The temple of memories

Jing Jun cover

Along with my common themes of religion, Maoism, and famine, I plead for more studies of ritual life in Gansu (see e.g. Maoist worship in Gansu, and Chinese shadows). So I’ve been re-reading the ethnographic classic

  • Jun JING, The temple of memories: history, power, and morality in a Chinese village (1996).

The opening of the book is compelling:

The Kongs of Dachuan cannot forget that winter, more than three decades ago, when their village was effaced and life as they had known it had ended. For much of 1960 they had ignored, then resisted, the government’s declaration that their homes lay in the path of one of the more ambitious projects of the Great Leap Forward, and that by autumn’s end they would have to make way for a hydroelectric dam and reservoir. […]

So months lapsed, the deadline passed, and still the Kongs stayed on. And then, on a chill December night, the militia entered, shock troops of eviction, targeting first households without strong young men. Old women screamed and clung to their beds, refusing to leave. They were carried out bodily. The supporting pillars of the houses were roped to mules and pulled down. As dawn broke, the frightened villagers began dismantling their own houses in a scramble to salvage what they could to build shelter elsewhere. They hastily dug up the graves of immediate ancestors and close relatives, and, in violation of all tradition, unceremoniously threw bones in cement sacks or whatever other containers they could find for reburial on higher ground. “It was no time for being proper about such things,” an elderly villager recalled years later. Nor did they have the physical strength to save older graves; the trauma of dislocation was exacerbated by a debilitating famine, the worst in modern Chinese history.

While still a student in the Sociology department of Peking University, Jing Jun began fieldwork in Dachuan in 1989, prudently absenting himself from the tense atmosphere of the capital in the aftermath of the 4th June massacre (cf. Liao Yiwu). He is among several fine Chinese anthropologists and folklorists such as Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, and Ju Xi.

Apart from fieldwork with villagers, he also unearthed material by consulting the county archives.

* * *

For some scholars such a topic might be a disembodied paean to the resilience of imperial grandeur, but for an ethnographer like Jing Jun it makes a telling prism on the traumas of the Maoist era. Noting the background of serious poverty, he goes on to detail the fate of the “community of suffering” (cf. Guo Yuhua) after the 1949 revolution.

Jing’s study makes a worthy complement to detailed accounts of turbulent events in individual villages under MaoismHe explores two main themes: suffering (both individual and communal), and means of recovery from political persecution, economic deprivation, and cultural disruption. Amidst state attempts to dictate and manipulate remembrance and forgetting, he focuses on the politics of social memory, suggesting three main topics: collective, official, and popular memory.

Stylistically, whereas obligatory academic citations of broader theoretical perspectives may be formulaic, Jing Jun has a rare gift for making such comparisons revealing.

* * *

In Dachuan village in Yongjing county southwest of the provincial capital Lanzhou, 85% of the villagers belonged to the Kong lineage, considering themselves to be descended from Confucius. Dachuan was the centre for an ancestral cult of many villages in the county.

The earlier history of the temple was not untroubled: it had been destroyed in 1785, rebuilt in 1792, looted and burned during the major Muslim rebellion in 1864, but only restored in 1934—it seems curious if the cult remained inactive over this long period. It was just at this time that the Kongs of Dachuan contributed to the compilation of a major genealogy documenting the nationwide lineage; Confucius and the major ritual site for his worship at Qufu in Shandong play a major role in villagers’ historical imaginations (cf. the fate of the Confucian ritual in Hunan).

After “Liberation”

The destruction of their village was the central event in a long procession of tragedies for the Kongs under the new Communist regime.

Following the Communist takeover in 1948, the prelude to a long period of state-organised violence was the siege of Dachuan by the PLA in December 1950 in response to reports that a rebellion was being organised by “secret societies” led by the Kongs.

All exits from the village were sealed off as soldiers went from one compound to the next, searching for weapons. After a full cartload of daggers, spears, swords, hunting guns, and old muskets were hauled away, a mass rally was staged and about fifty local people were paraded onto an improvised stage. These villagers, whom the government accused of being affiliated with “reactionary religious associations” (fandong hui dao men), were warned by military and government officials that any misconduct on their part would meet with severe penalties. Three Kongs, key members of a semi-religious and highly militant group known as the Big Sword Society (da dao hui), were escorted out of Dachuan, and beheaded.

The search for weapons and the executions at Dachuan heralded the new government’s crackdown on religious societies. Five months later, an “investigation-and-registration” campaign identified more than 11,500 people in Yongjing county as members of “reactionary religious associations”.

The divisive land reform campaign was implemented from 1951 to 1953. Under the commune system the system of lineage elders was destroyed. Even as the Kong lineage was being persecuted, they continued to provide the village leadership.

In the early years of Communist rule, many of those not targeted

engaged in clandestine activities in smaller religious groups attached to temples honouring various deities and community patron gods. […]
Geomancy and shamanistic healing were still secretly practised until at least the early 1960s.

But during the 1958 Great Leap Backward, police and militia forces rounded up 855 people in Yongjing county; temples were dismantled, and religious implements destroyed. The Confucius temple at Dachuan was sealed off. In August an armed uprising was quelled in nearby Dongxiang county. As famine escalated from late 1959, the villagers were relocated in 1960, as the temple lay decrepit and abandoned.

Large-scale hydraulic projects were a major part of the state’s efforts to generate electricity by creating reservoirs, despite the great suffering they caused—and their social disruption continues to concern anthropologists. On 31st March 1961, as the floodgate of the Yanguoxia dam was lowered, Dachuan was among many villages flooded. Though there was considerable resistance, most villagers were forcibly relocated, while some remained on higher ground there. One of the most traumatic violations of tradition was the loss of gravelands.

Such stories are also submerged under the “master narrative” of rosy state propaganda, seeking to legitimise painful experiences.

The remains of the temple, empty and waterlogged, were still standing until 1974, when it was destroyed in the anti-Lin Biao and Confucius campaign.

The 1980s’ revival
Such a history of Maoism at the grassroots needs telling anyway, but it’s also essential background to the revival since the 1980s after the collapse of the commune system. Jing Jun observes:

These ideas and practices are not mechanically retrieved from the past; they are blended with cultural inventions, shaped by the local experience of Maoism, and permeated with contemporary concerns.

In a similar pattern to that taking place throughout China, as the villagers began to retrieve what had survived of the temple artefacts, rituals were held at a provisional ancestral shrine from 1984. The Confucius temple was rebuilt in 1991.

Dachuan 1

Jing explores the backgrounds and moral authority of the new temple leaders, and reflects on the whole process of cultural invention.

In a situation in which the administrative power of Dachuan’s village cares was rapidly shrinking, leadership in ancestral worship could be a key step toward winning respect, popularity, and even trust.

But power structures were in flux, as grievances from the Maoist era became public, with petition drives and demonstrations common.

Since the surviving lisheng ritual performers had only distant memories of how to perform the ceremony, they gradually recreated its liturgical structure, actions, and vocal style, culminating with the compilation of a ritual handbook in 1991 (this is not quite a typical case, I’d say: in many regions of China under Maoism, household ritual specialists had managed to transmit a more substantial corpus of their ritual expertise.) As Jing notes, there were certain models for the literary style of the written texts in the fragments of wider religious life. And I might suggest that even the rhythms and high-pitched style of the chanted elegies were not recreated in a vacuum: the traditional soundscapes of folk-song, local opera and shadow-puppetry, and so on—which had persisted to some extent under Maoism (for Hunan, see e.g. here)—might offer piecemeal clues.

Jing addresses the complex issues in studying genealogies, again focusing on social memory.

Dachuan 2

In 1992 the nearby village of Xiaochuan restablished its own Confucian temple. From 1958 it had suffered a similar fate to that of Dachuan. In both villages the ceremonies were now opened to outsiders beyond the immediate lineage. Jing distinguishes “dominant” and “variant” ritual structures.

In the latter, women played a major role (again, this is typical of temple fairs more generally)—including a spirit medium who brought over thirty female followers from her nearby village. Women were particularly devout in making vows, burning paper offerings, and singing songs of lamentation.

An older woman whose vivid renditions of songs from qinqiang, or Shaanxi opera, attracted a thick circle of spectators was led away by men in charge of the festival’s security. Another circle formed around a middle-aged woman whose body jerked spasmodically and who mubled what sounded like poems as if in a trance. She was carried away by the security guards, who were young men from Xiaochuan. After these women clamed down, they were sternly lectured by the festival organisers for having performed “superstitious” acts that could draw unwelcome attention from the local government to Xiaochuan’s festival.

Jing notes hierarchies among those attending the festival, and in the food provided. He goes on,

The woman’s eviction displeased some visitors, since singing is perfectly acceptable at many temple activities. This incident thus indicates a clash between two different perceptions of the festival.

While the Kongs were as fond as anyone of combining the singing of local opera with the worship of local deities, they rejected it as a proper form during a service for ancestor worship. Jing suggests that their antipathy went back to an incident in the early 1940s, when community leaders had objected to the staging of an opera inside the Xiaochuan temple to celebrate a bumper harvest—their resentments partly based on a rich man treating the occasion as a self-serving display of wealth and generosity. But as he says, few would have been aware of that. Such incidents mainly illustrate multivocal interpretations:

Such negotations were precipitated by variations in historical experience, personal memory, understanding of religious symbols, and concepts of ritual propriety.

Jing opens the impressive final chapter, “Finding memories in Gansu”, by encapsulating the tension between ethnography and history:

In an ethnography of the Kongs, one could take a synchronic approach, a type of analysis typical of the structural functionalists and French structuralists, that treats a society as if it were “outside of time”, that is, without reference to historical context.

Indeed, as I have noted, it’s more complex: in many field reports on local Chinese ritual, the fieldwork makes a pretext for timeless depictions that are dominated by early historical context while glossing over the current social picture.

Anyway, Jing gives ample reasons for placing the Dachuan rituals in their modern setting. He goes on to give instances of accounts of the memory of suffering in other societies, including Alan Mintz and Lucette Valensi on the Holocaust and Anastasia Shkinlyk’s devastating study of the despair and agony of a relocated Inuit community. He also cites Arthur Kleinman’s work on illness narratives among Chinese patients. And we can now add Stephan Feuchtwang’s study After the event. (cf. China: commemorating trauma, including Wu Wenguang’s memory project).

He is right to note the official conformity of depictions in county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s—although in the accounts of Maoist campaigns and famine for some counties like Yanggao in north Shanxi (see e.g. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.122–3) one may discern a subtle resistance to state propaganda. He also sets forth from Frances Yates’s 1966 The art of memory to explore the historical memory embodied in religious artefacts.

As Jing Jun observes, the reinstated worship of Confucius in the Dachuan area is not an isolated case of religious revival in a rather remote part of China. He places it in the broad context of the religious revival in China, if not in Yongjing county. Thus while we find vignettes on other forms of religious expression (mediums, sectarian groups), his coverage might have benefitted from an outline of the broader fortunes of ritual life in the area through the 1950s, such as the fate of other temples in Dachuan and nearby, funerals and temple fairs, and the activities of household Daoists and bards. The story of the Dachuan temple make a particular but revealing case.


Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.

Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate

The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the

  • Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]

on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.

Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).

Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui ), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,

China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.

Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:

  • 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 )
  • 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan )
  • 3) Birth (shengzi )
  • 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
  • 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou )
  • 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang )
  • 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
  • 8) Miscellany (zazu 俎),

with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.

But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county [1] Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.

As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes. [2] Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.


* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.

A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kiteevoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.

For Katz’s work on ritual in Hunan, see here; and for his article on temple fairs in Taiwan in a recent book on doing fieldwork in China, here.


[1] On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).

[2] I also look forward to reading Mayfair Yang, Re-enchanting modernity (2020).


Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards


WeChat: “In this world there are no heroes descended from heaven, there are only ordinary people who come forward”.

Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).

It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.

In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.

1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.

Elaborate funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, have also been put on hold. Still, in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing, the Li family Daoists, individually, are still in demand to provide routine burial services, as I describe here.

On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:


No visits for New Year this year
Those who come to visit you are enemies
Don’t open the door for enemies.

For the response in Tibetan regions, see e.g. here; and for concerns over Xinjiang, here.

* * *

 Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.

I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is

  • Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).

LHQ book

One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.

The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.

ZQ pic

Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.

After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.

Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.

The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.


Tian Qing (left, in white) with the blind performers of Zuooquan.

The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a documentary filmed over ten years.

Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.

But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.

* * *

And so to Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him (and by April he was officially deemed a martyr), the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.

A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:

The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Here are Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang:

LWL lyrics

The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:

(more here) and this song in the style of Huadengxi opera in Guizhou, filmed to promote awareness of the crisis.

For more songs from north China on the virus, see here; for temple ritual in Sichuan, here; and for continuing activity of household Daoists in Shanxi, here.

Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?


A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:

church murals

One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:

The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.

It’s clarified in this interview, but if one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:

  • Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
  • Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
  • Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly?  Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
  • We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
  • And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?

Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.


The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory


The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.


Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.


[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.


No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.


[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.


Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing


Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, maintaining sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:


Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.


[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Crime fiction: China and Germany

Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.


Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).

These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.

Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0 series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…

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Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorker here and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann, Goebbels, and Heydrich), and lashings of historically authentic sexism.

In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.

For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. In similar vein there are plenty more books to explore (see e.g. here, and here).


Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in the Stasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolfA darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).

Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.