to memoirs on the climate of duplicity in people’s lives behind the Iron Curtain and their ongoing tribulations, such as Vesna Goldsworthy (Serbia), Katya Kassabova (Bulgaria), Maxim Leo (GDR), Orlando Figes (USSR); and of course it’s reminiscent of the circumspection and fear that Chinese people experienced under Maoism.

EnverBorn in 1979 in the port of Durrës just west of Tirana, Lea was prudently brought up to revere Uncle Enver and Stalin—despite the complicated “biographies” of her family, which she only began to understand later.

Biographies were carefully separated into good and bad, better or worse, clean or stained, relevant or irrelevant, transparent or confusing, suspicious or trustworthy, those that needed to be remembered and those that needed to be forgotten.

When Uncle Enver died in 1985, her parents dutifully protested their love for the Party, making Lea promise that she would never tell anyone otherwise.

Pioneers

At school she avidly became a Pioneer. Her father affectionately called her brigatista—equivalent, as she gathered, to “troublemaker”.

Gazing at foreign children on holiday at the beach, Lea reflects:

We knew that it was difficult for us to travel abroad because we were surrounded by enemies. Moreover, our holidays were subsidised by the Party. Perhaps one day the Party would be powerful enough to have defeated all our enemies, and would pay for everyone to travel abroad too. In any case, we were already in the best place. They had nothing. We knew we did not have everything. But we had enough, we all had the same things, and we had what mattered most: real freedom. […]

The tourists

were interested in everything: the Roman amphitheatre, the Venetian tower, the harbour, the old city walls, the tobacco factory, the rubber-making factory, the schools, the Party headquarters, the dry-cleaning shops, the piles of rubbish awaiting collection, the queues, the street rats, the weddings, the funerals, the things that happened, the things that did not happen, the things that may or may not have happened. Tourists held Nikon cameras, intent on capturing our past greatness and our present misery, or our present greatness and the misery of our past, depending on their point of view. […]

Ypi young

Years later, she discovered that the tourists were of two kinds. The realists, mostly from Scandinavia, belonged to fringe Marxist-Leninist groups, admiring “the clarity of our slogans, the order of our factories, the purity of our children, the discipline of the horses who pulled our carriages, and the conviction of the peasants who travelled in them”. The dreamers, bored with Bali, Mexico, and Moscow, were in search of the ultimate exotic adventure; they came to discover “a truth they had already agreed upon”.

Ypi grandparents

Lea was much influenced by her cultured, French-speaking, Ottoman-born grandmother. Her parents find relief from Albanian TV by complicated manoeuvres on the roof to receive foreign stations by satellite.

My family accepted that some rules were more important than others and that some promises would become obsolete with time. In this they were no different from other people, the rest of society, or even the state. Part of the challenge of growing up was finding out which rules faded over time, which were trumped by other more important obligations, and which ones remained inflexible.

She ponders the rules of grocery shopping and the loopholes of queueing. And she mends a rift between her family and their neighbours over a Coca Cola can.

At the time, these were an extremely rare sight. Even rarer was the knowledge of their function. They were markers of social status: if people happened to own a can, they could show it off by exhibiting it in their living rooms, usually on an embroidered tablecloth over the television or the radio, often right next to the photo of Enver Hoxha.

At school Lea eventually solves the mystery of Coca Cola:

“I think it’s a drink”, I almost whispered, as if I were revealing a secret. “Those cans you sometimes see on top of people’s shelves, they’re to hold drinks.”

* * *

In December 1990, as news of the collapse of socialism belatedly reached Albania, she stared incredulously at the TV screen.

The same human beings who had been marching to celebrate socialism and the advance towards communism took to the streets to demand its end. The representatives of the people declared that the only things they had ever known under socialism were not freedom and democracy but tyranny and coercion.

Hearing the cries of “Freedom, democracy!” Lea supposed the “hooligans” were shouting out of fear, out of uncertainty, “to explain that this was what they did not want to lose, rather than what they wanted”.

Finally she understands the discreet euphemisms her family had been using.

They said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century. That the universities which had haunted my family were, yes, educational institutions, but of a peculiar kind. That when my family spoke of the graduation of relatives, what they really meant was their recent release from prison. That completing a degree was coded language for completing a sentence. That the initials of university towns stood for the initials of various prison and deportation sites.

Lea finally begins to understand her family’s biographies. Meanwhile at school, at first their teacher exhorts them to reject both the revisionist East and the imperialist West. But counter-protests in memory of Enver Hoxha were short-lived, and the terms dictatorship, proletariat, and bourgeoisie disappeared from people’s vocabulary, replaced only by an elusive “freedom”.

As the old Party managed to win the first elections, protests, looting, and violence spread widely. The new remedy was to be the shock therapy of market reforms.

Lea’s parents receive a visit from a former Party member turned Opposition candidate, asking them to lend him a pair of grey socks. He soon became a charismatic politician and highly successful businessman:

We rarely saw him again, and even when we did, it was only from a distance, as he slammed the door of his dark, shiny Mercedes Benz, surrounded by mighty bodyguards. It would have been imprudent, as well as implausible, to get closer and accuse him of wrongfully appropriating my father’s socks.

In 1991 Lea made her first trip outside Albania, joining her grandmother on a visit to Athens and Salonika in a futile attempt to reclaim the family’s former properties. A passage like this doesn’t read merely as poverty voyeurism but evokes genuine culture shock:

I made a list of all the new things I had discovered for the first time, and meticulously recorded them: the first time I felt air conditioning on the palm of my hands; the first time I tasted bananas; the first time I saw traffic lights; the first time I wore jeans; the first time I did not need to queue to enter a shop; the first time I encountered border control; the first time I saw queues made of cars instead of humans; the first time I sat down on a toilet instead of squatting; the first time I saw people following dogs on a leash instead of stray dogs following people; the first time I was given actual chewing-gum rather than just the wrapper; the first time I saw buildings made of different shops and shop-windows bursting with toys; the first time I saw crosses on graves; the first time I stared at walls covered by adverts rather than anti-imperialist slogans […]

But she wanted to go home, to feel safe. Meanwhile back home everyone seemed to be trying to leave—including her schoolfriend Elona, who managed to get to Italy, aged just 13, where she ended up as a street beggar. Elona’s grandfather told Lea how he had gone in search for her by getting on board the Vlora, a ship built to take 3,000 passengers and now crammed with nearly 20,000, before he was deported back with most of the others.

Still, mass emigration continued apace.

Her mother joined the opposition Democratic Party and became a leader in the national women’s association, delivering polished, unscripted speeches to large rallies, “as if she had written them in her head many years ago, as if she had rehearsed every day of her life the sentences that she would later utter”. She received a visit from a delegation of French women, who didn’t find her vision of female emancipation entirely compatible with their own.

When Lea briefly joined a mosque, her benign father, recently unemployed, joked “Did you pray for me to find a job?”

“It won’t help”, I replied. You need to change the font on your CV. You need to switch from Times New Roman to Garamond.”

(I doubt if at the time anyone anywhere was much aware of the joys of choosing arty fonts, but I’m happy to allow for poetic license.) Anyway, her father soon became director of the biggest port in the country, finding himself having to deliver “structural reforms”, laying off workers that he cared about.

Lea had previously been content with her “freedom”; but as she became a teenager, with decades of socialist education being overturned, she became withdrawn, losing her voice for a time. The clubs of her youth, for poetry, theatre, singing, maths, natural science, music, and chess, had ceased to exist.

A few pubs and clubs had started to open. Most of them belonged to people-smugglers, drug-dealers, or sex traffickers. These were all mentioned as normal occupations, in the same way one would have explained in the past that so-and-so was a cooperative worker, a factory employee, a bus driver, or a hospital nurse.

From Islam she turned to Buddhism for a while, and volunteered for the Red Cross at the local orphanage.

There was no politics left, only policy. And the purpose of policy was to prepare the state for the new era of freedom, and to make people feel as if they belonged to “the rest of Europe”.

During those years, “the rest of Europe” was more than a campaign slogan. It stood for a specific way of life, one which was imitated more often than understood, and absorbed more often than justified. Europe was like a long tunnel with an entrance illuminated by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. When the journey started, it didn’t occur to anyone to ask where the tunnel ended, whether the light would fail, and what there was on the other side. It didn’t occur to anyone to bring torches, or to draw maps, or to ask whether anyone ever makes it out of the tunnel, or if there is only one exit or several, and if everybody goes out the same way. Instead, we just marched on, and hoped the tunnel would remain bright, assuming we worked hard enough, and waited long enough, just as we used to wait in socialist queues—without minding that time had passed, without losing hope.

As the new buzzwords “civil society” and “corruption” circulated, people were duped by disastrous pyramid schemes in which more than half of the population, including Lea’s family, lost their savings. This led to the civil war of 1997, which she records starkly by reproducing her diary from January to April, written amidst the sound of gunfire, explosions, and screaming.

It’s like a whole country committing suicide. Just when it looked like things were getting better it all went downhill. Now that we are all falling from a precipice, there’s no way back. It’s so much worse than 1990. At least there was hope in democracy then. Now there is nothing, just a curse.

The strife led to a new mass exodus. By now Lea’s mother had already managed to get to Italy, where she eventually found menial work. After Lea’s farcical graduation from school, beset by doubts she too found her way to Italy, studying philosophy in Rome.

I waved goodbye to my father and grandmother on the shore and travelled to Italy on a boat that sailed over thousands of drowned bodies, bodies that had once carried souls more hopeful than mine, but who met fates less fortunate. I never returned.

* * *

As for others in the socialist bloc, people could neither feel positive about their new circumstances nor nostalgic for the socialist past. Such memoirs are not merely quaint, but evoke an ongoing psychological conflict both for those who experienced the period and for outsiders.

Lea Ypi now teaches political theory at the LSE. As told in the Guardian,

She is wry, now, about the empty shelves and educational chaos of post-Brexit, pandemic Britain. After years of being lectured about the supposed failures of where she comes from, “there is a special pleasure in it, because the tables are reversed for once”.

Still, she is critical of the “holy” left in the West.

My mother finds it difficult to understand why I teach and research Marx, why I write about the dictatorship of the proletariat. […] Mostly, she keeps her criticisms to herself. Only once did she draw attention to a cousin’s remarks that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism. We both laughed awkwardly, then paused and changed the topic. […] I wanted to clarify, but didn’t know where to start. I thought that it would take a book to answer.

This is that book.

And very fine it is too.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

The zheng zither in Shandong

The elite, rarefied qin zither enjoyed an unlikely Golden Age during the first fifteen years of Maoism, as I show in my series of vignettes. Though it was largely self-contained in its ivory tower, in the 1950s the new energy at the Music Research Institute in Beijing to study all kinds of traditional music combined with the official populist ethos to encourage occasional exchanges—such as this illustrious gathering with masters of the zheng 筝 zither at the house of Yang Dajun:

Zhao Yuzhai at MRI

Qin and zheng exchange, mid-1950s (see e.g. here). From left,
back row: Zhao Yuzhai, Yang Dajun, Gao Zicheng, [unidentified], Cao Zheng, Wu Jinglue;
front row: Wang Jinru, Cao Dongfu (playing), Luo Jiuxiang, Zha Fuxi.

Of the zheng players there, Zhao Yuzhai and Gao Zicheng came from Shandong, Cao Zheng and Cao Dongfu from adjacent Henan; Luo Jiuxiang represented the Hakka style of east Guangdong, far south; Wang Jinru was based in Beijing.

Unlike the seven-string qin, the strings of the zheng have individual bridges. Though just as ancient as the qin, it has much more in common with local folk music; while some prominent advocates like Cao Zheng made more exalted claims for its grounding in ancient cosmology, it still feels like a poor cousin of the qin. Its regional distribution is patchy, but Zhao Yuzhai was part of a thriving zheng scene in southwest Shandong, based (as often) on the local ensemble that accompanied vocal performance; the musicians were itinerant and semi-occupational.

My sparse early clues to folk musicking in Shandong (Folk music of China, p. 209) have been much augmented by the publication of the Shandong volumes of the Anthology (see my review “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”), in this case particularly for instrumental music (Zhongguo minjian qiyuequ, Shandong juan 中国民间器乐曲, 山东卷, 1994).

Throughout the Anthology, ensemble repertoire always far eclipses solo pieces; like other volumes for north China (e.g. Liaoning), the coverage of Shandong is dominated by the shawm-band repertoire (cf. “Reading between the lines”, pp.317–18), to which the first 1,269 of 1,958 pages are devoted. Solo pieces for the zheng occupy pp.1515–1620 (among online surveys of the Shandong zheng, see e.g. here).

Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋 (1923–99) [1] came from the Heze region of southwest Shandong, also renowned for its shawm bands. He was a disciple of the great blind musician Wang Dianyu 王殿玉 (1899–1964).

Wang Dianyu 1943

The Dong Lu yayue she 东鲁雅乐社, led by Wang Dianyu, 1943.
Right to left Chen Baozeng 陈宝曾, Gao Zicheng 高自成, Zheng Xipei 郑西培,
Wang Dianyu 王殿玉, Han Fengtian 韩风田, Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋, Tan Yonghe 谭永和.

The core string ensemble is for zheng, yangqin dulcimer, pipa, and ruyigou fiddle. Their repertoire is based on the Peng baban 碰八板 form—baban variants are common in various coastal chamber genres from Shanghai down to Guangzhou, if not nearly so widespread as scholarly attention may lead us to suppose. The Shandong style has much in common with the adjacent province of Henan, where zheng masters like Cao Dongfu 曹东扶 (1898–1970) were much admired. (Click here for bowed zithers in Shandong and Henan.)

In the cause of forging a new style of “national music”, through the 1950s many folk masters were enlisted to the new conservatoires and state troupes. Solo instruments like the zheng were more easily incorporated into the conservatoire system than ensembles that relied on folk ceremonial; players took readily to adapting their repertoire for the new demands of the new ethos. [2] In 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was recruited to the Shenyang conservatoire (where one of his colleagues was the qin player Ling Qizhen—see Musicking at the Qing court 1, n.3). The traditional zheng had 16 (or fewer) strings; in 1957, responding to the call to “improve” Chinese instruments, Zhao Yuzhai created an enlarged 21-string version. Meanwhile the lofty qin also found a place in the conservatoires; but while players took part in the major shift from silk to metal strings, they remained largely unscathed by “development”.

n 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was exposed to the rigours of rural collectivisation when a troupe from the conservatoire was sent on a tour of rural south Liaoning to “experience life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活), as the glib slogan went (cf. Daoist Li Qing’s stint in the Datong troupe). This resulted in his florid composition “Celebrating a bumper year” (Qing fengnian 庆丰年)—irony not supplied:

By 1958 even qin master Zha Fuxi was reduced to composing a piece in praise of the Great Leap Backward. for whose hyperbole click here.

In 1956 Zhao Yuzhai was part of a troupe performing at the Prague Spring festival, and in October he toured north Europe; his career continued to thrive until 1963. I can never get used to the blatant lacunae for the years of Maoism that are so universal in PRC biographies (cf. Craig Clunas’s remarks); like countless others, Zhao Yuzhai was assaulted at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, condemned to labour camp until his release in 1978.

Zhao Yuzhai was one of three zheng players, along with Gao Zicheng and Luo Jiuxiang, who appeared in illustrious company on the 2-CD set of archive recordings from the Music Research institute. In 2000 a CD was devoted to his playing. He appears on film in “Autumn moon over Han palace” (Hangong qiuyue 汉宫秋月):

and “Four folds of brocade” (Siduan jin 四段锦):

Among other celebrated Shandong zheng masters were Han Tinggui 韩庭贵 (1929–2016) and Gao Zicheng 高自成 (1918–2010). Like Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng found a long-term position away from his Shandong home, teaching at the Xi’an conservatoire from 1957 (for the Shaanxi zheng style, see here)—here’s a short documentary in Chinese:

Apart from such masters who were selected for national celebrity, it may be hard to find ethnographic material on how folk chamber ensembles in rural Shandong adapted to successive social transformations—first to collectivisation, and then to the 1980s’ revival of tradition, soon challenged by the tide of capitalism and pop culture.

Meanwhile in a separate milieu, the concert platform made a more natural progression for the zheng than for the qin. Hitherto largely the preserve of men, since the 1980s’ reform era the zheng (like other stringed instruments in the conservatoire) has been dominated by female soloists. At the same time, concert performances for the qin on stage have come to enjoy a higher profile than the “refined gatherings” where its soul resides; but in the end, the qin still occupies its own world, at a tangent from the conservatoire.

 


[1] For Chinese sources on Zhao Yuzhai, see e.g.
https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B/5776019
https://www.sohu.com/a/386245358_684953
https://www.factpedia.org/index.php?title=%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B&variant=zh
http://info.guqu.net/guzhenwenxue/29411.html
http://www.yueqiziliao.com/guzheng/202047250.html
https://www.yueqiquan.com/a39423.html

[2] In English, see e.g. Han Mei, The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity (2013); Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations (2015)

Wild Swans revisited

Wild Swans cover

When Jung Chang’s Wild swans: three daughters of China was first published in 1991 (quite soon after the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations), curiosity in the West about people’s lives under Maoism ensured it huge popular success. This was soon followed by a tide of condescension from sinologists and China-watchers, understandably envious at the eclipse of their own more careful, measured research on the period. Still, rather few of them seem to have aired their reservations publicly (see e.g. Lin Chun, and Harriet Evans, “Hot-house history”, in TLS 1992).

While the way that Jung Chang (pinyin: Zhang Rong) enmeshes the personal and the political is a strength, her general slant may read like simplistic Commie-bashing, lacking in empathy—treating the development of the regime as alien (cf. Dikötter, “The tragedy of Liberation”).

It was hardly new to expose the iniquities of the Maoist system, and they do indeed need to be exposed. But surely they deserved a wide audience outside academia—not just the famine and the Cultural Revolution, but the whole catalogue of abuses before and after the 1949 “Liberation”. And personal accounts make a fine way of communicating such stories.

I found the chapters on the Great Leap Backward and the famine particularly revealing. At a time when the detailed scholarship on the latter was only just taking off, when such details were still not common knowledge, Jung Chang’s readings of the political tides are mostly sound. While she portrays her father, a high-ranking cadre in Chengdu, as a righteous official, and she herself was largely cocooned from the extreme sufferings of the time, she evokes the plight of the desperate peasants and political machinations among the leadership, combining her own memories with her later understandings.

I had little idea that famine was raging all around me. One day on my way to school, as I was eating a small steamed roll, someone rushed up and snatched it from my hands. As I was recovering from the shock, I caught a glimpse of a very thin, dark back in shorts and bare feet, running down the mud alley with his hand to his mouth, devouring the roll. When I told my parents what had happened, my father’s eyes were terribly sad. He stroked my head and said, “You are lucky. Other children like you are starving.” […]

These people with edema were mostly peasants. Starvation was much worse in the countryside because there were no guaranteed rations. Government policy was to provide food for the cities first, and commune officials were having to seize grain from the peasants by force. In many areas, peasants who tried to hide food were arrested, or beaten and tortured. Commune officials who were reluctant to take food from the hungry peasants were themselves dismissed, and some were physically maltreated. As a result, the peasants who had actually grown the food died in the millions all over China.

The way Jung Chang relates her early memories reveal the texture of daily life amidst upheavals—my doubts about how much a six-year-old can recall of their youth are largely assuaged by the author’s in-depth conversations with her mother. Indeed, much of the success of Wild swans was in its focus on three generations of women. It was “joined by a clutch of cygnets” (in Julia Lovell’s phrase) in similar vein, such as Anchee Min (Red azalea), Gao Anhua (To the edge of the sky), and Mu Aiping (The Vermilion Gate).

I first read Wild swans as part of my general education on the Maoist era, as I was striving to build up a picture of the modern history of the village of Gaoluo just south of Beijing—a very different world. Meanwhile the rural picture was being amplified by scholarly works like those of Chan, Madsen, and Unger on Chen village and Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden on Wugong. Such studies inspired me seek ever greater detail from my friends in Gaoluo about their experiences, year by year, month by month—which bore fruit in my own book Plucking the winds, and later in my work on the Li family Daoists.

Now that I come to re-read Wild swans in the light of all my fieldwork, I still find myself impressed by Jung Chang’s attention to both the personal stories of her family and the wider picture. I’m sorry some academics can’t see the merits of this.

With her husband Jon Halliday, Jung Chang followed up Wild swans with Mao: the unknown story (2005)—which sinologists didn’t refrain from criticising (e.g. Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, eds, Was Mao really a monster?, and Andrew Nathan in the LRB, complete with spat).

For later revelations on the Maoist era, see e.g. Guo Yuhua on a Shaanbei village; the documentaries of China: commemorating trauma, and Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China. See also Maoism tag.

The qin zither under Maoism: five vignettes

This is how I opened my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism:

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singersshawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

The scene was still largely amateur, with aficionados of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) taking part in “refined gatherings”. The stories of some of the leading characters are interwoven with those of the Music Research Institute, the Beijing Qin Research Association, the 1956 national project (with its definitive recordings), and political movements. This is a monument to an aesthetic world that since the 1980s’ reform era has been eclipsed by glossy conservatoire professionalism.

Always trying to move beyond disembodied sound-objects, I seek to evoke the place of musicking in the lives of qin players through the first fifteen years after Liberation, punctuated and eventually engulfed by campaigns—click on the links below for essays on

  • Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): an otherworldly figure, revered not least for his dapu recreations of early tablatures, an activity that thrived in the 1950s
  • Wang Di (1923–2005), Guan Pinghu’s devoted disciple, making a bridge both to the reform era and to
  • Zha Fuxi (1895–1976): his role in the 1949 Uprising of the Two Airlines, his remarkable 1956 survey with its numinous recordings—and NB this qin-erhu duet from 1962
  • Pu Xuezhai (1893–1966), descendant of the Manchu imperial clan: more classic recordings, and his disappearance in 1966
  • Yue Ying (1904–74): an affluent youth, motherhood, and her moving 1972 recordings—perhaps the only audible remains of the qin in the PRC for the whole period from 1963 to 1978.

Women constituted a significant minority among qin players, as illustrated in the posts on Wang Di and Yue Ying, as well as Yuan Quanyou. The story of Yue Ying makes a poignant coda to the series.

Yue Ying 1972

See also qin tag. For a stellar gathering of masters of qin and zheng zithers, click here.

Liu Sola, voice of alternative China

Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.

The main websites are here (with this fine survey of her ouevre, cited below) and here.

Sola and motherSola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.

Sola CCM 1978 for blog
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.

In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).

Sola popAfter graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was

irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.

By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.

London and New York
In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.

Sola Vini
With Vini Reilly, 1988.

Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.

In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.

Sola Chaos

Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):

Sola painting

After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.

Sola Blues CD

In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:

In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.

Back in the PRC
After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she

cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.

In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:

The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.

Sola operaFrom The afterlife of Li Jiantong.

Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.

Here’s a short CCTV documentary:

* * *

Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.

The qin zither under Maoism, 5: Yue Ying

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

In my introduction to Wang Di, I mentioned the changing gender profile of Chinese musicians and scholars through the 20th century. Among the female qin players in Beijing who weathered the transition from the Republican era to Maoism was Yue Ying 乐瑛 (1904–74).

The most useful material is an article by Guo Peng 国鹏, compiler of the most comprehensive anthology of classic qin recordings, Juexiang 绝响; for more on Yue Ying, see also Chinese wiki.

YY young

Yue Ying practising the qin in her youth.
Photos here from Guo Peng’s article.

Yue Ying came from an affluent family, the only daughter of the boss of the famous Tongren tang 同仁堂 pharmacy in Beijing. From young she studied painting, calligraphy, and Kunqu; she enjoyed playing pipa (against the wishes of her father, who considered it too low-class!) but came to concentrate on the qin, taking lessons (like Pu Xuezhai) from Jia Kuofeng 贾阔峰.

YY pipa

After a Western-style wedding in 1928 she went on to bear seven children, but managed to practise the qin at home between her motherly duties.

YY wedding

Adapting to the 1949 “Liberation”, from 1954 Yue Ying joined the Beijing Guqin Research Association, with the encouragement of Yuan Quanyou’s husband Wang Shixiang. She was one of several women studying with Guan Pinghu, including Wang Di, Shen You, and Yuan Quanyou.

female qin players

Female qin players.
From right: Yue Ying’s younger stepsister Yue Xiangyan, [unidentified], Wang Di, Yue Ying.
Do let me know if you can identify any of the others!

Repairing qin

The important task of repairing qin:
left to right Pu Xuezhai, Wang Di, Wang Mengshu, Zha Fuxi, Yue Ying, Yue Xiangyan.

Around 1958, amidst a frenzy of campaigns, Yue Ying took part in the association’s performance for the leaders in Zhongnanhai. As we saw, she invited Guan Pinghu to stay at her courtyard home during the “three years of hardship”. But worse was to come.

Recordings
Yue Ying remained active until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. But in 1966 her house was ransacked by a group of Red Guards, who took away her precious antiques and a dozen fine old instruments. Her children only managed to rescue a few family photographs from the rubble.

YY late

Yue Ying, 1971.

Whereas a few qin scholars, including Zha Fuxi, were permitted to continue their research behind closed doors once the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were brought to an end, by 1972 Yue Ying had moved out of the old family home; besides being in poor health, she no longer had an instrument, and had been unable to play for several years.

Yue Ying 1972

But that year, as political tensions seemed to be easing somewhat, her daughter Guo Shunlong managed to buy a precious antique qin for 45 yuan (!!!); getting hold of a set of strings and a recording machine, she recorded her ailing mother playing four pieces—perhaps the only extant recordings of qin (or any other traditional music) in the PRC for the whole period roughly from 1963 to 1978. Yue Ying’s rendition that day of Pingsha luoyan (cf. Guan Pinghu’s version) can be heard here; we can also admire her earlier version from the happier times of 1956.

On CD 6 of the classic 1950s’ recordings, Yue Ying is heard in four pieces:

Canghai score

Opening of Yue Ying’s rendition of Canghai longyin as transcribed by Wang Di
(Guqin quji vol.1, pp. 211–15).

  • Liezi Rides the Wind (Liezi yufeng 列子御風, further material for my promotional campaign to boost the image of Liezi, n.1 here):

Yue Ying died of heart failure from lung disease in December 1974, before she could witness the revival of tradition. Her story makes a poignant coda to this series on the Beijing qin scene under Maoism.

The qin zither under Maoism, 4: Pu Xuezhai

On 30th August 1966, as agitated young Red Guards milled around on the streets of Beijing, a short, elderly gentleman, his wispy beard now shorn off, went for a walk with his daughter. He was never seen again.

Continuing my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism (roundup here), I’ve been considering the life of Pu Xuezhai 溥雪斋 (1893–1966). Note this eloquent personal tribute by the great Wang Shixiang. [1]

A descendant of the Aixin Gioro Manchu imperial clan (cf. Aixin Gioro Yuhuan), Pu Xuezhai was a great-grandson of the Qing emperor Daoguang, and cousin of the “last emperor” Pu Yi. He exemplified the literati versatility of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫). Before the 1949 “Liberation” he made his main living from painting (see e.g. here), teaching at Fu Jen University from 1942. He studied the qin with Jia Kuofeng 贾闊峰, successor to Huang Mianzhi 黃勉之.

MRI 1954The golden age of the MRI, 1954:
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Zha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.

While leading MRI scholars like Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi, just at ease in a Western suit or a Mao jacket, adapted more comfortably to the role that the new regime demanded of them, Pu Xuezhai, like Guan Pinghu, represented the imperial culture of yore, living by sufferance under the socialist system. Still, the new leadership valued him, and he was able to thrive. In 1952 he was employed at the Beijing Hall of Cultural History, holding several posts in the new cultural administration, gaining the approval of Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile he joined the qin scholars at the Music Research Institute, and was a core member of the Beijing Qin Research Association during its heyday. Wang Shixiang recalls gatherings of amateurs where he would exclaim “Du 独!”, an antecedent of ku 酷, “cool”!

ZFX PXZ
Duet with Zha Fuxi, 1958.

While many qin masters also played the pipa, Pu Xuezhai liked to play the repertoire of the Manchu-Mongol elite on sanxian plucked lute—do click on that link for a precious audio recording.

Recordings
On CD 5 of the numinous “old eight discs” from the 1950s Pu Xuezhai is heard in three pieces:

  • Peaceful Evening Prelude (Liangxiao yin 良宵引):

  • Seabirds: Forgetting Ulterior Motives (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機):

(cf. the wonderful duet with Zha Fuxi on qin and Jiang Fengzhi on erhu).

  • The Incantation of Pu’an (Pu’an zhou 普安咒)—much recorded in versions for both qin and pipa, though it is most widespread as an item of vocal liturgy among folk ritual groups, notably among the Hebei ritual associations:

  • A fourth piece attributed to him on the CD, Three Variations on Plum Blossom (Meihua sannong 梅花三弄), seems rather to be played by Wu Jinglue—but we can hear it played in duet by Pu Xuezhai on xiao end-blown flute with Zha Fuxi on qin:

which is part of a YouTube playlist for Pu Xuezhai (apart from the first track by Wu Jinglue):

Disc 8 of the 74-CD collection Juexiang (2016) further includes three versions of Meihua sannong, as well as Jiu kuang.

The end
In 1963 the Party leadership invited Pu Xuezhai to Zhongnanhai to celebrate his 70th birthday. But while such representatives of the “Four Olds” had weathered successive campaigns, the tide was already turning fatefully, rendering them vulnerable—particularly members of the old imperial clan. Pu Xuezhai soon became another casualty of the Cultural Revolution (the most detailed account of his last days is here).

PXZ 1960sPu Xuezhai, early 1960s.

In 1966, witnessing the humiliation of his colleagues, he was already traumatised by raids and struggle sessions, when Red Guards cut off his beard. The last person known to have seen him alive was his old qin-playing friend Guan Zhonghang.

His disappearance caused no comment. Just trying to survive, people had too much to worry about themselves. As with so many other senseless casualties of Maoism, his loss could only be lamented at a memorial service after the end of the Cultural Revolution.


[1] Other articles include
http://www.yuncunzhai.com/article/257845.jhtml
http://m.zwbk.org/lemma/227007
http://www.qinxuecn.org/ArticleDetail.aspx?Id=2141&classId=38https://torguqin.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/death-of-pei-tiexia/

The qin zither under Maoism, 3: Zha Fuxi

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Zha Fuxi

Zha Fuxi in 1974 or 1975, shortly before his death.

For this third post in my series on qin zither players in Beijing under Maoism, I’ve been learning more about the great Zha Fuxi 查阜西 (also known as Zha Yiping 查夷平, 1895–1976). A forthcoming article in Zhang Zhentao’s own series on the Beijing qin scene will doubtless provide valuable insights, but I’ll go ahead and offer my own preliminary thoughts, conscious that I may need to revise them in due course.

After the Communist revolution of 1949, amidst radical social change, a constellation of master musicians and scholars gathered at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing in an extraordinary flowering of research. Under the wise leadership of Yang Yinliu, working closely with his cousin Cao Anhe, scholars began documenting the riches of regional folk musical cultures all over China. And at the same time a distinguished group of qin players and scholars flourished—including Guan Pinghu, Pu Xuezhai, Wang Mengshu, Yuan Quanyou, Xu Jian, and Wang Di; nearby at the Central Conservatoire was Wu Jinglue.

At the forefront of this stellar group was Zha Fuxi. His own articles are collected in Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui 查阜西琴学文萃 (1995; 815 pages). On John Thompson’s website, a major resource for all aspects of the qin, his exposition of Zha Fuxi’s work (starting here) makes a valuable guide (for a basic outline, see Chinese wiki). 

Early life
What I barely realised until I read an article by Xie Xiaoming was Zha Fuxi’s youthful political activism—he joined the Communist Party as early as 1924. While he is lauded within musical circles, it’s almost as if accounts of his life gloss over this aspect of his life, which one might expect to feature quite prominently.

A native of Hunan in south China, Zha Fuxi began learning the qin in 1908. But by contrast with the other-worldly Guan Pinghu, he was fully engaged with the social trends of his youth. From 1913, in the lawless times after the fall of empire, he attended middle school in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi, becoming interested in new democratic revolutionary trends, and taking part in student movements.

After studying briefly at Peking University in 1920, Zha Fuxi was drawn back south, spending periods in Changsha, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Guangzhou while pursuing his (patriotic) interest in aviation. He joined the Communist Party in 1924 at a time when it were still collaborating with the Nationalists, but after the Mari mutiny in 1927 he was briefly imprisoned. Making his way from Hankou to Shanghai, he continued to rise through the aviation ranks.

Meanwhile he was still studying the qin. A disciple of the Hunan qin master Peng Qingshou, in Shanghai he befriended Shen Caonong, with whom he co-founded the Jin Yu qinshe 今虞琴社 society in 1936. After the Japanese invasion in 1937 Zha Fuxi and many colleagues relocated to Chongqing; he took part in activities opposing the occupation. By 1943 he was Deputy Manager of the Central Air Transport Company.

ZFX USA

Zha Fuxi spent much of 1945 and 1946 in the USA, meeting the qin community there, giving lectures, seeking early tablatures, and making recordings—some of which have been reissued on CD and online, such as Yuge, Xiao Xiang shuiyun, and Oulu wangji.

From August to November 1949, in the Uprising of the Two Airlines (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here), following Chiang Kai-shek’s demand that all commercial airplanes should be flown to Hong Kong to facilitate their transfer to Taiwan, Zhou Enlai enjoined senior airline officials—including Zha Fuxi—to refuse the order. 

Liberation
Anxious about the imminent Communist victory, many mainlanders were indeed fleeing to Taiwan, and in Zha Fuxi’s own sphere many more would have been keen to do so. Zha Fuxi spent little time in the new-look airline company before transferring to the MRI to devote himself to qin studies. I can’t quite decipher the elements in this move: perhaps his artistic leanings came to the fore under the new regime as his career progress in aviation was frustrated.

Few of his fellow qin players at the MRI can have felt much sympathy with the socialist system, even if they had to toe the line. Unlike some of the older generation, Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu were comfortable wearing both Western suits and Mao jackets; yet they too remained loyal to the traditional world of literati culture that now seemed threatened by Party ideology. Indeed, given the tenuous position of such an elite genre as the qin under the new populist regime, Zha Fuxi’s early support for the Party, his involvement in the airline uprising, and the connection with Zhou Enlai, must have helped protect him (and by extension, the qin) over the following years.

After Liberation, Zha Fuxi’s MRI colleagues plunged into fieldwork on regional folk genres. The culture of the “exploited labouring masses” might seem a topic that the new regime would welcome; but in practice, with such traditions embedded in local ritual life, scholars found themselves walking a tightrope of “feudal superstition”. Xie Xiaoming’s article, perhaps embroidering somewhat, also stresses Zha Fuxi’s immersion in folk music during his early years in Hunan.

In Beijing, one of his early projects in 1952–53, with Yang Yinliu, was to be influential. They visited the former monks of the Zhihua temple to document the shengguan ensemble music that accompanied their rituals. Zha Fuxi’s letter to them shows his distress at their reduced circumstances, and his exhortations turn out to based on genuine proletarian sympathies.

Meanwhile the MRI scholars also persisted in paying attention to elite genres—both historical sources and living literati traditions like the qin. And traditional “refined gatherings” of qin aficionados continued, even thrived. Meanwhile under Party guidance, public performance on stage was a price that the leading qin players of the time had to pay, trading intimacy for exposure; from 1954 to 1955 Zha Fuxi was part of an ensemble giving performances in ten major cities (see under Guan Pinghu).

The 1956 fieldwork project
Zha Fuxi was well aware that there was far more to the qin than Beijing and Shanghai. Already well-travelled, from early in 1954 he had conceived an ambitious project to document qin players all over China. This came to fruition in 1956, when Zha Fuxi formed a team with the younger MRI students Xu Jian (b.1922) and Wang Di (b.1923) (“guqin special cadres”, as his report quaintly describes them), travelling to over twenty cities over a hundred days from April to July to document the playing, instruments, and tablatures of eighty-six qin players. They also visited libraries and museums in search of instruments and early documents.

As Zhang Zhentao observes in his article on Wang Di, this was the first thorough fieldwork in China on urban ethnomusicology—admittedly focused on one small segment of the population, rather than surveying urban cultural life generally (cf. Archive Chinese recordings).

ZFX 1956
Zha Fuxi, with Wang Di and Xu Jian, interviewing a Daoist priest, Chengdu 1956.
Source: Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui.
A cryptic caption: “Interview on Daoist ritual on behalf of Cao Anhe”. Cao Anhe had done fieldwork in Sichuan before Liberation; I presume she accompanied Yang Yinliu on his visit to Qingchengshan in 1942 (Yang Yinliu [jinian ji], pp.88–93). Perhaps this was the very priest whom Yang Yinliu had visited, or perhaps Cao Anhe simply asked Zha Fuxi to document Daoist ritual while he was there. Daoist and Buddhist clerics commonly played the qin, but we don’t know if this priest was among them.

Zha Fuxi’s report, written in 1957, deploys the obligatory style of the time, with some quaintly bureaucratic, statistical language (cf. “reading between the lines” in my review of the monumental Anthology).

Zha Fuxi had already expressed his sympathy with the plight of the former monks from the Zhihua temple. Now that he had official support for the qin project (the following quotes are from John Thompson’s rough translation, with my minimal revisions),

Before setting out, the Arts Bureau had told me the government was concerned about circumstances regarding the livelihood, cultivation, and health of any old, impoverished, or sick qin players, and wanted a report of our understanding. As to the people whose qin playing was being recorded, the Musicians’ Association had instructed me that even before paying them any fees, I should actively give them financial assistance.

He goes on:

The Chinese Music Research Institute instructed us that our visits should record such materials as documents and artefacts for the qin and ancient music, and establish the necessary communications and research relations with qin players and lovers of ancient music. Thus the subject of our work became not only the recording of qin pieces …

While the ethos of the qin was still based on the amateur ideal, Zha Fuxi notes a small minority of seven “professional” players, including Guan Pinghu and Wu Jinglue. On the variable technical standards of the players recorded, he comments:

In order to understand the location of the problem, one must make a connection between the situation of qin players’ self-cultivation and their living conditions. Examining our fieldnotes on the eighty-six qin players whose playing was recorded, one can understand that most of them had neglected the qin for twenty to thirty years, and after Liberation they had not picked it up again until they received encouragement from the general and specific national policies on culture and the arts [Discuss…]. Many of them didn’t even begin to practise until after the Musicians’ Association charged me last year to go and invite them to make recordings, and thus one inevitably finds defects such as faulty intonation, rusty finger techniques, and disjointed rhythms. This is the result of a decline in national culture brought about by the social environment of the past several decades [that sentence revised by SJ].

There had indeed been a certain hiatus in activity during the troubled times after the Japanese invasion in 1937 and the following civil war. But whether consciously or not, in such passages Zha Fuxi adopts a very common sleight-of-hand in Maoist historiography, that Chinese culture has been languishing throughout the Republican era, only to be rescued by the enlightened Party—a view easily refuted by all the evidence (e.g. ritual groups in Shanghai, Xi’an, and so on—as in Stewart Lee’s taxi driver, “You can prove anything with facts“). The great loss began after the 1949 “Liberation”—one on which the 1956 project now inadvertently shone a light.

For all its patriotic clichés, this passage also contains a sincere core:

A young music worker in Xi’an, after hearing these three types of recordings of ours, said to me that in the past she had always considered national music to be inferior to Western music, and could not imagine that the motherland had such great and expansive pieces for plucked strings; when adapted into national instrumental music style this could become a distinctive symphonic music. She said that not only had she now gained interest in Chinese music and built up her faith in it, but it had further aroused her love for the motherland!

That same summer Yang Yinliu led a team on an extensive survey of folk and ritual music around Hunan.

The recordings
For Zha Fuxi’s national project, apart from the selected tracks eventually included on the celebrated 8-disc set, note also the complete recordings issued since 2016 (here and here). This playlist contains a selection of 35 pieces from the set, opening with three played by Zha Fuxi himself:

Zha’s own playing is the theme of the 3-CD collection Zha Fuxi qinxue yishu 查阜西琴学學藝術 (ROI, 2016)—again, note John Thompson’s discussion (for the publication of the recordings, see also this interview with his son). This collection on YouTube has a selection:

Apart from instrumental pieces, qin songs made a rich field for Zha Fuxi (for his own research on the topic, click here; cf. the work of Wang Di).

  • On this track Zha Fuxi sings and plays Thrice Parting for Yangguan (Yangguan sandie 陽關三疊):

(Near the end of my tribute to Yang Yinliu, do also listen to his moving arrangement of this piece as a Protestant hymn!)

  • For the qin song Sigh for Antiquity (Kaigu yin 慨古吟), click here;
  • and for a sung version of Evening Song of the Drunken Fisherman (Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答), here.

From 1958
The 1956 fieldwork project provided further material for Zha Fuxi’s magnum opus Cunjian guqin qupu jilan 存见古琴曲谱辑览 (1958, with 1,011 pages by my reckoning!) on qin tablatures and the history of the repertoire. [1] And in 1963 he produced the first volume of the Qinqu jicheng 琴曲集成, which after resuming in 1981 became the definitive 30-volume anthology of early qin tablatures.

From January to May 1958, on the eve of the Great Leap Backward, Zha Fuxi played qin solos on tour with the China Song and Dance Ensemble in the Soviet Union and Japan. On returning he spent the next three months taking part in rectification campaigns of the Qin Association and Political Association. Once the Leap began in August, new pieces for qin and ensemble were dutifully composed—an ephemeral innovation. Zha Fuxi wrote Dayuejin gesheng zhen shanhe 大跃进歌声震山河 in praise of the Leap (among many new pieces on the theme of bountiful harvests, such as Zhao Yuzhai‘s 1955 “Celebrating a bumper year” for the zheng zither); Guan Pinghu and Wang Di arranged The East is Red. In December the Qin Association featured this new repertoire on TV.

Apart from such necessary kowtows to authority, I’m unclear how the Beijing qin community weathered the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Leap, along with the severe food shortages that ensued; they toed the line while keeping their anxieties to themselves.

BJ qin 1959 to use
Qin masters gather at a Beijing teahouse, 1959
—with no hint of the severe social crisis of the period.
At front: Zha Fuxi with Yao Bingyan;
behind, Wang Di (with braids), Chen Changlin, and a beardless Wu Zhaoji.

By 1962, during the brief lull between campaigns, Zha Fuxi recorded a numinous duet with Jiang Fengzhi on erhu fiddle.

My own qin teacher Li Xiangting (b.1940), then a rising star of the younger generation and a pupil of Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue, notes the gathering official suspicion of the qin from 1963. Still, the Beijing qin community still kept active until 1964, with Zha Fuxi regularly hosting gatherings. For a moving evocation of stressful conditions over the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, I again recommend Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

The Four Cleanups and the Cultural Revolution
I can find little material on Zha Fuxi’s life after the 1963 Four Cleanups campaigns and the violent eruption of society in the Cultural Revolution. Many of his colleagues suffered grievously from the assaults of revolutionaries, with qin players an inevitable target of young Red Guards.

Zha Fuxi seems to have been paraded by the Red Guards as the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966; but even after the worst violence subsided, by 1969 most of the MRI staff were sent down to the 7th May Cadre School farm in Tuanbowa (Jinghai, Tianjin municipality) for labour reform.

I doubt if Zha Fuxi’s connection with Zhou Enlai now helped protect him to any significant extent; [2] but from at least 1973, behind closed doors, as campaigns continued to rumble, a select group of qin scholars managed to resume their research, after almost a decade of silence, with the discreet protection of the Ministry of Culture—under the unlikely patronage of the leftist Yu Huiyong, promoter of the revolutionary model operas.

And in other (literal) fields too, the regime required some of the leading MRI scholars to research the ancient instruments now being revealed at archeological sites. In 1971 Yang Yinliu was recalled to Beijing from rustic exile to document the new excavations from Hubei for the Palace Museum. In 1972 he was sent to Changsha with Li Yuanqing and Li Chunyi to study the Mawangdui site, whereafter he was officially allowed to return to Beijing. Throughout this period Yang continued working on his Draft history of ancient Chinese music. Huang Xiangpeng (b.1927), another outstanding scholar of early Chinese music, was only released from rural labour in 1975.

After the revival of traditional culture that followed the death of Mao and the downfall of the Gang of Four, both Yang Yinliu and Huang Xiangpeng resumed their work keenly, though their health had deteriorated seriously. Yang died in 1984; and Huang was fully involved in the flowering of research until he died in 1997.

Life and death are a matter of fate“. During the Cultural Revolution, distinguished masters had been driven to suicide throughout the cultural world. Of Zha Fuxi’s qin colleagues, Pu Xuezhai disappeared mysteriously in 1966, and Guan Pinghu died in 1967; others were lastingly traumatised. Zha Fuxi survived until 1976—before he could rejoice in the revival, when senior qin players such as Wu Jinglue in Beijing, Zhang Ziqian in Shanghai, and Wu Zhaoji in Suzhou emerged to renewed acclaim.

As with the whole literati class, Zha Fuxi’s accommodation with Maoism was complex. Meanwhile he compiled an extraordinary corpus of material on the history and living practice of the qin, enriched by precious recordings—a monument to an aesthetic world that has been marginalised by the glossy conservatoire professionalism of the scene since the reform era.

 


[1] Incidentally, in n.11 here, John Thompson mentions Qi Yan Hui, “apparently a 20th-century adaptation for guqin of a melody that until 1937 only existed in the oral tradition of other instruments”. I wonder if this suggests a link with the version common in the suites of shengguan ritual ensembles (see e.g. under Xiongxian).

[2] Pace Xie Xiaoming, Zha Fuxi can’t have become Deputy Chair of the Chinese Musicians’ Association in 1969, when such institutions were paralysed—John Thompson’s date of 1962 (perhaps from Xu Jian’s history of the qin) is more plausible.

The qin zither under Maoism, 2: Wang Di

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s Guangling san.

In this little series on the qin zither in Beijing under Maoism, I have introduced Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi. Wang Di makes a kind of bridge between those two great masters, as well as between them and the reform era since the 1980s.

Gender
In great contrast with the current scene, before the 1980s both music scholars and conservatoire performers were largely male (for the wider gender profile in Chinese musicking, see here).

As solo instrumental performers, women have come to dominate in the conservatoires since the 1990s; but in the 1950s the celebrated performers were male, with few exceptions (notably Min Huifen on erhu: e.g. the CD set of archive recordings). Even the pipa lute and zheng zither, now mainly the preserve of women, were known largely through the playing of men.

However, women have long constituted a substantial minority among qin players (see here). In modern times, they were notable in the Republican era. After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Di 王迪 (1923–2005) was among several female students gathering around Guan Pinghu at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, including Yuan Quanyou, Shen You, Yue Ying and her sister Yue Xiangyan. They all came from strong literati backgrounds. And for an iconic figure in the Hong Kong qin scene, see Bell Yung, “Tsar Teh-yun at age 100: a life of qin music, poetry, and calligraphy”, in Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009).

Wang Di’s early life
Less promoted than some of her contemporaries, Wang Di is best known as the devoted disciple of Guan Pinghu. A companion with Zhang Zhentao’s article on the latter is his

  • “Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生 Mingjia 名家 49 (2013) (here, or here).

Born in Beijing in 1923, Wang Di sought out Guan Pinghu soon after hearing him on the wireless when she was 13, becoming his pupil. His living conditions were poor; she fed him when he came to her house for lessons, and helped support him.

Wang Di took part in the activities of the Beiping Qin Study Society from 1947. That year she briefly studied chemistry at the Université Franco-Chinoise in Beijing, “resolving to become a Chinese Madame Curie”, as Zhang Zhentao puts it. But illness soon made her forsake chemistry for the qin, studying from 1948 at the Guoli Beiping yishu zhuanke xuexiao 国立北平艺术专科学校, precursor of the Central Conservatoire, where she was kept on after graduating in 1953.

After Liberation
Having introduced Guan Pinghu to the MRI scholars in 1951, Wang Di was soon to serve as his assistant there. By contrast with Zha Fuxi, well-connected aviation executive, until the 1950s Guan Pinghu’s circumstances were lowly, and he now found himself with a regular salary, paid to do the work he loved.

All this was far from the peasant life now being extolled by the new regime. Alongside the groundbreaking fieldwork on regional folk traditions, somehow the MRI created a spacious ivory tower where research on elite genres (not only the qin, but early history) could be avidly pursued.

After the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会, see Cheng Yu’s article) was formed in 1954, a siheyuan courtyard-style dwelling in Xinghua hutong near Houhai lake made a regular home for its activities.

BJ qinhui

Pu Xuezhai, Zheng Minzhong, Wang Di, and Xu Jian
listening to Wang Mengshu playing the qin in the association’s courtyard, 1961.
Note the varied attire…
Source.

One aspect of the work of senior masters like Guan Pinghu was the process of dapu, recreating early qin tablatures; this soon became “fixed” in dingpu transcriptions of Wang Di and others, aided by recording.

In 1956 Zha Fuxi enlisted his young students Wang Di and Xu Jian to join him for an iconic survey of qin players in cities throughout China (see under Zha Fuxi). Whereas Zha Fuxi was already well travelled, this was Wang Di’s first opportunity to meet masters from all over the country.

On their return, the First National Music Week was held in Beijing, a prestigious event. Guan Pinghu and Wang Di were among the guests received by Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai at Zhongnanhai; Zhou even invited Wang Di to dance.

Through this period the association made minor concessions to the political agenda of “reform”, composing some new pieces. Most of these were transient, with the important exception of metal strings replacing silk.

Wang Di had planted a pumpkin in the association’s courtyard, which managed to grow to impressive proportions. In 1960, as food shortages were hitting hard, onlookers watched her with envy as she took it home. As Zhang Zhentao observes, women’s frugal domestic tasks like growing vegetables and needlework took on significance for the qin community; Wang Di could now relate this to the sorrows expressed in ancient melodies. In my post on Guan Pinghu I’ve described Wang Di’s successive changes of abode from the late 1950s.

A foreign pupil
After the 1949 revolution, the few Europeans studying music in China were mainly diplomats. Robert van Gulik had studied the qin profoundly before Liberation, whereafter he continued his work from afar; Věna Hrdličková researched narrative-singing in the early 1950s.

LundqvistCecilia Lindqvist studying with Wang Di, 1961. Source.

In 1961, just as society was recovering briefly from the hardships of the Great Leap Backward, Cecilia Lindqvist (林西莉, b.1932) (wiki, and Chinese version; silkqin; see also here and here) came to Beijing with her husband, cultural attaché at the Swedish embassy, and went on to become a renowned Swedish sinologist. She began studying the qin with Wang Di early in 1961. Lindqvist’s 2006 book (succinctly titled Qin; Chinese translation 2009) includes sections on her studies with Wang Di and the Beijing Guqin Research Association.

When she returned to Sweden in 1962, the association presented her with a Ming-dynasty qin (!!!) and recordings of the master players (heard on the CD with her book).

After Wang Di died in 2005, in 2010 her daughter Deng Hong 邓红 toured Sweden, making a 2-CD set of her own recordings, with notes by Lindqvist.

The Cultural Revolution
Remarkably, research on the qin managed to persist behind closed doors through the Cultural Revolution.

But by 1969 Wang Di, along with most of her colleagues at the MRI, was sent down to the May 7th Cadre School (Wuqi ganxiao 五七干校) at Tuanbowa in Jinghai, south of Tianjin (among several online accounts of conditions there, see e.g. here).

Zhang Zhentao evokes Wang Di’s life at Tuanbowa. Men and women performed the same tasks, like driving, tilling the fields, chopping firewood, mixing cement, and so on. During house-building, it was quite an art to toss adobe bricks up to the worker on the scaffolding above: the person standing below had to aim towards the receiver’s head, so that they could catch it; if they aimed for the hands, it might fall short. Wang Di excelled at this skill, and after returning to barracks she demonstrated it to her daughter, though it would soon become redundant for urban dwellers.

After the reforms
With the revival of tradition that followed the overthrow of the Gang of Four, some qin masters soon began making a reputation on the concert stage. But Wang Di remained unassuming, keeping away from the public eye; still working quietly at the MRI, she was content to continue representing the heritage of Guan Pinghu.

Following Zha Fuxi, Wang Di also became an authority on the dying art of qin songs. She began publishing her long-term research on the genre as early as 1982 (see here).

GPH CDs

From 1991 she made a few visits abroad; and from 2003 she became involved in the Intangible Cultural Heritage project on the qin. But closest to her heart was preparing the CD set of recordings of Guan Pinghu.

In this series I’m focusing on a tiny literati elite that suffered terribly under Maoism. At the same time, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the peasantry who comprised the vast majority of the population endured even worse tribulations, despite the exalted new status that ideology now bestowed upon them.

Women in Tibet, 2

Ajakhaba 1944

The status of women in old and new Tibet is an increasingly popular topic, with studies headed by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.), Women in Tibet, including Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s chapter on women in expressive culture (outlined here), Charlene Makley on nuns (cf. her book The violence of liberation), and Robbie Barnett on women in contemporary politics.

Jamyang Norbu has long been a challenging voice in the Tibetan exile community (see The Lhasa ripper, The enchanting world of Tibetan opera, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes). I also appreciate his

a “rambling essay is based on a rambling talk” that he gave to Tibetan students in Delhi on 1st April (sic) 2019.

I made a hash of my talk. A 20-hour flight, jet lag, and an injudicious self-prescribed nostrum [excellent expression—Ed.], didn’t help. But the hundred or so curious, outspoken, eager-to-know students just brushed aside my incoherence, and bombarded me with arguments and questions—even on issues considered terrifyingly taboo in our subservient exile society. I had a great time.

Indeed, the article makes a refreshing complement to more arcane academic studies. His typically virtuosic discussion mainly concerns old Tibet, with notes on the Maoist era. He opens by noting that, by contrast with other Asian societies,

in numerous accounts of visitors and travellers to pre-1950 Tibet one comes across positive and even laudatory comments on the role of women in Tibetan society.

He cites the work of Yudru Tsomo (Sichuan University) on the traditional role of women in business and trade. Socially too,

not only did the lady of the house receive guests and socialise with them, it was in fact required of women to dine and drink with male guests and take part in the conversation.

Gould 1939

He notes that

Such social freedoms were not only the preserve of the aristocracy but widespread in all classes. In Lhasa, women drank and made merry publicly during the summer and autumn picnic seasons. […]

Once as a schoolboy in Darjeeling, I passed by a large group of Tibetan women on the Chowrastha road. They had gone for a Sangsol (incense offering) ceremony at the Observatory Hill, or Gangchen as Tibetans called it, the site of the oldest Buddhist temple in the district.  They were returning home, arm-in arm, singing songs, strolling down the main Chowrastha and Nehru Road where all the posh stores were located. They were dressed in their best silks and jewelry and all happily drunk, oblivious of the amused stares of passers-by. Some sheepish looking Tibetan men and servants accompanied them.

He also discusses social freedom and equality, and legal issues such as property rights and divorce. As he observes,

Financial independence gave Tibetan women the freedom to ignore or disregard male (particularly priestly) condemnation of their lifestyles, in particular the use of Western cosmetics that were in vogue from the 1930s.

He cites Alexandra David-Neel (1934), who observed that women

had achieved a de facto equality despite law and scripture unfavourable to them, this by virtue of innate independence and physical stamina…Tibetan women had mastered a harsh environment and gained sway over their men. Tibetan women were clever and brave and therefore valued by their husbands. It also helped that a large portion of the retail trade was in women’s hands.

Even after the Chinese invasion,

In the mid-1950s, when motor-biking became the rage in the Holy City, one of the first and most glamorous of bikers was the celebrated Lhasa beauty, the younger Lady Lhalu Sonam Deki, who roared around the holy city on a black BSA 500.

Women in religious life
He is careful not to portray Tibet as some kind of feminist paradise.

Women had no major role in the great religious institutions, particularly in the Gelukpa monastic universities, and also in the clerical power structure of the Tibetan government. There were important female incarnations as Samding Dorje Phagmo and also some important nunneries, but these were admittedly minor compared to the scale and importance of the male priestly institutions.

Still, as shown in several chapters of Women in Tibet, women played an important and recognised role in spiritual practice and teaching, Jamyang Norbu adduces early figures like the dakani Yeshe Tsogyal, the 11th-century Tantric practitioner Machik Labdron, the Samding Dorje Phagmo lineage (see the work of Hildegard Diemberger), and the Nyingma teacher Shukseb Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953). As he notes, female spiritual teachers play a prominent role in Tibetan opera.

Women in politics and nation building
Again, while women played no role in the formal official, political, and military life of old Tibet, they were involved in national political life from early times—such as Semarkar, sister of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (547?–649), and Trimalo Triteng, consort of emperor Manglon Mangtsen, the grandson of Songtsen Gampo. Here Jamyang Norbu refers us to the work of Helga Uebach, which again features in Women in Tibet.

In modern times, the Lhasa aristocrat Yeshi Dolma became queen of Sikkim in 1882.

Women in war and revolution
Women played a significant role in the resistance against the Chinese. In the 1930s Gyari Cheme Dolma rose up against the Sichuan warlord/governor Liu Wenhui.

During the 1956 Uprisings in Eastern Tibet we know of at least two women, Ani Pachen Lemdatsang of Gonjo and Gyari Dorje Yudon of Nyarong, who personally lead their male tribal warriors in violent insurrections against the PLA.

The “female warriors” Galingshar Chöla and Gurteng Kunsang were principal figures in the Women’s March on 12th March 1959 against the escalation of Chinese repression. Jamyang Norbu cites a joint statement by two eyewitnesses in 1961:

On October 21, 1959, a 60-year old nun Galingshar Anila was taken around the Barkhor in Lhasa. The Chinese ordered the people to beat her but no one would do so. Then the Chinese gathered some thieves and beggars, gave them some money and had them beat her at her house… She died on the 31st of the same month.

Gurteng Kunsang was imprisoned, but remained defiant; she was executed along with fifteen other prisoners in 1970.

The story of Trinley Chödrön’s role in the 1969 Nyemo uprising is documented by Melvyn Goldstein. And recently, women as well as men have self-immolated in protest at Chinese rule.

Immolations

Women in old Tibet certainly had more freedoms and rights than their counterparts in India, China, and the rest of Asia, and perhaps even more than in Victorian England. Of course it would be wrong to claim that women in Tibet were equal to men in the full contemporary sense—an equality that in spite of tremendous gains over the years, women in present-day democracies still strenuously contend they have not fully realised.

Well, as tends to be my way, this summary is superfluous—you can read the article!

The qin zither under Maoism, 1: Guan Pinghu

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu, 1954.

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singers, shawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

So in this first post in a mini-series focusing on the Beijing scene, I look further into the life and work of the great Guan Pinghu 管平湖 (1897–1967). John Thompson’s page on his exhaustive site is based on the CD set Guan Pinghu guqin quji 管平湖古琴曲集, well annotated and handsomely illustrated—I have only the original 2-CD set (1995), but Thompson refers to the expanded 4-CD edition (2016). See also e.g. here.

Besides the rich material of Wang Di 王迪 on her master (see here), the great Wang Shixiang also wrote a fine tribute to Guan Pinghu. And my long-term fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 is not just a diligent chronicler of folk genres, but has also written eloquently about the qin. His articles

  • “Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根: 管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3 (serialised online in three parts)
  • “Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生, Mingjia 名家 49 (2013),
  • as well as a forthcoming essay on Zha Fuxi,

are both detailed and stylish, reflecting on the changing times in the qin world and society at large. The stories of these great players overlap, as they will in my series.

* * *

In the aesthetic of the imperial literati, “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) went hand in hand. Guan Pinghu followed in the footsteps of his father Guan Nianci 管念慈 (d.1909), a renowned painter who also played qin; he was in the retinue of the Guangxu emperor.

GPH paintings

Paintings by Guan Pinghu. Source.

Guan Pinghu rose to prominence among the stellar qin zither masters who gathered in Beijing before and after the 1949 “Liberation”.  From 1912 he took part in the Jiuyi qinshe 九嶷琴社 qin society founded by Yang Zongji 楊宗稷 (Yang Shibai 楊時百, 1865–1933). In 1938 he formed the Fengsheng qinshe 風聲琴社, and in 1947 the Beiping qinxueshe 北平琴學社, whose core members included Zhang Boju, Pu Xuezhai, Yang Boyuan, Wang Mengshu, Wang Shixiang, Guan Zhonghang, Zheng Minzhong, Yue Ying, and Wang Di.

Through the 1940s, apart from teaching qin at several institutes, Guan Pinghu spent time teaching painting at the Beiping jinghua meishu zhuanke xuexiao 北平京華美術專科學校, a forerunner of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He was among the artists consulted by a team from the academy in 1955–56 for their survey of ritual painting in Beijing.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s ethos was remote from the image of the “exploiting classes”. Oblivious of worldly cares (a theme on which Zhang Zhentao’s article is especially eloquent), he was quite at odds with the new values of both the Republican and Communist eras. His family life was inauspicious: he was apparently separated from his wife, and of his four children three died in the early 1950s, while the fourth was a wastrel. As Wang Di recalled, by the late 1940s he was living alone in a bare little apartment, scraping by on a modest income from selling his paintings and teaching his few disciples. Among these, his female pupils Wang Di, Shen You 沈幼, and Yue Ying 乐瑛—all from affluent families—took responsibility for looking after him, utterly consumed as he was by the world of qin.

After Liberation
In those early days the Music Research Institute (MRI) was part of the Central Conservatoire, then still based in Tianjin. In April 1951 Wang Di took Guan Pinghu on the train there to take part in a recording session of several qin masters on the initiative of Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu. Wang Di told them of his difficult circumstances; indeed, seeing his dishevelled clothing the concierge was reluctant to let him in, taking him for a beggar.

So when Guan Pinghu was recruited to the MRI the following year, he attained a much-needed security, receiving a handsome monthly salary of 177 yuan. He was given a little room that served as study and bedroom, allowing him to immerse himself in the qin along with a distinguished group of senior music scholars around Yang Yinliu, whose sense of mission he shared.

In 1953 Wang Di became his assistant. The following year they moved to Beijing with the MRI, first to a building known as the “ten rooms” (shijianfang 十间房) and then to Xinyuanli in Dongzhimenwai, which remained the MRI home until the 1990s.

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s
realisation of Guangling san.

We should pause to admire the remarkable energy of Yang Yinliu and his team in those early years: alongside his ongoing historical research, in addition to his 1950 return to his old home Wuxi, in north China he did seminal fieldwork on the “songs-for winds” band of Ziwei village in Hebei, the Zhihua temple in Beijing, ritual groups of Xi’an, and narrative singing, while continuing his research on Daoist ritual in Wuxi. In 1953 others at the MRI embarked on a project on folk-song in north Shanxi.

On the basis of the Beiping qinxueshe, the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会) was founded in 1954 (see Cheng Yu’s article); the Ministry of Culture took over a siheyuan courtyard dwelling in Xinghua hutong, near Houhai lake, to serve as the association’s tranquil base.

Guan Pinghu and Wang Shixiang shared a taste not only for antique furniture but for the rich street culture of birds and flowers in old Beijing; Wang writes eloquently of how Guan Pinghu spent money he could ill afford to rescue an injured grasshopper, likening its chirp to the lowest open string on his Tang-dynasty qin

While the soul of the qin still resided in the “refined gatherings” (yaji 雅集) of aficionados, the qin now also began to be heard on the concert platform. From October 1954 to January 1955 Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, with erhu player Jiang Fengzhi and pipa player Li Tingsong, gave prestigious performances in ten major cities, before vast audiences.

Despite the unpromising conditions of the unfolding of collectivisation, socialist dogma was still not so rigid as to outlaw the former literati class. Yang Yinliu and his team were just as concerned to document elite culture. Meanwhile vocal genres remained active, such as narrative-singing and opera—still lively folk scenes apart from the new state troupes.

Dapu and transcription
While many qin players were quite content with quite a small repertoire handed down from master to pupil (cf. north Indian raga), such as Geese Landing on the Sandbank (Pingsha luoyan), some of the leading masters were keen on the process of dapu 打譜, seeking to recreate pieces from early scores that had long fallen out of common practice. Guan Pinghu was at the forefront of this movement, along with the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan (see Bell Yung, Celestial airs of antiquity, and here).

PSLY 1

Opening of Wang Di’s transcription of Pingsha luoyan as played by Guan Pinghu, Guqin quji vol.1 (1982).

The repertoires of qin players had always been transmitted within particular regional styles. Notation plays a very minor role in most Chinese genres—none at all in some. But for highly literate qin players, tablature is an essential part of the learning process. Throughout history, right until the 1950s, players relied on direct transmission from master to pupil, aided by the tablature, which made an ambivalent record: over-prescribed in terms of pitches and fingerings, it allowed for considerable latitude in rhythmic interpretation.

GLS qinpu

GLS WD scoreOpening of Guangling san: Shenqi mipu (1425) and Wang Di’s transcription.

But in the 1950s, along with the circulation of recordings, the process of “fixing” the performance with composite transcriptions in Western stave notation and the symbols of traditional tablature began leading to a certain standardisation. This applied even to the newly recreated dapu pieces, some of which now entered the repertoire. The 1956 fieldwork of Guan Pinghu’s MRI colleague Zha Fuxi both revealed the great regional variations in repertoire and set a standard for establishing a “national” canon. It is rather hard to think back to the 1950s, when qin players had a very different mental image of their repertoire.

qin hui 1956

Members of the Beijing Guqin Research Association
on a trip to the Yiheyuan, 1956.
Front row, from left: Wang Zhensheng, Yang Qianqi, Guan Zhonghang;
middle row, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Cao Anhe, Guan Pinghu;
back row: Luo Zhenyu, Zha Fuxi, Wang Mengshu.
From Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) 楊陰瀏 (紀念集) (1992).

From 1956
In the summer of 1956, while collectivisation was causing hardship and desperation in the countryside, Yang Yinliu led another field survey in Hunan (here and here). Meanwhile Zha Fuxi led a remarkable project to document qin players over the whole country (more to follow in a later post in the series!).

Urban society was still relatively unscathed. But the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957–59), along with the Great Leap Backward and the famine (from 1958), caused great suffering. While I’ve found few instances of Beijing qin players being rusticated during this period, Guan Pinghu’s close friend Wang Shixiang was branded a “rightist” in 1957, bearing the stigma for twenty-one years. And soon after starting his study of the qin at the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1958, Lin Youren was sent down to rural Anhui and Henan for periods to support the desperate peasants.

Wang Di was ever devoted to taking care of Guan Pinghu in both his artistic life and material needs. In 1957, when the MRI prompted her husband to take leave of sickness, Wang Di had moved out of the institute (then still in the “ten rooms”) with her family. At first they lived at the spacious old family home of Yue Ying in Huazhi hutong, near the base of the Beijing Guqin Research Association. Yue Ying (to whom I’ll devote a separate post) was another female disciple of Guan Pinghu, and she invited him to live there too, as the Great Leap Backward was unfolding. Though the cities were protected from the severe famine in the countryside, Beijing dwellers suffered from food shortages; well-connected Zha Fuxi had baskets of eggs delivered to Yue Ying.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s new prestige was confirmed by an invitation to perform at Zhongnanhai for Chairman Mao, Zhu De, and Chen Yi.

In the early 60s Wang Di’s family moved to the bustling trading and entertainment quarter of Dashalar just south of Tiananmen (on which, note Harriet Evans, Beijing from below). But the redevelopment of the celebrated Rongbaozhai studio forced reluctant inhabitants to move to the Hepingli district further north; since Wang Di’s Dashilan apartment was safe from the developers, she agreed with one such family to let them live there while she moved into their own new dwelling in Hepingli. There she took care of Guan Pinghu. They were like a family—her two daughters called him Grandpa Guan (Guan yeye 管爷爷).

GPH and students

Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

Here we might also appreciate the fictional treatment of family travails through these years in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

New campaigns
Traditional culture was able to revive during a brief lull in the early 60s, spurring further energy in fieldwork and publication. But then the Four Cleanups campaign from 1963 presaged the agonies of the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from all the struggle sessions, murders, and suicides when the Cultural Revolution erupted, Guan Pinghu was among many who met their deaths at the time as an indirect cause of the rampages of the Red Guards. Pu Xuezhai, who also embodied the elite values of qin and painting, disappeared mysteriously in 1966.

Even qin masters hitherto in good standing with the regime like Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue were assaulted. Guan Pinghu was terrified as he witnessed the public humiliation of his peers. Long partial to erguotou liquor, he now sought refuge in the bottle, lying disoriented on the bank of the old city moat. Afflicted by liver cirrhosis, his health declined severely.

When he died on the 28th March 1967 he can hardly have imagined an end to all the destructive campaigns. Yet by the 1980s folk and literati genres were thriving again, and Guan Pinghu became a legendary figure, his pupil Wang Di masterminding the CD set that was finally published in 1995.

Recordings
There’s a precious film clip here of Guan Pinghu playing Liushui in late 1956, with Wang Di looking on. In 1977, on the recommendation of Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung, his Liushui was to be immortalised by being sent into orbit with the US spaceship Voyager 2.

GPH CDs

The classic resource is the ROI CD set. Guan Pinghu is also well represented on YouTube. Here’s the most celebrated of the ancient pieces that he recreated from Ming-dynasty tablatures, Guangling san—whose subject (to refine the image of the qin as tranquil contemplation!) is the righteous assassination of an evil ruler (among much discussion, note silkqin, and another article by Wang Shixiang):

Thrice Drunk in Yueyang (Yueyang sanzui 岳陽三醉) is inspired by the classical theme of inebriation (now the subject of a separate post!):

For Guan Pinghu’s version of Pingsha luoyan, see here.

* * *

Unlikely as it may sound, the first fifteen years after Liberation were a Golden Age for musicological research. As to the qin, it’s not exactly that it enjoyed a renaissance: regional societies had thrived through the Republican era. But given the new ideology after Liberation, the intensity of research and gatherings under Maoism was remarkable.

We may now feel nostalgic for the old world of “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting”; but it was still embodied in the iconic masters who were active under Maoism. Like household Daoist Li Manshan (jinfei xibi 今非昔比, at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20), my nostalgia is not so much for distant imperial grandeur as for the 1950s.

And while countless lives, and precious old instruments, were destroyed in the 1960s, it’s remarkable how many managed to survive to lead the revival since the 1980s’ reforms (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Today, despite a broadening of the appeal of the qin deriving partly from the internet, the refined cultural backgrounds of former generations have largely been marginalised by the narrow conservatoire specialisation of younger students (see e.g. Bell Yung, cited here). Music is never just music.

Shaanbei: spirit mediums

*For a roundup of posts under the mediums tag, click here!*

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, Yangjiagou, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

A recent article,

  • Adam Yuet Chau and Liu Jianshu, “Spirit mediumism in Shaanbei, northcentral China”, in Caroline Blyth (ed.), Spirit possession and communication in religious and cultural contexts (2020),

supplements research on both spirit mediums and Shaanbei-ology, building on Chau’s previous work.

In many regions women comprise the majority of most mediums, but in Shaanbei they are mainly men; their tutelary deities may be either male or female. The Shaanbei mediums (generally known as “horse lads” matong 马童—horse imagery is often heard) belong to two main categories, wushen 巫神 (“medium deity”) and shenguan 神官 (“divine official”). The wushen are possessed by “proper gods”, often wielding a three-pronged sword; the shenguan are vehicles for “low-level” deities, and often use a heavy drum of wrought iron and goatskin, suggesting a link with Mongolian shamanism just north.

Among many problems for which mediums are consulted, they are mainly consulted for “wayward illnesses” (xiebing 邪病)—as well as for protecting children, a circumstance that Chau and Liu illustrate with a vignette about a family consulting a wushen for help curing the eye ailment of their young son.

Mediums often initiate the building of temples for their tutelary deities; séances are held both in domestic settings and in the temple.

Seance

Evening séance at the home of a medium (possessed by the Ancient Buddha 古佛).
His wife (on the left) serves as the attendant, burning incense and paper money and preparing ritual implements. The medium has in his hands a cleaver and a dough-kneading rod; he also uses the three-pronged sword for exorcism. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

The authors describe a kind of managed spirit possession:

The initial choice by the deity to possess a person is not willed or predictable, but once the person agrees to serve as the medium of the deity, subsequent possession episodes are all managed; the deity is invited to “come down” and possess the medium for planned séances, such as during a general consultation session or at the bequest of a particular client/worshipper.

The chapter also discusses the process of “medium succession”:

Becoming a medium is not a matter of personal desire. Only the deity can choose who will serve as his or her medium. Sometimes a person suffers from a serious and inexplicable illness (the kind that cannot be diagnosed or treated by the hospitals) [cf. Henan], and a deity might ask him or her to be the spirit medium in exchange for getting cured of the illness (in other words, the person is fulfilling a vow once they are cured). Sometimes a person is chosen by the deity because of karmic connections between the two. Even though serving the deity as a medium is seen as an honour for the person and the whole family, most people would rather not have such an honour because the medium is perceived to suffer a lot, especially the frequent exhaustion resulting from séances. Sometimes the deity decides that one family will have two or three generations of mediums serving him, in which case one of the male descendants will “take up the baton” when the older medium retires, in which case there is no need for a fresh search for a successor medium.

Palanquin

A divination palanquin carried by four men. A worshipper, kneeling, consults the Sanguandadi outside the temple hall. Standing in front of the palanquin, behind the worshipper, is the temple cult leader, who addresses the deity with questions. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

When the previous incumbent becomes too weak or dies, a ritual consultation is held, led by the temple cult leader with the aid of a divination palanquin (as in rain rituals).

An individual chosen by the deity to be a medium may sometimes try to decline the privilege. During the Maoist period, [the deity] Sanguandadi chose a [villager] to be his medium, but this person pleaded to Sanguandadi to let someone else do the job. He was working for the government and was afraid of any conflict between his work and his medium duties due to the government’s attitude towards all “superstitious” practices. Sanguandadi let him off the hook and eventually chose another person. But normally, it is very difficult to refuse “the calling.” Although high social status is not an official prerequisite for becoming a medium, there are times when the community refuses to accept the deity’s choice of medium by virtue of the person’s questionable repute or some other factors. In these cases, the deity’s choice can be challenged, such as by insisting on further confirmations of the choice by divination. Sometimes the person chosen can be so obsessed with the idea of becoming a medium, or the potential profit to be gained from this role, that he will defend his newly-acquired status against any challenges.

During the 1960s and 70s only a few courageous spirit mediums and yinyang masters practiced their trade clandestinely. Whether they had to be jailed and re-educated depended on the relationship he (usually he) had with local officials. One medium claimed that, while nine out of ten “practitioners of superstition” had to go to jail, he did not because he had cured the relatives of many of the top officials so they protected him. Also, very poor (thus of good class background) yinyang masters and mediums were not bothered too much by the campaigns. Chau also outlines the ability of mediums and their patrons to circumvent state control.

This kind of study was already suggested in the 1970s by David Jordan for the self-mortifying tang-ki mediums in Taiwan.

In another article, yet unpublished, Chau and Liu explore the theme of the attendants who serve the mediums’ deities, providing notes on a temple complex in Hengshan county and a local family of mediums, as well as a 1962 rain procession during the brief lull between campaigns.

As they describe (spoiler alert…), the role of attendant is largely voluntary. He will be a pious devotee of the temple association, quite active in helping with all its affairs. Serving as attendant is a rather onerous task: being around the temple so much, and sometimes traveling away from the village, the chores of his own family will often be left unattended; he should be brave enough to work with both the deity and the medium, as well as to confront evil powers; and he should be comfortable communicating with people. Normally he will be at least semi-literate, since an important task is to take down all the instructions from the medium during the séance. The attendant serves as intermediary between the medium and the client, translating the utterances of the deity, and acting on the medium’s instructions.

Echoing his remarks in Religion in China: ties that bind, Chau observes:

Some scholars and readers will look upon the religious practices discussed in this chapter as “magic,” “sorcery,” or “superstition,” not quite belonging to the category of “religion.” However, this kind of distinction between “proper religion” and “primitive magic” is a product of epistemological biases that privilege particular “modalities of doing religion” and hinders greatly a broad-based understanding of religious life in any society. Such a bias grants more dignity and legitimacy to religious traditions that are believed to be “higher” on an imagined evolutionary trajectory of religions, denigrating those that are supposedly less institutionalised, less systematic, more “ritualistic,” therefore “primitive” and “lower” (if not barbaric and repulsive). This is a well-known Protestant triumphalist prejudice that unfortunately still pervades most understandings of religion. Discarding this prejudice is essential for any sympathetic yet objective understanding of religious life.

China: memory, music, society

GLF

The Great Leap. Source: China Daily!

This year’s CHIME conference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.

Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).

Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.

grave

Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.

Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.

Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Unfolding along with the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap was the great famine; under the famine tag, I’ve grouped the main posts here, noting Wu Wenguang’s remarkable Memory Project, as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan (see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:

… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!

Gaoluo 1989

New Year’s rituals, Gaoluo 1989.

Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.

Cui JianEven for the period since the 1980s’ reforms there is plenty of folk memory for the Party-State to repress (see e.g. Tiananmen: bullets and opium). Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic retort to Cui Jian was inadvertently drôle: “What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?” The nuances of the indie scene are explored by Jeroen de Kloet. And in my series on Coronavirus in China, a song by a blind bard made a medium to express support for whistleblower Li Wenliang (cf. the satirical songs of Zhang Gasong).

Left: Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959.
Right: Rahilä Dawut.

Tibet makes another flagrant case of coercive amnesia; in this roundup of posts, note e.g. Forbidden memory, Conflicting memories, Eat the Buddha, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet. Song often helps articulate the sense of loss and grievance. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods:

And documenting the past and present of Xinjiang is ever more severely out of bounds (from the Uyghur tag, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.

All this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond sanitised representations of “Chinese music”, or indeed of Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. However distressing, the stories of suffering—though ever more out of bounds within the PRC—need to be told.

Anyway, FWIW, these are the kinds of thorny issues that come to my mind as I consult the CHIME conference website—do consider taking part!

Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha cover

  • Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: life, death, and resistance in a Tibetan town (2020).

While academic studies of modern Tibetan history and culture have blossomed since the 1980s (see roundup here), the dense language of scholarly publications is often compounded by their prohibitive prices. So there is ample room for an accessible, affordable volume like this to reach a wider audience beyond academia. *

Demick researched her book Nothing to envy: real lives in North Korea (2010) while she was serving as Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times in Seoul. Based on seven years of conversations, mostly with defectors to the south, as well as nine trips to North Korea from 2001 to 2008 and secretly-filmed video footage, the book is a rare window onto a closed society whose traumas and secrets remain hard to reveal.

By 2007 Demick was covering the PRC, where journalists also face ever greater challenges. From her base in Beijing, she began investigating the lives of Tibetans in the Ngaba region of north Sichuan, which was to become “the undisputed world capital of self-immolation”.

Besides the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC live in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east (comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces), on which much recent scholarship has focused (see Recent posts on Tibet).

Ngawa map

Source: Conflicting memories.

Ngaba is a prefecture in northwestern Sichuan, adjoining Golog prefecture, quite remote from Lhasa to the west. Demick puts in context the whole history leading up to the Chinese invasion and since, with vivid personal stories illustrating the successive cataclysms.

Part One begins with locals’ first traumatic encounter with Communist troops in the 1930s—the book’s title, referring to votive offerings eaten by famished Red Army troops on the early stages of the Long March, is borrowed from Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester. Demick goes on to outline the early years of the Chinese invasion after 1950, when the king of the Mei kingdom pragmatically accommodated with the new Communist overlords.

Demick 3

This is the back-story to the devastating assaults from 1958, told through the eyes of Gonpo (b.1950), the last Mei princess. After being evicted from their palace, she was relocated to the provincial capital Chengdu along with her mother and sister; her father, the former king, joined them after a year, traumatised after being held in solitary confinement. But the young Gonpo took readily to being sinicised, and was sent on to a prestigious high school in Beijing.

Demick 54

In the summer of 1966 she returned to Chengdu for a holiday with her family, but as the Cultural Revolution broke out she was soon summoned back to Beijing. Having shown willing in previous campaigns (indeed, she supported Chairman Mao avidly), Gonpo was now vulnerable. In 1967 she learned that her parents had died in suspicious circumstances. As she became a target of struggle sessions, a contingent of Red Guards from Ngaba demanded that she should be taken home for further punishment, but instead she was exiled to remote Xinjiang, labouring on a military-run complex in Qinggil (Qinghe) county near the Soviet border. Most of the population sent there were Han Chinese—including her kindly future husband Xiao Tu. They took part in the farm’s propaganda troupe, singing songs in praise of the Party’s “liberation” of Tibet. As higher education began to function again, Gonpo tried in vain to gain admission to colleges in Beijing and Shanghai.

When the couple got permission to take a holiday in 1975, Gonpo took Xiao Tu back to her old home in Ngaba, now unrecognisable; but despite her anxieties, the locals fêted her as a former princess. When they returned to Qinggil they held a simple wedding ceremony. On the death of Chairman Mao later in 1976, their main concern was that Xiao Tu would be able to avoid trouble by maintaining the dodgy loudspeakers broadcasting the funeral. As Demick notes, by the time she was writing Qinggil was the site of a “re-education camp”, inaccessible to outsiders.

We read the story of Delek (b.1949), who came from Meruma village just east of the prefectural capital, where people remained loyal to their former royal patrons. Since his family had suffered grievously as the Chinese enforced their power, he might seem an unlikely recruit to the Red Guards. Yet to many Tibetans the Cultural Revolution presented a welcome opportunity to challenge authority, and by 1968 Delek joined a branch of the Red Guards in Ngaba loyal to the Red City faction in Chengdu, supposing that they could now right the wrongs of the hated commune system and restore religious freedom. But as rebellion spread, the PLA were sent in.

Although this uprising was ultimately a failure, for six months the Tibetans had raised their own livestock, worshipped freely in the monasteries, chanted prayers, and conducted rituals. The monks had worn their robes. It had given Tibetans a taste of freedom, the memory of which could not so easily be extinguished.

In Part Two Demick describes the “interregnum” from the end of the Cultural Revolution to 1989.

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, Ngaba was a ghost town, sullen and silent. A quarter century of Communist rule had destroyed far more than it had created. What remained consisted mainly of squat mud hovels in dun tones barely distinguishable from the ground underfoot. […] Dust and mud choked the streets. Gutters on either side served as open sewers and toilets.

With the monasteries demolished, there was little to alleviate the drabness or delight the eye. The market nurtured by the king that had made Ngaba worth a detour for traders was long gone.

Demick evokes the resurgence of market enterprise through the story of Norbu (b.1952), who was to become a leading entrepreneur in Ngaba. As a child he had been reduced to begging for the family by the Chinese “democratic reforms”, and later turned to the black market. By 1974 he was making regular trips by bus to Chengdu to buy goods that he could sell back in Ngaba. As the commune system crumbled, the range of merchandise increased. In partnership with his Chinese wife he opened a tea shop and a supermarket.

With the monasteries still closed, some monks also turned to business, with their higher level of literacy. The monasteries re-opened gradually from 1980. Of the roughly 1,700 monks at Ngaba’s main monastery Kirti, only around 300 were still alive; some were traumatised after years in prison. As in Chinese regions, many of those helping to rebuild the temples were former activists who had taken part in destroying them.

New buildings began appearing in the county town—dominated by the institutions of the Chinese state. Tibetans were keen to buy motorbikes, and the trade in caterpillar fungus made a lucrative boost to their income. Ngaba traders travelled not only to the booming southeastern Chinese cities but to Lhasa and the border with Nepal.

The Han Chinese population of Ngaba was growing too; as the Tibetan plateau became a promising place to make money, the state encouraged migration with Develop the West campaigns. Tibetans were soon outnumbered by Chinese in Amdo, and were disadvantaged in many spheres.

Still, Tibetan education was reviving (cf. the lama Mugé Samtan, whose initiative began in Ngaba as early as 1980—see Nicole Willock’s chapter in Conflicting memories, pp.501–502). Tsegyam (b.1964) was a young teacher at the Ngaba Middle School, which opened in 1983. He had been given a Tibetan education by (former) Kirti monks, and became fluent in Chinese, spending a period studying in Chengdu. During the wider cultural revival in the PRC he wrote poetry and essays for literary magazines. At the Middle School he cautiously added Tibetan culture into the curriculum.

Tsegyam’s eyes were opened by reading a copy of the Dalai Lama’s memoir My land and my people, brought back by a friend from a trip to India. As awareness of the Tibetan government in exile grew, major protests took place in Lhasa in 1987. Though there was a strong military presence in Ngaba, Tsegyam echoed the mood by pasting up posters in support of Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama. By 1989, as protests throughout the PRC gathered and were crushed, he was under interrogation; sentenced to another year in prison in 1990, on his release he was unemployed and unemployable.

We catch up with Gonpo. In 1981 she and her husband were permitted to leave Xinjiang with their two children, settling in Xiao Tu’s old home Nanjing. One of countless people whose past backgrounds were now forgotten, Gonpo did well as a primary school teacher. While she kept a small portrait of the Dalai Lama at home, she could pass for a Chinese—by now she could barely recall Tibetan.

Still, she received a visit from a high-ranking Tibetan official on a tour of Nanjing, who had her promoted to posts in the Party; though mainly ceremonial, her new status conferred benefits such as a comfortable apartment.

In 1984 Gonpo managed to arrange belated funeral rites for her parents at Kirti monastery. In Beijing she gained an audience with the Panchen Lama, also recently rehabilitated (see e.g. under Labrang 1); he encouraged her to study Tibetan culture in India, and with his help she set off there with her daughter in 1988 during a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. She intended to return to Nanjing in due course, but the crisis of 1989 ensured that she would now find herself living in exile in Dharamsala.

Part Three takes the story on to 2013, as tensions grew again. As urban China basked in McDonalds and Walmart, rural Tibetans still lacked basic amenities.

In Meruma, Dongtuk was born to a disabled single mother who overcame poverty. In her house was a shrine to her uncle, a tulku reincarnate lama.

What little that children knew about recent history was gleaned from their families.

To the extent that they were taught anything about Tibet in the 20th century, it was about how the Communist Party had liberated Tibet from serfdom. Their parents tended not to talk about it. Maybe they didn’t know about it themselves. Or they feared these stories of collective trauma might arouse anti-Chinese sentiments that could get the children in trouble later down the road. The surviving elders who knew firsthand—and who often carried the scars on their bodies—disgorged their memories only sparingly. If they hadn’t been half-starved and beaten, if they hadn’t languished in prison doing gruelling work, then they had done things of which they were now ashamed. You were either tormented or a tormentor. Nobody had escaped unscathed.

Dongtuk gladly accepted when his mother suggested that he become a monk at Kirti monastery, which was now expanding grandly. In the company of village friends there, he flourished at the monastery school. But a new policy was stamping down on monastic activism; a new “patriotic education” campaign was launched at Kirti in 1998, radicalising many monks. The school was closed in 2002.

Pema (b. c1965) was a supporter of the monastery. After the death of her husband she ran a market stall to support her children, two of whom were monks. She regularly took part in circumambulations at Kirti (cf. Charlene Makley for Labrang, ch.3). She took in a young girl called Dechen, who took to a Chinese education, as well as her niece Lhundup Tso, who was of a more enquiring mind. Pema herself was inclined to be grateful for the limited freedoms they now enjoyed. But she was concerned about a vast new construction project; while she felt more pity than hostility towards the Chinese, she didn’t want any more of them in her town. Infrastructure projects escalated in the buildup to the Olympics—along with surveillance.

Demick 159

Brought up in a nomadic community, Tsepay (b.1977) was not inclined towards dissent. His good looks gained him admission to an official song-and-dance troupe at the glossy resort of Jiuzhaigou, and at first he enjoyed the work. But he came to resent the condescending clichés intrinsic to such displays, and his comments got him into trouble. Leaving the troupe, he began travelling the plateau with cellphone and camera to document the transformation of the landscape.

Despite Chinese censorship, families and monasteries still commonly kept portraits of the Dalai Lama, although people were ready to conceal them if there was a raid. Tsepay listened to recordings of teachings by the Dalai Lama, and became aware of the conflict over the identification of the new Panchen Lama. In 2006, as the Chinese rhetoric against the Dalai Lama became more strident, Tsepay spent a year in prison for distributing Dalai Lama recordings, radicalising him further.

These stories come together in Demick’s account of the 2008 uprising. Serious protests broke out in Lhasa on 10th March on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama. In Ngaba the military police were on full alert, but protests erupted there too on the 16th. Dechen normally found the troops rather dashing, but now the tension was clear. In the middle of a prayer festival at Kirti the young monk Dongtuk saw an older colleague holding up a photo of the Dalai Lama and yelling “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama!”. As other monks joined in, they swept out into the streets, confronting the riot police, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition. On their mobiles people began to learn of protests elsewhere in the region, in Labrang, Dzorge, and Rebgong.

Tsepay, on probation, couldn’t resist going into town. There he found the blood-stained body of a young Tibetan woman—probably Pema’s young niece Lhundup Tso. Pema, a curious onlooker, was horrified to learn that she was among those shot dead. Enraged, Tsepay entered the battle. Wounded, he escaped via Chengdu to Shenzhen, where he was pursued by police from Ngaba, but managed to escape again.

Demick 183

With Kirti monastery now under virtual siege, checkpoints, bunkers, and CCTV were installed. Nearly 600 monks were arrested, over a fifth of the monastery’s population. But the campaign to remove all traces of the Dalai Lama only increased the Tibetans’ reverence for him. At last Dongtuk could interpret the sufferings of his elders in terms of the current oppression. He began listening to illegal Amdo songs such as Tashi Dhondup’s 1958–2008 (see also here).

With Pema distraught over the death of her niece, and normal social life suspended, Dechen became the family’s go-between. Her education at Tibetan middle school had become more conventional; in response to campaigns against expressions of Tibetan nationalism, the students waged subtle protests.

Self-immolation
Life began returning to “normal” by the end of 2008, but the 2009 Monlam New Year festival prompted yet another crisis as a young Kirti monk set himself on fire on the main street. Though he survived, 156 Tibetans have since immolated themselves, of whom nearly a third came from Ngaba and nearby.

Dongtuk’s life at Kirti monastery had become tedious. He was a keen basketball fan, and loved watching movies. His mother eventually submitted to his repeated requests for her to muster the funds to allow him to study in India, but his efforts to leave were unsuccessful.

On 16th March 2011 another Kirti monk, a friend of Dongtuk, set himself on fire—this time fatally. Looking for scapegoats, police arrested monks, and locals rallied to protest. The monastery was barricaded again. But over the next months further self-immolations followed.

Ngaba was now sealed off and equipped with all the technology of riot control—with fire extinguishers now added to the police arsenal. When Demick visited the town in 2013 it reminded her of trips to war zones like Baghdad, Sarajevo, and the Gaza Strip.

As the self-immolations brought renewed international publicity to the Tibetan cause, the Dalai Lama and Tibet advocacy groups were in an awkward position.

Dechen, no longer so amenable to the Chinese, was now alienated by her education at school; Pema now began the complex procedures to help her reach India, as it became ever harder for Tibetan to gain travel permits. With Pema travelling as her chaperone, after a four-month journey they eventually made their way to Dham and crossed into Nepal.

Dongtuk too renewed his efforts to leave. He evaded attention by staying on his father’s nomadic pastures, getting to know his half-brother Rinzen Dorjee. And then, via Lhasa, Dham and Kathmandu, Dongtuk too managed to reach Dharamsala. As he resumed his studies at the branch of Kirti monastery there (founded in 1990), he learned of another self-immolation in Meruma—that of Rinjen Dorjee.

In Part Four Demick visits Ngaba refugees in Dharamsala, learning details hard to divulge in the intimidated atmosphere of Ngaba, and updating the story since 2014. (It is indeed possible for scholars to glean insights through extended stays among Tibetans within the PRC, as did Charlene Makley around Labrang, but in presenting their work they tend to be beset by academic concerns. For fine reflections on the differences between conducting research in Lhasa and Dharamsala, see Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?“, cited in n.1 here).

The journey to India was always fraught with dangers. Following the initial exodus after 1959, another wave took place in the 1980s. We catch up with Gonpo, who had been in inadvertent exile in Dharamsala with her daughter since 1989. The Dalai Lama, whom she had met in 1956, received her warmly, giving her a post in the exile parliament. But as relations between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama deteriorated, Gonpo was unable to see her husband and her other daughter until 2005. As Demick observed after meeting her in 2014,

Not only does the rift between China and the Tibetans run straight through her family, it runs through her psyche. Gonpo loves China as well as Tibet. She still speaks better Chinese than Tibetan. More than most Han Chinese people I know, she absorbed the lessons of socialism. She eschewed conspicuous displays of wealth and was proud that she had shed her aristocratic roots and was, to use a Chinese Communist slogan, serving the people.

Goonpo was deeply disturbed by the self-immolations in her former home.

Demick x

Demick also met the former Red Guard Delek, who had also managed to reach Dharamsala in 1989, becoming a historian as he documented the tribulations of Ngaba, while serving as caretaker at a school for young refugees.

The young teacher Tsegyam had sneaked across the border into India in 1992, eventually becoming private secretary to the Dalai Lama. And after fleeing Ngaba in 2008, Tsepay was on the run for four years, spending over a year in hiding on Wutaishan before reaching Dharamsala.

Dechen was enthusiastic about her studies at the boarding school run by the exile government; educating herself further by reading Woeser keenly, she was hoping to become a journalist. She took Demick to meet Pema, who despite her relief at escaping the appalling repressions in Ngaba, didn’t feel quite at ease, missing the material comforts of her former home.

Indeed, for many exiles the homeland remains ambivalent; with conditions in India less than ideal, they may be tempted to return to their homeland, despite the inevitable scrutiny to which they will be subjected. From a peak of 118,000 in the mid-1990s, the Tibetan population in India declined to 94,000 in 2009. The Chinese had plugged leaks to the borders, and Tibetans often move on to Western countries.

Demick considers the role of the Dalai Lama and current worries over the succession (for recent news, see e.g. here). The bar has lowered from independence to survival; but if the preservation of Tibetan culture sounds like a modest goal, even this can clearly not be taken for granted.

In her final chapter Demick ponders the limits of freedom. Some Tibetans even thought the Chinese had heeded the lessons of the self-immolations; they had cancelled an unpopular water diversion project, and shelved plans to house Chinese workers; aid projects were coming into effect. Photos of the Dalai Lama reappeared at Kirti. But Chinese migration continues, and Tibetans are still disadvantaged.

It should go without saying: The Tibetans are not some exotic isolated tribe trying to preserve an ancient civilisation against the advance of modernity. They want infrastructure, they want technology, they want higher education. But they also want to keep their language and their freedom of religion. […]

Time and again I heard the same story. Almost everybody was better off financially than they’d been a decade ago, like everybody in China. But Tibetans were still poor—even by the standards of rural China. And they could see that the Chinese newcomers in town had a higher standard of living.

Younger Tibetans might not be deeply religious; they might readily take to a Chinese education as a career path, and be seduced by the trappings of modern material goods. And yet they too have come to resent deeply their chronic submission to the Chinese, connecting it to the scars inherited from their elders, and they continue to fight to maintain their identity.

* * *

Eat the Buddha is based on three trips to Ngaba, as well as interviews with Ngaba people elsewhere, most fruitfully in Dharamsala.

With a few exceptions […], the people in this book left Tibet not for political reasons but to further their education or personal growth.

For the most part, they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China’s Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country.

As she did for Nothing to envy, Demick provides a useful research guide in a section of endnotes, themed by chapter. Besides her own visits to Ngaba, Chengdu, Lhasa, and Dharamsala, she cites sources such as the War on Tibet site of Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester, the work of scholars such as Tsering Shakya, Robert Barnett, and Melvyn Goldstein (we can now add Conflicting memories, including Bianca Horlemann’s chapter 11 on Golog), as well as human rights groups (cf. my roundup of posts on Tibet). Tsering Woeser has written on self-immolation in Tibet on fire (2016), and in this article. Many of these issues are covered on the excellent High Peaks Pure Earth website.

While the Chinese Party-State’s repression of the Tibetans is taking a rather different form to its barbarity in Xinjiang (see Uyghur tag), it’s important to keep the Tibetan case in the public eye. Over seventy years of Chinese indoctrination and brute force have been ineffective; a way out of the impasse remains elusive. Engagingly told through personal stories, Eat the Buddha makes a microcosm of the travails of Tibetans in their sorry encounter with the modern Chinese state, serving for the non-specialist (that’s me) as a digestible introduction to complex issues.


* For some effective popular works on other areas, see Charles King (here and here), Undreamed shores, Watching the English, and The souls of China.

Grave charts 2

fenpu

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin is still busy chasing around the Yanggao countryside providing mortuary services for the local villagers, both in his solo consultations and as band leader for the rituals of the funeral proper (cf. his 2017 diary).

While most of his work is in the immediate vicinity just south of Yanggao county-town, as we were discussing this post he was emailing me on his phone during breaks from leading his band to recite funerary scriptures for a family in Jining (Ulanqab region, Inner Mongolia), where the Yanggao Daoists also have longstanding connections based on waves of migration north “beyond the pass”.

Among the many tasks over which the chief Daoist presides soon after a death is siting the grave (see my film, from 16.21). To help him, the host family sometimes produces an old grave chart. Li Bin sent me his photos of two such charts in 2019, and now here’s another one, which he consulted recently while siting the grave for a family in the Eastgate quarter of Yanggao town. It was compiled in the 7th moon of 1945, just as Yanggao was being liberated from Japanese occupation.

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In north China, ritual documents that have survived the ravages of Maoism, such as Thanking the Earth memorials, are rather rare. As with the latter, I surmise that such documents were compiled by the relatively affluent (“landlord” and “rich peasant”) families that suffered after the Communist takeover.

Cf. Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern.

Can’t get you out of my head

Curtis title

Do watch the brilliant BBC TV series

Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You

The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…

While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.

Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.

I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.

As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:

It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.

Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):

Themes
In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.

In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.

In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.

Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.

Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.

Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.

With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were

invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.

Part 5 ends with a particularly disturbing montage, as How beautiful they are, the lordly ones accompanies images of Isis and Morris dancing.

What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.

This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.

Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.

China dolls

In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.

And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.

Characters
Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.

Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:

In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.

Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.

Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account. 

Anyway, it’s an immensely stimulating series, whether “dazzling”, “terrifying”, or “incoherent”; perhaps Hugo Rifkind’s comment is apposite:

I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was—

which indeed encapsulates the very confusion that Curtis evokes.

Ritual and masked drama in Hunan

nuoxi 2

From the nuo drama Da pandong, and the she tanshen ritual.

Adding to the extensive research on ritual in Hunan (note also Yang Yinliu’s 1956 field survey) is a recent case-study of ritual and sacred drama there:

  • Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).

Nanyue shenxi cover

The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).

While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).

Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.

Tan lineage

Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.

The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.

The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).

hexiao sequence

Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.

Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.

chuantan sequence

Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.

The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).

Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan). 

Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.

A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.

Hunan Fava

Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.

Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.

So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.

 

With thanks to Patrice Fava

 

A Daoist altar in west Fujian

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Daoist master Dingling (Guanbao, 1929–2013).

In the immense Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 [Anthology of Daoist ritual] series, the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan feature prominently (more on Hunan here). While studies of Fujian culture often focus on the south of the province, the Hakka western region is also rich in ritual traditions.

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The distribution of Daoist groups in Shanghang county.

This latest magnum opus in the series is a detailed study of the Lingying tang 靈應堂, one of fifteen groups (“altars” tan 壇 or “halls” tang 堂) of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanghang county, west Fujian:

Wu Nengchang cover

Born in 1984, Wu Nengchang trained in Xiamen, going on to study in Paris before taking up a post at Fudan university in Shanghai. In French, see his thesis

The main text of this new publication has 336 pages; the following 1,392 pages comprises reproductions of ritual manuals.

In his English introduction to the series, the masterly John Lagerwey highlights some main points, with his unmatched experience of Daoist ritual in south China. He sees Daoist, Buddhist, and exorcistic rituals as a single system. This classification is widely applicable in south China, though not necessarily elsewhere—spirit mediums are important in the north too, but they are not integrated with the liturgical system there. Lagerwey also gives a fine English summary of this volume, again identifying salient themes.

Although the Lingying tang was only founded a century ago, the study is rich in historical evidence. The Lingying Tang inherited the ritual traditions of two older Daoist altars, specializing respectively in Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) liturgies performed by “Daoist priests” (daoshi 道士) and the exorcistic rituals of “ritual masters” (fashi 法師).

While this volume, like the whole series, stresses early history and ritual texts, Wu provides a useful outline of the Lingying tang Daoists under successive periods in the modern era (pp.69–91). As I did for Yanggao in north Shanxi, Wu surveyed all fifteen of the Daoist altars in Shanghang county before focusing on this group. There his main consultant was Guanbao (Daoist name Dingling, 1929–2013), older son of the founder Chen Lintang (Hongxing, 1894–1959).

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Left, Guanbao (Dingling) in 1944; right, his father Chen Lintang (Hongxing).

After giving fine detail on the Republican period, Wu explores transmission under Maoism. This may play a very minor role in the series, but here I’d like to summarise this section of the chapter, as it illustrates common themes (cf. my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists, particularly this); indeed, it’s a fundamental context for the liturgical material presented.

Following Land reform, Hongxing’s family were classified as poor peasants. He was given posts in new state troupes for local opera. His son Guanbao at first retrained as a photographer, but then resumed Daoist activity on a small scale until 1956, eventually desisting after twice being criticised by work teams while performing rituals.

When Hongxing died in the winter of 1959, his sons Guanbao and Xibao, with other Daoist colleagues, surreptitiously “did the lanterns” (zuodeng 做燈) for his funeral. That same year they adapted scenes from the zuoxi 做覡 exorcistic ritual for a “cultural programme” at county and district levels.

When the Socialist Education campaign began in 1963 Guanbao buried the altar’s ritual paintings, instruments, and manuals for safekeeping. Though 1965 the work teams found some such artefacts on a raid of his house in 1965, the team chief, declining to consider them as belonging to the tainted “Four olds”, didn’t have them destroyed. However, as the situation became ever more serious, Guanbao fearfully burned ritual images himself.

In 1963 Guanbao had been appointed head of the new Nanyang amateur opera troupe, and worked away from the town after the violent opening of the Cultural Revolution. Recalled in 1976, he won county awards in 1979 for educative cultural items. As tradition, and ritual, were restoring, that year he was put in charge of the revival of the Nanyang puppet troupe, which was soon in considerable demand over a wide area. Jiao offering rituals were now being gingerly revived too.

Around 1983 Guanbao met the son of another renowned Daoist, who showed him some crucial ritual manuals which he copied, making notes on how to perform them. By this time the restoration of Daoist ritual was in full swing (cf. the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

The group’s sporadic activities under Maoism make the extensive ritual repertoires, texts, and images presented in the book even more remarkable.

And then Wu takes the story on further into the reform era, with detailed descriptions. Guanbao soon found he could make a much better living from performing rituals than from his photography and puppetry—and fees continued to increase. He trained a new generation of young disciples to perform jiao Offering rituals. The two brothers often met demand by leading separate bands.

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Guanbao’s band: annual ritual income from 2003 to 2011.

Again interspersing black-and-white photos, Wu then moves onto his main theme, the ritual repertoire, describing in turn the segments of xi 覡 (read sang in dialect) exorcistic liturgies, Orthodox Unity rituals for jiao Offerings and funerals, and “rites of confinement”.

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Arena for zanghun and other ritual segments.

Always noting wider regional and historical connections, he explores the history of the whole pantheon, including the Three Immortal Masters, earth gods, and female deities such as Queen Mother (Wangmu 王母), the Ladies (Furen 夫人), and Chen Jinggu.

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Ritual paintings by Dingling.

The extensive second part, preceded by detailed catalogues, is an anthology of ritual texts (mainly manuscripts) of the Lingying Tang. Whereas other volumes in the series often contain manuals from the Qing dynasty, most of those presented here look to have been copied by Dingling since the 1980s’ reforms—discussed in more detail in his article “Zhizao keyiben: yi Minxi daotan Lingying tangde duwang keben weili” 制造科仪本:以闽西道坛灵应堂的度亡科本为例Daojiao xuekan 道教学刊 2018.2, cf. his French thesis, pp.90–107 (for my take on the process for the Li family in Shanxi, see here).

The study concludes with an enticing series of colour photos from Wu’s fieldwork.

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From the yingxian ritual.

* * *

My comments on Daoist ritual studies in Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family relate to the dominance of south China in the project, and its salvage-based nature, based on texts rather than performance and social change. I mention these points again here because I would dearly like the monographs in this series to reach a wider audience; yet they are at some remove from the kind of ethnographic fieldwork on local society (including religious behaviour) that has simultaneously become popular (for a sample of coverage for Hunan, see here).

Thus, throughout the series, I’d be interested to learn how ritual practice has changed since the 1940s, along with the changing socio-economic context, such as migration and education. With the Li family in north Shanxi, the basic performing style seems quite constant, but the repertoire has diminished; I also noted changes in the material artefacts deployed, and in the perceptions of their clients.

In line with the brief of the series, the emphasis is on silent text, rather than performance and soundscape; yet these are precisely the means by which such texts are rendered efficacious. A core part of the Daoists’ training, not reflected in ritual manuals, is learning to sing, chant, and recite all the hymns, mantras, and memorials, and how to accompany them on the ritual percussion. Another compelling reason to highlight this soundscape is that it’s the main marker differentiating similar rituals regionally.

So if we can’t experience the sounds and movements of Daoist ritual live, then at least we should be offered edited videos of these traditions; this should be an indispensable part of any funding. If we had access to such films, then all this meticulous textual research would make a valuable complement. That said, the riches of this volume are astounding.

The death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The death of Stalin just at a time of crisis for another major world power, as the departure of a capricious monster offers the hope of a more humane society (cf. this review).

A study in duplicity and terror, Iannucci’s telling script continues from In the thick of it and Veep. Far from belittling the gruesome history of Stalinism, the film’s black humour makes the macabre, chilling brutality sink home. Amidst the frantic, ludicrous power struggles of the Central Committee, the brilliant cast is headed by Simon Russell Beale as the evil Beria; besides Kruschev, Malenkov, and Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov has some telling scenes.

Most commentators agree that it would be churlish to cavil at the artistic licence the film takes with historical facts—indeed, it’s likely to prompt viewers to delve into the grim realities, consulting the detailed work of scholars such as Orlando Figes (cf. this brief page). In her enthusiastic review, the perceptive Sophie Pinkham (always worth reading) also explores the banning of the film in Putin’s Russia (as Iannucci remarked, “In many ways Putin did our PR for us”).

Stalin’s death not only radically altered Soviet people’s lives, but set off a chain reaction outside the USSR. In China, the population was subjected to similar terrors until the death of Mao in 1976 prompted equally momentous change.

The film’s opening and closing scenes (embroidering a story about the pianist Maria Yudina) feature Mozart’s A major piano concerto, making another indelible association for me.

Short of watching the film on other, um, portals, it’s still available for another week on BBC iPlayer.

Under Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup, note e.g. The first gulag, and Kolyma tales. For black humour under state socialism, see herehere, and here. And among satirical stories under the Chinese jokes tag, I’m most keen on You don’t have to be mad to work here, but…Take a flying jump, and Yet more wordplay.

In memoriam Fou Ts’ong

Fu Cong Fu Lei

“Piano prodigy Fou Ts’ong tries to win the approval of his stern Francophile father,
the translator Fu Lei” (Kraus). From China reconstructs, April 1957.

In homage to the great Fou Ts’ong 傅聪 (1934–2020), who became yet another casualty of Covid last week in London, I’ve been re-reading the account of his career in Chapter 3 of Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989). It makes a perceptive study of tensions in the Chinese artistic world before and after the 1949 revolution, rippling out to the Iron Curtain and London (note also this post by Jessica Duchen, and this by Chen Guangchen).

Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei 傅雷 (1908–66), renowned Francophile translator and essayist, was a leading light in the Shanghai literary scene. Though steeped in China’s traditional literature, he was deaf to its musical culture:

These antiques are merely things for a musical museum or an opera museum; not only can they not be reformed, they ought not to be reformed.

The debate between urbane cosmopolitanism and revolutionary populism was to be played out in the sphere of traditional Chinese music (see here).

So it was through Western Art Music that Fu Lei resolved to groom his son to “fulfil his destiny” of modernising China. In recent years in China, as Kraus observes,

partly because of the family’s tragic history and partly because of the renewed influence of their class, the Fus have become a posthumous model for upright behaviour, principled integrity, and child-rearing.

 Fu Lei

may seem the image of Confucian propriety to Chinese, but to a Western reader the regime he imposed on his son seems cruel.

Indeed, Fou Ts’ong himself gave a more critical view (here, in Chinese). Latterly such “tiger parenting” has more often been associated with mothers.

Fu Lei Fu Cong

Source: this thoughtful tribute (in Chinese).

So Fou Ts’ong began learning the piano from the age of 7; the following year his father resolved to educate him from home. Among Fou Ts’ong’s early piano teachers was Mario Paci, founder of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After Paci’s death in 1947 he mostly studied piano on his own; but when the family moved to the Nationalist base of Kunming in 1948 to escape unrest in Shanghai, he began to rebel. He was now punished by being sent to school. He remained in Kunming when the family returned to Shanghai in 1949; entering Yunnan university, he hardly played the piano. He returned to “Liberated” Shanghai in 1951, where Western music remained in vogue in bourgeois circles despite the ideology of the Yan’an populists. In 1952 he performed Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic. But by 1953 Fu Lei, disillusioned, refused to allow him to take the entrance exam for the Shanghai Conservatoire.

Poland
With bonds now severed between China and western Europe, Chinese musicians looked to the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later in 1953 Fou Ts’ong was chosen to take part in a festival in Romania—part of a Chinese delegation led by Hu Yaobang. After giving additional performances in the GDR and Poland, he was offered a scholarship to the Warsaw conservatoire in preparation for the 1955 International Chopin competition there. Poland was still recovering from the extreme devastation of the war, and this was an unstable period in the Soviet bloc: even before the 1956 crushing of protest in Budapest, discontent was revealed in the widespread GDR protests of 1953 (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). By 1956 the Polish regime was promoting Western Art Music at the expense of folk culture (see also Polish jazz, then and now).

Fou Ts’ong took third prize at the competition, as well as a special award for his his performances of Chopin mazurkas:

Back in China,

For urban intellectuals, Fou Ts’ong’s success was a badge of their their own ability to participate in the world culture which they held so dear. For the leaders of the Communist Party, the Chopin competition was a diplomatic encounter, in which Fou’s performance demonstrated that China could achieve great things after expelling the imperialist powers.

For Fou Ts’ong the triumph also marked a new independence from his domineering father.

Meanwhile in China political pressures were increasing. Kraus describes the 1955 campaign against Hu Feng, the Hundred Flowers movement that led insidiously to the Anti-rightist campaign, and Fu Lei’s own tribulations after being branded a rightist. Music too was becoming an increasingly perilous battleground.

Fou Ts’ong could only try to grasp these events from Warsaw. As his father’s letters veered from depression to exuberance, the political changes in China between 1954 and 1958 must have seemed both mysterious and frighteningly unstable.

Having been criticised by Chinese students in Warsaw, Fou Ts’ong was recalled to Beijing to take part in rectification. But after writing a self-criticism he soon returned to Poland, graduating from the Warsaw conservatoire in December 1958—just as the Great Leap Backward was rolled out to empty fanfare across China.

London
And so on Christmas Eve that year, Fou Ts’ong defected, seeking political asylum in London, still only 24. Among those helping him flee was Yehudi Menuhin’s daughter Zamira, who became his first wife in 1960. Refusing to return to China, Fou Ts’ong was escaping the dual prisons of Confucianism and Communism. From the safe haven of his London base, his international career soon thrived.

His father’s tribulations were compounded by Fou Ts’ong’s defection, but they continued corresponding. Fou Ts’ong later published a volume of his father’s letters written over the following period:

The family letters of Fu Lei are popular in China allegedly because Fu Lei is such a model of old-fashioned virtue. But one wonders if Fou Ts’ong published them to justify his defection, perhaps unconsciously letting all readers understand that he was fleeing not only China’s politics but the obsessive love of a tyrannical father.

A brief political thaw from 1961 even encouraged Fu Lei to imagine his son returning to China. But in September 1966 Fu Ts’ong’s parents, persecuted by Red Guards from the Shanghai conservatoire, became two of the most notorious suicides of the Cultural Revolution. In the elite world of the qin zither, other tragedies were the suicide of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and the disappearance of Pu Xuezhai.

Fou Ts’ong now went through a difficult period in both his personal and professional life.

On his first return visit to China in 1979, as old wounds began to be plastered over, he took part in a memorial service for his newly-rehabilitated parents. Hard as it is now to imagine a time when glossy Chinese piano superstars were still a rarity, he inspired a new generation with regular visits thereafter.

His reflections on Chopin convey his charm:

Though both father and son espoused a very different aesthetic from that of the qin zither, their stress on wider personal cultivation, and the refinement of Fou Ts’ong’s touch on the piano, recall the refined sensibilities of that world.

I imagine him in his Shanghai youth listening to the numinous 1927 recording of the Schubert G major piano trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals on the family phonograph… By the 1960s Fou Ts’ong, my teacher Hugh Maguire, and Jacqueline du Pré relished playing piano trios together—how I wish I had heard them.

Fou Ts'ong

Kolyma tales

This post continues my series on trauma—e.g. under Life behind the Iron Curtain, for the Soviet bloc as well as Germany; and for China, e.g. China: commemorating traumaConfessions, The temple of memories, and Guo Yuhua.

Among all the vast gulag camps spread across the USSR (e.g. Solovki), most utterly remote and terrifying was the Arctic region of Kolyma in northeast Siberia (wiki: under KolymaSevvostlag and Dalstroy; also e.g. here). As Anne Applebaum remarks,

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag.

An early study in English was

  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: the Arctic death camps (1978)—cf. his major book on the Ukraine famine, a predecessor of Anne Applebaum’s Red famine.

A major source is

  • Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) (wikiwebsite), who endured consecutive sentences in Kolyma from 1937 until 1953.

His Kolyma tales, a bulky collection of stories, most only a few pages long, makes grimly compelling reading. [1]

For the wider story of the camps, a brilliant study is

  • Anne ApplebaumGulag: a history (2003).

She uses Shalamov’s work extensively among a great variety of sources, and it’s worth reading the historian’s forensic overview of the camp system in conjunction with the Kolyma memoirs.

As Applebaum notes in her Introduction, it is impossible to treat the gulag as an isolated phenomenon. The difference between life inside and outside the camps was one of degree.

The Gulag did not emerge, fully formed, from the sea, but rather reflected the general standards of the society around it. If the camps were filthy, if the guards were brutal, if the work teams were slovenly, that was partly because filthiness and brutality and slovenliness were plentiful enough in other spheres of Soviet life. If life in the camps was horrible, unbearable, inhuman, if death rates were high—that too was hardly surprising. In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, and inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.

Having noted the wretched fate of the “special exiles” (a separate yet related theme), she goes on to summarise the “long, multinational, cross-cultural history of prisons, exile, incarceration and concentration camps, from Ancient Rome and Greece to Georgian Britain, 19th-century France and Portugal, and Czarist Russia itself. She then encapsulates similaries and differences between Nazi and Soviet camps.

Applebaum explains:

To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners travelled by train across the entire length of the USSR—sometimes a three-month journey—to Vladivostok. They made the rest of the trip by boat, travelling northwards past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma river valley.

The transport ships were themselves deadly, as portrayed in Shalamov’s “The procurator of Judea”, and in the documentary below.

Kolyma map

Source here.

Part II of Gulag: a history, “Life and work in the camps” is a particularly harrowing survey, with chapters on arrest, prison; transport, arrival, selection; life and work in the camps; punishment and reward; guards, prisoners; women and children; the dying; strategies of survival; rebellion and escape.

Having noted that the guards didn’t inhabit an entirely different social sphere from the prisoners, in an astute analysis Applebaum observes that neither “politicals” nor “criminals” were simple categories. While inmates such as scientists, agronomists, former NKVD officers, and artists, mostly loyal Communists, have a higher profile, the “political” rubric was a catch-all for many ordinary people with no strong political views who had made some innocent yet fatal “mistake”, and most prisoners were ordinary workers and peasants. In 1934, 42.6% of the general gulag population were semi-literate; even in 1938, only 1.1%  had higher education. The proportion of “political” inmates rose during the war, reaching nearly 60% in 1946 following an amnesty for criminal prisoners.

Constantly hungry, subjected to relentless, punishing work in the dreaded gold mines and the endless taiga forests, they were at the mercy of the urki criminal inmates; degradation and dehumanisation were essential for survival.

Applebaum cites Evgeniya Ginzburg’s experiences on boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion… without wasting any time they set about terrorising and bullying the “ladies”, delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves… They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find…

Shalamov 1937

Shalamov, “The Red Cross”:

Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each. […]

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administrators fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other.

The young peasant cannot but be impressed by this. It begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life. […]

The intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything that he valued is ground into the dust while civilisation and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion in a quarrel is the fist or a stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth. […]

The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.

Applebaum describes thieves’ slang, known as blatnaya muzyka “thieves’ music”.

The minority of women prisoners (Gulag, Chapter 15), again both political and criminal, were terribly vulnerable too. Shalamov’s “Women in the criminal world” is a substantial account, also addressing male homosexuality. As he notes, the sole exception to the contempt for women prescribed in the camps is the hypocritical cult of veneration for the criminal’s mother (cf. flamenco):

Even this seemingly lofty feeling is a lie from beginning to end—as is everything else. […] This feeling for his mother is nothing but a pack of lies and a theatrical pretence. The mother cult is a peculiar smokescreen used to conceal the hideous criminal world.

Crucial for inmates’ desperate strategies of survival (Gulag, Chapter 17) was the hierarchy of hospitals and medics, with their own troubled stories. They often feature in Kolyma tales, such as “Typhoid quarantine”:

The scratch marks on Andreev’s hands and arms healed faster than did his other wounds. Little by little, the turtle-shell armour into which his skin had been transformed disappeared. The bright rosy tips of his frostbitten fingers began to darken; the microscopically thin skin, which had covered them after the frostbite blisters ruptured, thickened slightly. And above all, he could bend the fingers of his left hand. In a year and a half at the mines, both of Andreev’s hands had molded themselves around the handles of a pick and shovel. He never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again. […]

The bloody cracks on the soles of his feet no longer hurt as much as they used to. The scurvy ulcers on his legs had not yet healed and required bandaging, but but his wounds grew fewer and fewer in number, and were replaced by blue-black spots that looked like the brand of some slave-owner. Only his big toes would not heal; the frostbite had reached the bone, and pus slowly seeped from them. Of course, there were less pus than there had been back at the mine, where the rubber galoshes that served as summer footwear were so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step—as if through a puddle.

Many years would pass before Andreev’s toes would heal. And for many years after healing, whenever it was cold or even slightly chilly at night, they would remind him of the northern mine. But Andreev thought of the future. He had learned at the mine not to plan his life further than a day in advance. He strove towards close goals, like any man who is only a short distance from death. Now he desired one thing alone—that the typhoid quarantine might last for ever. This, however, could not be, and the day arrived when the quarantine was up.

Among their strategies was self-mutilation, evoked in Shalamov’s “The businessman”.

The region’s main town Magadan was built by forced labour from 1932. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted a “peculiar paradox”:

the gulag was slowly bringing “civilization”—if that is what it can be called—to the remote wilderness. Roads were being built where there had only been forest, houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples [2] were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. […]

My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride…

The early years under Eduard Berzin were later recalled with a certain nostalgia. But

Of the 16,000 prisoners who travelled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year [1932], only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive. The rest were thrown, underclothed and underprotected, into the winter storms: survivors of the first year would later claim that only half of their number had lived.

Berzin was himself executed in the purges of 1938, as Stalin’s Great Terror took an even more severe toll on the camps.

During the American Lend-Lease programme to assist their Soviet allies, vice president Henry Wallace visited in May 1944, and was efficiently deceived. In a macabre story the most urgent task of a bulldozer donated under the programme is to rebury the frozen corpses of prisoners exposed as mass graves from 1938 began to slide down a hill. And for Monty Python fans, Shalamov also features the prisoners’ withering assessment of spam.

During and after the war, the ranks were supplemented by Ukrainian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean inmates (cf. Gulag, Chapter 20)—as well as Soviet prisoners of war, considered traitors.

After the war the general population’s hopes for a less punitive society were soon crushed (see The whisperers).

In “The lepers” Shalamov describes yet another disturbing story.

In the course of the war the leprosaria had been destroyed, and the patients had merged with the rest of the population. […] People ill with leprosy easily passed themselves as wounded or maimed in war. Lepers mixed with those fleeing to the east and returned to a real, albeit terrible life where they were accepted as victims or even heroes of the war.

These individuals lived and worked. The war had to end in order for the doctors to remember about them and for the terrible card catalogues of the leprosaria to fill up again.

Lepers lived among ordinary people, sharing the retreat and the advance, the joy and bitterness of victory. They worked in factory and on farms. They got jobs and even became supervisors. But they never became soldiers—the stubs of the fingers that appeared to have been damaged in the war prevented them from assuming this last occupation. Lepers passed themselves off as war invalids and were lost in the throng.

* * *

Rebellion and escape attempts were rare, and doomed (Gulag, Chapter 18). As in China, there was nowhere to escape to (ironically, it was only 55 miles across the Bering Strait to America). In “Major Pugachov’s last battle” Shalamov notes a certain change after the war:

The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strnghtening of socialism. The professors, union officials, soldiers, and workers who filled the prisons to overflowing at that period had nothing to defend themselves with except, personal honesty and naïveté—precisely those qualities that lightened rather than hindered the punitive “justice” of the day. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree. They were neither enemies of the government nor state criminals, and they died, not even understanding why they had to die. Their self-esteem and bitterness had no point of support. Separated, they perished in the white Kolyma desert from hunger, cold, work, beatings, and diseases. They immediately learned no to defend or support each other. This was precisely the goal of the authorities. The souls of those who remained alive were utterly corrupted, and their bodies did not possess the qualities necessary for physical labour.

After the war, ship after ship delivered their replacements—former Soviet citizens who were “repatriated” directly to the far north-east.

Among them were many people with different experiences and habits acquired during the war, courageous people who knew how to take chances and who believed only in the gun. There were officers and soldiers, fliers and scouts…

Accustomed to the angelic patience and slavish submissiveness of the “Trotksyites”, the camp administration was not in the least concerned and expected nothing new.

So escape attempts increased, but were just as futile. Shalamov evokes another such attempt in “The green procurator”.

Here’s a 1992 documentary, if you can bear it:

* * *

The 1930s and 40s were the most horrifying years for the gulag system. After the war amnesty (Gulag, Chapter 21), the death of Stalin in 1953 created a new mood, and Kruschev declared a more lasting amnesty in 1956, freeing many. But as Applebaum describes in her concluding chapters, some still had little choice but to remain until the 1990s.

The end of the war may have brought an end to the Nazi camps as such, but in the USSR the gulag network continued operating; and just as it was winding down following the death of Stalin, in China Mao was expanding his own system of labour camps.

As Applebaum explains carefully in an Appendix to Gulag, attempts to assess the death toll have been inconclusive; for comparisons with estimates of victims under Hitler and Mao, cf. Timothy Snyder and Ian Johnson.

The legacy
Memory of the whole gulag system is a complex subject, explored by Applebaum in her perceptive Epilogue (cf. Figes). More recent accounts of the haunted Kolyma region discuss memory, ignorance, and veneration for Stalin. Jacek Hugo-Bader revisited the region in Kolyma diaries (2014), reviewed here by Kapka Kassabova (cf. this article).

And Yury Dud challenges modern amnesia in Kolyma: the home of our fear (2019):

 


[1] I’ve been reading the 1994 translation by John Glad; a recent version by Donald Rayfield (“Kolyma stories”) is well reviewed here, including its vexed publication history, and a comparison with Solzhenitsyn. See also the sequel Sketches of the criminal world. Other survivors’ accounts of Kolyma include those of the Polish Stanislaw J. Kowalski, The land of gold and death, Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, Evgeniya Ginzburg, and the Romanian Michael M. Solomon.

[2] Accounts of Kolyma inevitably focus on the camps’ Russian inmates and other outsiders; the fate of local indigenous peoples like the YukaghirsYakutChukchi, and Evenki, with their shamanistic cultures, is another story.

Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

*For main page, click here!*
(under Themes > Local ritual, in main menu)

Tianjin FYT 1989

Having written about the 1990s’ UK tours of ensembles from Wutaishan (Buddhist) and Suzhou (Daoist), my articles on dharma-drumming associations and sectarian groups around Tianjin now remind me to introduce a household Buddhist group based in the Southern suburbs there.

Tianjin FYT 1993.1

As tradition revived with the 1980s’ reforms, the group was guided by former temple monks, long laicised. I reflect on their 1993 UK tour and the resulting Nimbus CD Buddhist music of Tianjin.

Tianjin CD cover 1

Gaoluo: vocal liturgists

*For main page, click here!*
(under Other publications > Local ritual > Gaoluo, in main menu)

This is to direct you to yet another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution, with sketches of the vocal liturgists (“civil altar”) of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.

The new page (to be read in conjunction with Two ritual leaders) features the great masters Cai Fuxiang, Cai Yongchun, and Li Wenbin, who steered the vocal liturgy through the early years of the revolution; and their young students from 1961 to 1964, Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, who have represented the “civil altar” in performing for funerals and calendrical rituals since the 1980s.

Do explore the wealth of further material on Gaoluo (as well as its tag) and the many other village ritual associations on the Hebei plain (main page here, articles under Local ritual)!

Chinese film classics of the early reform era

From The story of Qiu Ju.

Along with the first flush of the liberal reforms that attended the collapse of the commune system, the classic feature films of the 1980s’ “fifth generation” were part of a widespread flowering of the arts, overturning the “socialist realism” of the Maoist era.

As with the other arts, while Chinese films and documentaries have continued to adapt (see e.g. Social issues in rural Hunan), it remains worth celebrating this early body of work—made just around the time when I was becoming familiar with folk music and ritual in village China, fostering my concern to consider wider social change. For more films (mainly documentaries) on Chinese ritual and rural life, see here.

Wedding scene from Yellow earth.

There’s a wealth of academic and media coverage, but here I’ll make a little selection of some films—just the Usual Suspects, for those already in the know—that explore the lives of ordinary people (both rural and urban), including their folk music. Often set in the barren landscapes of rural Shaanbei and Shanxi, several of these works use amateur actors—always a good sign. Some are verité depictions of the early reform period itself, while others are set in the Maoist and pre-Liberation eras, but they were all important in helping revise our image of China. Of course, as fieldworkers we hope to document all three periods.

A seminal film from the early days was

  • Yellow earth (Huang tudi 黄土地, Chen Kaige, 1984). Set in the Shaanbei base area during the War against Japan, exemplifies the travails of early CCP folk-song collectors (cf. Hequ 1953) as they were confronted by the poverty of rural China, and the vast cultural gulf separating them from the peasants they were seeking to rescue from “feudal superstition”. It’s framed by the opening wedding scene, and the final rain ritual:

  • Old well (Laojing 老井, Wu Tianming, 1986, with Zhang Yimou) [1] is based on a poor village’s struggle against constant drought. One well-observed vignette (from 1.20.19) features a village story-telling session with blind musicians, and the peasants’ taste for “dirty songs” licensed by a token politically-correct speech (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”):

Despite the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, this wave persisted into the early 1990s. A timeless, mystical story of a rural blind bard in a stunning landscape is

  • Life on a string (Bianzou bianchang 邊走邊唱, Chen Kaige, 1991):

In more verité style, filmed in rural and urban Shaanbei, is

  • The story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi 秋菊打官司, Zhang Yimou, 1992), surely Gong Li’s greatest and most uncharacteristic role as a sullen, aggrieved, confused peasant, a far cry from her standard fragrant image—with the street scenes particularly authentic, and a soundtrack punctuated by gutsy wanwanqiang singing by Li Shijie 李世傑 (sorry, no English subtitles here):

On the insidious pressures of urban family life under Maoism, a most moving film is

  • The blue kite (Lan fengzheng 蓝风筝, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993)—AARGH, it’s just disappeared from YouTube! Come back at once! (For more on Tian Zhuangzhuang, click here.)

And in similar vein,

In these two films I find links with depictions of the lives of ordinary people under the GDR.

Among many films revising images of Tibet within the PRC (note Robbie Barnett’s chapter in Conflicting memories, and §4 of his Columbia course) is

  • The horse thief (Daoma zei 盗马贼, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986):

Similar themes and approaches were to be explored in the work of directors such as Jia Zhangke, set in small-town Shanxi.


[1] Not to be confused with Blind shaft (fine translation of Mangjing 盲井, Li Yang 2003), another disturbing film about mining.

Recent posts on Tibet

*UPDATED!*

Amidst outcry over China’s recent assault on the Uyghurs, I’m finally giving equal coverage to the plight of the Tibetans. My comments set forth not from any knowledge of the societies in question, but from my interest in local communities and lives under the CCP, both during the Maoist era and since the 1980s’ reforms. So these posts cover social change, political upheavals, and expressive culture.

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

A conspicuous absentee from my coverage so far is monastic ritual, a major part of the Tibetan soundscape that has been much studied, even at the expense of other genres. And as many Western studies turn to the lively scene of Tibetan pop, I tend to seek the changing fortunes of traditional culture.

See also Tibet tag.

Tibet: some folk ritual performers

Ngagmo female ritual group, Rebkong (Amdo), c2009. Source here.

For the Tibetan peoples, both before the Chinese occupation—or the uprisings from 1956—and under the reform era since the 1980s, our popular image of religious life is dominated by “institutional” monastic activity. Even genres like lhamo opera, nangma-töshe, and grand local folk communal rituals seem more commonly known than the diverse types of folk ritual performers.

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. 

Taxonomy
Emic and etic ways of slicing the cake of expressive cultures vary; and for Tibet they vary both within and between Tibetan, Chinese, and Western approaches. As in many cultures, a simple dichotomy like sacred–secular will only confuse, even if we take it as a continuum. Catherine Bell reflects wisely on the variety of “ritual specialists” within world cultures in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.130–40. But again, such an etic umbrella term often seems inadequate for Tibet.

One would include the male ngagpa and female ngagmo self-cultivational groups of Tantric practitioners (see e.g. the work of Nicolas Sihlé, such as this article; wiki, and here; photo above). Further, with religion such a pervasive element in the daily life of Tibetan people, there’s no simple way of encapsulating the variety of performers, family groups and individuals, occupational, often itinerant—such as spirit mediums and diviners, mendicants and beggars (for the latter in pre-occupation Lhasa, see e.g. Part Two here, under “Professional and spiritual beggars”). Moreover, the trite rubric of “song-and-dance” subsumes calendrical rituals with communal, largely ascriptive participation (see e.g. here). [1] Indeed, since the 1950s, and still now, lay performers may be less closely surveilled than the major monasteries such as Labrang (for which see here and here).

A variety of such genres is described in the 2006 book (in Chinese) Zangzu shuochang yishu [Narrative-singing arts of the Tibetan people] by Suolang Ciren 索朗次仁 [Sonam Tsering], (cf. this page).

As with Han Chinese traditions, some of these genres are described as obsolete, and appear to belong to “salvage” fieldwork. Having so often heard this claim from Chinese cultural cadres anxious about revealing “superstitious” activities in their domain, I am reluctant to take it as gospel. It is hard to assess the current picture from published material in Chinese and Tibetan. On one hand PRC scholars may take mediated, secular performances on the concert platform as evidence of the continuing life of tradition; on the other, their access enables them to document local genres. But of course change is always a factor. As with some Han Chinese traditions, folk activity may be continued by other means, and I suspect that lengthy immersion in a given area may still reveal neglected life in such genres. At the same time, few of these groups quite resemble the household ritual specialists who are my main theme in local Han Chinese communities.

In exile, while some genres of the former elite were maintained, and the monasteries have long been the main scholarly focus, many folk ritual genres hardly feature in representations of Tibetan expressive culture such as the 1986 Zlos-gar. However, some of the folk performers who made their way into exile sought to continue activity there.

Moreover, one would seek to consider groups among Tibetan communities such as those of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, from where some of the most interesting material derives. As with other “marginal survivals”, always bearing in mind that these are local traditions, it can be tempting to regard such manifestations as suggestive of culture within old Tibet (cf. “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”).

* * *

Among all these genres, by far the most popular area of research is the Gesar epic (see here, n.2, and here). Though it is often treated as a reified genre of oral literature, and since the 1980s has also been performed on the secular stage, the solo performers (both the “inspired” bards who received the text through spiritual revelation in trance after a psychological crisis, and those who learned by listening to other bards) continued to play a role in the domestic rituals of their local communities after the 1980s’ reforms, despite the encroachment of pop and media culture.

But as in south Asia and China, there was (and is) a variety of performers. So here I will illustrate the difficulties of simple classification with brief introductions to lama mani, drekar, and ralpa.

Lama mani
The itinerant solo folk storytellers lama mani enact religious tales with the aid of thangka paintings. It may be more suitable to regard them as educators. [2]

lama mani old 1

An important source for the wider historical context around China and south Asia is

  • Victor Mair, Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

For the TAR, the lama mani feature in Zangzu shuochang yishu; see also this introduction. Around Lhasa, this 2014 article portrays “Chilie” [Thinley / ‘Phrin las] (b. c1940), typically, as “the last lama mani”.

Brought up in a village of Nagarze county in the Lhoka region of southeast TAR, both of his parents had performed lama mani, and he learned with them from young, along with his three older sisters; here one would wish to fill in the gaps in his biography for the Maoist decades. Even recently, his status as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage hadn’t brought him security: in 2014, performing on the street in the Barkhor, he was moved on by the police.

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

Here’s a documentary by Tsering Rithar Sherpa on transmitting the art of lama mani in Nepal:

And 10-minute footage of lama mani there:

For a project on the artefacts of lama mani, including thangkas and scripts, click here.

Drekar
Drekar oldAlso belonging within this diverse rubric are the drekar (in Chinese, zhega 折嘎: see this useful page), mendicant masked buffoons reciting auspicious verses for New Year and weddings (cf. Chinese beggars, such as in Shaanbei).

Again, the drekar have been described as obsolete, both within and beyond the PRC. A brief recorded excerpt (from since the 1980s’ reforms!) can be heard in #2 of CD 6 in Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi. Whereas it was clearly recited on request, Woeser filmed this even briefer video during a street performance, suggesting that there may still be potential for fieldwork:

Ralpa
Until the 1950s the ralpa or relpa (in Chinese, reba 热巴), mostly from the Kham region in origin, were family-based, low-class, itinerant performers, using narration, singing, dancing, acrobatics, and small plays, based on the life of Milarepa.

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

But the sense in which ralpa is now commonly promoted is as a communal dance festivity in the villages of Kham—subject of a book by Gonpo Gyaltsen (1928–2020), himself a former ralpa from the Dechen region there: in Chinese, Oumi Jiacan 欧米加参, Xuecheng reba 雪域热巴 (1998), Tibetan translation Gangs-ljongs ral-pa (2017).

Today this form too may be largely obsolete (see e.g. this useful survey), even as it has become a victim of commodified dance arrangements and the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

Under Chinese occupation and modernity some of these genres have doubtless suffered more than others; but we should include them all within our picture of the varied religious behaviours in local Tibetan societies—even as many fine scholars, quite legitimately, turn their attention to the pop soundscape. And of course more revealing ethnographies could be compiled on how individual, family, or devotional groups of lay participants dovetail in local societies with monasteries, communal ritual activities, and so on [3]over time: as usual, we might hope to seek threads of continuity in 1950s’ activity.

For more posts under my coverage of Tibet, see e.g. Expressive cultures of the Himalayas, and Women in Tibetan expressive culture.

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy


[1] Sources for such genres appear rather piecemeal. Some feature in §III of the New Grove article on Tibet, and in the bibliographies of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (for Western-language sources) and Sangye Dondhup (for Tibetan and Chinese items); but Isabelle surveys much of the material in chapter 3 of her magnum opus Le théâtre ache lhamo, with references including some notes by early Western Tibetologists (such as Tucci and Stein), and for the post-reform era, studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars, again mostly brief.

For Tibetan communities within the PRC, among the Anthology volumes (for the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, in Chinese), those on narrative-singing (and perhaps on folk-song, and dance) should give further leads.

At a tangent, YouTube has a range of interesting material under “Tibetan wedding”, like this 2013 ceremony from a village in Qinghai, with some fine singing. This might lead us to the chang ma beer servers in old and new Tibet.

[2] Among references to lama mani in Le théâtre ache lhamo (n.1 above), two discuss the drama Padma ‘od-‘bar (also popular in lhamo, like many items here): Anne-Marie Blondeau’s chapter in Zlos-gar (referring mainly to the relation of paintings and text), and a 2012 booklet (in Tibetan) with three CDs, for the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

[3] For a mendicant singer in early 20th century Amdo, with pertinent details on present-day performers, see this article by Gerald Roche.

Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam

*For more, see my roundup of posts on Uyghur culture*

Amidst the current savage repression in Xinjiang, a brilliant new book is

aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.

Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.

Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.

After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”

By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.

The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps

.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:

The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.

But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).

Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.

She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.

Gathering before khätmä ritual.

As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of  büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.

The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.

Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:

The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.

She notes that

reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.

Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).

Do listen to the audio examples here and here; see also under https://www.musicofcentralasia.org/Tracks.

Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.

Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.

She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,

For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.

Aynisa

felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.

After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:

Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.

In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.

Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.

Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.

She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.

Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.

Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.

Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.

To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.

If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.

The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.

Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.

With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.

Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.

It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.

The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,

the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.

And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.

By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.

Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.

Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.

The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.

Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,

we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.

Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.

She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.

Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.

While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.

* * *

While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.

For a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.

Tibet: conflicting memories

Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus

  • Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).

Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented.

As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).

Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).

Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).

Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.

And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.

He suggests that the rationale for the early films was

in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.

Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.

At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.

TV series Love song of Kangding, 2004.

Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.

In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.

Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.

Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):

T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*?
G: Four and a half years.
T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61?
[11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.]
G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!

The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).

Shamdo Rinzang (left).

Documents 7–10 are excerpts from the 2016 Living and dying in modern Tibet­, an important collection of oral memoirs from the 1930s to the 1970s for northern Kham.

 Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:

Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.

Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s autobiography Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho, interspersing official documents.

Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.

The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.

Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.

See also Recent posts on Tibet; and Tibet and Uyghur tags.

Tiananmen: bullets and opium

Within China, as for the whole of the Maoist era, public memory of the righteous student protests of 1989 in China continues to be repressed. A valuable recent addition to the extensive literature published abroad (see e.g. this list, with perceptive reflections by Jeff Wasserstrom) is

  • Liao Yiwu, Bullets and opium: real-life stories of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre (German edition 2012; new English edition translated by David Cowhig and Jessie Cowhig, ed. Ross Perlin, 2020).

After Ian Johnson’s lucid introduction, reflecting on the “failed revolution”, Liao Yiwu (@liaoyiwu1) provides a useful Prologue. He himself spent four years in prison after 1989, going on to document these first-hand accounts (cf. The corpse walker) while under constant harrassment, before fleeing to Berlin in 2011. He returns to his own story in the final chapter, and fantasises about museums and monuments in China to political movements: “How will our children and grandchildren find a place to live in a country crowded with so many monuments?”

Liao’s subjects (he co-opts the Party’s terms “thugs” and “hooligans”) are not the student “elite” of the movement whose later emigration and defection from the cause aroused much resentment, but those left behind—the common people of Beijing and Chengdu (often factory workers, also mostly very young) who bore the brunt of the military crackdown as they tried to support the patriotic protests. Tortured and sentenced to long prison terms for their righteous actions, after their release they found themselves having to beg for low-paid menial jobs, scrabbling for a place to sleep, with chronic health problems, ostracised, condemned to poverty. Meanwhile the economic miracle served as if to bribe people not to ask any more questions. Even now, over thirty years later, few of the survivors or bereaved hold much hope for any official recognition of the events.

Though Liao’s interlocutors are all men, the impact on their wives and families is clear (this review includes a critique of implicit sexism). Despite their anger, several of them comment on the sorry plight of the troops sent in to quell the “chaos”—they too were victims, misled by their rulers.

The unrest extended far beyond central Beijing. Not only was there fierce resistance in the suburban counties through which the various armies had to fight their way, but protests erupted in many provinces (note this wiki entry). In Part Two the scene shifts to Sichuan, where Liao catches up with some of his former colleagues.

The Afterword, “The last moments of Liu Xiaobo” (translated by Michael Day), is based on Liao’s conversations with his widow Liu Xia. And in three appendices, “A guide to what really happened”, Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, founders of the Tiananmen Mothers movement, conscientiously attempt to document some numbers for the victims, and their fates. And many more—3,000, or over 10,000, according to other reputable sources—may have been killed, besides countless injured.

Here’s the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton (1995):

Throughout this aftermath Western scholars (including me) blithely continued visiting China, judging it better to engage than to leave our contacts even more isolated. And as the economy flourished, China was an ever-more tempting place to do business, as the general population retreated into blind materialism.

In academic circles too the climate seemed open enough: Chinese scholars somehow found a certain latitude to explore sensitive topics. Through the 1990s, as I explored the hutongs of Beijing, I must have come across many people with harrowing stories to tell—or to refrain from telling—of June 1989. Among my urban and rural friends, the climate didn’t seem too (sic) repressive; we could still function around the workings of the police state. Even in 2018 I had a great time in Beijing and the countryside. So it’s taken me all this time to draw the line, as repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has become more extreme—and the recent escalation may also remind us to resist Tiananmen fatigue.

For more on political amnesia, see e.g. China: commemorating trauma; The temple of memories; Confessions; for Tibet, Forbidden memory; and further afield, many posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

Amdo rituals: early and recent films

Holton 1a

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Holton 2

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.


[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

Ethnic polyphony in China

I’ve praised the fine CD sets of archive recordings from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, in collaboration with Wind Records, Taiwan. For songs of the ethnic minorities in China, the same team also produced

  • Qiao Jianzhong 喬建中 and Wu Guodong 伍國棟 (eds), Zheshan chang nashan 這山唱那山 [English title Polyphonic folksongs in China] (2-CD set, 2002), with booklet in Chinese.

It makes an important addition to our roster of folk polyphony around the world—best known on the world-music scene through the recordings of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. For guidance on multi-part singing we may also consult the CD-set Voices of the world and its instructive booklet.

The cultures of China’s ethnic minorities are a popular topic— [1] more so, indeed, than those of the Han Chinese, thanks largely to the reductive image of ethnic groups being “good at singing and dancing”, and their exotic costumes.

All this is well beyond my expertise, but since the 1980s, along with research, there’s a substantial repository of audio and video recordings, and minority groups are commonly invited to give staged performances in urban festivals. The vocal repertoires of many such peoples include a substantial component of polyphonic songs. [2]

The two CDs contain 56 tracks—mostly a cappella—from 16 ethnic groups in provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, including Buyi [Bouyei], Miao [Hmong], Jingpo, Yi, Naxi [Nakhi], Lisu, Dong [Kam], Zhuang (16 tracks!), Yao, Molao, Maonan, Bai, and Qiang, as well as Tibetans and Mongols, and the She minority of Fujian in the southeast.

Most of the recordings were made (in concert, rather than in situ) at a major gathering of singing groups for a 1982 symposium in Nanning—just as the liberalisations that followed the collapse of the commune system were allowing traditional culture to revive, but rather before migration, tourism, commodification, and heritagification further thickened the plot.

* * *

Many other recordings of the musics of ethnic minorities are the result of “hit-and-run” missions. But for the poor mountainous province of Yunnan, the long-term studies of local fieldworkers Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei, often in collaboration with British ethnomusicologist Helen Rees, are most diligent. Their numerous CDs include both ritual and instrumental genres and vocal music. For the latter, most relevant here are

  • Alili: multi-part folksongs of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities (2 CDs, Pan, 2004) and the sequel Nanwoka (2 CDs, Pan, 2005),

with field and studio recordings (again mostly a cappella, with only occasional instrumental accompaniment) of the Yi, Hani, Nakhi, Lisu, Nu, Lahu, Jinuo, Jingpo, Tibetans (9 tracks), Bai, Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Wa, De’ang, Bulang, Achang, and Dulong peoples—both sets containing most instructive liner notes. Here’s the playlist of the former (click on “YouTube”):

Particularly remarkable are the multi-part songs of the Hani (only “discovered” in 1995)— such as the densely-textured clusters of this rice-transplanting song (well documented in the liner notes):

Note also

  • the CD Baishibai: songs of the minority nationalities of Yunnan (Pan, 1995, playlist here)
  • the 2-DVD set From China’s southwest borders: minority dances, songs and instrumental music of Yunnan (2001)
  • and, covering all the diverse expressive genres, the compendium
    Zhang Xingrong 张兴荣 (ed.), Sanjiang bingliu quyu yinyue wenhua daguan 三江并流区域音乐文化大观 [English title Musical cultures of the Three Parallel Rivers region of Yunnan] (2012), comprising a richly-illustrated 574-page book, 4 DVDs, and 2 CDs! [3]
Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei among the Hani, 1995.

Simply as pure sound (whatever that is), all these CDs are ear-opening, often mesmerising—remote from the commodified versions of “folk-song” common in the media. Of course, as I never tire of saying, audio recordings tend to reify; there’s no substitute for observing musicking in all its messy social context—including migration, tourism, and so on. Though online videos tend to be highly idealised, under the guidance of Xiao Mei at the Centre for Ritual Music Studies at the Shanghai Conservatoire, some more thoughtful ethnographic documentaries are being made.

While one can hardly expect the long history of the accommodation of these groups with state power to intrude into such accounts, for the interplay of ritual and politics among the Yi people in Yunnan under Maoism and since, do read Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts.

All this just to remind myself why I don’t dare venture into the field of the ethnic minorities…


[1] In Chinese, a useful diachronic survey of PRC research on minority musics is Du Yaxiong 杜亚雄, “Ershishiji Zhongguo shaoshu minzu yinyue fazhan zhi huigu” 二十世纪中国少数民族音乐发展之回顾 (2000). The ethnic minorities of Taiwan are also much studied.

[2] In Chinese, a standard textbook on multi-part singing is Fan Zuyin, Zhongguo duoshengbu min’ge gailun 中国多声部民歌概论 (1994).

[3] For the whole project (quite separate from the Anthology for Yunnan), note Helen Rees, “From field recordings to ethnographically informed CDs: curating the sounds of Yunnan for a niche foreign market”, in Levi S. Gibbs (ed.), Faces of tradition in Chinese performing arts (2020). An evocative introduction to the work of Zhang Xingrong is the interview in CHIME 8 (1995) by Jack Body—another avid fieldworker in the region during the period. For further detail on the Hani songs, with transcription, see Zhang Xingrong, “A new discovery: traditional 8-part polyphonic singing of the Hani of Yunnan”, CHIME 10/11 (1997). For the Kam/Dong people in Guizhou (another highly popular topic), the publications of Catherine Ingram are detailed and nuanced. An ambitious ongoing series of CDs of China’s ethnic minority songs is reviewed here.

Women in Tibetan expressive culture

IHD

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

Following my recent posts on Labrang, the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, and 1950s’ Lhasa (roundup here), I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.

Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).

A finely-wrought discussion is

It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. For further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here; and for Jamyang Norbu’s stimulating talk on Women in Tibet, here.

* * *

First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. [1]

Lhasa label girls

Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.

She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.

Ama Lhagpo
This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera, which I extol here. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).

Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.

After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.

With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.

Chung Putri
Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.

Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.

As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.

Yumen
“Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.

As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.

It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.

But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.

Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).

The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary, click here.

And here’s a trailer for A Gesar bard’s tale (Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso, 2103):

Tseten Drolma
Tseten DrolmaBy contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolising the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.

Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.

In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.

Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.

Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.

This is the kind of thing:

See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.

The article now turns to two younger pop singers since the reforms (cf. Isabelle’s Western-language bibliography, §10), who have chosen exile.

Dadon
Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.

DadonBoth her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.

As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.

Yungchen Lhamo
By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.

Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.

From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.

With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.

As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.

Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.

All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. [2]

As she summarises:

Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

[1] For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.

[2] Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of ChineseTibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Music and cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:

Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China

Opposition is the movement of the Dao
反者道之動

—Laozi

Kang cover 2

Among the literature on China under Maoism and since, one of the most perceptive and disturbing accounts that I have read is

  • Kang Zhengguo, Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China (2007).

Peppered with evocative allusions to classical Chinese literature, in Susan Wilf’s translation it makes a compelling read. One can find more shocking accounts of the Maoist era: while Kang was only formally incarcerated from 1965 to 1971, many others spent over twenty years in the labour-camp system, or never returned from exile at all. But it is precisely the routine, banal nature of his “descent into hell” that is so revealing. Sadly, it’s just as relevant today.

In his Introduction, Perry Link comments “this may be the best account of daily life in Communist China that I have ever read”.

Hundreds of writers of both fiction and nonfiction have given accounts of “the people” (aka “the masses”) during China’s Mao years, but nearly all use an ideological lens that flattens the perspective and homogenises the background, indeed starches the clothing, tidies the town square, recolours the sky, and, most important, tells you what to think about a social problem in terms that are usually oversimplified and often grossly false. This account, in contrast, is clear-eyed.

One might consider feature films like The blue kite.

Link surveys “modernist” literature since the 1980s, “post-traumatic symptoms” of the Maoist era. Despite impressive dissenting voices such as Zhang Xianliang, he misses a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Primo Levi.

Never inclined to submit to authority, Kang “trundles through life”, ignoring boundaries. He details the mechanics of the Maoist control system, to which most people learned to adapt instinctively in the interests of self-preservation (as in the Soviet Union).

While Kang made token efforts in this direction, he was not alone in being worn down by the system. He finds that “the only way out is down”, leading him “from college to brick factory to labour camp to prison and finally into rural exile”. With guilt by association, people feared that the political leprosy would spread to them—creating the illusion of unanimous support for the Party.

Link finds Kang’s writing “free of self-censorship, supplicatory attitude, bizarre modernism, or other deflections of vision […] and the kind of distortion that, in some writers, grows out of conscious rebellion against such deflection.” He notes the power of official language, again internalised in daily life. Kang’s writing seems to make the Party shrink, despite its enduring power, belying the notion that “Party and people are one”.

Early years
Born in Xi’an in 1944, Kang’s earliest memories are of taking refuge with his Nanny at her parents’ village home in the early summer of 1949, as refugees streamed in all directions, alarmed that the “bumpkin army” was to arrive.

Kang 7

He recalls the fanfare of the early days of Liberation. His grandfather, a devout lay Buddhist, had been involved in radical politics in his youth; but by the 1920s, from his base of the idyllic Silent Garden, he devoted himself to Buddhism—leading local charities, relief work, collecting donations to repair dilapidated temples, and printing scriptures. Even after the Communist land reform, though now classified as a landlord, he remained active, shielded by a renowned living Buddha from Qinghai, and was given a salaried post as Buddhist representative on the Municipal Consultative Committee, taking part in meetings with some alacrity.

Kang 425

Kang recalls the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward. But he relished the classical literature that he found in his grandfather’s library. At school, with his independent bookish tastes, he began to acquire a dubious political reputation.

Kang 28

Though the cities were always protected from the worst hardship, by 1960 food shortages were common in Xi’an. As refugees begged on the streets, Kang’s grandfather took in a peasant from the Henan countryside. Kang began to see through the boastful state propaganda.

With a certain economic relaxation following the chaos of the Leap, free markets reappeared; Kang recalls the bustling market at the Baxian gong Daoist temple. Foreign films were in vogue too.

Under his grandfather’s influence he began keeping a diary, whose personal reflections he contrasted with the empty show of Lei Feng’s posturings.

Kang’s father was a senior engineer, whose alcoholism gave rise to family tensions. He tried to dissuade his son from bookish pursuits; whereas science was a rather safe subject, the humanities were considered risky (cf. Vesna Goldsworthy in Yugoslavia). But Kang persisted. By 1963, still at school, he was falling under suspicion. Despite gaining admission to Shaanxi Normal University, as the political climate deteriorated, he felt alienated by the mediocrity and conformity of the teaching.

The professors who were old enough to have suffered during the Anthi-rightist campaign carried their prudence to the point of idiocy, while the younger ones merely trumpeted the literary policies of the day.

Kang was cajoled into writing the first of many self-criticisms.

Kang 71In March 1965, seeing no way out, he took the No.15 bus to enter “the gates of hell”, becoming a “resettled worker” at the No.2 Brickyard in Xi’an. His romantic illusions about finding Robin Hood types were soon dispelled. Though they were allowed to take occasional breaks in town, it was effectively a labour camp.

In autumn 1965, as the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns intensified, he learned that his ever-devout grandfather, then in his mid-eighties, had been subjected to a struggle session at the Wofo si temple. His house was ransacked, and his land confiscated.

Kang summarises his grandfather’s fortunes since Liberation:

Kang 90I don’t think that Grandfather was aware of the extent to which the temples had been politicised or to which the Party’s promise of religious freedom was pretence. There was a reason why he had been granted prestigious positions in the Buddhist Association and the Municipal Political Consultative Committee, along with a monthly subsidy of 100 yuan. As a prominent Buddhist spokesman for official policies he has an unwitting figurehead for the Party’s United Front policy of the political assimilation of non-party members. In the comparatively relaxed climate of the past few years he had fallen for a host of false promises. Imagining that he could promote Buddhism as he had before the Communists, he had continued to advocate religious reform. Unfortunately his proposals—to hold gatherings to celebrate Buddhism, for example, and to require temples to enforce religious discipline—had aroused the ire of both the Party and the monastic community. Maybe even at the bitter end he still failed to understand that his religious zeal exceeded the limits tolerated by the authorities, who saw the latest political campaign as an opportunity to attack him.

After living peacefully under Communism for sixteen years, Grandfather was getting a taste of the Party’s sinister tactic of turning people against one another. He was bewildered by the virulence of the attacks on him by monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists, who had always treated him with respect but now seemed even crueller than the cadres in charge. He never realised that the Party agents within the monastic community had been informing on him all along and that the Party had been keeping a dossier on him, lying in wait as he incriminated himself.

Though Kang started to appeal against his own verdict, he was left without options.

In my post on the ritual life of Xi’an I cited his account of a mass struggle session that he witnessed at the town of Weiqu.

The Cultural Revolution, and labour camp
In 1966 he witnessed the further desecration of the Wofo si temple, and the humiliation of its abbot, who soon hanged himself after severe beatings from the Red Guards. Kang pre-emptively sold off the most dangerous of his book collection. His youngest sister, barred from the Red Guards because of the “black” status of her family, went on a rampage against the “four olds” in the house, before the Red Guards completed the job. Kang’s grandparents were evicted, moving into a cramped flat.

For a moment the mood of rebellion against state authorities gave him misguided hope. He sneaked off on the train to Beijing in an attempt to lodge an appeal. Returning to Xi’an, he tried his luck at the university, also in the turmoil of rebellion, but soon realised he was vulnerable there too.

In 1967, amidst armed struggle between factions, Kang’s fate worsened yet again. Apart from classical Chinese literature, his literary tastes had long extended to foreign novels. Among a few volumes still surviving from his collection at home, he explored Russian fiction. In what he himself describes as a moment of madness, he sent off a letter to the Moscow University Library to request a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

While he waited, his fellow-inmate the racketeer Pimple Ma, a Muslim, took him under his wing. Even now, as Link observes, the period “brought him more, not less, access to ‘bourgeois’ pleasures like reading non-Communist books, smoking cigarettes, and chatting with friends”. As some of the plundered spoils from the Four Olds circulated, he got hold of an unexpurgated copy of The golden lotus, and some old Russian records. He joined in the unlikely revival of dance parties, dabbling in romance.

Kang’s grandparents had been given permission to return to Silent Garden, now in ruins, but both died soon after. In September 1968 Kang was arrested. During a stay in prison the charge against him was still unclear. Eventually, sentenced to three years at the Malan Farms labour camp complex in Xunyi county further north, it transpires that his major crime was having written to Moscow for a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

Even now he cherished a dream that the camp would be full of idealist “anti-rightists”; on arriving he found that most of the inmates were juvenile delinquents. Now he had to get used to the “Sisyphean labours” of the regime.

Rural exile and village life
Released in 1971, Kang made his way back to his parents’ home in Xi’an. His status still vulnerable, he had to lie low. Though the extreme violence of the first three years of the Cultural Revolution had died down, the system of residence permits and ration tickets was oppressive, and Kang remained a burden on his family.

His father was now out of trouble himself. Though angry at the way Kang had brought calamity on the family, he had been going to great lengths to negotiate a transfer for him to a rural commune in Chang’an county just south of the city. With obstacles to settling his status still in the way, they tried to marry him off to a peasant woman, but by 1972 they found a childless old pauper to adopt him, in a deal that involved building him a modest new home to replace his old hovel. His adopted father was to be responsible for finding him a wife, and he was to support him in his old age and take care of his funeral.

What objections could I possibly have at this point? I had given my parents so many headaches over the years that nothing could probably offend them anymore. And if they could accept this situation, why couldn’t I? Right then it occurred to me that it might be a good thing to change my name. Settling down in the countryside with a brand-new class status would be better than sponging off my parents. Even if my life was tough from now on, my family would be spared any further suffering on my account. Changing my name seemed like a small price to pay. […]

Very few people understood my past, and nobody paid it much attention. Once I had my new name, it was as if I had been reincarnated in Team No.4 with a completely clean slate. Nobody seemed to care that I was a reactionary or to show any curiosity about my expulsion from college and incarceration in the labour camps. Neither did anyone seem to think it was important that I’d been to college and was highly literate.

Indeed, he soon learned that villagers were quite used to complex kinship relations:

Production Team No.4 was so poverty-stricken that many of the men could not afford traditional marriages. The village was full of blended families and there were plenty of other adopted children besides me. Some of the older bachelors had scraped together enough money late in life to marry widows with children. Shiquan, for example, had acquired a couple of stepsons in this way. Shili, our village carpenter, had married the widow of a criminal landlord element, adaopting her daughter and two sons. Our accountant, Rangdao, who lived next door to me, had been adopted from a relative’s family. And Yinzui was actually the grandnephew of his adoptive father, who had taken him in because he was afraid that his own son, Dinghan, was not reliable enough to support him in his old age. Dinghan had been away in the labour camps at the time and had returned unmarried. Recently, however, he had found a woman from Gansu who had run away from her husband, and she had a son and a daughter. Given these haphazard family arrangements, you had to be careful about whom you called a bastard.

Despite his experience of manual labour, Kang (or Li Chunlai, as he was now) found himself a “substandard peasant”. He observes village life astutely as a cultural outsider. People remained acutely aware of private property; petty jealousies abounded. Still unable to migrate to the cities, they envied urban dwellers.

With an interlude on a dam construction project, as restrictions on enterprise grew more lax, he began making pocket money with electrical repairs and clock-mending, setting off on foot around the nearby villages, making occasional trips for parts into Xi’an—already an alien place to him. Getting hold of an old transistor radio and some textbooks, he began teaching himself English. He was still under surveillance.

Kang 300

After his father died in 1974, he came under growing pressure to find a bride. Introduced to Xiuqin, a woman from Shangluo prefecture, they married in Xi’an in 1975 and he took her on her first ever bike-ride to begin married life in his village.

Xiuqin’s story, told by Kang with characteristic frankness, also illustrates the times. Her father came from an impeccable revolutionary background, becoming a respected township cadre. But misreading the mood after the Great Leap Forward, he took part in a plot to distribute grain to the starving peasants, and was sentenced to labour camp as a counterrevolutionary. Xiuqin’s mother now faced great hardships in bringing up the children. They were further persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. Her father was released in 1969, but soon subjected to a series of struggle sessions. Xiuqin was desperate to find a husband as a way out of her suffering. After several false starts, she was introduced to Kang Zhengguo.

None too impressed by her new husband’s living quarters, on a trip back home she learned that her father was in ever deeper trouble. After enduring further ordeals from the vindictive cadres, she eventually got permission to leave. In Kang’s adopted village she learned how the peasants resented them. She gave birth to a daughter and then a son. While Kang was often absent, she worked hard.

The death of Chairman Mao in 1976 seemed to offer them hope of gaining urban residence in Xi’an. Kang’s adoptive father also soon died; while the villagers grudgingly considered their funeral arrangements suitable, they always resented the couple inheriting his house, and sought opportunities to wheedle money out of them. Meanwhile Xiuqin’s father, still being tormented, died too.

But now, as society was thawing, their life was improving. By 1978 Kang resumed his studies of English, on hold since 1974 when he learned he was still under surveillance. Beginning to get teaching jobs, he set his sights on returning to Xi’an. And his petitions to be rehabilitated were successful, his reputation finally cleared. In 1979 he was appointed to Shaanxi Normal University, from which he had been expelled some fifteen years earlier.

As he notes, that should be the end of the story, enabling him to enjoy the placid, uneventful life of a tenured scholar of literature.

The reform era, and emigration
If Kang’s successive degradations under Maoism are disturbing, so is his story since the reforms.

Observing three former friends now blowing with the new wind, he comments:

The course of action that these three friends had chosen was also open to me. I could have swallowed my pride and obsequiously accepted favours from the Party, becoming a docile professor with my nose buried in my books. This would have been a happy ending to my tale.

Instead, soon falling foul of the Spiritual Pollution campaign of 1983, he was dismissed from the university. While teaching at Jiaotong University, though initially wary of the 1989 protest movement, partly out of concern for his family, he was soon swept up in it. Though he avoided arrest, he now became subject to further surveillance.

His career opportunities were still limited. However, his thesis A study of Chinese poetry on women and by women had somehow come to the attention of a Chinese scholar at Yale, who now wrote to him. Sending off his reply, he thought of the only other letter he had ever sent to a foreign country in 1967. Invited to a conference at Yale, he had to surmount a series of obstacles in order to attend. Once in the USA, realising the challenges of surviving there as an immigrant, his dreams of remaining soon evaporated, and he meekly returned to China—where people were surprised to see him.

Still, he had made such a good impression that in 1994 he was offered a job as a Chinese-language instructor at Yale, and after further bureaucratic hurdles, he took refuge there with his wife and children.

This might make a second happy ending. But after several peaceful years teaching at Yale, in 2000 he planned a return visit to China, to attend an academic conference in Nanjing, as well as to visit his mother in Xi’an and relocate the family graves.

His visit coincided with the anniversary of the 1989 demonstrations, always a tense time; anyway, the Public Security Bureau was already back on his case. Indeed, from the kind of titles that his wife wisely tried to stop him taking for his old friends in China (Havel, Beijing spring, Pu Ning’s Red in tooth and claw, and so on) he had clearly been keeping a keen eye on “dissident” literature.

Attending the conference on “Gender issues in Ming and Qing literature”, his observations strike a chord:

I felt like a country bumpkin in such lavish surroundings. I had never seen such ostentation at American scholastic conferences. In China, the booming economy had stimulated a surge in conspicuous consumption. With China’s entry into the age of globalisation, the Chinese now sought to conform to international standards or even to outdo the foreigners at their own game. The results often struck me as excessive.

Meeting up with old friends from the 1989 protests, he finds them too absorbed in their nouveau-riche lifestyle to dwell on the past. Sensibly postponing his return to Xi’an until after the 4th June anniversary, in an attempt to avoid potential charges of troublemaking he took a trip to Lhasa with his brother (himself now vaunting the superiority of Chinese life over the American dream); this may not seem very well thought out, but it passed off without incident. Still, en route to Lhasa they had met up with the dissident Liao Yiwu in a Chengdu teahouse—again, hardly a prudent decision.

Kang reflects on his own innate contrariness:

Even if I had wanted to become a businessman like my brother, I would never have succeeded. Moreover, I believed that dissenting voices were essential forces of progress. The regime’s vaunting of “stability” showed that its vested interest still obstructed any social change that might undermine the power structure. Despite people’s insistence that things had improved, I could see that Chinese citizens were deprived of many of the same basic rights they had lacked under Mao.

Soon after returning to Xi’an he was arrested yet again. As the extent of the surveillance becomes clear, with his green card seeming ever more flimsy, his interrogators tried to get him to inform on his “subversive” friends in China.

Letters had always been my downfall. I had a lifetime of firsthand experience with the censorship of the Chinese postal system. My misake had been to imagine that the the dictatorship had relaxed its grip in the post-Mao era when in fact it was as restrictive as ever, and its spy apparatus was now streamlined by the latest technology. Like a spider in its web in a dark corner of the room, the Security Bureau was always lying in wait for its prey.

As the American authorities attempted to intercede on his behalf, Kang was cajoled into writing yet another “confession”. Despite injunctions to get out while he could, he still proceeded with the reinterment of his elders. Returning to his adoptive village, he finds it much changed, the environment ruined by the money-making schemes of the 1980s. Few of his old friends and adversaries there had fared well. He boarded the flight back to America with relief.

Scrapping the liability of his Chinese passport, he now gained American citizenship. In his tranquil family home in the New Haven suburbs he thought of Silent Garden. His wife and children thrived.

At first he remained silent about his recent ordeal in China, avoiding the press. But after a year he found the pact of silence unbearable.

This latter part of Kang’s story might seem like a minor footnote, but re-reading it as the surveillance state becomes ever more intrusive, it takes on added significance. Now, long after the apparent demise of Maoism, we can read about such intimidation daily.

While no-one could be entirely naïve in such an environment, Kang Zhengguo’s attempts to gain some respite by playing the Party’s gruesome game had always been outwitted.

On my explorations in around Xi’an from 1986 in search of traditional culture, I had no idea of all this troubled recent history, and no-one was in a hurry to educate me. This book should be high on the reading lists of people undertaking any kind of fieldwork in China.

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”

Discuss

gunsTibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.

In my first post on Labrang, recalling the debate over how to represent Tibetan music in the New Grove dictionary, I mentioned a succinct, nay flimsy, article by

  • Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).

—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. [1]

* * *

Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.

The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.

Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.

At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.

Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.

The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.

Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).

At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).

Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.

At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.

After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.

Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).

The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. [2]

The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced

  • Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. [3]

In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.

Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.

Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.

In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.

In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:

The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.

In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.

With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.

MJZ title

The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.

Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. [4]

lha-mo

Lhamo opera at the Norbulingka. 1950s. Source: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (ed.), The singing mask (2001).

And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh! [5] Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. [6]

How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:

In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.

One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. [7]

Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:

We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs. 

Nangma–töshe
What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). [8]

Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.

Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.

But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.

And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.

Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.

Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.

So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the C