Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

2005: Guo Yuhua chats with the last man in Jicun village still wearing the traditional headscarf of the north Chinese peasant, iconic image of the revolution. Photo courtesy Guo Yuhua.

During my recent sojourn in Beijing, as well as my lecture series at Beishida and film screenings at People’s University and Peking University, it was a great inspiration to meet up again with the fine anthropologist Guo Yuhua 郭于华 (b.1956).

She’s just done an interview for Ian Johnson (latest in a fine series for the NYRB; this earlier interview in Chinese is also instructive), so here I’d just like to add my own personal reflections on her extensive oeuvre, with further material on fieldwork. [1]

1 Introduction
Introduced in London by the great Stephan Feuchtwang in the 1990s, we later met up in Beijing. In 1999 she took me to the Shaanbei village that was already a major focus of her research. In March 2018, not having seen her for ages, I was keen to catch up.

Professor of sociology at Tsinghua university in Beijing since 2000, Guo Yuhua is widely admired by scholars in China and abroad, maintaining high academic repute in the innovative sociology department alongside Shen Yuan 沈原 and Sun Liping 孙立平[2] What distinguishes them from other China anthropologists—both in China and abroad—is their rigorous critique of “Communist civilization”.

I meet Guo Yuhua on the vast Tsinghua campus one afternoon and we go to a quiet café. I sip a bucket-sized strawberry frappé for hours as she delivers a passionate tirade/lecture, talking non-stop.

After gaining her PhD at Beishida and doing a post-doc at Harvard, by the 1990s Guo Yuhua was involved in a major project on oral history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), documenting villagers’ personal experiences of the Maoist era—a project very far from the traditional oral history of folklorists.

Her early fieldwork focused on folk culture (as was the vogue at the time), but as she began delving deeper she moved onto the wider, and deeper, social and political systems of modern life. In 1999 she edited the influential book

  • Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs),

with contributions from leading scholars like Wang Mingming and Luo Hongguang. Most articles explore the complex relation between local society and the state. Apart from her introduction, her own article there expounds many of the issues in her 2013 book (see below):

  • “Minjian shehui yu yishi guojia: yizhong quanli shijiande jieshi” 民间社会于仪式国家:一种权利实践的解释 (陕北骥村的仪式于社会变迁研究) [Folk society and the ritual state: an interpretation of the practice of power (Ritual and social change in Jicun, Shaanbei)].

Guo Yuhua was an early blogger, later moving onto Weibo, Wechat and Twitter, where she is indefatigable in exposing injustice and defending rights.

Surveying her activist online activity, it might seem as if she’s changed paths since her early fieldwork on rural society and ritual, towards a deeper political engagement. But far from it, it’s all a continuum (“the whole dragon” again)—the social concern was always there. Amidst the current threat to our own values in the USA and Europe, many Western scholars may now be appreciating her wisdom.

But in China, such a principled stance requires more determination. Guo Yuhua’s blog and social media accounts have long been regularly blocked or censored. As she observes, in the face of constant scrutiny, it’s never clear where the line is—you just have to keep probing. The Party can’t control thought totally—the genie is out of the bottle, and China has to stay open for business; social media stills brings information and can be astutely deployed. Still, plain speaking is easier for established scholars than for younger scholars starting out.

I’m scribbling notes as she talks, but after a while my pen runs out. I suggest, “Is this one of Theirs, trying to stop me writing down your Thoughts?!

Apart from her Tsinghua colleagues, scholars she admires include historians Qin Hui 秦晖 and Zhang Ming 张鸣; and in legal studies, Xu Zhangrun 许章润He Weifang 贺卫方, and Zhang Qianfan 张千帆 (individual articles also on aisixiang.com—gosh, what an important resource this site is!). Guo Yuhua is part of a chorus of scholars criticizing the “New Rural Construction” campaign, with its coercive programmes of expulsion.

Apart from her through background in Western sociology, her work builds on Chinese tradition—like Fei Xiaotong’s candid account of villages evading state collective policy (Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution, p.280).

Though she is closely surveilled even when she does rural fieldwork, she never loses her sense of humour—she has lots of funny stories about her fieldwork, and being surveilled. She seems cool and open, knowing she’s doing the moral thing, saying what needs to be said, on the basis of her rich practical and theoretical experience, with careful detailed scholarly research. She speaks for truth, that of the common people among whom the CCP once gained support by espousing. She does all this not out of “bravery” but more as a duty, like the patriotic intellectuals of yore. As she comments in the NYRB interview,

Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

And she still manages to take teaching very seriously. Her courses, with impressive reading lists, include rural sociology, research methods, and the sociology of politics. Taking students on village fieldwork, she even does livestreams.

Such Chinese scholarship doesn’t tally neatly with Western concepts of left and right.  Over here, last time I looked, those who strive for social justice and speak truth to entrenched conservative power are considered on the left. But When Guo Yuhua visited the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle in 2016, making a critique of Karl Polanyi’s views on the market economy, their views were at odds.

While she understands my lament that some foreign media coverage seems to suggest that Chinese people are brainwashed automatons, she still worries that many are indoctrinated. Like in the USA, I ask? I may sometimes feel uncomfortable with foreign China-watchers’ monolithic portrayal of an evil surveillance state, but Guo Yuhua, in the thick of it, commands great authority.

* * *

Fieldwork may stimulate a social conscience (cf. journalistic reports like those of Liao Yiwu), and anthropology has a long history of activism—if less so for China. The task is to understand different lives, and speak out on people’s behalf—obvious topical instances including Syrian refugees and Beijing migrants.

I’m tempted to wonder, isn’t this a natural career path for any anthropologist (or indeed priest) working among the poor? What may seem more curious is that many, whether Chinese or foreign, don’t follow such a path. Exposure to the lives, and cultures, of rural dwellers should inevitably prompt us to ponder their situation—but that rarely surfaces clearly in the literature on China. And it does seem to lead naturally to a principled involvement with issues of social justice. So perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary of anthropology, and “experts” in general.

The anthropology of ritual and expressive culture in China may seem somewhat separate from such social and political enquiry, but it needs to absorb such lessons (as I often suggest. e.g, here). So with much research on Chinese music and Daoist studies still blinkered and stuck in reification and myths of an earlier idealized past, I’ve long looked to anthropology for inspiration. Still, compared to the 1990s when one could do meaningful work, Guo Yuhua finds the current anthropological scene in China backward, with funding ever more politically controlled.

Of course, anthropologists don’t only study exotic tribes and peasants. They may also explore the lives of the legions of those who make “our” own pampered lifestyles possible—cleaners, migrants, construction workers, often from poor villages whose conditions the anthropologists may also experience.

The fabled Chinese Masses may have been thoroughly exploited under Maoism, but since the reforms they have been serially demoted from the empty epithet of laobaixing to flagrant “low quality” (suzhi di) to “low-end population” (diduan renkou). Guo Yuhua is always on their side.

2 Narratives of the sufferers
There’s already a substantial literature in Chinese and foreign languages not only on Shaanbei-ology (see also Shaanbei tag) but on the village of Yangjiagou (Guo Yuhua uses its old name, Jicun). It features prominently in my own book

Adapted from pp.xxvi–xxvii:

In the hills east of Mizhi county-town, Yangjiagou has been the object of study for a steady stream of Chinese and foreign scholars. It is not necessarily typical, in that it was home to a dominant local landlord clan in the Republican period, and has been visited by sociologists since the 1930s; since Chairman Mao stayed there in 1947 it has become a minor revolutionary pilgrimage site. Sociologists with new agendas have made thorough restudies since the 1990s, and recently a Japanese team has published a book on its architecture, soundscape, and society. Today villagers have become all too accustomed to outsiders. However, the revolutionary connection hasn’t protected it from poverty. Though only 18 kilometres from the main road, it was a difficult journey until 1999. The village gained electricity only in the early 1980s, and its first telephone only in 2000. Though Yangjiagou’s musical traditions have been declining since the 1930s, they were maintained into the reform era. My modest contribution to Yangjiagou studies is to attempt to put the lives of its bards and its shawm-band musicians since the 1930s in the wider Shaanbei context.

By the time Guo Yuhua took me on my first fieldtrip to Shaanbei in 1999 she was already engaged in an important oral history project there. I suppose my tagging along with her confirmed my gradual shift towards the more social approach that had already been emerging in my work with Chinese colleagues in Hebei—an approach more embedded in the changing lives of people than was, or is, the fashion in either musicology or Daoist studies.

It was a great trip, instructive and fun—even if she was doubtless underwhelmed by my limited ability to behave suitably with either peasants or cadres. But I learned a lot from her, from the warmth and honesty of her rapport with villagers, right down to little practical details like buying a modest amount of incense paper as a suitable gift on attending funerals.

We spent some time around the Black Dragon Temple—another site which she and Luo Hongguang were studying, later covered in Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response—before going to stay in Yangjiagou.

Guo Yuhua’s principled stance is shown in a nice story from our fieldwork together. In my Shaanbei book (p.147) I describe how I found some obscure tapes of shawm bands there:

I sweated blood to get hold of some of these cassettes. Few shops stock more than a couple of them, and I finally tracked down a selection on an expedition by foot to a dingy general store in the sleepy township near Yangjiagou. As I eyed the cassettes up over the counter, the dour assistant—who apparently hadn’t ever sold any of them, and certainly not to a foreigner—spotted a business opportunity. She ingenuously asked 5 yuan each for them—I had enough experience to realize they sold at around 2 yuan. My companion Guo Yuhua was indignant, and we launched into some increasingly impolite haggling. But the assistant wouldn’t budge. I generally get angry when people try to overcharge me in China, but having been searching for these tapes for years, in this case I was inclined to allow myself to be ripped off—the three tapes I had set my heart on would still cost less than a half-pint of London beer. But for Guo Yuhua the principle was clear, and she dragged me out of the shop, refusing to let me part with my money.

After some spirited exchanges as we set off back to Yangjiagou along the filthy main track, debating the balance between adhering to principle and yielding to corruption, I dashed back to the shop and bought them at the inflated price, flinging the money at the assistant with a vain display of sarcasm that went clear over her head.

Guo Yuhua reminds me how my visits to the latrine always prompted the “patriotic” family dog, chained worryingly nearby, to bark fiercely—but a visit from a district cadre also aroused its ire, so it had a certain taste. Another vignette:

One day in 1999 in a poor hill village in Shaanbei, we are chatting with a former village cadre, who also happens to be a spirit medium, while his wife prepares lunch for us, when in walks a young policeman from the township nearby, in search of a signature from our host for some bureaucratic trifle. I’m a bit alarmed, not so much as we’re kinda talking about some sensitive stuff here, but because as the climate relaxed through the 1990s we had reckoned we could probably economize on the laborious rounds of local permits that my forays once invited. Sure enough, the cop eyes me somewhat ferociously and goes, “What’s this wog [oh yes, there’s another story!] doing here?”

When our host explains that I’m from England, even before I can launch into some spiel about collecting the fine local folk music heritage, blah-blah, international cultural exchange, blah blah, he is open-mouthed. “Do you like Manchester United?” he asks, spellbound. Relieved, I launch into my Beckham routine, we exchange cigarettes, discuss the prospects for the World Cup, and he leaves contented.

On my second stay there in 2001, this time accompanied by Zhang Zhentao, I spent more time with the village’s lowly shawm players (see below), and appreciated them a lot.

An important book
Propaganda is pervasive—and not just in China, as this recent attempt at debating the British legacy shows. The romantic patriotic image of Shaanbei (cf. my post One belt, one road), deriving first from Mao’s base there on the eve of “Liberation”, is now further entrenched by the bland legends of Xi Jinping’s seven years there as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua’s article on Jicun in Ritual and social change already broached many of the issues expounded in her 2013 book

  • Shoukurende jiangshu: Jicun lishi yu yizhong wenming de luoji [Narratives of the sufferers: The history of Jicun and the logic of civilization] (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2013)
    (for Chinese reviews, see e.g. here and here).

封面

If I were King of China (an unlikely scenario), it would be required reading for all. But I’m not, it’s not, and even to find a copy in the PRC may take a certain ingenuity.

As Guo Yuhua writes [Harriet Evans’s translation],

We discovered that ordinary peasants are both able and willing to narrate their own history, as long as the researcher is a sincere, respectful, serious and understanding listener.

Notwithstanding my comment that ethnography is about description, not prescription,

Bourdieu and his collaborators’ work in listening to these people’s stories and entering their lives can be seen as a fulfillment of the sociologist’s political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of the social suffering of ordinary people.

The peasants of Ji village where we have been carrying out fieldwork for many years refer to themselves as “sufferers”. This is not a term that we as researchers have imposed on the subjects of our research; rather it is the definition that villagers give to themselves. In the region surrounding Ji village, “sufferer” is a traditional term that peasants continue to use today to refer to those who farm the land present. In local language, the “sufferers” are those who “make a living” on the land; it is a local term that is popularly accepted and conveys no sense of discrimination. When you ask a local person what he is doing the common response is “zaijia shouku” (lit. “suffering at home”), in other words, making a living farming the land.
[from Harriet Evans’s translation].

In the Hong Kong interview Guo Yuhua explains,

Of course, in doing oral history we would never expect people to “tell about your suffering”—we’d never ask like that. Rather, we ask them to tell us their stories: how their life was when they were young, when they grew up, married and became parents. We don’t go in search of suffering, and their accounts aren’t entirely about pain. Sometimes their stories sound really painful, but they will talk very ironically. Often we find women laughing and crying at the same time—one moment crying as they talk of heartache, the next finding it funny how foolish they must have been at the time.
[…]
Scholars aren’t some Arts Propaganda Troupe [!!!]—we don’t have to extol how happy and contented we are nowadays, that’s not our job [cf. “WTF” article in n.1 below]. Our job is to view the issues in this society, to understand the painful experiences of ordinary people, and where they come from.

Citing Xu Ben 徐贲 (For what do human beings remember? 人以什么理由来记忆) and Wu Wenguang’s project on the famine, she goes on to discuss the significance of memory.

Apart from the villagers’ own accounts, the subtlety and perception of Guo Yuhua’s enquiries are a model for fieldworkers (e.g. 211–12).

As we will always find, the village’s history is utterly remote from its model revolutionary image. You might think it would take more effort to ignore what happens than to document it, but people have been effectively groomed in public amnesia. The case of Yangjiagou is all the more revealing since it is a common rosy theme online, including videos, based on the image of Mao’s sojourn there and the whole CCP myth-making. It also makes a good case because there were no excess deaths there in the “famine”; unlike the labour camp stories, it’s a story not so much of extreme degradation but rather the routine degradation of daily life—the constant hunger, duplicity, and brutality.

Breaking free of the simplistic class narrative of Maoism, Guo Yuhua’s thorough theoretical Introduction [3] is inspired notably by Bourdieu, as well as authors like James Scott, Philip Huang, and Guha and Spivak; for the stories of women, she cites Marjorie Shostak.

Clearly written and structured, the book highlights the vivid voices of the local “sufferers” (including former “landlords”, cadres, women, and so on), linked by her trenchant commentaries.

GYH 2006

Chat with village women, 2006.

The memories of women form a major component of the story, on which she reflects thoughtfully—not least issues in eliciting their more domestic world-view (e.g. 127–37; cf. this article).

Women do recognize the social “conviviality” (honghuo) of being forced out of the house to work in the collective fields. [4] But the true impact of hunger hits home in their accounts of childcare, with the constant anguish of being unable to feed their children.

In the Hong Kong interview she expands on the changing status of women, as ever disputing the Party line:

Some scholars consider that after rural women had experienced the female liberation (elevating their status), they regressed after the reforms. But after you have done fieldwork among rural women and listened to them describing their life experiences, you will realize that it simply couldn’t be called “liberation”. However is liberation passive? To be called liberation it has to be autonomous, personal. Their status was merely changed: previously dependent on family and lineage, they were now dependent on the state and the collective. They remained tools, objects, being organized and mobilized into collective labour against their will. What they seem to be telling is how they fell sick, exhausted by labouring, looking after children, sewing, enduring famine amidst a lack of material goods. Such accounts may sound like trivial matters, but the whole background it is quite clear what it really meant to be a rural woman, and what it was that created their plight. With no room for choice, women had to do what they were told; they had to take on the most exhausting, physically demanding tasks, not even able to recuperate properly after giving birth, thus subjecting them to disease. Their condition was one of enslavement.

After the reforms, they could leave the village to work, and there were plenty of active young women able to use their determination and aptitude to change their fate to some extent. This was definitely progress, but it wasn’t an automatic process: there were still many constraints, with injustices at many institutional levels. Still, although many girls don’t appear independent, and may choose to find a good husband, at least they have this choice; or they can choose to go and study, become female enterpreneurs and independent women. All this gives them more choices than under the collective era.

Adroitly adopting the recent CCP buzzword hexie 和谐, Guo Yuhua pointedly details how—both under Maoism and since the reforms (121, 240–41)—the “harmonious” social relations of the old society were polarized and moral values poisoned.

The revolution brought to the fore the less reputable elements in local society, like the local bully who used his new power as an activist under the CCP to torture a “landlord” into giving him his young daughter in marriage (60–61). And the villagers remained disgusted despite his political power. As she notes, facing such problems in mobilizing the masses, “the use of bad people became the only choice” (112–14).

As throughout Shaanbei, infant mortality rates were high, both before Liberation and under Maoism. Apologists like Mobo Gao point out certain advances (in healthcare, education, and so on) under the commune system; the Mizhi county gazetteer (p.630) [5] claims an increase in life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 60 by 1989. Indeed, the villagers concede that some of the economic advances since the reform era were based on the desperate projects under Maoism.

But for Guo Yuhua such defences are derisory. On my interminable bus journey back to Beijing in 2001 I chatted with a modest young guy from poor Jiaxian county who was studying for an economics PhD at People’s University in Beijing; he was one of fifteen children, of whom only three had survived.

In numerous villages like this where there was no resentment towards the landlords (they were widely considered “benevolent”), and the concept of “exploitation” was alien, the CCP had to manufacture “class hatred” by the indocrination of constant campaigns. Landlords and their children, educated and able, joined both sides of the conflict, working away from the village until they were dragged back to be punished as “sacrificial victims”, notably with the layoffs from state work-units around 1962 (another universal theme in my own studies, e.g. Li Qing in Yanggao: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18).

She concludes: “Overall, before 1946 Jicun was a relatively tranquil and serene traditional village.” (Discuss…)

The new rulers now had to foster class consciousness. With both oral accounts and substantial official sources Guo Yuhua documents the stages of land reform, with its inevitable corruption and theft. [6] Conscription, brutally enforced (108–10), added to their woes. Citing Zhang Ming (see above), she shows how the goal of land reform was not economic but political (113).

She refutes the CCP myths of “temporary problems” like the Cultural Revolution, or the “three years of difficulty”: just as I found in north Shanxi, villagers were starving for over two decades, from collectivization right until privatization.

After a brief interlude when the peasants at least nominally had their own land, a long succession of political rituals now cowed the villagers into obedience, condemning them to long-term hunger, exhaustion, and sickness. Having already suffered famine in winter 1947–8, their hunger became ever more severe as collectivization was enforced; one villager recalls that from 1958 to 1979 it got worse year by year (154). Scavenging was the only hope of survival.

Coercion was an intrinsic component of the whole system, and excessive violence was rewarded (236­–8). As the objects of attack soon expanded from the landlord class to the whole rural population (114), campaigns became a life-or-death struggle.

In describing the stages of collectivization, Guo Yuhua reminds us of the traditional voluntary methods of mutual help, and the whole ethical system, that were demolished (117–21).

Stressing the militarization of society, she details the whole succession of what the villagers call “a fucked-up flim-flam” (luanqibazaode mingtang 乱七八糟的名堂)—like short-lived care enterprises for children and the childless elderly, largely unsuccessful literacy campaigns, the failure to teach revolutionary songs. After the sheer desperation following the Great Leap and the short-lived communal canteens, the interlude when private plots were tolerated from 1961, giving peasants a slender lifeline, was all too brief before the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns led into the Cultural Revolution, as hunger became endemic again. Cadres were just as clueless as ordinary villagers about the details and goals of these “rotten” campaigns; and the aims of factional fighting (180–82) were no clearer, apart from the constant cycle of petty revenge that the whole system had long fostered.

Apart from the persecution of cadres, the landlords again made inevitable scapegoats. Only two villagers met violent deaths in the Cultural Revolution (and that after the main violence of 1966–8)—but their story still haunts villagers today (182–6).

With its landlord history, the village had a wealth of fine old architecture. Nearly forty years after a stone mason was recruited to detonate “the finest archway in Shaanbei”, Guo Yuhua finds him to tell the story.

Fufengzhai

The former landlord stronghold, 1999.

As in Europe, even today the older buildings that somehow survived look picturesque—as long as you don’t dwell too much on the indignities that they have witnessed.

 

By the 1960s villagers’ disillusion was complete. Still, Guo Yuhua notes their own later conflicted memories:

  • the sense of conviviality (honghuo) enforced by collective labour (including singing haozi work hollers), which she compares with the “collective effervescence” of ritual;
  • the sense that they were all in the same boat—scant consolation when people were all destitute and starving together, but contrasting with their later atomization since the reforms:

Out we went, voices all round, chattering away merrily, convivial all of a sudden. As soon as we got back home, there was nothing to eat, the kids were crying, clothes all tattered, nothing to mend them with—just that moment of conviviality.
[…]

Commenting on their more recent memories, she notes

Material amelioration and the deterioration of social life, as well as nostalgia for the collective life produced by their escalating marginalization, to some extent transforms and even conflicts with their memories of suffering.

  • and their startling ironic “logic” that with the collapse of the commune system the CCP slogan “first bitter, then sweet” (coined to contrast the old feudal society with the Communist Utopia) had indeed finally come to pass with the present material sufficiency—albeit several decades too late, and only after the collapse of the very system that had touted the boast (156–65). For some, the transition

from collective to privatization wasn’t a retrogressive transformation of correcting the mistakes of the system, but like a natural “first bitter, then sweet” cause-and-effect.

She notes the villagers’ sullen passive resistance in showing up for collective labour without working, citing the dictum of Qin Hui (see above) that communes from which people can’t withdraw are no different from concentration camps.

Since the reforms
As the stultifying commune system collapsed (“rotted” as they say, lan nongyeshe 烂农业社; another common expression for the privatizing reforms is dan’gan 单干, “going it alone”), the book describes the long complex process of adjustment.

With villagers clamouring to overthrow the commune system, at first some cadres hesitated to stick their necks out, anxious that the political winds might change yet again.

A vivid exchange in an interview with a former cadre:

Later it became the norm, the whole county was dividing up…
[Woman interjects:] It was spring. I remember dividing up the donkeys, don’t I.
Cattle, you mean cattle.
[They argue over whether it was donkeys or cattle…]

As for villagers in north Shanxi, this was the real “Liberation”:

Going it alone was great, just great. If we’d have gone on in the collective, in a few more years there’d be no-one alive, we’d all have fucking starved to death [laughs]—really! (212)

Guo Yuhua goes on to reflect on the mechanism that had enabled such coercion, and the villagers’ own assessment of the changing times, including their reservations about the way society had gone on to evolve (213–21).

In the final chapter she draws conclusions, exploring the “logic” of both sufferers and the system that they endured, and warning that the campaign style is still active.

In an Appendix (also online) she updates the story, reflecting on later visits in 2005 and 2006. The dwelling where Mao stayed from 1947–8 had been revamped as “Commemorative hall to the revolution”, and the former ancestral hall of the Ma landlords was being converted to an “Commemorative hall to the battle relocation in Shaanbei”, an “educational base on the revolution”. No room for the villagers’ own voices here.

Taking a tour of Mao’s old dwelling she suddenly realizes that two of the cave-dwellings—former residence of Peng Dehuai, no less—had become the home of the eccentric villager Liudan, whose father had made such a deep impression on Guo Yuhua that she had published an article about him in 1998:

Though from a landlord background, he was considered “enlightened gentry”, and was on the advisory team for land reform. Becoming a teacher away from the village, he was yet another victim of the state cuts in 1962, having to return home. He now became “maladjusted”, cut off from village life.

Now, amazingly, his son Liudan was still occupying the two caves in the revolutionary site, adamantly refusing the state’s handsome offer of money to move out. Never able to find a wife, he too was unable to work; most villagers understood his seeming mental deficiency as a highly astute form of passive resistance. Even recently he was still something of a down-and-out. As Guo Yuhua observes, his refusal to move out was reminiscent of both the indignant protests of evicted urban dwellers and the struggle over whose version of history will prevail; but given his mental frailty, his resistance was rather complex.

Anyway, we needn’t hold our breaths for a memorial to the victims of Maoism, to match the commemoration sites in Germany for those of Nazism and the GDR.

And Guo Yuhua still manages to go back regularly to Yangjiagou—even as year by year, fewer people remain who can recall the period before “Liberation”; before long, who will remember the Great Leap?

GYH 2011

Village chat. 2011.

As in Europe, we all visit sites where people were tortured and murdered within living memory, yet we may merely see them as picturesque—an image avidly promoted by Chinese propaganda.

* * *

Language
One feature that enriches the authenticity of the book is its direct citations of villagers’ accounts in their own words. Thus it also serves as a kind of practical handbook for Shaanbei dialect. Use of language, of course, lends insights into people’s conceptual world. [7]

Apart from having to latch on to regional pronunciations, like de (duo), hou (hao), he (hei), bie (bei), ha (xia), ka (qu), and so on, Guo Yuhua soon helped me pick up some basic expressions, like haikai 解开 “understand” and chuanka 串去 “go for a stroll”. Now I can finally savour the language of her meticulous documenting of peasants’ reflections, albeit twenty years too late—basic expressions like nazhen 那阵 “then” (jiuqian 旧前 “in the old days”); zhezhen 这阵 or erke 尔刻 “now”; laoha 老下 “dead”; yiman 一漫 “totally”; ele 恶了 “very” (not the standard feichang). The whole commune system is known as nongyeshe 农业社 or daheying 大合营; for collective labour they say dongdan 动弹.

Among the many pleasures of peasant language is its liberal use of expletives, a revealing contrast with the standard Chinese of propaganda—polished, polite, and so flagrantly false as to insult the intelligence.

Religion and ritual
Guo Yuhua’s PhD, which became the book

  • Side kunrao yu shengde zhizhuo 生的困扰与死的执着:中国民间丧葬仪式与传统生死观 [The puzzle of death and the obstinacy of life: Chinese folk mortuary ritual and traditional concepts of life and death] (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin daxue cbs, 1992),

largely concerned traditional rural mortuary rituals, and remains stimulating (note her fieldnotes from Shanxi and Shaanxi, pp.198–217). Indeed, her 2000 article on Jicun in Ritual and social change contains more material on changing temple life there than does her 2013 book.

While she has moved on from ritual to broader social issues, she recognizes the importance of both religion and religious studies in China. I think of de Martino‘s fieldwork on taranta in south Italy, also engaging with the plight of the sufferers.

Guo Yuhua sees religion and myth as behaviour with long historical roots to explain the world, a kind of survival technique. (cf. Ju Xi). In an email she notes similarities with the CCP’s enforced belief system:

If the latter is as “scientific” as they claim, then it too should be subject to corroborating or refuting; it should be explored, debated, doubted, critiqued. But the current reality is that it demands unconditional veneration as an item of faith, even written into the constitution—a totally illogical position.

Religious studies should take account of such [sociological] approaches, rather than mere descriptive documentation or “salvage”—viable cultures will endure and evolve without such measures. Given the importance of religion in society, as long as studies takes account of its social basis, then it’s a worthy discipline.

As she observed in interview, alluding to the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft debate,

If you say, Chinese tradition is such a society of rites and customs (lisu 礼俗), not of legal rationality (fali 法理), then its distinctive feature is human governance. To be satisfied with this explanation is to shirk responsibility, because if everything goes back to the ancestors, then what is there for us to do? If one wants true reform, I think we have to start from the institutional level, so naturally we have to transfer our attentions towards institutions, or more precisely, the interactive configuration of culture and human nature. 

Expressive culture
My taste of fieldwork with Guo Yuhua only increased my own quest to relate local expressive cultures to politics and society—a common goal of ethnomusicologists, but much less commonly achieved for China.

On one hand, the study of imperial China is eminently necessary, but for many Chinese scholars it has had the added attraction of being relatively safe (cf. former Yugoslavia). Studies of culture and ritual, too, tend to be an autonomous zone into which social change since 1900 rarely intrudes.

As the state has receded somewhat since the 1980s, it may seem slightly less risky to document the current fortunes of folk genres, though this too often descends into a simplistic lament about the lack of a new generation; and as the overall society certainly becomes more affluent, those stark social problems that do remain continue to be taboo. So we accumulate dry lists of ritual manuals and sequences, vocal and instrumental items, and birthdates of performers.

Meanwhile, social and political change is often seen only through the lens of “revolutionary” culture, while living (or at least only semi-moribund) traditional vocal and instrumental genres are imprisoned in museums and libraries, and their performances sanitized for the concert platform. Their history under Maoism is blandly encapsulated by listing a few isolated performances at secular regional festivals, along with a standard clichéd sentence on the “mistakes” of the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua tellingly describes the replacement of traditional ritual culture by that of political campaigns—although in my Shaanbei book I note the enduring strands of tradition even through the years of Maoism. While the lives of blind bards and shawm players feature in her account, I think my own focus on them in my book still makes a useful supplement.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang, 1999.

In my survey of itinerant storytellers in Shaanbei, my accounts of the changing fortunes of the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known as “Immortal Li”, Li xian) also derive from Guo Yuhua’s close relationship with him (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei). As this article grows, I’d better write about him in a separate post.

Another major theme of my Shaanbei book, and the accompanying DVD (§B, cf. my comments on the funeral clip from Wang Bing‘s recent film), is the village’s shawm band. Such bands belong to the traditional litany of social outcasts. One of Guo Yuhua’s main informants is Older Brother, the sweet semi-blind shawm player who features in my own book and film.

Yangjiagou funeral 1999

Yangjiagou funeral, 1999. Older Brother second from left.

While I was filming the procession to the hilltop grave, setting off before dawn, Guo Yuhua was taking photos:

funeral climb 1

funeral climb 2

grave

In a society where no matter how desperate people were, even vagrancy offered no hope (162), Older Brother tells Guo Yuhua how, with his family starving, he reluctantly went on the road begging in the second half of 1968 (133–4, 193–6), led by a sighted old man from a martyred revolutionary family. In a moving account, he tells how they went on a long march throughout Shaanbei, sleeping rough; they were treated kindly on the road, learning to beg for scraps. When conditions allowed simple funerals, he even played his shawm, his companion accompanying on cymbals. He would find people to write letters home to his father to reassure him he was still alive. By the winter he had found a rather secure village base where he was hopeful of eking a living, but this enabled his father to track him down and summon him home.

It may seem ironic to cite Mao here, but as he observed,

There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.

So did the socialist arts Serve the People, meeting their needs? Whose needs do state propaganda units like the Intangible Cultural Heritage serve now? Of course, while the state has its own agenda for the latter, local actors can utilize it to achieve their own requirements, as several scholars have observed (and that is perhaps the only thing that can be said for it).

As I suggested in my post on the recent film of Wang Bing, this is the context in which we blithely analyze the scales, melodies, and structures of Chinese music. Primed with Guo Yuhua’s book, you’ll never again want to read the bland reified propaganda from the ICH.

* * *

In her book, as in her whole scholarly output, Guo Yuhua makes a rational and forceful indictment based on detailed evidence, a passionate plea for heeding the voices of ordinary people and rewriting history.

All this may be a rather familiar story abroad (from individual studies like those of Chan, Madsen and Unger (Chen village), Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes on Wugong, my own Plucking the winds, or the broader brush of Frank Dikötter—I hardly dare mention the few apologists like William Hinton and Mobo Gao, to whom Guo Yuhua gives short shrift). But it feels yet more incisive coming from PRC scholars, and her research is both detailed and amply theorized. The only aspect where the stories of Chen village and Wugong may make more impact is that they follow individual lives, whereas most of Guo Yuhua’s citations are anonymized.

While her work such as that on Jicun exposes the tragic failures and outrages of the Maoist decades, she is also relentless in denouncing current abuses—always upholding the values of social justice and the liberation of the sufferers, inspired by the same concern for the welfare of Chinese people that once made the CCP popular.

I seem to be suggesting a rebalancing from the newly-revived Guoxue 国学 (“national studies”: traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism) towards Guoxue 郭学 (Guo Yuhua studies). She bridges the gap between politics, anthropology, and cultural studies. Whether you’re interested in society, civil rights, history, music, or ritual, let’s all read her numerous publications—and do follow her on social media.

 

[1] Many of her important articles are collected here, including several related to her work in Shaanbei. For another major recent article, see here (or here). For a brief yet penetrating and indignant essay, try “OMG, not that stupid ‘happiness’ again?!” My thanks to Guo Yuhua, Stephan Feuchtwang, Harriet Evans, and Ian Johnson for further background.
[2] For a translation of Sun’s recent article, soon blocked from WeChat, see here. For a useful English account of the Tsinghua group, see here; and yet another fine anthropologist there is Jing Jun 景军. For Wang Mingming at Peking University just up the road, see here.
[3] §4 of which was translated by Harriet Evans as “Narratives of the ‘sufferer’ as historical testimony”, in Arif Dirlik et al. (eds.). Sociology and anthropology in twentieth-century China: between universalism and indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2012), pp.333–57.
[4] Guo Yuhua notes that traditionally women’s main opportunity for public interaction was at the 3rd-moon temple fair for Our Lady, but I wonder if their exclusion from the ritual sphere was so severe: female spirit mediums had been, and still are, a major element in ritual life.
[5] The silence of the 1993 Mizhi county gazetteer on the privations and indignities of the Maoist decades makes the frank accounts in the Yanggao gazetteer (also 1993) all the more impressive: see my Daoist priests of the Li family, e.g. pp.100–101, 123.
[6] Hinton, in his classic Fanshen, also documents complexities, but within an overall positive tone.
[7] I’m not sure how rare this is in academia, but it has been adopted by novelists such as Li Rui and Liu Zhenyun. In Sun Peidong’s review she cites Han Shaogong’s novel A dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao zidian 马桥词典), set in Hunan, for its unpacking of local language. For Shaanbei dialect, cf. the 2007 book Tingjian gudai 听见古代 by Wang Keming 王克明. For film documentaries, see here.

 

The corpse walker

Corpse walker

Always interested in alternative, local accounts of modern Chinese history, I much admire The corpse walker by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 (English translation 2008, from originals published in 2002).

Subtitled Real-life stories, China from the bottom up, it contains over two dozen vignettes of lives neglected in the official history (subaltern studies, on which more soon). As the Foreword says, “hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped”—but more than that, ordinary peasants, cadres, labourers, all kinds of people whose lives have been serially buffeted by the adversities of a capricious system. [1]

Their life stories are micro-histories shedding light on the abuses of Maoism (campaigns, famine) and the corruption and immorality of the reforms. The book makes salient reading for those interested not only in modern history, but in ritual and music.

Building on Liao’s early experience as a collector of folk music, the interviews (mostly based around Liao’s home of Chengdu) make valuable material for scholars of religion. Many folk ritual specialists appear—an elderly fengshui master, an ancient abbot, a mortician.

Supernatural beliefs also play a role in the distressing story of a leper and his wife, as well as that of a peasant who—in 1985!—declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom in his Sichuan hometown. The latter story, with rich historical antecedents, also relates to the birth-control policy.

Musicians also feature prominently, like ritual singers and wind players, a blind erhu player and a street pop singer. Visiting composer Wang Xilin, Liao learns of his tribulations under Maoism and more recently in trying to commemorate its victims. And he chats with a father who lost his son in the 1989 protests, as well as a fellow-inmate imprisoned (like Liao himself) in the aftermath.

Tiananmen inmates

Liao Yiwu (front row, 2nd from right) with fellow inmates imprisoned after 1989 protests. Sichuan 1992.

The vignettes are also effective because they are genuine dialogues—Liao is very much a “participant observer“. He doesn’t merely ask questions, his own comments are perceptive too, sometimes disputing conservative views. Among several prison interviews is one with a trafficker, guilty of selling women from his home province of Sichuan to desperate men in Gansu. As he defends himself with a series of shocking justifications like “rebalancing the yin and yang“, Liao’s ability to empathize is thankfully limited.

This is just such a cast as the fieldworker meets in the course of documenting society, and the stories have much to tell us about both Maoist and reform eras.

So far I’ve only read it in translation, though some details make me curious to read the Chinese version. For instance, in the very opening vignette a shawm player who migrated from Henan to Sichuan also takes on the role of funeral wailing—a combination that I hadn’t heard of in either province. Again, his recollections make a salient history of ritual change.

The manuscript was smuggled out by exiled author Kang Zhengguo, whose own memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China is an important ethnography of subaltern life in Shaanxi under Maoism and since.

Since going into exile himself, Liao Yiwu is prolific both in documenting his own former tribulations within the system and in speaking out on behalf of those still enduring discrimination in China (Twitter: @liaoyiwu1 ). For Ian Johnson’s 2011 interview, see here; for a 2016 interview, here.

 

[1] Such collections of interviews have a noble history since the 1980s, such as Chinese Lives (Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, 1987), or Xinran’s China witness (2009). For scholarly discussion, see Guo Yuhua.

China: commemorating trauma

Ditch

Just as I was lamenting the lack of public acknowledgement of the crimes of Maoism—by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled such necessary commemoration (see e.g. my posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenHildiGitta Sereny, the work of Philippe Sands, the GDR, and the Salazar regime)—the new Wang Bing 王兵 documentary Dead souls, just shown at Cannes, is a timely reminder of his brave work and that of other documentarists and journalists, not to mention their interviewees, survivors of the late-1950s’ labour-camp system and the kin of its victims.

Case-studies of the system can be found both in factual reports and in novels by authors such as Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke. Research on the notorious Jiabiangou camp in Gansu has an estimable history. Wang Bing’s project goes back to meeting He Fengming in 1995 (herself a Gansu camp survivor), whose husband died at Jiabiangou—resulting in Wang’s 2007 film Fengming: a Chinese memoir (here, with Spanish and Italian subtitles; also interview), shown at Cannes that year. From 2003 Zhao Xu 赵旭 began publishing his research on Jiabiangou, Fengxue Jiabiangou 风雪夹边沟. From 1997 Yang Xianhui 杨显惠 was visiting former inmates, and in 2003 he published his collection Woman From Shanghai: tales of survival from a Chinese labor camp (English translation 2009). As Wang Bing began dramatizing these stories in a narrative film, he met more survivors from Jiabiangou, and The ditch was premiered in 2010—a deeply distressing watch (here with French subtitles):

And then, even before Wang’s latest documentary was released, the great activist film-maker Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明 (b.1953, another Beishida alumna later based in Guangzhou: for Ian Johnson’s interview with her, see here) filmed her six-hour Jiabiangou elegy: life and death of the rightists (2017)—in five parts, here:

The interviewees note the general desperation of the inmates’ families and the local population, themselves struggling to find anything edible. Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone is an important source on the great famine of the time, points out the political background in Gansu (for the famine and Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, see here; for the works of Frank Dikötter, here).

Wang Bing’s Dead souls is even longer, at 496 minutes—here are three clips:

* * *

That latter excerpt leads me to a subsidiary point about ritual and ritual soundscape, about suffering, and people’s lives—and in this case the suffering that we can, and must, document is that of the Maoist years.

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 which indeed has 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

Yangjiagou band, 1999

So in the context of Wang Bing’s film 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. For similarly anguished shawm playing, cf. playlist, tracks 5 and 6 (commentary here). For anyone still struggling, despite my best efforts, to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands, Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, the camps there might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

* * *

As a recent review notes:

It’s not as if the prisoners had been caught red-handed in plotting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly all of the interviewees insist they are loyal, patriotic party members, with some saying they were indicted for a small critical comment against a supervisor or splashing tears on a portrait of Mao. One interviewee recalls hearing how leading cadres were sending people off to “re-education” by random, just to prove Mao’s view that 5 percent of society is composed of “bad elements.”

Amidst a shameful wall of official silence, both Ai Xiaoming and Wang Bing, along with their interviewees, were subjected to harrassment while filming. It may seem nugatory to observe that technically the editing and structuring of their films is highly accomplished.

And these are just a few of many hundred such camps, with their countless victims. No less harrowing is a film by Xie Yihui 谢贻卉 on juvenile labourers in a Sichuan camp:

Like “the German 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.

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, anywhere in the world. Just a couple of examples: the destruction of the Summer Palace by British troops, and the 1937 Nanjing massacre. We should all owe loyalty to truth, to people; in China it’s an ethical duty, not least in the traditions of filial piety.

And all this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond the sanitized representation of “Chinese folk music”, or indeed Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. The stories of suffering, however distressing, need telling.

A selection of recent posts

 

To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:


For more, click on MY BLOG in the top menu and scroll down…

Another Daoist debate

Gansu ritual

Following the Daoist ritual to bless a football team, another intriguing debate has just arisen on the place of Daoist ritual in society under a notionally secular and atheist regime. [1]

In Minqin county in the north of Wuwei municipality in Gansu province, an exorcistic Daoist ritual was performed recently at the inauguration of the construction site of an experimental thorium reactor of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Though the ritual was commissioned by the local construction team, two employees from the institute were promptly sacked and placed under CCP investigation for having failed to stop the contractors, thus “deviating from the scientific spirit”.

Rituals for “moving the earth” are commonly performed all over China. This one was conducted by a single local priest depicting talismans and burning yellow paper memorials, as a sheep was slaughtered (lingsheng 领牲). In the brief video, at some distance one can see an altar table, around which a shawm band stands to play.

Some may be content to seize on the story to demonize the CCP (which is fair enough, as far as it goes). But again, just as with the Daoist ritual for the football match, what is more notable is the intelligent rebuttals of the po-faced official stance that are already appearing online and in the media—if not yet on a par with the protests that greeted the Pingyi funeral clampdown. Most authoritative essays come from the brilliant Tao Jin, and on WeChat here; doubtless there will be more. Here’s a critique from a leading Daoist priest, only marred by introducing a confused angle of indigenous and foreign religions (mute the soundtrack! What are they thinking?!):

So it’s another storm in a teacup. Local rituals are performed all over China (including, magnificently, Shanghai). The problem here was merely that the CCP shouldn’t be seen to be promoting “superstition”—so it’s a healthy sign that the online community rallies round to observe that by the CCP’s own terms it’s no longer considered as such, and to stress the depth of “Daoist culture” that the Party itself now propounds. The authorities’ kneejerk reaction can only entrench people’s “belief” in the laws on religious freedom. The popular message is clearly: don’t mess with the Traditional Culture of the Chinese Peoples!

It’s also a reminder that Gansu must be one of the most fertile sites for research on household Daoist ritual!

 

[1] See this from Sixth tone, with a brief video clip (why on earth (sic) did someone deem the video footage acceptable but not the original audio?!); and a follow-up expounding the issues clearly:

I also fear that Taoist conservatives—the kind who head up the country’s religious associations—will grow tired of reacting to public suspicion with openness and warmth, and will instead try to defend Taoism from a purely nationalist standpoint. As China’s sole homegrown religion, Taoism is fertile ground to be claimed by hyper-patriotic revivalists of traditional Chinese culture. It is essential that Taoists remain level-headed and oppose radical and exclusionary political attitudes.

Other comments e.g. herehere, and here.

Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

 

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99).

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance.

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica. His diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the race of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.

Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

Notes from Berlin, 1

Appell

Roll-call at Sachsenhausen, February 1941.

Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.

Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodle à la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.

* * *

Having been so moved by Sarah Helm’s harrowing book on Ravensbrück, I had hoped to get there, but with limited time Sachsenhausen (cf. wiki and many more detailed sites) is more accessible, and anyway demands a whole day (and I’m acutely aware that we can be suitably horrified by our day-trip and then come home to friends for a nice plate of pasta with wine.)

At the same time, it’s deeply inspiring to see not only how well documented such sites are (including the Stasi memorials) but also how busy they are—the grounds are constantly full of school groups receiving the most important education.

All such camps saw prolonged use, both before the war (Oranienburg concentration camp started operating in 1933, moving to Sachenhausen in 1936) but also long after, under Soviet (indeed allied) and GDR regimes.

* * *

I visited Sachenhausen last Friday—which happened to be Hitler’s birthday, occasion for a repellant Nazi festival in parts of eastern Germany.

To arrive by train at Oranienburg station is itself disturbing, thinking of how the inmates reached the camp. One of the most hideous accounts at the site tells how in September 1939 the rabid inhabitants of the town abused 534 Polish Jews as they marched to incarceration and death—though they had been duped that the arrivals were themselves murderers, one suspects this wasn’t an exceptional case (Wachsmann, KL [definitive source on the camp system], p.230).

In the barracks I was taken aback by the sitting toilets and washrooms—of course, inmates were highly vulnerable in these places, often being brutally beaten to death there, so it’s hardly relevant to contrast the primitive conditions at Chinese laogai camps, or ordinary Chinese homes.

Inmates (from all over Europe, and Russia) included political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and “antisocials”. In autumn 1941 alone over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war were executed at the camp. But individual lives play an important role both in the exhibitions and online, such as Dutch resistance fighter Ab Nicolaas (who later became a clown), or the German Sinto Walter Winter.

camp mouth organ

As Helm describes harrowingly for Ravensbrück, even the twice-daily Appell roll-call (see photo at head of article) was purgatory.

The infirmary exhibitions are substantial too, including sections on medical experiments on young Jews and the reunion of survivors fifty years later; and on the camp brothel.

Brothel

Among the most disturbing exhibitions is in the watch tower, on the relations of locals with the camp and the SS—“What would we have done?” again. The SS were billeted in town, with their own bands, taking part in street parties. People recalled how as kids they were handed out balloons and lollies by the SS.

Tarantella

“Tarantella for German soldiers”—SS officers attending a folklore festival on Capri, alleged to be the Blockführers of Sachsenhausen who had been shooters in the 1941 Russenaktion.

 

Death march and “Liberation”, 1945.

After the war
Then on to the display about the Soviet camp 1945–50, just as gruesome—12,000 of 60,000 prisoners died there. Here too the documenting of individuals is sobering, such as the meticulous diarist Günter Sack, and Stella Kübler-Isaakson, a Jewish spy for the Nazis who was imprisoned here from 1946 to 1956 (see Peter Wyden, Stella, reviewed here and here).

The Soviet Special Camp was closed in 1950, but not all of the prisoners were set free. The majority of the prisoners sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal were sent to East German prisons. Some of the internees were tried during the Waldheimer cases in the GDR, and Soviet prisoners were deported to camps in the USSR.

The site’s GDR history (see here, with sequel here) provokes thought too. There are exhibits, including films, of the first commemoration in 1955, with GDR citizens touring the camp; after 1961, as the memorial calendar became more busy, it became a site of “anti-fascist education” even as the repression continued. From 1976 couples even visited on their wedding day—not a simple case of indoctrination, but often related to the sufferings of their parents at the camp.At the same time (as the catalogue describes), the state appropriation of the memorial for its own purposes was gradually subverted; peace movements, church groups, citizens’ initiatives, and “excluded groups” began chipping away at the GDR’s “monopoly on heroism”.

Again, you can choose if you can bear to watch films like this:

* * *

How such catastrophic moral failure occurred remains imponderable—so much for the German Soul. As Neil MacGregor asks,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse?

It does indeed seem a bit late for me to take all this to heart now. I can’t claim that if I’d have trodden a different path if I’d been exposed to all this history in my teens, but still. And at least now with my work on China I’m not churning out the patriotic agenda of the glories of Han­–Tang music, or merely collecting happy folk ditties: it’s all political.

Until recently it might have felt a blessing to be English, not to have been beset by such agonizing dilemmas—yet another “What would we have done?”. But how admirable the Germans have become since the 1990s: not only do they put us to shame in their response to the migration crisis, but further to have set up this network of memorial sites—whereas in Britain there are many who not only consider themselves separate from Europe but still have the hubris to protest the exposing of the crimes of our own imperialism, denying the lessons of history.

I also hope that one day in China there will be meticulously documented sites like this, to commemorate the self-inflicted disasters of its own modern history (cf. Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, and here). Mind you, talking of memorials, here’s one in the southern USA.

In all these places—Germany, China, the USA, and so on—such traumatic histories are an essential aspect of the cultural soundscapes that we so blithely celebrate. Including the Chinese ritual soundscape. And Britain?

For Mahler’s prophesy, see here.

* * *

Returning to civilization, on my walk from the S-Bahn at Jungfernheide I would pass charming door statuettes over the entrances to pre-War apartment blocks in Herschelstraße and Fabriciustraße (for shutter catches in Venice, see here; for the accordion, see here). Ordinary domestic life… I wonder what happened to the inhabitants.