The cult of Elder Hu

* Yet another in a series of vignettes (starting here) from my recent stay with
the wonderful Li Manshan 
(for similar excursions, see here and here). *

Hutu statues

Altar to Great Lord Hudu, Lower Liangyuan temple 2018.

My time with Li Manshan last month also gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Elder Hu, most intriguing of local deities in the region.

Surveying “cultic buildings” just northeast of Yanggao in the troubled 1940s, the intrepid Belgian missionary Willem Grootaers drew attention to a local cult of the deity Hutu 胡突 or Hudu 胡都, aka Elder Hu (Hulaoye, Huye, Hushen 胡老爺, 胡爺, 胡神) or even Dragon Hu (Hulong 胡龍). His temples are often known as Hushen miao 胡神廟. See

  • Willem A. Grootaers, “The Hutu god of Wanch’üan, a problem of method in folklore”, Studia Serica VII (Chengdu, 1948), pp.41–53. [1]

Around the Xuanhua region Grootaers and his Chinese assistants found fourteen temples devoted to Elder Hu, as well as six more with tablets in the temples of other gods; as a lateral image in Dragon King temples he appeared sixteen times.

I have already published brief introductions to the cult in Yanggao. [2]

In south China one often find “cults,” in the common sense of groups (whether voluntary or ascriptive) devoted to a particular deified local territorial personage. Much work on southern Daoism is complemented by studies of such gods. One finds some cults in north China too, although they are more often to “national” deities. Such groups may or may not include ritual specialists performing complex sequences of ritual and liturgy.

But one important regional deity whom people in north Shanxi and northwest Hebei do worship is Elder Hu. Perhaps an ancient general, his proper name Hutu (or Hudu) may be Mongol. Closely related to the Dragon King deities, he too is thought to have power over rain and the elements. In Upper Liangyuan there was a statue of him in the Temple to the Three Pure Ones (my book, pp.46–9), but in Yanggao the main sites for his worship, still today, are the temples of Zhenmenbu, Xujiayuan and Lower Liangyuan. Here I introduce the latter two.

Xujiayuan
The Xujiayuan temple (formally named Temple of Clear Clouds Qingyun si 清雲寺, though as usual it is commonly identified simply by the name of the village) is part of a network of early temples lining the border north of the county-town, just beneath the remains of the Great Wall. From our 2003 notes:

In the main temple the three god statues (from left to right) were Pineapple Tree King God (Boluoshuwang fo, responsible for water), Watery Heaven God (Shuitian fo, one of the Heavenly Officers tianguan), and Elder Hu (Hulaoye, responsible for rain, not water in general). On either side of Elder Hu were small dragon statuettes. There was also a portable statuette to Elder Hu to be taken on procession.

XJY 03 clothing statue 1

Clothing a god statue, Xujiayuan 7th-moon temple fair 2003.

The various local legends about Elder Hu are not consistent. Xujiayuan villagers said that his old home was Hujia village quite far further east in Tianzhen county (see map below), so the village always donates to the Xujiayuan temple fair (in 2003 they gave 300 yuan). According to the temple’s abbot Miaoyun, Elder Hu was an ancient general called Hutu; the common people erected a temple to him after he was wrongfully executed by an emperor and the climate went awry (xingfeng zuolang 興風作浪).

Most village temples in the region are unstaffed, but the Xujiayuan temple had about eight resident Buddhist monks when we visited in 2003. The main day for the temple fair is 7th moon 3rd; it begins on the 1st and finishes on the 4th. This is a most vibrant event, with many stalls, and an opera troupe, shawm bands, and the temple’s own monks all performing an impressive nocturnal yankou ritual (see the DVD Doing Things with my book Ritual and music: shawm bands of Shanxi, §B5).

Another major ritual of Xujiayuan is the rain procession on 5th moon 18th, bearing aloft the statuette of Elder Hu. The temple is the centre of a parish (she 社) of twelve villages (still known as “brigades”—note the casual elision of imperial and Maoist vocabulary), although by 2003 it was mainly the four nearby village that were taking part actively. Elder Hu “deputes the dragons” (fenglong 封龍) to release rain.

Lower Liangyuan
Today on the plain southeast of Yanggao county-town, with no temples still standing in Upper Liangyuan, the most important temple in the area is in the sister village of Lower Liangyuan just north. Its formal name is Temple of Efficacious Source (Lingyuan si 靈源寺).

XLY 03 temple name

7th-moon temple fair 2003.

The survival of the temple is due in large measure to the sprightly Yuan Xiwen 袁喜文 (b.1934!), still blessed with a youthful spirit within the body of a fit 50-year-old.

Yuan Xiwen 2013

Yuan Xiwen, 2013.

Serving as a brigade accountant and cadre under Maoism, he did what he could to protect the temple, and led the revival of its temple fair upon the 1980s’ reforms. He has recently compiled a detailed genealogy of thirteen generations of the Yuan lineage (my film, from 57.46). Local society depends on men with such charisma.

The village has long had a larger population than Upper Liangyuan (1,120 in 1948, 1,805 in 1990, according to the county gazetteer), although since then it continues to suffer from the inevitable drift to the cities.

Back in 2013 we strolled over there to find Yuan Xiwen sitting in lotus posture on the kang in his bare house. He too told us a charming local legend about Elder Hu, detailed enough to have a certain authentic value:

Dragon Hu came from Jiaocheng village, southwest of Datong. [3] He held the post of looking after the cabinet official (geyuan 閣員) Wang Qiu 王囚 in Shandong province. Wang agreed to his request to return home for a visit to his old home. So Dragon Hu began the journey home, riding the clouds (jiayun 駕雲) from Shandong to Jiaocheng. Once he reached north Shanxi, he passed through “nine dragon mouths” (jiu longkou) in all.
[For villages marked * below I know of active temples today; the others remain to be explored. The legend doesn’t track his earlier progress from Shandong—however did we manage before satnav?!].

At Wayaokou (Tianzhen county) there was a heavy downpour; he rode on through Zhendagou 镇大沟 (?), Zhenmenbu*, and Xujiayuan*, where he rested his horse (yinma 飲馬). Continuing his journey south, he rested his horse again at Liujiaquan, then at Lower Liangyuan* at midday, then on to Tailiang 太梁 (?) [which, said Yuan Xiwen, still had a decrepit old temple to him], to Lower Shenjing (?), and one other village which escaped me.

Throughout Dragon Hu’s progress, all the places he passed through were beset by hailstones. The Heavenly God (Tianshen) was angry, and made him pay a forfeit. So Dragon Hu pinched three ears of wheat into the shape of a shuttle, creating what is now buckwheat…

There’s clearly a lot more fieldwork to be done here—but how exciting it may be for someone to pursue!

Towards a modern history of the temple
Yuan Xiwen recalled the village’s last rain procession, and temple fair, before Liberation. In the 7th moon of 1947 some three hundred villagers went on procession to the Xujiayuan temple, with big drums, gujiang shawm bands, and banners bearing the characters “Silence!” (sujing 肅靜), both there and back. From 1st to 3rd they stayed at Xujiayuan, returning on the 4th, holding their own temple fair from 5th to 7th.

The temple only had around a dozen mu of land; it was common land, not “owned”, and anyway there were no resident clerics, only one shabby temple keeper. This was surely typical—far from the great temple estates further south.

As collectivization escalated, the temple buildings were taken over by the Supply and Marketing Co-op (Gongxiao she 供销社). The god statues were taken away in 1956, to a little shrine in between the Lower and Upper villages; people still worshipped surreptitiously before them. The temple was only assaulted in 1966 at the opening of the Cultural Revolution; the murals were further damaged while it was used as a classroom. It was not until 1987 that Yuan Xiwen was able to lead the first temple fair there after the revival.

The modern religious history of this and other villages is closely related to the fates of sectarian groups. Though village temples were public sites, they made a natural base for sects like the Way of Yellow Heaven and the Way of Nine Palaces. [4] By the 1940s Lower Liangyuan was a hotbed of such groups. After the Yiguan dao sect was introduced to Yanggao in the 1940s, 200 of the 240 households in Lower Liangyuan are said to have belonged. While the villagers’ more public religious activities were somewhat separate, the sectarian persecutions of the early 1950s inevitably affected their spirits. Still, the sects survived underground until reviving along with more public ritual behaviour from the 1980s.

I should add that (as far as I know) there is no separate “cult” of sectarians worshipping Elder Hu, nor  any scriptures to him.

March 2018
Over the years I’ve often passed by the temple—for instance when the Treasuries are burned before it during funerals (my film, from 1.03.56). But it’s been ages since I took a close look at the interior, so Li Manshan calls up the wonderful Yuan Xiwen and we stroll over there. They’re in the middle of a meeting of the clansmen—his younger brother is there. I’d have learned more about the temple images if Yuan had come to the temple with us, but he’s too busy with his family. Later Li Manshan tells me the temple committee had recently lost the temple’s old divination list, [5] and how rumours flew around about an inside job—until they found it again.

XLY list main

Divination list, 1882 (Guangxu 8th year).

The villagers don’t seem to know of any surviving steles—though after our discoveries in the Upper village, there may still be room for exploration in nearby ditches.

The temple has belatedly been taken under the wings of the county Bureau of Cultural Preservation, and (judging from my 2003 photos) some of its old murals seem to have been retouched. Though they clearly date from the late Qing (not the Ming, as the temple minders airily claimed), their beauty is rare in Yanggao villages—by contrast with the amazing wealth of such murals in nearby Yuxian.

XLY 03 outside

The front complex during the 7th-moon temple fair, 2003.

XLY temple exterior

March 2018.

The interior complex
Inside the temple the main complex facing south onto the courtyard now has two rooms: a central hall to the Dragon Kings, and an east room to Elder Hu.

Rear block from courtyard

View of main rooms from courtyard.

The main altar of the central hall has statues of six dragon gods before a mural of the Jade Mother of the Five Dragons (Yulong shengmu 玉龍聖母):

Rear central room central gods

Central hall, 2018.

XLY Rear central mural 2003

Jade Mother of the Five Dragons, 2003.

On the rear wall, to the west and east of these central images, are further murals to the mythical emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu:

My 2003 photos of the above:

Further murals adorn the side walls—for the River God (heshen 河神) to the west, Efficacious Immortal (lingxian 靈仙) to the east (I think):

Rear hall central west wall

Central hall, mural on west side wall.

To the east of this central hall is the room to Hutu (photo at top of article). To one side of the main altar is a small portable statuette for processions, carried in a palanquin that rests by the west wall:

The side walls bear murals depicting the progress of Hutu through his domain:

Hutu west wall mural

Outside, to the west of the rear complex an old pillar capital survives (for much, much more, cf. Hannibal’s photos from nearby Hunyuan, and Yangyuan):

Rear block exterior west carving

The front complex
At the main entrance of the complex is a central room to Śakyamuni, flanked by his attendants Mañjuśrī (Wenshu) and Samantabhadra (Puxian). To its west is a room to Dizang and the Ten Kings:

Dizang statues

The west and east side walls bear Ten Kings murals repainted since the 1980s—here are two details:

Dizang west wall Kings

Dizang east wall murals

* * *

But in the end I want to return to real human beings. As disembodied “cultural relics” these images may have no particular artistic merit; however numinous they may be, they’re still silent and static. In between the common fates of falling apart or becoming museums, temples are for living people, for interaction under changing social conditions; their gatherings are full of life, “hot and noisy“.

I can’t help thinking back to August 1992, my second visit to Li Manshan’s father the great Li Qing, when I even attended a funeral he led at Lower Liangyuan—alas, I had only just missed the village’s 7th-moon temple fair! Li Qing told me that two Daoist bands took part (later the temple committee only invited one). All his colleagues, with whom he had been performing rituals since the 1930s, would have taken part, like Li Yuanmao, Li Zengguang, Kang Ren, and so on.

After the 1980s’ revival I suspect they didn’t restore a fuller sequence of the jiao 醮 Offering, for whose segments Li Qing had recently recopied ritual manuals (I doubt they chanted any of the jing scriptures, for instance)—but still, their ritual programme may have been rather more complex than it later became (my book, pp.237–43). For Hoisting the Pennant, did they sing the hymn Yuyin 玉音 at the central pole? And how I would have loved to witness their Communicating the Lanterns; by the time I attended it at the temple fair in 2003, Li Qing was no more, and his pupils were less than familiar with the ritual.

XLY yangfan 03

7th-moon temple fair 2003, Hoisting the Pennant: the final chase. Front left, on nao cymbals: Erqing, shortly before he was lured away to become a migrant labourer. Photo: Wu Fan.

* * *

So this little introduction to Elder Hu gives you an idea of what we were up to before our brief yet charming encounter with the local constabulary on the walk home to the Upper village.

 

[1] Part of an extraordinary series that also includes

  • “Les Temples Villageois de la Region au Sud-est de Ta-t’ong (Chansi Nord), leurs Inscriptions et leur Histoire”, Folklore Studies 4 (Beijing 1945), pp.161–212.
  • with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Temples and history of Wan-ch’üan (Chahar); the geographical method applied to folklore”, Monumenta Serica 13 (1948), pp.209–316 (for Hutu, see pp.272–274).
  • with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Rural temples around Hsüan-Hua (South Chahar), their iconography and their history”, Folklore studies 10.1 (1951), pp.1–116.
  • with Li Shih-yü and Wang Fu-shih, The sanctuaries in a north-China city: a complete survey of the cultic buildings in the city of Hsuan-hua (Chahar) (Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques vol. 26), Bruxelles: Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1995 (for Hutu, see pp.7–9, 70­–73, 109–10).

[2] Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.73–84; Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.49–50; Wu Fan provides further detail (Yinyang, gujiang, pp.61–71, 150–59).

[3] Yuan Xiwen said it was in Shanyin county, which it isn’t now—but anyway, judging by the logic of the route, and the limited radius of the cult, not the county considerably further south.

[4] See Yanggao xianzhi, pp.610–15; Zhao Jiazhu, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng, pp.159–62. The Yiguan dao was a particular scapegoat; though in some respects inquisitors were quite meticulous, I suspect the name served as an umbrella term, a rallying-call for persecution. The early 50s’ campaigns are a growing theme of research; note Barend ter Haar’s site.

[5] Cf. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, pp.280–85.

God images old and new, 2

In this, the second of a yin-yang pair of articles that might be entitled

Uncle Xand the Ten Kings of the Underworld,

I find myself seeking to qualify the current coverage in the foreign media. The casual reader might be forgiven for supposing Chinese people to be languishing under a bombardment of Uncle Xi propaganda, just as we are abroad at the hands of China-watchers—in very different ways.

I don’t doubt that in some spheres this latest catechism is indeed intrusive. But the impression I get is that Chinese (peasants, workers, artists, students, academics…) have far more important things to do than study Xi Jinping Thought. I found public images of him rare—and if some households do display his poster, then there’s a sound pragmatic reason.

XJP posters

Shanghai, 2018: images that I barely saw in nearly a month in Shanxi and Beijing. Photo: ABC.

Invisible propaganda: business as usual
Of course no-one ever mentions him. On the few occasions that I broach the subject, it goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Following Nigel Barley (“like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club”), I ask Li Manshan innocently, “Have you been studying Xi Jinping Thought?!” Without exactly rolling his eyes (unlike this reporter), he looks at me like I’m crazy—not for the first or last time.

In the poor rural county through which I’ve just been travelling, posters [1] were distributed to every household—with the offer (akin to a bribe) of sacks of flour, meat, and so on. In one village I know, around 80% have taken the bait. Poor-peasant families will likely play ball (like a rural Protestant woman we met, and a “left-over” family in a dying village).

A household Daoist, and a shawm player—both struggling to make ends meet—have also put their poster up. Another Daoist, my age, put his up gladly, but he’s not that well-off—and anyway he still reveres Chairman Mao, which his colleagues agree is weird. As we chat between ritual visits to the soul hall, I can’t even be bothered to ask him, “If Chairman Mao was so great, how come he let 45 million starve to death? How come you couldn’t even get a proper meal until the 1980s? How come he wouldn’t let you guys do rituals?”

But most of my village friends don’t need the supplement, so have refrained from putting up their posters. Thus I saw very few of them, either in the countryside or in the capital. [2] (Having just received a rather indecent gas bill, I wonder if I can ask for a poster from the county Propaganda Department to hang up in my house in Chiswick—if they can put bonus points on my Nectar card…)

Only now does it occur to me that there should be a strong correlation between households displaying the posters and those too poor to invite the whole ritual band to perform a complete sequence of funerary rituals, who instead request a solo Daoist merely to “smash the bowl” for them.

So my feeling is that for villagers, this is just yet the latest in a long line of gods who may or may not address their practical problems. Campaigns are water off a duck’s back for them:

The mountains are high, the emperor is distant
Shan gao, huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远

There may be various reasons for choosing whether or not to hang a poster up. Villagers might feel that their room needs a splash of colour; or else it might not go with their colour scheme. No, aesthetic considerations are unlikely: some households may be genuinely enthusiastic, while most will swallow their scruples in order to get a supplement. At least, we can’t assess popular support for Uncle Xi merely by counting the number of posters displayed.

Nor did I see any painted wall slogans [3] to him as we walked and drove through the villages, or as we drove through townships and the county-town. Does the local government know something we don’t? Do I need a repeat visit to the optician?

Come to think of it, is it some extraordinary quirk of my routes through Beijing, or is there a remarkable absence of his images in public places there too? Has anyone covered this?

CCP poster

A common sign. Strangely missing is the request: “With the exception of patriotism, if anyone spots an outbreak of any of the above diseases, please report them to us and we will take appropriate action.” My photo.

So—unless one were so desperate as to switch on the CCTV news—my whole trip was notable for his absence. Far Be It From Me to claim that he’s not an evil autocrat bent on crushing all dissent and Destroying Civilization As We Know It, but the tone of these online scare stories reminds me of the Daily Mail. It seems I have to come to China to escape from him (or should I say Him).

***

Sure, we’re all “blind people groping at the elephant”. We have to study everyone, including elites, and some scholars and journos have to focus on one man at the top of the structure. Not only do decisions made from on high affect the lives of ordinary people, but there are very compelling reasons why we should pay attention to the insidious encroachment of autocracy and the escalating erosion of rights. Everywhere.

Still, my single biggest culture-shock at returning home to the foreign media was to be suddenly reminded of their obsession with Uncle Xi. Those who follow such authoritative China-watchers might easily deduce that his worship is an all-consuming duty—but such a conclusion bears little relationship to the daily lives of Chinese people.

So foreign coverage may be diametrically at odds with Chinese propaganda, but they’re both barking up the same tree. Meanwhile the Labouring Masses either take action or Keep Calm and Carry On, ignoring all the flapdoodle; and other scholars, Chinese and foreign, get on with writing about the lives of real people, exposing grass-roots problems.

 

[1] I inadvertently find myself referring to them as shenxiang 神像, god images—which always gets a giggle.
[2]
By contrast, see e.g. here: “the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.”
[3] For a worthier feminist slogan, see here.

God images old and new, 1

*Click here for main page!*
(under Images: Li family in main menu)

ZQ mural

1 A village artisan
This is the first of two articles that together might be called

Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

In both rural and urban China, paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld (Shiwang xiang, or Shidian Yanjun) were commonly displayed for funerals, and in some places they still are. In this article I introduce Artisan the Sixth, who painted a set of Ten Kings for the great Daoist Li Peisen; and I go in search of his kang murals.

LHJ 456 Kings detail

A tribute to Li Wenru

Li Wenru

Li Wenru (1924–2016).

Many of us are nostalgic for the old days of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, in the days when it was still at its original home in Dongzhimenwai—bare dingy corridors, peeling plaster and all.

As I pore over the substantial collection of ritual manuals and gongche scores that we found among village ritual associations in Hebei, I’m reminded of yet another MRI luminary. Through the 1950s, while a stellar team of great scholars like Yang Yinliu, Cao AnheZha Fuxi, and Yuan Quanyou were dedicating themselves to ground-breaking research, the MRI’s remarkable archive was maintained, indeed developed, by the kindly and unassuming Li Wenru 李文如. [1]

Li Wenru spent his youth helping his father in antiquarian bookshops in Liulichang. After the Communist Liberation, the MRI recruited him from 1953 to seek out and buy old musical scores—including precious early manuscripts for the qin zither—and to preserve, bind, and reproduce them. The treasures of the MRI archive owe much to his careful work. Ever reliable, he was much respected by the scholars there, and he remained loyal to them in periods when they were under a political cloud. Over more than four decades he also edited many catalogues and articles on Chinese music periodicals, notably his comprehensive Ershi shiji Zhongguo yinyue qikan bianmu huibian 二十世纪中国音乐期刊篇目汇编 (2005).

From 1986, as I visited my mentors at the MRI—Qiao JianzhongTian QingXue Yibing, Zhang Zhentao, all then still living in very modest circumstances—we would explore the library’s treasury of material on early and traditional music from all over China, in search of leads to local folk musical cultures. Even in the early 1990s the MRI was still poor, retaining the leisurely old-world atmosphere of the commune system.

Far from our modern equipment that allows us to take and store infinite photos, in my early years of fieldwork in rural China I had to bring several dozen films for my camera (not to mention all the audio and video tapes). On our project in Hebei, where possible I photographed ritual manuals and scores complete, but occasionally when we found lengthy fragile volumes that clearly deserved careful copying, we asked the association leaders if we could take them back to Beijing to photocopy. They were sometimes anxious about this—quite rightly, since several local cultural cadres had “borrowed” scores and never returned them.

YMK jing

Such texts, copied at various stages since the late 19th century, were often in precarious condition.  Though by then nearly 70, Li Wenru relished the tasks we gave him of preserving the Hebei manuscripts, painstakingly handling the damaged pages from his little room behind the library. Finally he would bind three copies—one for the MRI, one for me, and an extra copy for the home village when we returned the original to them.

scores

Just a few of the Hebei ritual manuals and scores bound by Li Wenru.

By 1993 the MRI had basic computers, so Li shifu could add a succinct printed preface by Zhang Zhentao or Xue Yibing.

ZZT xu

Zhang Zhentao’s preface to the Gaoqiao score.

Gaoqiao score

From my partial photos of the Gaoqiao score.

Many of the gongche scores in the major recent anthology Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 passed through Li Wenru’s expert hands—the Hebei scores that we consigned to him appear in the three weighty volumes for that province.

With his modest and industrious demeanour, Li Wenru (like performer-turned-cadre Li Jin in Yanggao) was one of those unsung generous workers who managed to contribute to the new society despite the futile interruptions of Maoist campaigns. Quite separately from official slogans, such integrity was always much valued: local moral values endured.

 

[1] See e.g.
http://www.zgysyjy.org.cn/204/32044.htmlhttp://news.ifeng.com/gundong/detail_2014_03/27/35175677_0.shtml, and http://chuansong.me/n/1391306852337

 

Ritual groups of Jinghai

*Click here for main page!*
(under Local ritual in main menu)

YMK jing

Continuing our surveys of ritual associations on the Hebei plain,  the Jinghai region of Tianjin is an extremely fruitful area for fieldwork. Even by the 1990s Tianjin municipality (like Beijing) was largely rural, way beyond the city itself.

This article introduces two ritual groups in Jinghai, those of Lesser Huangzhuang and Yuanmengkou, both richly deserving more fieldwork than our team could manage in 1994 and 1995.  Through the latter we found a network of Heaven and Earth Teachings sectarian associations—continuing our acquaintance with sectarian groups (Laofomen, Hunyuan, Hongyang, and so on) elsewhere on the Hebei plain.

As ever, such research requires a blend of fieldwork, textual study, local history for both imperial and modern eras, and an understanding of folk religion and the ritual soundscape.

 

Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

KK cover

After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.

I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR[1] but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:

Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.

Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.

Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:

I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.

With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:

When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory.
So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home.
[…] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.

One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:

They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.

Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.

This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.

Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:

For a moment, you could even think we were equal.
But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.

We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.

Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:

It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.

Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.

“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.”
“Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”

When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.

Kassabova relates another Soviet joke (which actually resembles my granddad’s joke):

A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”

Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.

Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:

a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.

The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to The Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where

The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)

She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:

to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.

Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then

The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.

After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:

It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer.
[…]
One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.

After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider. [2] And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.

She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:

Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…

Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet

Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.

In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”

Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.

She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.

The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.

Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.

Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.

As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.

Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.

Kassabova expands on these themes in Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017, also reviewed here), broadening the area covered to Greece and Turkey. Again reminding me of China, she writes,

As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.

***

The soundtrack to all this would be enticing, but I’ll save turbo-folk and traditional music for another time.  On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papasov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evokes in Twelve Minutes of Love: a tango story.

 

[1] This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.
[2] Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now.

 

Hokkien culture: nanyin

Nanyin 1986

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.

Nanyin 1986:2

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)

Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.

Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 610 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.

This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:

And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social context:

One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristoffer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.

Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!