Amdo rituals: early and recent films

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from The gods incarnate, 2009; cf. Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.

[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

Ethnic polyphony in China

Complementing the fine CD sets of archive recordings from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, in collaboration with Wind Records, Taiwan (notably the folk-song volume Tudi yu ge):

  • Qiao Jianzhong 喬建中 and Wu Guodong 伍國棟 (eds), Zheshan chang nashan 這山唱那山 [English title Polyphonic folksongs in China] (2-CD set, 2002), with booklet in Chinese.

It makes an important addition to our roster of folk polyphony around the world—best known on the world-music scene through the recordings of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. For guidance on multi-part singing we may also consult the CD-set Voices of the world and its instructive booklet.

The cultures of China’s ethnic minorities are a popular topic— [1] more so, indeed, than those of the Han Chinese, thanks largely to the reductive image of ethnic groups being “good at singing and dancing”, and their exotic costumes.

All this is well beyond my expertise, but since the 1980s, along with research, there’s a substantial repository of audio and video recordings, and minority groups are commonly invited to give staged performances in urban festivals. The vocal repertoires of many such peoples include a substantial component of polyphonic songs. [2]

The two CDs contain 56 tracks—mostly a cappella—from 16 ethnic groups in provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, including Buyi [Bouyei], Miao [Hmong], Jingpo, Yi, Naxi [Nakhi], Lisu, Dong [Kam], Zhuang (16 tracks!), Yao, Molao, Maonan, Bai, and Qiang, as well as Tibetans and Mongols, and the She minority of Fujian in the southeast.

Most of the recordings were made (in concert, rather than in situ) at a major gathering of singing groups for a 1982 symposium in Nanning—just as the liberalisations that followed the collapse of the commune system were allowing traditional culture to revive, but rather before migration, tourism, commodification, and heritagification further thickened the plot.

* * *

Many other recordings of the musics of ethnic minorities are the result of “hit-and-run” missions. But for the poor mountainous province of Yunnan, the long-term studies of local fieldworkers Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei, often in collaboration with British ethnomusicologist Helen Rees, are most diligent. Their numerous CDs include both ritual and instrumental genres and vocal music. For the latter, most relevant here are

  • Alili: multi-part folksongs of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities (2 CDs, Pan, 2004) and the sequel Nanwoka (2 CDs, Pan, 2005),

with field and studio recordings (again mostly a cappella, with only occasional instrumental accompaniment) of the Yi, Hani, Nakhi, Lisu, Nu, Lahu, Jinuo, Jingpo, Tibetans (9 tracks), Bai, Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Wa, De’ang, Bulang, Achang, and Dulong peoples—both sets containing most instructive liner notes. Here’s the playlist of the former (click on “YouTube”):

Particularly remarkable are the multi-part songs of the Hani (only “discovered” in 1995)— such as the densely-textured clusters of this rice-transplanting song (well documented in the liner notes):

Note also

  • the CD Baishibai: songs of the minority nationalities of Yunnan (Pan, 1995, playlist here)
  • the 2-DVD set From China’s southwest borders: minority dances, songs and instrumental music of Yunnan (2001)
  • and, covering all the diverse expressive genres, the compendium
    Zhang Xingrong 张兴荣 (ed.), Sanjiang bingliu quyu yinyue wenhua daguan 三江并流区域音乐文化大观 [English title Musical cultures of the Three Parallel Rivers region of Yunnan] (2012), comprising a richly-illustrated 574-page book, 4 DVDs, and 2 CDs! [3]
Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei among the Hani, 1995.

Simply as pure sound (whatever that is), all these CDs are ear-opening, often mesmerising—remote from the commodified versions of “folk-song” common in the media. Of course, as I never tire of saying, audio recordings tend to reify; there’s no substitute for observing musicking in all its messy social context—including migration, tourism, and so on. Though online videos tend to be highly idealised, under the guidance of Xiao Mei at the Centre for Ritual Music Studies at the Shanghai Conservatoire, some more thoughtful ethnographic documentaries are being made.

While one can hardly expect the long history of the accommodation of these groups with state power to intrude into such accounts, for the interplay of ritual and politics among the Yi people in Yunnan under Maoism and since, do read Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts.

All this just to remind myself why I don’t dare venture into the field of the ethnic minorities…

[1] In Chinese, a useful diachronic survey of PRC research on minority musics is Du Yaxiong 杜亚雄, “Ershishiji Zhongguo shaoshu minzu yinyue fazhan zhi huigu” 二十世纪中国少数民族音乐发展之回顾 (2000). The ethnic minorities of Taiwan are also much studied.

[2] In Chinese, a standard textbook on multi-part singing is Fan Zuyin, Zhongguo duoshengbu min’ge gailun 中国多声部民歌概论 (1994).

[3] For the whole project (quite separate from the Anthology for Yunnan), note Helen Rees, “From field recordings to ethnographically informed CDs: curating the sounds of Yunnan for a niche foreign market”, in Levi S. Gibbs (ed.), Faces of tradition in Chinese performing arts (2020). An evocative introduction to the work of Zhang Xingrong is the interview in CHIME 8 (1995) by Jack Body—another avid fieldworker in the region during the period. For further detail on the Hani songs, with transcription, see Zhang Xingrong, “A new discovery: traditional 8-part polyphonic singing of the Hani of Yunnan”, CHIME 10/11 (1997). For the Kam/Dong people in Guizhou (another highly popular topic), the publications of Catherine Ingram are detailed and nuanced. An ambitious ongoing series of CDs of China’s ethnic minority songs is reviewed here.

Women in Tibetan expressive culture


Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

Following my recent posts on Labrang (here and here), the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (here and here), and 1950s’ Lhasa, I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.

Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).

A finely-wrought discussion is

It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. And for further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here.

* * *

First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. [1]

Lhasa label girls

Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.

She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.

Ama Lhagpo
This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).

Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.

After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.

With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.

Chung Putri
Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.

Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.

As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.

“Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.

As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.

It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.

But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.

Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).

The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:

Tseten Drolma
Tseten DrolmaBy contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolizing the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.

Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.

In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.

Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.

Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.

This is the kind of thing:

See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.

The article now turns to two younger pop singers since the reforms (cf. Isabelle’s Western-language bibliography, §10), who have chosen exile.

Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.

DadonBoth her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.

As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.

Yungchen Lhamo
By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.

Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.

From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.

With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.

As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.

Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.

All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. [2]

As she summarises:

Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

[1] For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.

[2] Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of ChineseTibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Music and cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:

Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China

Opposition is the movement of the Dao


Kang cover 2

Among the literature on China under Maoism and since, one of the most perceptive and disturbing accounts that I have read is

  • Kang Zhengguo, Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China (2007).

Peppered with evocative allusions to classical Chinese literature, in Susan Wilf’s translation it makes a compelling read. One can find more shocking accounts of the Maoist era: while Kang was only formally incarcerated from 1965 to 1971, many others spent over twenty years in the labour-camp system, or never returned from exile at all. But it is precisely the routine, banal nature of his “descent into hell” that is so revealing. Sadly, it’s just as relevant today.

In his Introduction, Perry Link comments “this may be the best account of daily life in Communist China that I have ever read”.

Hundreds of writers of both fiction and nonfiction have given accounts of “the people” (aka “the masses”) during China’s Mao years, but nearly all use an ideological lens that flattens the perspective and homogenises the background, indeed starches the clothing, tidies the town square, recolours the sky, and, most important, tells you what to think about a social problem in terms that are usually oversimplified and often grossly false. This account, in contrast, is clear-eyed.

One might consider feature films like The blue kite.

Link surveys “modernist” literature since the 1980s, “post-traumatic symptoms” of the Maoist era. Despite impressive dissenting voices such as Zhang Xianliang, he misses a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Primo Levi.

Never inclined to submit to authority, Kang “trundles through life”, ignoring boundaries. He details the mechanics of the Maoist control system, to which most people learned to adapt instinctively in the interests of self-preservation (as in the Soviet Union).

While Kang made token efforts in this direction, he was not alone in being worn down by the system. He finds that “the only way out is down”, leading him “from college to brick factory to labour camp to prison and finally into rural exile”. With guilt by association, people feared that the political leprosy would spread to them—creating the illusion of unanimous support for the Party.

Link finds Kang’s writing “free of self-censorship, supplicatory attitude, bizarre modernism, or other deflections of vision […] and the kind of distortion that, in some writers, grows out of conscious rebellion against such deflection.” He notes the power of official language, again internalised in daily life. Kang’s writing seems to make the Party shrink, despite its enduring power, belying the notion that “Party and people are one”.

Early years
Born in Xi’an in 1944, Kang’s earliest memories are of taking refuge with his Nanny at her parents’ village home in the early summer of 1949, as refugees streamed in all directions, alarmed that the “bumpkin army” was to arrive.

Kang 7

He recalls the fanfare of the early days of Liberation. His grandfather, a devout lay Buddhist, had been involved in radical politics in his youth; but by the 1920s, from his base of the idyllic Silent Garden, he devoted himself to Buddhism—leading local charities, relief work, collecting donations to repair dilapidated temples, and printing scriptures. Even after the Communist land reform, though now classified as a landlord, he remained active, shielded by a renowned living Buddha from Qinghai, and was given a salaried post as Buddhist representative on the Municipal Consultative Committee, taking part in meetings with some alacrity.

Kang 425

Kang recalls the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward. But he relished the classical literature that he found in his grandfather’s library. At school, with his independent bookish tastes, he began to acquire a dubious political reputation.

Kang 28

Though the cities were always protected from the worst hardship, by 1960 food shortages were common in Xi’an. As refugees begged on the streets, Kang’s grandfather took in a peasant from the Henan countryside. Kang began to see through the boastful state propaganda.

With a certain economic relaxation following the chaos of the Leap, free markets reappeared; Kang recalls the bustling market at the Baxian gong Daoist temple. Foreign films were in vogue too.

Under his grandfather’s influence he began keeping a diary, whose personal reflections he contrasted with the empty show of Lei Feng’s posturings.

Kang’s father was a senior engineer, whose alcoholism gave rise to family tensions. He tried to dissuade his son from bookish pursuits; whereas science was a rather safe subject, the humanities were considered risky (cf. Vesna Goldsworthy in Yugoslavia). But Kang persisted. By 1963, still at school, he was falling under suspicion. Despite gaining admission to Shaanxi Normal University, as the political climate deteriorated, he felt alienated by the mediocrity and conformity of the teaching.

The professors who were old enough to have suffered during the Anthi-rightist campaign carried their prudence to the point of idiocy, while the younger ones merely trumpeted the literary policies of the day.

Kang was cajoled into writing the first of many self-criticisms.

Kang 71In March 1965, seeing no way out, he took the No.15 bus to enter “the gates of hell”, becoming a “resettled worker” at the No.2 Brickyard in Xi’an. His romantic illusions about finding Robin Hood types were soon dispelled. Though they were allowed to take occasional breaks in town, it was effectively a labour camp.

In autumn 1965, as the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns intensified, he learned that his ever-devout grandfather, then in his mid-eighties, had been subjected to a struggle session at the Wofo si temple. His house was ransacked, and his land confiscated.

Kang summarises his grandfather’s fortunes since Liberation:

Kang 90I don’t think that Grandfather was aware of the extent to which the temples had been politicised or to which the Party’s promise of religious freedom was pretence. There was a reason why he had been granted prestigious positions in the Buddhist Association and the Municipal Political Consultative Committee, along with a monthly subsidy of 100 yuan. As a prominent Buddhist spokesman for official policies he has an unwitting figurehead for the Party’s United Front policy of the political assimilation of non-party members. In the comparatively relaxed climate of the past few years he had fallen for a host of false promises. Imagining that he could promote Buddhism as he had before the Communists, he had continued to advocate religious reform. Unfortunately his proposals—to hold gatherings to celebrate Buddhism, for example, and to require temples to enforce religious discipline—had aroused the ire of both the Party and the monastic community. Maybe even at the bitter end he still failed to understand that his religious zeal exceeded the limits tolerated by the authorities, who saw the latest political campaign as an opportunity to attack him.

After living peacefully under Communism for sixteen years, Grandfather was getting a taste of the Party’s sinister tactic of turning people against one another. He was bewildered by the virulence of the attacks on him by monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists, who had always treated him with respect but now seemed even crueller than the cadres in charge. He never realised that the Party agents within the monastic community had been informing on him all along and that the Party had been keeping a dossier on him, lying in wait as he incriminated himself.

Though Kang started to appeal against his own verdict, he was left without options.

In my post on the ritual life of Xi’an I cited his account of a mass struggle session that he witnessed at the town of Weiqu.

The Cultural Revolution, and labour camp
In 1966 he witnessed the further desecration of the Wofo si temple, and the humiliation of its abbot, who soon hanged himself after severe beatings from the Red Guards. Kang pre-emptively sold off the most dangerous of his book collection. His youngest sister, barred from the Red Guards because of the “black” status of her family, went on a rampage against the “four olds” in the house, before the Red Guards completed the job. Kang’s grandparents were evicted, moving into a cramped flat.

For a moment the mood of rebellion against state authorities gave him misguided hope. He sneaked off on the train to Beijing in an attempt to lodge an appeal. Returning to Xi’an, he tried his luck at the university, also in the turmoil of rebellion, but soon realised he was vulnerable there too.

In 1967, amidst armed struggle between factions, Kang’s fate worsened yet again. Apart from classical Chinese literature, his literary tastes had long extended to foreign novels. Among a few volumes still surviving from his collection at home, he explored Russian fiction. In what he himself describes as a moment of madness, he sent off a letter to the Moscow University Library to request a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

While he waited, his fellow-inmate the racketeer Pimple Ma, a Muslim, took him under his wing. Even now, as Link observes, the period “brought him more, not less, access to ‘bourgeois’ pleasures like reading non-Communist books, smoking cigarettes, and chatting with friends”. As some of the plundered spoils from the Four Olds circulated, he got hold of an unexpurgated copy of The golden lotus, and some old Russian records. He joined in the unlikely revival of dance parties, dabbling in romance.

Kang’s grandparents had been given permission to return to Silent Garden, now in ruins, but both died soon after. In September 1968 Kang was arrested. During a stay in prison the charge against him was still unclear. Eventually, sentenced to three years at the Malan Farms labour camp complex in Xunyi county further north, it transpires that his major crime was having written to Moscow for a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

Even now he cherished a dream that the camp would be full of idealist “anti-rightists”; on arriving he found that most of the inmates were juvenile delinquents. Now he had to get used to the “Sisyphean labours” of the regime.

Rural exile and village life
Released in 1971, Kang made his way back to his parents’ home in Xi’an. His status still vulnerable, he had to lie low. Though the extreme violence of the first three years of the Cultural Revolution had died down, the system of residence permits and ration tickets was oppressive, and Kang remained a burden on his family.

His father was now out of trouble himself. Though angry at the way Kang had brought calamity on the family, he had been going to great lengths to negotiate a transfer for him to a rural commune in Chang’an county just south of the city. With obstacles to settling his status still in the way, they tried to marry him off to a peasant woman, but by 1972 they found a childless old pauper to adopt him, in a deal that involved building him a modest new home to replace his old hovel. His adopted father was to be responsible for finding him a wife, and he was to support him in his old age and take care of his funeral.

What objections could I possibly have at this point? I had given my parents so many headaches over the years that nothing could probably offend them anymore. And if they could accept this situation, why couldn’t I? Right then it occurred to me that it might be a good thing to change my name. Settling down in the countryside with a brand-new class status would be better than sponging off my parents. Even if my life was tough from now on, my family would be spared any further suffering on my account. Changing my name seemed like a small price to pay. […]

Very few people understood my past, and nobody paid it much attention. Once I had my new name, it was as if I had been reincarnated in Team No.4 with a completely clean slate. Nobody seemed to care that I was a reactionary or to show any curiosity about my expulsion from college and incarceration in the labour camps. Neither did anyone seem to think it was important that I’d been to college and was highly literate.

Indeed, he soon learned that villagers were quite used to complex kinship relations:

Production Team No.4 was so poverty-stricken that many of the men could not afford traditional marriages. The village was full of blended families and there were plenty of other adopted children besides me. Some of the older bachelors had scraped together enough money late in life to marry widows with children. Shiquan, for example, had acquired a couple of stepsons in this way. Shili, our village carpenter, had married the widow of a criminal landlord element, adaopting her daughter and two sons. Our accountant, Rangdao, who lived next door to me, had been adopted from a relative’s family. And Yinzui was actually the grandnephew of his adoptive father, who had taken him in because he was afraid that his own son, Dinghan, was not reliable enough to support him in his old age. Dinghan had been away in the labour camps at the time and had returned unmarried. Recently, however, he had found a woman from Gansu who had run away from her husband, and she had a son and a daughter. Given these haphazard family arrangements, you had to be careful about whom you called a bastard.

Despite his experience of manual labour, Kang (or Li Chunlai, as he was now) found himself a “substandard peasant”. He observes village life astutely as a cultural outsider. People remained acutely aware of private property; petty jealousies abounded. Still unable to migrate to the cities, they envied urban dwellers.

With an interlude on a dam construction project, as restrictions on enterprise grew more lax, he began making pocket money with electrical repairs and clock-mending, setting off on foot around the nearby villages, making occasional trips for parts into Xi’an—already an alien place to him. Getting hold of an old transistor radio and some textbooks, he began teaching himself English. He was still under surveillance.

Kang 300

After his father died in 1974, he came under growing pressure to find a bride. Introduced to Xiuqin, a woman from Shang-Luo prefecture, they married in Xi’an in 1975 and he took her on her first ever bike-ride to begin married life in his village.

Xiuqin’s story, told by Kang with characteristic frankness, also illustrates the times. Her father came from an impeccable revolutionary background, becoming a respected township cadre. But misreading the mood after the Great Leap Forward, he took part in a plot to distribute grain to the starving peasants, and was sentenced to labour camp as a counterrevolutionary. Xiuqin’s mother now faced great hardships in bringing up the children. They were further persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. Her father was released in 1969, but soon subjected to a series of struggle sessions. Xiuqin was desperate to find a husband as a way out of her suffering. After several false starts, she was introduced to Kang Zhengguo.

None too impressed by her new husband’s living quarters, on a trip back home she learned that her father was in ever deeper trouble. After enduring further ordeals from the vindictive cadres, she eventually got permission to leave. In Kang’s adopted village she learned how the peasants resented them. She gave birth to a daughter and then a son. While Kang was often absent, she worked hard.

The death of Chairman Mao in 1976 seemed to offer them hope of gaining urban residence in Xi’an. Kang’s adoptive father also soon died; while the villagers grudgingly considered their funeral arrangements suitable, they always resented the couple inheriting his house, and sought opportunities to wheedle money out of them. Meanwhile Xiuqin’s father, still being tormented, died too.

But now, as society was thawing, their life was improving. By 1978 Kang resumed his studies of English, on hold since 1974 when he learned he was still under surveillance. Beginning to get teaching jobs, he set his sights on returning to Xi’an. And his petitions to be rehabilitated were successful, his reputation finally cleared. In 1979 he was appointed to Shaanxi Normal University, from which he had been expelled some fifteen years earlier.

As he notes, that should be the end of the story, enabling him to enjoy the placid, uneventful life of a tenured scholar of literature.

The reform era, and emigration
If Kang’s successive degradations under Maoism are disturbing, so is his story since the reforms.

Observing three former friends now blowing with the new wind, he comments:

The course of action that these three friends had chosen was also open to me. I could have swallowed my pride and obsequiously accepted favours from the Party, becoming a docile professor with my nose buried in my books. This would have been a happy ending to my tale.

Instead, soon falling foul of the Spiritual Pollution campaign of 1983, he was dismissed from the university. While teaching at Jiaotong University, though initially wary of the 1989 protest movement, partly out of concern for his family, he was soon swept up in it. Though he avoided arrest, he now became subject to further surveillance.

His career opportunities were still limited. However, his thesis A study of Chinese poetry on women and by women had somehow come to the attention of a Chinese scholar at Yale, who now wrote to him. Sending off his reply, he thought of the only other letter he had ever sent to a foreign country in 1967. Invited to a conference at Yale, he had to surmount a series of obstacles in order to attend. Once in the USA, realising the challenges of surviving there as an immigrant, his dreams of remaining soon evaporated, and he meekly returned to China—where people were surprised to see him.

Still, he had made such a good impression that in 1994 he was offered a job as a Chinese-language instructor at Yale, and after further bureaucratic hurdles, he took refuge there with his wife and children.

This might make a second happy ending. But after several peaceful years teaching at Yale, in 2000 he planned a return visit to China, to attend an academic conference in Nanjing, as well as to visit his mother in Xi’an and relocate the family graves.

His visit coincided with the anniversary of the 1989 demonstrations, always a tense time; anyway, the Public Security Bureau was already back on his case. Indeed, from the kind of titles that his wife wisely tried to stop him taking for his old friends in China (Havel, Beijing spring, Pu Ning’s Red in tooth and claw, and so on) he had clearly been keeping a keen eye on “dissident” literature.

Attending the conference on “Gender issues in Ming and Qing literature”, his observations strike a chord:

I felt like a country bumpkin in such lavish surroundings. I had never seen such ostentation at American scholastic conferences. In China, the booming economy had stimulated a surge in conspicuous consumption. With China’s entry into the age of globalisation, the Chinese now sought to conform to international standards or even to outdo the foreigners at their own game. The results often struck me as excessive.

Meeting up with old friends from the 1989 protests, he finds them too absorbed in their nouveau-riche lifestyle to dwell on the past. Sensibly postponing his return to Xi’an until after the 4th June anniversary, in an attempt to avoid potential charges of troublemaking he took a trip to Lhasa with his brother (himself now vaunting the superiority of Chinese life over the American dream); this may not seem very well thought out, but it passed off without incident. Still, en route to Lhasa they had met up with the dissident Liao Yiwu in a Chengdu teahouse—again, hardly a prudent decision.

Kang reflects on his own innate contrariness:

Even if I had wanted to become a businessman like my brother, I would never have succeeded. Moreover, I believed that dissenting voices were essential forces of progress. The regime’s vaunting of “stability” showed that its vested interest still obstructed any social change that might undermine the power structure. Despite people’s insistence that things had improved, I could see that Chinese citizens were deprived of many of the same basic rights they had lacked under Mao.

Soon after returning to Xi’an he was arrested yet again. As the extent of the surveillance becomes clear, with his green card seeming ever more flimsy, his interrogators tried to get him to inform on his “subversive” friends in China.

Letters had always been my downfall. I had a lifetime of firsthand experience with the censorship of the Chinese postal system. My misake had been to imagine that the the dictatorship had relaxed its grip in the post-Mao era when in fact it was as restrictive as ever, and its spy apparatus was now streamlined by the latest technology. Like a spider in its web in a dark corner of the room, the Security Bureau was always lying in wait for its prey.

As the American authorities attempted to intercede on his behalf, Kang was cajoled into writing yet another “confession”. Despite injunctions to get out while he could, he still proceeded with the reinterment of his elders. Returning to his adoptive village, he finds it much changed, the environment ruined by the money-making schemes of the 1980s. Few of his old friends and adversaries there had fared well. He boarded the flight back to America with relief.

Scrapping the liability of his Chinese passport, he now gained American citizenship. In his tranquil family home in the New Haven suburbs he thought of Silent Garden. His wife and children thrived.

At first he remained silent about his recent ordeal in China, avoiding the press. But after a year he found the pact of silence unbearable.

This latter part of Kang’s story might seem like a minor footnote, but re-reading it as the surveillance state becomes ever more intrusive, it takes on added significance. Now, long after the apparent demise of Maoism, we can read about such intimidation daily.

While no-one could be entirely naïve in such an environment, Kang Zhengguo’s attempts to gain some respite by playing the Party’s gruesome game had always been outwitted.

On my explorations in around Xi’an from 1986 in search of traditional culture, I had no idea of all this troubled recent history, and no-one was in a hurry to educate me. This book should be high on the reading lists of people undertaking any kind of fieldwork in China.

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”


gunsTibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.

In my first post on Labrang, recalling the debate over how to represent Tibetan music in the New Grove dictionary, I mentioned a succinct, nay flimsy, article by

  • Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).

—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. [1]

* * *

Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.

The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.

Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.

At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.

Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.

The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.

Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).

At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).

Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.

At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.

After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.

Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).

The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. [2]

The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced

  • Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. [3]

In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.

Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.

Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.

In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.

In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:

The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.

In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.

With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.

MJZ title

The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.

Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. [4]


Lhamo opera at the Norbulingka. 1950s. Source: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (ed.), The singing mask (2001).

And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh! [5] Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. [6]

How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:

In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.

One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. [7]

Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:

We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs. 

What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). [8]

Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.

Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.

But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.

And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.

Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.

Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.

So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the Chinese guest. While we should indeed document the perspectives of patrons and aficionados, it should only be a supplement to working with musicians themselves. But the ideology of “becoming at one with the masses” only went so far. Given the obligatory stress on the music of the labouring classes, it may seem ironic that Mao Jizeng’s main topic was a genre patronised by the old aristocrats, and that he chose to study it with one of them rather than with a lowly “folk artist”. He justifies his studies by observing his mentor’s warm relations with the common folk. He doesn’t say, but perhaps Amir and other musicians also took part in some sessions at Horkhang’s house—in which case it would have made an ideal setting.

By contrast with the distinctive soundscapes of the monasteries and lha-mo opera, nangma’s heterophony of flute, plucked and bowed strings, and hammer dulcimer, however “authentic”, often sounds disconcertingly like Chinese silk-and-bamboo, as you can hear in this playlist— sadly not annotated, but apparently containing tracks both from exile and within the PRC:

Indeed, as with the dodar ceremonial ensemble of Amdo monasteries, the Chinese influence goes back to the 18th century. This doubtless enhanced its appeal for Mao Jizeng; and like silk-and-bamboo, it was to make nangmatöshe a suitable basis for the state song-and-dance troupes. Woeser gives short shrift to modern incarnations of nangma in her wonderful story Garpon-la’s offerings (n.9 below).

So Horkhang Sonam Palbar was Mao Jizeng’s main source for the two slim volumes that he also published in 1959,

  • Xizang gudian gewu: nangma 西藏古典歌舞——囊玛 [Tibetan classical song and dance: nangma]
  • Xizang minjian gewu: duixie 西藏民间歌舞——堆谢 [Tibetan folk song and dance: töshe].

Even the enlightened Music Research Institute was anxious about publishing Mao’s afterword acknowledging a Tibetan aristocrat.

According to Mao Jizeng’s 2007 tribute, Horkhang told him that he survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. This fiction may result both from people’s general reluctance to remember trauma and from the limitations of their relationship—we learn a very different story from Woeser’s Forbidden memory.

Horkang 1966Horkhang Sonam Palbar (centre) paraded with his wife and father-in-law at a thamzing struggle-session, August 1966. Forbidden memory, fig.80.

As Woeser explains, the Red Guards dressed him in a fur coat and hat that they found in his home, to denote his official rank in the former Tibetan government and his “dream of restoring the feudal serf system”.

Woeser goes on to describe how among the “crimes” of which Horkhang was accused was his friendship with the famous writer and scholar Gendun Chöphel (1903–51). Horkhang had helped him through times of adversity, and before Gendun Chöphel died he entrusted many of his manuscripts to Horkhang; these were now confiscated and destroyed by the activists. Still, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Horkhang assembled what he could find of Gendun Chöphel’s work, eventually publishing a three-volume set of his writings that became an authoritative work.

“Palace music”
By contrast with the entertainment music of nangma-töshe, in his 1959 article Mao Jizeng also gives a brief introduction to gar, the ceremonial “palace music” of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, having worked on the genre “in some depth” in the winter of 1956–57, he compiled a third monograph on it, but realised it was too sensitive a topic for publication, and it was lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Gar seems to have been in decline even before the Chinese occupation, though details on its life through the 1940s and 50s are elusive. The little section in Mao Jizeng’s article is characteristically headed “The dark system is a stumbling block to the development of music”; his main purpose here is to decry the former feudal society’s cruel exploitation of the teenage boys who served as dancers—actually an interesting angle, however tendentious Mao’s approach.


Mao Jizeng, liner notes for CD 5 of Xizang yinyue jishi (n.9 below).
Right, gar dancers, 1950s, provenance unclear.

The main instrumental ensemble for gar consisted of loud shawms and kettle-drums, of Ladakhi origin (cf. related bands in XinjiangIran, and India)—formerly, at least, with the halo of a mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs (cf. Chinese yunluo). [9] A brief scene (from 5.50) of this silent footage from 1945 shows the gong frame on procession with two shawms:

But a subsidiary chamber instrumentation, closer to that of nangma, included the rgyud-mang dulcimer—and as a gift from the MRI, Mao Jizeng presented the musicians with a Chinese yangqin, which must have made an unwieldy part of Mao Jizeng’s luggage on the arduous journey.

He doesn’t cite a source for this section, so it’s unclear who the musicians he consulted were; the Dalai Lama, whom they served, was still in Lhasa, and by 1956 the performers were still at liberty. But following the 1959 rebellion, when the Dalai Lama had to flee, they were deported en masse to the Gormo “reform through labour” camp at Golmud in Qinghai, over a thousand kilometres distant—part of a network of such camps in the vast, desolate region (cf. China: commemorating trauma). There they were to spend over twenty years; conscripted to work on constructing the new railway and highway, singing and dancing can hardly have been part of their regime.

Mao Jizeng ends his 1959 article with a brief section on “New developments since the Peaceful Liberation [sic] of Tibet”—the formation of professional troupes, and the creation of new folk-songs in praise of Chairman Mao; also, of course, themes worthy of study. Encapsulating the fatuity of Chinese propaganda, his final formulaic paragraph is just the kind of flapdoodle we have to wade through:

With the defeat of the former local Tibetan government and the reactionary upper-class elements, traitors to their country, the great mountain weighing down on the hearts of the Tibetan people was overturned, providing more profitable conditions for the development of their ethnic music. The way ahead for Tibetan music is limitlessly broad. It will shine radiantly forth in the ranks of the music of the Chinese nationalities.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies only a few years later, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Selflessly, I have read Mao Jizeng’s article so that you won’t have to.

Back in Beijing, and the reform era
Mao Jizeng may have largely ignored the fraught social conditions of the time, but one has to admire his persistence in remaining in Lhasa for ten months. Even by the 1990s, Chinese fieldworkers, and most foreign scholars, still tended to find brief “hit-and-run” missions more practicable, albeit over an extended period (cf. here).

Between 1956, when Mao Jizeng set off for Tibet, and the publication of his report in 1959, the political climate deteriorated severely in Beijing too. From 1957, music scholars were among countless intellectuals and cadres demoted or imprisoned during the Anti-Rightist campaign, not to be rehabilitated until the late 1970s; and the 1958 Great Leap Backward soon led to severe famine and destruction. Chinese people had to deal with their own devastating sufferings, without worrying about distant Tibet.

Even so, in 1960 Yang Yinliu managed to publish the Hunan survey that he had led, also in 1956; its 618 pages (as well as a separate study on the Confucian ritual!) make a stark contrast with the paltry material resulting from the hampered Tibetan expedition. * I wonder if his original fieldnotes have survived.

Disturbingly, the misleading clichés of Mao Jizeng’s article still continue to recur in more recent PRC scholarship. There, forty years since liberalisation, no frank reflections on the conditions of fieldwork among minority peoples in the 1950s seem to have been published—and amidst ever-tighter limits on academic freedom, such work is becoming even less likely.

Nonetheless, along with the widespread revival of tradition in the 1980s, more extensive study developed. For the major Anthology project Tibetan and Chinese cultural workers were no longer so cautious about documenting elite and religious genres. They now collected much material—with hefty volumes for TAR, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan on folk-song, opera, narrative-singing, instrumental music, and dance. For the historian, the monographs on opera and narrative-singing (xiqu zhi 戏曲志, quyi zhi 曲艺志) are particularly useful. As with Han Chinese traditions, much of this research focused on the cultures that had been impoverished under Maoism, rather than the process of impoverishment.

From early in the 1980s, in both Dharamsala and Lhasa, gar court music was recreated under the guidance of Pa-sangs Don-grub (1918–98), the last gar-dpon master to have served under a ruling Dalai Lama in Tibet (and like Horkhang, a pupil of Gendun Chöphel), as well as the former gar-pa dancer Rigdzin Dorje. In Dharamsala it began to serve the ceremonies of the Dalai Lama again, whereas in Lhasa it was performed only in concert.


The gar-dpon, 1980s. Photo: Willie Robson.

Though we don’t know how many inmates of the Gormo camp survived, Pa-sangs Don-grub was at last able to return to Lhasa by 1982, literally scarred by two decades of hard labour. The precise timeline seems unclear, but in Woeser’s plausible interpretation, he only overcame his reluctance to accept the Chinese request for him to lead a revival of the genre when, in a brief rapprochement, he was given the opportunity to pay homage to his revered former master the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala through training performers at TIPA—and only on the Dalai Lama’s advice did he return to Lhasa to teach it there too.

The 1980s’ revival of gar. Photos: Willie Robson.

In July 1987, while I was still seeking folk ritual bands in China, the enterprising Willie Robson (with whom I later worked to bring a Buddhist group from Wutaishan to the UK) put together the Music from the Royal Courts festival at the South Bank for BBC Radio 3—a grand enterprise the like of which would hardly be possible to organise today. It included groups from Africa and India, Ottoman and Thai music, the Heike biwa epic from Japan, nanguan from Taiwan, Uyghur muqam, the Chinese qin zither—and, remarkably, a combined group from Lhasa, performing both gar and nangma-töshe.

Pasangs Don-grub

Pa-sangs Don-grub, early 1980s; from the Chinese version of Woeser’s story.

Moved by Pa-sangs Don-grub’s 1985 book in her father’s collection, Woeser encapsulates our task in reading PRC documents:

Even a short introduction in a book can reveal a lot of information. This was the case with Songs and dances for offerings, with its brief introduction to the 14th Dalai Lama’s eleven-member dance troupe. After a few pages, only bits of information about the troupe emerged, such as the number of members and their ages. There wasn’t a lot, but at the time it probably wasn’t safe to write much more. The introduction seemed to be quite ordinary, even mediocre. Nevertheless, much information was hidden between the lines. These nuances could only be understood by another Tibetan, who would discern from just a glance what was really being said, what happened when and where. Many Tibetan readers experienced the hardship and torment the troupe endured before they had at last survived the disasters in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t experienced similar torments will find it hard to read between the lines of the writing and know what the men went through. That’s why a narrator like me is needed, who is at some distance from the incidents but is sympathetic to their reality and able to retell the story.

Also in the 1980s, Mao Jizeng’s former mentor Horkhang Sonam Palbar, having endured his own tribulations in the Cultural Revolution, was once again showered with high-ranking official titles in the Chinese apparatus—in a common pattern, serving as “décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies”, as Woeser observes in Forbidden memory.

Meanwhile, from 1983 Mao Jizeng was finally able to visit regions of the TAR that were out of bounds to him in 1956; and after the convulsive events of the 60s and 70s, on his trips to Lhasa he was able to meet up again with Horkhang.

Horkang 1987Horkhang Sonam Palbar leading a study team to a village of the Lhoba minority people,
Mainling county, southeast TAR 1987 (cf. here, n.1).

Blissfully oblivious to all the evidence, Mao Jizeng still constantly parroted the cliché of the warm fraternal feelings between Han Chinese and Tibetans, and his own rapport with the latter, including Horkhang (for more subtle views on rapport, see the excellent Bruce Jackson; and here I develop Nigel Barley’s characterisation of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot” into “harmful idiot”).

In his 2003 tribute to Horkhang, Mao tells a story that inadvertently suggests a less rosy picture—revealing both Tibetan resentment and the insidious hierarchical power dynamics among Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese:

In Lhasa in 1988—during yet another period of serious unrest, by the way—Mao Jizeng was having problems mustering the recalcitrant Shöl Tibetan Opera Troupe to perform Sukyi Nima for him to record. Rather shooting himself in the foot, he even lists some of their excuses: some actors hadn’t showed up, the troupe was out of money, they couldn’t find the drum… * It was only when the illustrious Horkhang stepped in to cajole them that they finally had to play ball.

And widespread unrest has continued in Tibetan areas. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods. For eleven Tibetan singers imprisoned since 2012, click here. [10]

* * *

As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology abounds with scholars who come from a society that oppresses the culture in question; and around the world there are plenty of accounts of fieldwork projects that fell short of their ambition. The limitations of Mao Jizeng’s ten-month sojourn in the tense, turbulent Lhasa of 1956, and even his inability to reflect on the issues involved, may not be such an exceptional case.

As another kind of outsider, only able to read Chinese and English but not Tibetan sources, such are the slender clues that I can offer.

So much for “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”. Meretricious (and a Happy New Monlam).

With thanks to Robbie Barnett

[1] Since the present or past tense is not necessarily specified in Chinese, one might almost be tempted to read it as “There was singing everywhere in Tibet [until we barged in and broke it all up]”—or perhaps as an optative, like “Britannia rule the waves”?!).

[2] By the way, “singing” is a very broad, um, church. Both singing and dancing on stage are only the tip of the iceberg; they lead us to folk festivities, notably calendrical and life-cycle rituals. Though “revolutionary songs” were an obligatory component of Chinese collecting throughout the PRC (if anyone remembers songs of resistance sung by the Tibetan rebels from 1956, people certainly weren’t going to sing them for Chinese fieldworkers—who anyway wouldn’t want, or dare, to listen), their main interest was the traditional soundscape (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”). Tibetan and Chinese pop music only came to play a major part in the Tibetan soundscape after the 1980s’ reforms.

Even today in a (Chinese) region like Shaanbei, famed for its folk-songs, it would be misleading to claim that singing is everywhere, harking back to the romantic image of Yellow earth. Sure, folk-songs are still heard quite often there, but often in rowdy restaurants rather than by shepherds on picturesque hillsides (cf. One belt, one road).

[3] For yet more detail, see Melvyn Goldstein’s multi-volume A history of modern Tibet—for this period, vol.3: The storm clouds descend, 1955–1957 and vol.4: In the eye of the storm, 1957–1959. There’s also extensive research unpacking the representation of ethnic minorities in the PRC, from Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell and onwards. For the changing physical and mental landscape of Lhasa, note Robert Barnett’s sophisticated book Lhasa: streets with memory (2006).

[4] Naturally, Mao Jizeng rendered Tibetan terms in Chinese characters, just as Western visitors devised systems to render it in their alphabet. Later, as the variants of the Wylie system became standard for international publications, Chinese transcription was acknowledged to be inadequate—though it still works for the Chinese… I’ve tried to give Wylie versions of Mao Jizeng’s Chinese terms.

[5] For Tibetan folk-song, see §9 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s Western-language bibliography—including this detailed ethnography of a family in Amdo, yet another impressive publication from Kevin Stuart’s team; Sangye Dondhup’s list for sources in Chinese and Tibetan; and the folk-song volumes of the Anthology.

[6] The first such project is usually dated to 1956; even then, the airport didn’t become operational until 1965. Perhaps the 1954 labourers, too exhausted by singing and dancing, and too demoralised at being forbidden to do so, were unable to complete the job?

[7] See Melvyn Goldstein, “Lhasa street songs: political and social satire in traditional Tibet”, Tibet journal 7.1–2 (1982), based on material collected among exile communities. For Sitting Bull’s ingenious speech in Sioux for assembled white dignitaries, cursing them with impunity, see n.1 here.

[8] For nangmatöshe, see the bibliographies cited in n.5 above, as well as the Anthology for TAR. For the work of Geoffrey Samuel, apart from his chapter in Jamyang Norbu (ed.), Zlos-gar (1986), see “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976)—including an Appendix referring to fifteen 78s recorded in Lhasa between 1943 and 1945 by the British Mission under Sir Basil Gould, which one would love to compare with later versions!

The writings of Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (Zhol-khang bSod-nams Dar-rgyas) feature in Sangye Dondhup’s list of Tibetan sources; he is included among the biographical entries for Tibetan musicians in the New Grove dictionary (handily assembled here; main article on Tibetan music here). For the role of female performers before 1959, see the fine article Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Women in the performing arts: portraits of six contemporary singers”, pp.204–207.

In search of Ajo Namgyel, I found the fascinating article by Jamyang Norbu “The Lhasa Ripper“, on the “dark underbelly” of pre-occupation Lhasa: crime, prostitution, beggars. For nangma bars since the 1990s, see e.g. Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004), and her “Modernity, power, and the reconstruction of dance in post-1950s Tibet”Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (2007).

[9] A useful introduction to gar before the occupation, and then from exile, is Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup, “A preliminary study of gar, the court dance and music of Tibet”, in Zlos-gar. See also Mark Trewin, “On the history and origin of ‘gar’: the court ceremonial music of Tibet”, CHIME 8 (1995). As well as the entry for Pa-sangs Don-grub in the New Grove (with a list of his publications), do read Woeser‘s story “Garpon La’s offerings“, Manoa 24.2 (2012). Dates given for the gar-pa Rigdzin Dorje differ: 1915–83 apud Zlos-gar, 1927–84 according to Grove. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa gong-frame is mentioned in the Zlos-gar chapter and the Grove section on gar.

Within TAR the fortunes of gar are documented in the Anthology; and Mao Jizeng’s six-CD anthology of Tibetan music in TAR, Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind Records, 1994), recorded since the 1980s, features both nangma-töshe (CDs 3 and 5) and gar (CD 5, ##3–4), despite the nugatory liner notes; see Mireille Helffer’s review. In the absence of Mao Jizeng’s monograph, all I can find of his notes on gar is on pp.38–42 of this trite overview of Tibetan music.

[10] For another thoughtful article by Woeser, exploring the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions, see here.

* In another age, he might have returned with gifts emblazoned “My mate went to Lhasa and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

** Impertinently, this reminds me of both the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch and various instances of musos’ deviant behaviour (notably this, and even Revenge at the Prague opera).

Labrang 2: the violence of liberation

This review follows on from my posts on Tibet in the Cultural Revolution (here and here), and on issues arising from the 2002 UK tour of monks from the Labrang monastery.

Since the 1990s the polarized viewpoints of scholars within the PRC and in exile have been impressively refined. Just to reiterate, diverse topics in Tibetan culture are now receiving attention not only for central Tibet (“Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR) but also further afield in Amdo and Kham (for other works on Amdo, see Labrang 1).

Makley cover

By contrast with the timeless, transcendental image of Tibetan culture based on monastic ritual that beguiles some scholars, the complex, changing tensions around Labrang are brilliantly unpacked in

  • Charlene Makley, The violence of liberation: gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China (2007); reviewed far more knowledgeably by Mona Schrempf and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy.

Highlighting the role of gender, Makley’s sophisticated ethnography considers history before, during, and since Maoism to survey Buddhism at various levels;  the wider community; Chinese and foreign tourism; and generational attitudes.

The book’s evocative title is borrowed—and extended—from Mona Schrempf, who used it to refer to the distinctive Tibetan tantric subjugation of the earth and its associated enemy agencies. In the Introduction, Makley asks:

How did gendered inequalities structure the revitalization of the famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang Tashi Khyil during post-Mao reforms? What were the exigencies of great gendered changes for Tibetans who lived under the nightmare shadow of state terror even as they encountered utopian dreams of pleasurable consumption in a new market economy? And what were the implications of my analytic interest in gender difference as a contingent and translocal social process in a community that was vigorously invested in rebuilding stable and coherent local worlds after the collective trauma of socialist transformation?

By the time that she arrived at Labrang in the mid-1990s, she found that

a decade of state-supervised tourism in the region had actually solidified a certain distance between locals and foreign visitors, in that assumptions each held about the other’s nature and interests had become anchored in stereotypes, often-cited rumours, and certain patterned interactions.

As she notes, the packaging of “ethnic culture” in the PRC under Mao and since has been much studied, and “state officials, local Tibetans, and foreigners all participated in this new commodity voyeurism in the valley”. Whereas Tibetans made up the great majority of the population in the surrounding areas, in the town itself they were outnumbered by Han and Hui residents. Labrang was

a rapidly urbanizing locale where the premises for power, value, and morality were shifting, and many residents thus deeply felt that boundaries among persons, places, and agencies were dangerously blurring.

Makley justifies her focus on gender as a key element in these multiple relationships, elaborating Goffmann’s “participation frameworks”.

Since the monastery was reopened in 1980, lamas and their monk and lay male students had been deeply invested in reframing Buddhism first and foremost as prestigious, rationalized knowledge production.

At Labrang she makes a discovery that can be observed in many cultures:

As I set out to talk with Tibetans of every stripe about local history, and their opinions about gender and ritual practices, I learned that there were no general Tibetan terms in everyday use for “religion” and “ritual” that would cover all the practices constituting the lay-monastic relationship. Tibetans across the community instead referred to a vast repertoire of efficacious practices with particular terms depending on the task to be accomplished, the target of the practice, and whether or not it conferred benefits to future lifetimes. But in the face of state regulation that divided institutionalised and Party-supervised “religion” from dangerously irrational “superstition”, what most structured this complex ritual life in Labrang was locals’ heightened insistence on a gendered social ontology that attributed highest efficacy to the rational knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist scholar-adepts initiated in the monastic system.

The attitude of a lay male Tibetan friend to her studies might also apply to the difference in approach between Western scholars of religion and anthropologists working in many cultures:

To him, my efforts to learn about ritual practices from the perspective of Tibetans at various levels of the community, and especially my interest in talking to laywomen and nuns, threatened to muddle seriously the crucial distinction between folk knowledge and authentic Buddhist knowledge. Despite his own position as a lay teacher under secular state auspices, Dargye was appalled that I was working outside the monastic contexts of initiation and oral instruction on a canon of Buddhist texts under a lama qualified to confer them, especially since Labrang was one of the few places left where one could find such a lama. In his view, any knowledge I produced through social science methods was trivial at best and mistaken at worst, and rendered suspect the quality of my scholarship.

Makley notes, and refines, the scholarly interest in “borderlands” (cf. Bloodlands, and Between East and West).

Chapter 1, “Fatherlands: mapping masculinities”, opens with the striking figure of Gompo, illustrating how new masculinities cut across regions and between lay and monastic contexts. Among many young nomad men in the town who “browsed the shops looking for necessities to take back up to the grasslands, attended public events at the monastery, or haggled prices with Hui merchants over sheep or wool they were selling”, seeking a good time by night in the bars and dance halls, Gompo modelled his image on that of fashionable Tibetan pop singers. While mentored by an old monk in the monastery, with his cosmopolitan ambitions he had spent over two years as a dancer in the “Folk Cultural Village” in distant Shenzhen—an uncomfortable experience for him.

As Makley observes, for both Tibetans and Chinese there were good reasons to reify a past that had been sealed off by the violence and destruction of the Maoist era. Exploring the competing masculine authorities of trulku reincarnate lamas and the post-reform Chinese state, she notes that historically

the most successful Tibetan trulkus were those who learned to mediate competing interests while carving out privileges and relative autonomy for their monasteries and estates.

She stresses the false dichotomy between “ritual” and “rational” contexts. Rather than a simple return to “tradition”, for Tibetan men the revival since the 1980s was “an often painful process of negotiating the essential hybridity of their positions as subordinated ethnic Others on the national margins”. As during the Maoist era, albeit now with less flagrant violence, the domestication of Tibetan men was a major aspect of the Chinese state’s “civilising project”.

Makley highlights the overarching “mandalisation” of Labrang society, viewing the grand New Year’s public rituals as the high point of exchanges between the high lamas and the wider community.

cham 1949She unpacks the multiple meanings of the cham dance ritual, “the culminating component of the greater mandalising event that was the annual Great Prayer Festival at the lunar New Year”. Following the destabilizing of the frontier zone in the wake of the decline of the Qing rule and the splintering of rule in China, in 1949 the monastery held the last cham before the Chinese occupation.

The tantric participation frameworks of such events were always amenable to misrecognition or appropriation by participants and competing agents for their own ends. […]

In effect, the Great Prayer Festival was a culminating “tournament of value” in which the circulation of the highest Buddhist values (trulku blessings, merit) provided frameworks and networks for the circulation of other values—everyone was invested, but not necessarily along preferred lines.

The conflict between sacred and secular gain was not a new feature of the reform era:

As early as 1865, the concerned ministers of the seven-year-old fourth Jamyang Shepa felt compelled to issue an edict […] warning all the monk officials and trulkus competing with one another in lucrative loan and long-distance-trade businesses not to be greedy, exploit others, or embezzle communal funds for personal profit.

After the Maoist decades, Labrang was the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the prefecture with any buildings left standing. The Great Prayer Festival there was revived in 1979. Around four hundred monks were soon allowed to return, their ranks rising to over a thousand by the mid-1990s, most of them under the age of 35. By 1985, eighty-nine monasteries had re-opened throughout the prefecture, with over five thousand monks, far exceeding state quotas.

In Chapter 2, “Father state”, Makley goes on to observe the cham ritual in 1996—by which time it had long become not just a focus for faithful locals but also a glossy attraction for Chinese tourists and state officials.

Always alert to gender issues, in her conversations with locals she considers the “heavy and often hidden” burden of the past, as forgetting became a pervasive policy of the Chinese state—not just for Tibet (see e.g. here and here). As a corrective to Chinese state propaganda, she notes that Westerners have commonly assumed the role of collecting testimonies from Tibetans about Chinese state repression; yet Tibetans themselves don’t necessarily share faith in such moralising historiography.

Under Maoism, as the ratio of Tibetans to Han and Hui settlers, and of adult Tibetan men to women, declined, among the life stories that Makley elicits are accounts of the training of female Tibetan cadres. People (notably cadres) came under pressure to replace Tibetan clothing with modern uniforms, and to wear their hair short, sacrificing their traditional headdresses. Women’s liberation under Maoism mainly involved the state exploitation of their labour. Village temples were recalled as centres for state terror during the 1950s, and resistance to the Chinese state then as virtuous. As in China, the famine resulting from collectivisation was another major aspect of their sufferings at the time.

But Makley’s discussions at Labrang also bear on the conflicts of class politics within Tibetan society as much as between Tibetans and Chinese.

I came to realise that the unspeakable among Tibetans was not just the result of state repression; it was also a marker of locals’ grapplings with the nature of their own and other Tibetans’ agency (and responsibility for) the unprecedented shape and scope of violence beginning in 1958.

We can observe a similar conflict in the memories of ordinary people in Han Chinese regions—and in many trouble zones of the world where the simple categories of oppressors and oppressed were blurred.

Makley highlights the role of the local People’s Militias,

an alternative participation framework for local young men especially, who sought social mobility to bypass their male elders.

Indeed, they played a major role in suppressing the rebellion. Moreover, as Woeser also notes, “those who had served the state well then continued to live well in the present”. One village woman, married to a man who had joined the Party in 1953 and helped suppress the 1958 rebellion, wavered between vilifying the “bad” Tibetan cadres under Maoism for their conscious actions and asserting that they weren’t really responsible. As with activists in Han China, stories about the karmic retribution of their early deaths circulated widely.

Alternative historiography among Tibetans was an ongoing and deeply gendered interpretative battle—with themselves as well as with the state.

Chapter 3, “Mother home: circumambulation, femininities, and the ambiguous mobility of women”, opens with the fanatical popular reception for the 10th Panchen Lama upon his return to Labrang in 1980.

Discussing the dilemmas posed by modernity and mobility since the reform era, Makley explores the gendered spatial politics of shifting divisions of ritual labour, and different “participation frameworks”. Here she joins the faithful (mostly women) who seek merit by circumambulating the perimeter of the monastery grounds—the “most broadly quotidian and public” ritual work at Labrang. It has apparently remained true that such important ritual activities often went unnoticed by foreign travellers (as Robert Ekvall noted in 1964); and indeed by scholars of religion, who tend to focus on discursive, logocentric expressions (cf. Adam Yuet Chau‘s comments).

The most determined of practitioners, the ones who walked so rapidly that they passed everyone else many times, were those who had ritual obligations or jawa given them by a lama, most often a trulku with a particularly close relationship to their households, whom they had approached for help with a particular problem, usually physical ailments, but also household difficulties.

The new state policies of development and consumption were seen to reflect the interests of the state. Highways in the region were primarily built to facilitate the continuing exploitation and control of the frontier, not to expedite local travel; by the early 1990s, 80% of villages were not accessible by car, and half the townships did not have paved roads. Moreover,

Dengist modernisation policies has disastrous effects on state-sponsored secular education in rural Tibetan regions, because the return to a “quality” approach to education (versus a “quantity” approach that emphasised providing basic education to the masses) channeled basic resources away from rural and primary levels toward urban and higher-education schools.


the concentration of resources on Labrang monastery supported what many locals came to see as the only good, prestigious, useful education in the region for those sons who could be spared.

But just as crucial was what Makley calls the “contesting entrepreneurships” of Tibetan masculinity.

The dream here would seem to be, in the absence of state support for secular education, to harness the taming power of Tibetan monasteries in order to recruit and sedentarise young Tibetan monks as a loyal (patrifilial) and aspiring labour force for national capitalist advance.

Yet now, by contrast with the Maoist era, young Tibetan men

could experience their communal private consumption and daily movements as appropriately (heroically) “Tibetan”, in that they allowed for a powerful sense of resistance to or transcendence of state discipline.

Meanwhile “images of Tibetan feminine cyclicity pervaded the writings, art, videos, and music of foreigners, Han, and Tibetan alike”, stressing their role as mothers and nurturers. And as in China and other societies, Tibetans still subscribed to a timeless notion distinguishing women occupying domestic spaces “inside” the household from men “outside” it, with their prestigious ritual and political affairs.

Since the 1980s, there were two competing centres at opposite ends of the valley—at one end, the rapidly revitalizing monastery, which had the highest concentration of lama-scholars in the Amdo region and was attracting hundreds of young monastics and lay worshippers from afar, and at the other, the headquarters of the Party and government of Xiahe county, whose buildings by the 1990s were rivalled in size only by the large new tourist hotels that had been erected between them and the monastery.

Makley notes the tensions in the juxtaposition of celibate monasticism and the lay communities on which it depends, with life in the town increasingly “chaotic”.

In a trend that further intensified the processes of increasing population densities, sedentarisation, and ethnic heterogeneity in the frontier zone since the founding of the monastery, Labrang by the 1990s had become a vital node in a regional movement to urbanity, a gathering place for young aspiring Tibetan men and women. Such rapid demographic shifts associated with state violence in locals’ living memory contributed to the strong sense many Lhade residents had that their valley was under siege by unprecedented numbers of non-Tibetan outsiders. […]

Like young men, young Tibetan women were increasingly drawn to the expanded horizons promised by Deng’s call to modernizing progress and agentive consumption, yet their aspirations could confront them with particularly painful dilemmas.

These themes are pursued in Chapter 4, “Consuming women: consumption, sexual politics, and the dangers of mixing”. Labrang now offered “unique opportunities for secular and monastic education, wage work, and contacts with cosmopolitan Others”, becoming “a gathering place not only for young monks and nuns but also for unmarried and ambitious young Tibetan laywomen and laymen” from surrounding rural areas and even other provinces. As in other urban centres,

a new form of commodified sexuality worked to sell not only bodies and products but also the sparkling future visions of a capitalist modernity.

Again, Makley’s discussion subsumes the periods before the Chinese occupation and under Maoism. She qualifies some common misconceptions. Monks had commonly engaged in commercial activities long before the reform era. Makley refines the contrasting images of “the transcendent power of celibate lamas in the monastery and relatively open sexuality in town”. She notes the enduring Tibetan taste for discretion, and the role of sexuality in tantrism; she cites Goldstein’s observation that the very ethic of “mass monasticism” meant that only a small minority of monks approximated the monkly ideal.

Most ordinary monks differed little from nuns except in the relative prestige attached to the various occupations they undertook to bring in income—most stopped at the novice level of vows and achieved only basic literacy.

Referring to the revival of the early 1980s, she notes one distinction:

All the monks I spoke to who entered monkhood at that time did so either on their parents’ initiative or with their enthusiastic support, and all of them were younger brothers with many (between four and nine) siblings. In contrast to nuns I interviewed, many fewer monks fled home to enter monastic life. Twelve out of eighteen nuns I spoke to who were ordained after the reforms fled home to enter the monastic life, while only two out of eighteen monks I interviewed who were ordained after the reforms had done so.


Most monks did not remain sequestered in monasteries; instead, they moved frequently between natal homes and monasteries (especially those who joined monastic communities close to home), growing up playing with lay boys, and in adulthood travelling often between monasteries on pilgrimage, monastic business, or trading missions.

Makley adduces the courtship themes of layi folk-songs, performed in ritualised contexts—and now also in bars and dance halls as prelude to commercial sexual encounters.

Again, while Tibetans seemed to subscribe to media and state laments about the apparent “chaotic” breakdown of sexual morality, they too were agents, negotiating modernities on their own terms—albeit enduringly androcentric.

The presence in the valley of foreign and urban Han women tourists, as well as of rural Tibetan laywomen and nuns, exhibited an unprecedented translocal mobility of female bodies. This had dangerously sexualised and desacralized public spaces in and outside the monastery. It had thus become paramount for local women to distinguish themselves from the unrestrained sexuality associated with tourist women, nuns, and prostitutes—even though many young laywomen in town who sought to distance themselves from commercial sex their own aspirations for independent social mobility and their desire to postpone the disproportionate burdens of marriage were precisely the motivations that were increasingly leading young women of every stripe to accept money for sex, not only in Labrang, but across the country.

Tibetan men vigorously pursued possible “modern” futures and lifestyles held out for them in the globalizing media. And

communal masculine consumption—of alcohol, food, travel funds, and cigarettes—was considered to be an essential means for building and reproducing the vital masculine networks across generations and regions that in post-Mao China provided any opportunities for social mobility or participation in commercial entrepreneurship.

In an aspect of such consumption, young men and monks frequented video halls by night—lured by the newly available soft-porn images (at first mainly of Western women, later of Chinese and other Asian models) displayed as pin-ups, on playing cards, and even on the covers of scholarly journals. Young women, including nuns, who ventured out at night risked harassment and violence.

In “the new eroticism of the frontier”, “state and local gazes converged on Tibetan women’s bodies as commodified objects both of sexual desire and efforts to contain it”.

In Chapter 5, “Monks are men too: domesticating monastic subjects”, Makley delves further into the new tensions in the claim of Gelug monkhood to transcend the polluting attachments of one’s sexual-karmic inheritance, and “the performative claim of the monastic community to have tamed lay masculinity in the service of Buddhism”.

The inherent gap between between the monk ideal and actual monk behaviour that fall far short of it was not necessarily experienced as “paradoxical” or “contradictory” for Tibetans. […]

Monkhood did not necessarily represent a “sharp division” of the male population either before or after Communist intervention.tangkha 1949

Attending the spectacular Great Prayer Festival in 1996 (for recent images, uncomplicated by reflection, see e.g. here)—just as news of the dispute over the recognition of the new Panchen Lama was circulating—Makley elicits the conflicting messages of the event for a wide range of participants, with tourists and state cadres alongside monks and lay pilgrims. The unfurling of the massive thangka became “the ritual frame for a culmination of interethnic and state-local hostilities played out in legitimized masculine violence”.

She tells the story of a committed young graduate student from rural Qinghai who had grown up hearing stories of the brave resistance to PLA military campaigns and Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. He was now struggling to find a career in which he could benefit ordinary Tibetan people.

“Heroic masculinities” are enshrined in the Gesar epic—the object of much attention from the heritage industry that hardly broaches its social life. [2] In Amdo the focus on such ritual exchanges was also evident in popular VCDs featuring mountain deities, threatening “to configure masculine loyalties and inspirations outside the disciplinary purviews of both monastery and state”. Chinese and Tibetan cadres were still frustrated by the enduring power of trulkus to mediate in feuds between tribesmen.

Amidst considerable historical latitude in monkly behaviour, even “hypermasculine” warrior monks known as dapdop could flourish, serving as a kind of monastic police force.

But despite the return to mass monasticism, Tibetans had to adapt to the emasculating power of the state. Official regulations persisted in distinguishing dutiful, “patriotic” religious activities from “superstition”:

[The monastery] must absolutely forbid such people as mediums and diviners from carrying out such activities inside Buddhist monasteries as calling deities or demons, curing illness by taming demons, or reading signs or letters, or divining in any way.

As in Han Chinese regions, prohibitions like this may alert us to the continuing activities of such folk ritual specialists.

Apart from the entrepreneurial activities of the monastery, lay offerings—in the form of money, goods, livestock, and donated labour—also constituted a vast income. Such unregulated movements of capital, and the enduring charisma of leading trulkus, represented a danger to the state.

Yet older Tibetans were disturbed to find the younger generation of men, with their new mobility, becoming lazy, selfish, and undisciplined; loitering around town, with a propensity for violence.

As Makley recognises, monks and nuns commonly claimed to be motivated by the exalted study of Buddhism. But they too were part of an increasingly venal society. And since those monks who were more devoted to their studies tended not to perform ritual services for wages, locals often requested such services from the ranks of those not within assemblies. But to wear a monk’s robes no longer conferred automatic respect.

* * *

So we can ignore neither the vast revival since the 1980s nor the ongoing tensions. As a particularly visible, accessible site, Labrang is not “typical”. But all these stories reveal not a simple conflict between pious lamas and a cruel state, but conflicts, and agency, at all levels of a diverse society amidst constant change. Indeed, as I noted in my first post on Labrang, unrest has intensified since 2008. [1]

We may now bear in mind Makley’s perspectives to assess online representations, such as this clip of the cham ritual dance in 2015:

See also Women in Tibetan expressive culture.

[1] Here I mainly cite descriptive passages, homing in on the ethnographic detail rather than the densely-argued theoretical sections. The latter are anyway hard to encapsulate, but it’s also my personal choice. It’s always a challenge to balance narrative and theory (cf. my review of Emily Ng’s book on spirit mediums in Henan). I don’t always find this an issue: for instance, Jing Jun manages to incorporate theoretical discussion readably (see also A forfeit for theorists). So here I’m not so much criticising Makley’s style as querying the wider anthropological discipline to which she belongs—in which jargon, compounded by lengthy in-text references, may seem to exert a new kind of, um, hegemony, substituting another alien vocabulary for that of the CCP. All this can make the text rather heavy going to negotiate, particularly early on. This concerns me since it’s such an astute analysis of a great topic, deserving a wider readership.

[2] For Western-language sources on Gesar, see §6 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography, and more recently the work of Timothy Thurston, such as this. Within the PRC, Gesar studies have long been popular, expanding into a major field since the 1980s; yet as Sangye Dhondup suggests in his review of Tibetan and Chinese sources, the important dimension of ritual performance in society has still received little attention. See also under Yumen here.

Labrang 1: representing Tibetan ritual culture

When I rashly venture to comment on the cultures of ethnic minorities within the PRC such as those of Tibetans and Uyghurs, I’m always acutely conscious of my background in Han-Chinese culture. But inspired by the impressive scholarship on modern Tibet that has developed since the 1980s, here I recall a 2002 UK tour of monks from the Labrang monastery; and as some issues become clearer to me, you can blame the wonders of the internet that I can now revisit various ideas.

Background: Amdo and Labrang
Of the three main regions within the PRC where Tibetan people live (TAR, Amdo, and Kham), there’s a growing body of research on the changing society of Amdo, such as

  • Toni Huber (ed.), Amdo Tibetans in transition: society and culture in the post-Mao era (2002)
  • Yangdon Dondhup, Ulrich Pagel, and Geoffrey Samuel (eds) , Monastic and lay traditions of north-eastern Tibet (2013)
  • Jarmila Ptackova and Adrian Zenz (eds), Mapping Amdo: dynamics of change (2017)
  • Ute Wallenboeck, Bianca Horlemann, and Jarmila Ptáčková (eds), Mapping Amdo: dynamics of power (2019)
  • the Amdo Research Network and its conference proceedings
  • many articles by Kevin Stuart’s team, listed in ch.2 here
  • the work of Gerald Roche.

Labrang map Makley

Source: Makley, The violence of liberation.

Labrang monastery, [1] in Sangchu (Xiahe) county of Gansu province, was founded as recently as 1709—with a strong Mongol influence. As the Muslim warlord Ma clan became powerful, by the time of the Chinese occupation in 1950 the whole area had already been a site for “decades of brutal clashes between state and local Han, Hui, and Tibetans fighting for regional control, revenge, and, increasingly, ethnic hatred”. [2]

Still, after the Chinese occupation, having “witnessed different Chinese regimes come and go”, the Labrang monks accepted the Communists at first, [3] and religious life there continued until resistance to Chinese policy flared widely in the late 1950s.

By the fall of 1958 in Labrang, the monastery was looted and closed, most Tibetan guerrillas had been captured or killed, and almost two-thirds of the thirty-five hundred resident monks were imprisoned or in labour camps. The rest of the monks were returned to lay life; worship was forbidden, and rural regions were reorganised into communes.

Monastic activity revived briefly from 1962 to 1965 before the further calamity of the Cultural Revolution. With the reforms from 1979, as young Tibetan men flocked to become monks and religious activities resumed on a large scale, the major monasteries also became exotic destinations for Chinese and foreign tourists; a variety of changes continued to occur throughout Labrang society, based on market reforms under the all-powerful Chinese state. While apparently a showcase for the cultural and economic revival of Tibetan culture, such monasteries are not only centres for worship but potential sites of conflict and resistance, and life there is always sensitive and tightly surveilled. [4]

For instance, Labrang monks took part in the widespread protests of 2008, and self-immolations (common in Tibetan areas since 2009) took place there in 2012. [5]

Labrang has been the focus of some fine ethnographic work since the revival of the 1980s; the work of Charlene Makley stands out, notably her book

  • The violence of liberation: gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China (2007), to which I devote a separate post,

and a wealth of articles, such as

  • “Gendered practices and the inner sanctum: the reconstruction of Tibetan sacred space in ‘China’s Tibet’ “, The Tibet journal 19.2 (1994), and
  • “The politics of memory: gender, autobiography and Maoist violence in Amdo”, in Fernanda Pirie and Toni Huber (eds), Conflict and social order in Tibet and Inner Asia (2008).

Soundscape, research, recordings
Such issues are basic to life at monasteries like Labrang, forming the context for ritual practice and its soundscape. However, music scholars within the PRC can still hardly offer detached analyses of modern social and political issues; their writings tend to look reified and timeless at best, and this is even more the case with their studies of minorities like Tibetan and Uyghur cultures. At the same time, they have at least done fieldwork documenting the diversity of local traditions that remained largely inaccessible to foreign scholars.

A subsidiary theme is how such traditions are packaged for the concert platform. Within the PRC, the touring Labrang group was among “temple music troupes” formed from the late 1980s to showcase Buddhist and Daoist “music”. They performed for an important 1990 Beijing festival of religious music, conceived by Tian Qing 田青, leading promoter of such traditions, though he was then “indisposed”. In seeking to document religious traditions throughout China, Tian Qing’s work was sincere, based in his Buddhist faith. [6]

As in all Tibetan monasteries, ritual practice at Labrang is based on vocal liturgy, with percussion, shawms and long trumpets. But by contrast with the more austere logocentric practices of Gelug monasticism in central Tibet, Labrang was renowned for exhibiting a wider range of performing arts.

Labrang CD cover

Most recordings of Tibetan monastic music feature groups in Bhutan, Ladakh, and India. In 1995 [7] Tian Qing recorded a CD at Labrang for the French label Ocora (with his notes adapted by François Picard), including brief selections of vocal liturgy (##2–6, 19) and dramatic music (##12–18)—as well as the dodar ensemble (rendered in Chinese as daode’er) (##7–11), derived from Chinese shengguan ritual music (see here, under “Ritual associations on the Hebei plain”) in its instrumentation, repertoire, melody, and style.

Dodar was already one of the showcases for Labrang ritual as it came to be presented on stage—though within the overall soundscape of Tibetan monastic liturgy the genre plays only a tiny role in a few of the major monasteries, such as Tibetan temples in Wutaishan and old Beijing (both being possible sources of the dodar music of Labrang); Chengde in northeast Hebei, and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia; and nearer Labrang, at the monasteries of Kumbum and Domkar.

The Panchen Lamas, and the succession crisis
Whether by design or coincidence, it’s ironic that the dodar ensemble became Labrang’s main musical claim to wider fame, since it derives from Han Chinese culture. Moreover, it had been performed at Labrang since the 18th century to welcome the ceremonial visits of the monastery’s own Jamyang Shepa lineage and revered trulku high lamas from elsewhere—including successive incarnations of the Panchen Lama, whose tense relationship with the Chinese state may remind us that music such as the dodar ensemble is part of a powerful political force-field.

Left: struggle session against the Panchen Lama, 1964 (source: wiki).
Right: the Panchen Lama blessing believers at the Jokhang temple, Lhasa 1982
(source here).

Following the Chinese occupation, the 10th Panchen Lama (1938–89) made ceremonial visits to Labrang in 1951 and 1955; but after writing a major denunciation in 1962 of the terrible ravages caused by Chinese policy in Tibetan regions, he was then detained until 1977. Along with the religious revival following the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1980 and 1982 he visited Labrang again during his first appearances in Tibetan regions for nearly two decades. He was rapturously received everywhere—unlike his eventual successor.

Following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, both the Tibetan government in exile and the Chinese government started parallel processes in a six-year-long search to identify his successor. By 1995 the Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (b.1989) as the 11th Panchen Lama; but the Chinese state promptly “disappeared” him—the world’s youngest political prisoner. As the Chinese installed their own candidate, Gyaincain Norbu (b.1990), they put influential lamas under sustained pressure to recognise him and denounce the Dalai Lama’s choice—pressure so intense that Arjia Rinpoche, abbot of Kumbum monastery near Labrang, defected to the USA in 1998.

The Chinese also assigned a high lama from Labrang to serve as Gyaincain Norbu’s tutor. However, most Tibetans, and monks—in Labrang, Kumbum, and elsewhere—remained loyal to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama’s choice. Labrang monks resisted planned visits of the puppet Panchen Lama; amidst ongoing unrest, monks continued to protest in 2011.

Dodar, and the Anthology
So that’s just by way of illustrating the troubled modern political context to the ceremonial function of the dodar ensemble.

While the repertoire is small, it is notated in a rare Tibetan mnemonic form, perhaps a version of Chinese gongche solfeggio. In all, it makes an intriguing byway within the broad Tibetan monastic soundscape.

Labrang JC score

Even within Han-Chinese ritual, the shengguan wind ensemble was the most popular theme of research—giving a misleading impression of ritual practice, where it plays a subsidiary role to vocal liturgy and ritual percussion. Within the soundscape of Tibetan ritual, it clearly played an even more minor part. Still, it made an attractive counterpoint—even once began taking geopolitical factors into account.

And the Labrang touring programme evolved: apart from dodar, they also featured excerpts from vocal liturgy and the regional opera namthar—the latter no mere attempt by state authorities at secular dilution, but representing another popular aspect of the real soundscape at Labrang, adding further to the sonic variety for audiences.

Meanwhile regional collectors were busily compiling the Gansu volume of the Anthology for instrumental music (cf. here), eventually published (in Chinese!) in 1997, containing the most comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the Labrang monastic soundscape, written by regional cultural worker Hao Yi 郝毅. [8]

Labrang JC 1

Top: the dodar ceremonial ensemble; below, the New Year’s rituals.

Labrang JC 2

New Year’s rituals, including the cham dance.

Apparently innocent images like these may seem to serve as propaganda for the CCP’s liberal religious policies since the reforms; but while the revival of ritual life was indeed remarkable, it was under close control.

I don’t doubt that the fieldwork of all these regional and central scholars was well-meaning; yet they were inevitably affected by the political climate, and such presentations entered a contested field. In particular, the showcasing of the Labrang group on stage could hardly help seeming like a display of “ethnic unity”, a tool of propaganda—which would convince more audiences in China than abroad.

Meanwhile from exile, Tibetan monastic groups such as Tashilunpo, Drepung, and Gyuto were well received on tours of the West, presenting an image of a culture that had been decimated since the Chinese occupation.

Now I’m curious to learn how the actual soundscape of vocal liturgy at Labrang may have changed over the long term; and indeed how the monastic liturgy of Tibetan monasteries within the PRC compares to similar traditions in exile.

After helping BBC Radio 3 with the visit of former Buddhist monks from Wutaishan in 1992, I had gone on to work with Asian Music Circuit in arranging UK tours of a Buddhist group from Tianjin (1993) and a Daoist group from Suzhou (1994).

Such concert performances always make a compromise, reducing the complexity of ritual life in changing local society to a brief staged presentation; but for Western audiences they can still open a window onto little-known traditions (cf. concert tours with the Li family Daoists). The Labrang group had already performed in France in 1997; in 2002 a UK tour was proposed.

This came soon after we had been wrestling with thorny issues about the representation of “Tibetan music” in the New Grove encyclopedia. In addition to editing the New Grove articles on China, I was responsible (along with Carole Pegg, general editor for the ethnomusicological entries) for pulling together the sections on Tibetan music—much in need of updating since Peter Crossley-Holland’s 1980 article, which focused on exile communities at a time when little, if anything, appeared to remain to document under the CCP yoke, rather as Taiwan then seemed the only surviving location to study Chinese tradition (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Given the vast revival since the 1980s, and the extensive fieldwork documenting local genres, it no longer seemed suitable to portray Tibetan culture only through the lens of the exile communities. So I was hoping to find scholars who could reflect the persistent vitality of performing arts among Tibetans within the PRC, where most of them still lived; many of these traditions had hardly been studied.

The issue of who is entitled to represent a culture is a common one around the world. As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology is one where scholars are commonly outsiders to the traditions they research; indeed, they are often members of a society that oppresses the culture in question.

The younger Chinese scholar Wu Ben had already broached the disparate approaches in

  • “Representation of Tibetan music East and West: the state of the field” (MA, Pittsburgh 1995), abbreviated as “Music scholarship, West and East: Tibetan music as a case study”, Asian music 29.2 (1998).

The senior PRC scholar Tian Liantao 田联韬 (b.1930), an indefatigable fieldworker, had an unmatched overview of the diverse genres. When we learned of the article that he had published in a Japanese update of the New Grove, we invited him to send a draft. He went to great lengths to provide a substantial article, with maps, many photos, a glossary, and a lengthy bibliography. [9]

To me this looked more promising than commissioning a scholar with little or no grasp of fieldwork among Tibetans within the PRC. But some at Grove still feared that it might not be PC to invite a Chinese scholar to write about Tibet. While I observed that Tian Liantao shouldn’t be tarred with the brush of his government, it was eventually decided that instead of publishing his work we would create a composite article with contributions from various scholars.

Fortunately Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy glided in to steady the ship; with her experience of fieldwork both within the PRC and among exile communities, she had a balanced view, and I learned much from a lively correspondence with her. While the expertise of most of the authors eventually chosen was still among exile groups, Isabelle’s own substantial sections (with Tsereng Dhondup) introduced living genres in TAR, Amdo, and Kham; and in the bibliography we were able to suggest something of the energy of research within the PRC. For the result, see here.

Meanwhile the Garland encyclopedia of world music plumped for a single author, Mao Jizeng 毛继增 (b.1932)—the other senior Chinese authority on Tibetan music. He had studied Tibetan music ever since 1956, when he was part of a team from the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing chosen to do a field survey in Tibet.

The MRI’s great fieldwork projects of the 1950s took place under challenging conditions, but nowhere so much as in Tibet. At that time, as Mao Jizeng recalled, conditions were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa—where he carried a revolver for protection. Inevitably, the growing desperation of Tibetans at the time is entirely absent from the resulting publications, such as his 1959 article “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”—a strong contender for Most Ironic Title Ever. [10]

Mao Jizeng’s work, while also extensive, could hardly offer a balanced perspective palatable to the wider world. In translation his Garland article is not only bland, but its sinocentrism is paraded by leaving terms and names in pinyin without conversion into Wylie.

While it’s important to acknowledge the work of scholars within the PRC such as Tian Liantao and Mao Jizeng, who have themselves cultivated Tibetan students, the whole subject clearly belongs within the rubric of Tibetan studies. Tibetan scholars within the PRC have been active, even if their approaches are inevitably shaped by Chinese methodologies.

Now that Charlene Makley and others have published substantial work on the troubled modern history of the Labrang region, the work of music scholars looks paltry in the extreme—as if “music” were indeed an autonomous zone.

By 2017 Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy produced a lengthy, outstanding Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts; and while doing a post-doc with her, the Beijing-trained Sangye Dhondup gave a thoughtful bibliographical review of the state of the field within the PRC, including studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars:

  • “Looking back at Tibetan performing arts research by Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China: advocating for an anthropological approach”, Revue d’études Tibétaines 40 (2017).

The UK tour
Anyway, I wasn’t responsible for initiating the 2002 Labrang tour, but I found myself closely involved. I was aware that it might be rather controversial to bring a Tibetan group from within the PRC to the UK; whereas scholars were already elaborating nuanced approaches towards the painful revival of Tibetan culture under CCP rule, British audiences might take a simple anti-Chinese stance.

Labrang tour poster

So as the tour approached I consulted Isabelle again—as well as Charlene Makley, who was already deeply engaged in fieldwork around Labrang, then still in progress. She had already expressed the main issues cogently in reviewing a concert at Ann Arbor by a group from TIPA in Dharamsala, showcase of Tibetan culture in exile:

  • Performing authenticity: Tibetan song-and-dance ensemble makes its argument”, Journal of the International Institute 4.2 (1997).

Though agendas have changed substantially since then, both within TIPA and the PRC, Makley’s points seemed to bear on the Labrang dilemma. She observes the audience’s delight at the diverse snippets presented in the TIPA performance;

But free of politics it was not. For there is an irony to such performances which is lost on American audiences. They are at once openly political and meant to demonstrate an apolitical, changeless Tibetan culture. They are meant to inform, yet they elide as much as they reveal. They are meant to display a Tibetan space completely different from a Chinese one, and yet in this context, these performances are inseparable from the fierce struggles with the Chinese since the reforms of 1980 over the ability to display and control what is “authentic” Tibetan culture. The stakes of this struggle over authenticity must be seen in the context of two competing nationalisms, one backed by the immense and powerful Chinese state apparatus fueled by recent market reforms [for Chinese propaganda on the “Tibet issue”, see e.g. this 2001 report from the Tibet Information Network], the other embattled and stateless, attempting to maintain its appeal to youth growing up within larger Hindi and Euro-American cultures. Tibetan traveling road shows are a microcosm of this struggle because both Tibetan and Chinese nationalists must present their claims of sovereignty to the international community in order to shore up their opposing nationalisms by winning not only moral support but also crucial financial aid and investment from wealthier countries.

And she notes that the terms of the struggle had changed:

Despite the violent repression of political dissidents, most Tibetans in China have been able to return to religious activities and the creative arts within new limits imposed by the state. A generation of Tibetans has now grown up under Chinese rule, and among them the performing arts are again flourishing. Amateur folk troupes organized privately by Tibetans far outnumber state-run “professional” troupes in most Tibetan regions, and most are run by those dedicated to reviving “traditional” Tibetan performing arts.

In the early 1980s Tibetan performers from within China started to visit the international stage, and Tibetan exiles and their supporters protested the Chinese state’s use of these troupes to demonstrate Tibetans’ “happy” acceptance of Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, in a review of the 1992 European tour of Tibetan drama troupes from Lhasa, the Beijing Review reported that the audiences applauded the PRC flag held by the Tibetan performers, and that all Tibetan members supported the People’s Republic of China. […]

Indeed, the main purpose of TIPA from its founding in 1959 has been to preserve “authentic” Tibetan performing arts and to train performers and teachers in them. This was never more necessary than during the starkly brutal Chinese state violence against Tibetans in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Tibetans faced nothing less than forced assimilation. But the context of a more open China in recent years has generated new difficulties for TIPA’s project, and new ironies accompanying its claims. For TIPA’s performances are no less nationalist than those sponsored by the Chinese (the performance ended with the display of the Tibetan flag and national anthem, for which the audience was asked to rise). And nationalisms, because they must represent an “imagined community” encompassing disparate interest groups, by their very nature must present a selective “truth” in order to convince foreigners and natives alike.

If the nationalist arguments hinge on the issue of “authenticity,” then Tibetan “culture” must be portrayed to audiences by both sides as a timeless, unchanging essence. Tibetan exile activists seek to unmask Chinese attempts to portray Tibetan performances as the essence of an unchanged Tibetan culture — “the time,” says Jamyang Dorje, “for cheating Western audiences is gone.” Hence, the threat to Tibetan performing arts is represented as if it were exclusively from “sinicization” (in the form of ballet-like acrobatic movements, high-pitched falsetto singing of Peking opera, and the rearrangement of plot and lyrics to reflect Chinese themes and nationalist propaganda). Yet no mention is ever made of the influences of Hindi or Euro-American cultures on Tibetan performers growing up in India, Europe or North America.

The final irony of these most recent struggles between Chinese and exiled Tibetans over “authentic” Tibetan culture is that Tibetan performers within China, acting within the more open climate to revive Tibetan performing arts, must be portrayed by exiled activists as victims of Chinese state coercion. Their performances are seen to be “less Tibetan,” because they are seen to be automatons in state-run troupes, told what to perform by their leaders. Yet, exiled activists do not distinguish between state-run troupes in China and the far more numerous amateur folk troupes. Nevertheless, both types of troupes have in the past decade and a half been the source of much creativity among Tibetans, and the site of the reaffirmation of Tibetan identity and even resistance. How should such performers, who have had opportunities to travel and perform abroad, be distinguished from Tibetans who are mere “dupes” of the state? And if Tibetan culture is seen to be an unchanging essence, is the creativity of Tibetan performers in China (or elsewhere for that matter) who seek new forms or new syntheses of traditional forms to express themselves then unworthy of international support? […]

If Chinese nationalist claims about Tibetan culture are to be subjected to analysis, then so too must those of Tibetan nationalists. For claims to authenticity on both sides elide painful realities the international community should know about and consider carefully. How in these changed times should European and North American sponsors and activists support all Tibetans as they struggle to live and create amidst both increased opportunity and great adversity?

Still discussing the presentation of secular genres, Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reflected further on propaganda, folklore, pop music, and modernity in

  • Performing Tibet: on the role of traditional and modern performing arts in the making of contemporary Tibetan identities” (2005).

Such issues are even more apposite for presenting “monastic music” on stage. For the Chinese state such a tour might serve to further their claim to liberal, enlightened cultural policies—with what success, it was hard to say. At the same time, it doesn’t seem suitable on such tours to encourage concert audiences to round on the hapless monks as an object of righteous Free Tibet recriminations.

Anyway, I provided brief, bland programme notes, with terms in Wylie rather than pinyin. And I made a paltry attempt to assuage my self-inflicted guilt at being tarred with the Chinese brush by going to some lengths to ascertain the Tibetan names of the monks for inclusion in the notes, rather than the pinyin versions provided by Chinese officials.

After a concert in Antwerp, the Labrang group performed in Llangollen, Huddersfield, Torrington, Stoke-on-Trent, Southampton, Brighton—and in London at SOAS, where an opening speech in Tibetan went down well with the assembled Amdo expats.

Indeed, the tour seemed to avoid pitfalls quite successfully. For better or worse, there were no demonstrations from Free Tibet activists; audiences didn’t appear to regard it as mere propaganda for Chinese policy; and it provided a rare opportunity to hear diverse and largely unknown soundscapes.

* * *

In 2004, soon after the Labrang tour, Asian Music Circuit, perhaps in a spirit of balance, invited TIPA from Dharamsala to perform some wonderful Tibetan opera—a further challenge to my Chinese connection, as I’ll relate in another post.

Scholarship on Tibetan society and culture has moved on apace since then; but repression continues, sparking protest and self-immolations.

Anyway, that’s the kind of tightrope on which such concert performances often have to teeter; it’s pertinent to unpack these issues when we attend any Tibetan performance by either PRC or exile groups. And meanwhile, religious life persists—under the ever-closer scrutiny of the Xi Jinping regime—throughout TAR, Amdo, and Kham, together with a wealth of folk genres along the sacred–secular continuum.

With thanks to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy and Tsereng Dondhup

[1] For Labrang’s early history, see e.g. Paul Kocot Nietupski, Labrang monastery: a Tibetan Buddhist community on the Inner Asian borderlands, 1709–1958 (2011), and his photo essays for 1921–49, Labrang: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations (1999).

[2] This and the following indented quote come from Charlene Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.62 and 95.

[3] Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999), p.137; see also pp.35, 270.

[4] See e.g. Tibet Watch, “Tibet’s ‘intolerable’ monasteries: the role of monasteries since 1950” (2016), with a section on Labrang; Martin Slobodnik, “Destruction and revival: the fate of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Labrang in the People’s Republic of China”, Religion, state and society 32.1 (2004); and this 2013 NYT article.

[5] See e.g. Robert Barnett here, Woeser here, and this from the International Campaign for Tibet. For self-immolations throughout Tibetan areas, see herehere, and for an anthropological approach, here. Monks from Labrang were among many who continued making their way into exile; as Makley learned (The violence of liberation, p.313), by around 1998 one single monastery in south India housed over a hundred of them (cf. Slobodnik, “Destruction and revival”, p.13 and n.44).

[6] Among many other instances of Tian Qing’s patronage are Wutaishan, folk Buddhist ritual from Tianjin, and the blind bards of Zuoquan. See also his interview with Ian Johnson.

[7] Also in 1995, Ngawang Choephel (b.1966) was arrested while documenting folk traditions in Tibet. After graduating from TIPA in Dharamsala, he studied music and film-making in the USA from 1993; returning to Tibet to do fieldwork, he was sentenced to 18 years for unspecified “espionage” activities. Following his release in 2002 he went on to complete his film Tibet in song.

[8] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Gansu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 甘肃卷, text pp.1003–28, 1103–05, transcriptions pp.1071–95, original Tibetan scores pp. 1096–1105. Brief Chinese articles (see refs. in my Folk music of China, p.31) focus on the notation. On dodar, Tsereng Dondhup has now co-authored a volume in Tibetan (awaiting formal publication), with new transcriptions.

[9] For a taste of Tian Liantao’s work, he recorded and wrote clear notes for the CD Achelhamo Celestial Female: parts from Tibetan opera (Pan, 1996), with excerpts of achelhamo from Lhasa and namthar from Amdo recorded respectively in 1983 and 1986.

[10] Mao Jizeng 毛继增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏无处不是歌——民族音乐采访札记 Renmin yinyue 1959.5. For an unexpectedly verbose diatribe on this slight article, see here. Apart from his many publications, note his 6-CD anthology of genres within TAR (Wind Records, 1994) Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (reviewed here by Mireille Helffer). He went on to do fieldwork in Xinjiang, with similar methods and results.

Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

Woeser cover

This is an extraordinary book:

  • Tsering Woeser, Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (2020).

It’s a thoughtfully-revised version of the Chinese edition, first published in Taiwan in 2006 (Weise 唯色, Shajie 杀劫). The English text results from the effective team work of Woeser, editor Robert Barnett, and translator Susan T. Chen.

Forbidden memory contains some three hundred images, mostly photos taken by Woeser’s father Tsering Dorje at the height of the Cultural Revolution from 1966­–68, complemented by her own illuminating comments and detailed essays. While the focus is on the first two years of extreme violence, the book is not merely the record of a brief aberration: it contains rich detail both on the previous period and the situation since the end of the Cultural Revolution, as Woeser pursues the story right through to the 21st century. Using her father’s old camera, she went on take photos of the same locations in Lhasa in 2012. Some of the material also appears on the High Peaks Pure Earth website (links here and here).

Tsering Dorje (1937–91) was born in Kham to a Chinese father and a Tibetan mother. In 1950, aged 13, he was recruited to the PLA on their push towards Lhasa. By the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was a mid-ranking PLA officer, working in a military propaganda unit as a photographer. [1] In 1970 he was purged, transferred to a post in the People’s Armed Forces Department in Tawu county in his native Kham, 600 miles east of Lhasa. He returned to Lhasa in 1990, serving as a deputy commander of the Lhasa Military Subdistrict under the Tibet Military District, but died there the following year, still only in his mid-fifties.

His daughter Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966; while her first language as a child was Tibetan, she received a Chinese education, and writes in Chinese. Having graduated from university in Chengdu, she worked as a reporter and editor while writing poetry. Through the 1990s she became increasingly sensitive to the plight of the Tibetan people, and though working under severe limitations, she has managed to keep publishing. [2] As the book’s Introduction comments, while she is openly critical of China’s policies in Tibet,

many of the issues that she raises, at least in this book, are criticisms of China’s cultural policies in Tibet rather than its claim to sovereignty.

Most of the book’s images come from Lhasa—which, of course, doesn’t represent the wider fate of Tibetans in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), Amdo, and Kham (covering large areas of the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan respectively), all deeply scarred by the Chinese takeover.

After a Foreword by Wang Lixiong, Robert Barnett, most lucid and forensic of scholars on modern Tibet, provides a substantial introduction.

The “grotesque forms of humiliation and violence” presented in the book are a forbidden memory indeed. Explaining the importance of the images in the book, Barnett notes that most of the information previously available was based on the accounts of “new arrivals” into exile since the 1980s, some of whom published accounts of their experiences during the Cultural Revolution—

Yet most of these writers had been in prison throughout the Cultural Revolution years and so had seen little of what took place on streets or in homes beyond the prison walls, events which in certain ways were worse outside the prison than in. And no one outside Tibet had seen photographs of revolutionary violence and destruction there.

For China as for Tibet, several scholars note that it’s misleading to take the Cultural Revolution as a shorthand for the whole troubled three decades of Maoism—as if those years of extreme violence were a momentary aberration in an otherwise tranquil period. Barnett gives a useful historical summary of China’s involvement with Tibet—before the 1950 invasion, succinctly exposing the flaws in the Chinese claim for sovereignty since ancient times; the relatively benign early 1950s, and the escalating destruction from the late 50s, culminating in the 1959 escape of the Dalai Lama; widespread hardship, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution; the liberal reforms since the early 1980s, and recurrent outbreaks of unrest since. [3]

Tsering Dorje’s photos

stand as artworks in their own right and as exceptional sources or provocateurs of knowledge. That is, they tell us not only information about the images they contain, but, like any work of art, point to moral and philosophical questions that go to the heart of the Chinese socialist attempt to construct or reconstruct Tibetan history and modernity. Woeser points to many of these issues in her comments—Which of these pictures were posed for the photographer? What were the participants really thinking but could not show? And, necessarily of special urgency for her, what did her father really feel about the often brutal and unprecedented events he was capturing with his camera?

So why did Woeser’s father take these photos? She wonders if it was to resist forgetting. It was clearly not to expose abuses; nor merely because he was a keen photographer. Barnett is always attuned to visual images and their messages (and we should all learn from his former courses at Columbia, here and here; see also §§11 and 12 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s fine bibliography on the performing arts in Tibet). He points to two images (figs.9 and 21) where we see individuals who appear disengaged from the central action.

The aesthetic precision of these photographs itself provokes the question as to what is outside the borders of the image. For example, where are the Chinese? […] Were they just outside the frame, did they inform and shape those actions in some way from afar, had Tibetan activists by that time learnt to initiate and run these actions without them, or had Tibetan culture changed so as to incorporate and naturalize such actions? […]

All of Tsering Dorje’s photographs have this bivocal quality, telling two stories at the same time, and leaving Woeser unable to resolve her fundamental question about how her father viewed the events that he turned into lyrical images of socialist achievement. [4]

Barnett makes another important point:

She is clearly an engaged and committed writer, but, read carefully, she appears to be arguing almost the opposite of the conventional advocate for Tibet or the typical opponent of the socialist project. Clearly, she is appalled at what was done in the name of that creed, both to the individuals involved and to the nation and the culture that were its targets. But she is unusually careful to avoid saying that Tibetans had no responsibility for the atrocities that occurred. She does not remove the moral burden from their new rulers or avoid the unstated but obvious implication that Chinese rule involved unusually oppressive domination. But neither does she lift the moral burden from Tibetan participants or depict them, as is done in much of the writing on this topic by foreigners and exiles, as victims only: they are participants in the events that she describes, involved in very complex situations, which might or might not be in some way of their own making. Indeed, at least twice she makes the point that in certain issues during this period (such as adherence to one or other faction) ethnicity was not a factor. This already distances her from more simplistic polemics on this topic.

But she goes further than that: she also declines to say that Tibetans shown as happy in these photographs were always faking that emotion. She has no reluctance in stating that in many cases, particularly at the outset of the Chinese arrival in Tibet, ordinary Tibetans welcomed reforms and social changes at that time. As far as one can tell, she is not criticizing socialism as such, or even land reform and radical social redistribution. Her criticism is of the barbarities—cultural, historic, and cognitive as well as physical—that occurred as the socialist project in Tibet progressed. She presents a strongly critical perspective toward China’s record in Tibet and its social experimentation there, but much of her effort is not so much the chronicling of abuse as an attempt to understand what led people to become involved in their perpetration. “Why,” Woeser asks of the unknown woman hacking golden finials on the roof of the Jokhang temple, “did she seemingly believe that turning the past to ruins would give birth to a bright new world?”. The question remains unanswered, but, like so many of these photographs and their captions, it challenges us to try to understand the ideological constructions of the time that made such actions seem natural and even necessary to so many participants, both the rulers and the ruled.

These distinctions, undeclared though they are, are important ones, because we can imagine that they could have offered some common ground between her and her father, the search for which is clearly the underlying project of Forbidden Memory. In that sense, Woeser’s work is not just about exploring through the criticism of excess the possibilities for reconciliation between herself and her father, but also about searching for a shared space between herself, a person brought up as Chinese, and China, a nation that has chosen to forget much of what was excessive and abusive in its past and its treatment of Tibetans. As such, Woeser’s appeal to remember a painful history can also be seen as an unstated suggestion that the acknowledgement of previous abuse and suffering could offer a route toward potential reconciliation between the Tibetan people and the state of which they are now a part. Her father’s photographs cannot in themselves change political history or reshape the future, but, her work seems to suggest, they can open up a discussion and perhaps even a healing of the underlying wounds and pain that have marked Tibet’s calamitous encounter with China since the 1950s.

The galleries
The images are presented in eleven galleries under five headings. In describing the scenes, Woeser’s own illuminating comments amount to a detailed chronicle of the whole period. Far from an impersonal panorama of suffering, she attempts to identify the people shown in the photos, both victims and their tormentors, often seeking them out many years later. And she refers to the succession of incidents since the reform era.

The first group of galleries is headed “Smash the old Tibet! The Cultural Revolution arrives”. The first photos are from 1964, five years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. In these images

traditional ways of life are still evident—we see monks, former aristocrats, and religious ceremonies that appear to be functioning normally. Their focus, however, is on the excitement of socialist construction.

  • Gallery 1, “On the eve of the storm”


Fig.6: A debating session during the Monlam Chenmo festival, 1964.

  • Gallery 2, “The sacking of the Jokhang”. Wondering “Who is to be blamed?”, Woeser later interviewed several participants and eyewitnesses, going on to pursue the later history of the Jokhang..

According to one source, over 2,700 monasteries were active in TAR [NB] before 1959, 550 by 1966; by 1976 only eight were still standing.


Fig.35: The Great Courtyard in the Jokhang immediately after the “revolutionary action” of August 24, 1966.

Woeser’s text:

The courtyard had traditionally been used for monks attending the annual Monlam Chenmo. Those from Drepung Monastery would sit in the middle while those from other monasteries would sit in the cloisters and in the gallery. The Dalai Lama would come down from the Sun Chamber, the viewing chamber that looked down on the courtyard from the upper floor, to take part in the prayer gathering, seated on a golden throne on the left side of the courtyard.

It was in this courtyard that armed police beat and arrested scores of monks during the Monlam Chenmo of 1988. Long queues still form there during religious festivals when pilgrims come to the temple from all over Tibet, but increasing restrictions by the authorities mean the privately sponsored ceremonies once held there now rarely if ever occur.

  • Gallery 3 “Denouncing the ox-demon-snake-spirits”. We now move on to the human targets of the destruction. As Woeser comments:

Some were religious figures, statesmen, or military officers of the Tibetan government prior to the 1950s; others were merchants, landlords who owned rural estates, or managers working for those landlords. They were denounced and humiliated in mass assemblies, struggle parades, and smaller struggle sessions organized by various Neighborhood Committees. […]

The outcomes for some of those in these photographs were insanity, illness, or death. Some of them died back then, others passed away in the years after the Cultural Revolution was over. Not many of them are still around. Among the survivors, some have gone abroad, while those who have stayed put have been awarded new roles: they became “United Front personages,” with paid positions in the TAR Political Consultative Conference, the People’s Congress, or the local branch of the Buddhist Association. Once appointed, for the sake of self-protection, they all have to serve as décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies.

As ever, Woeser goes to great lengths to identify the people in the photos.


Fig.58: the Tenth Demo Rinpoche paraded with his wife. From a major lineage of reincarnated lamas, he was also the first photographer in Tibet—the camera slung around his neck was meant as “criminal evidence” of his foreign connections and his nature as a reactionary element.

In fig.66, a former aristocrat-official has been made to carry a case of gleaming knives and forks, probably to show “that he was a member of the exploiting class, living a life of luxury and corruption”, and perhaps that the family was close to Westerners—evidence of treason.

A series of images (figs.67­–75) show the parading of Dorje Phagmo, best-known of the female trulku reincarnate lamas in Tibet.


Fig.68: Dorje Phagmo, flanked by her parents.

She had been hailed across China as a “patriot,” having returned to Tibet soon after following the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959; she had even been received by Mao in Beijing, and back in Lhasa was granted high official positions. And after the end of the Cultural Revolution she was again given government posts, often appearing in TV reports of official meetings.

In Fig.85 the involvement of Woeser’s father in the events becomes even more disturbing:

The photograph captures a moment when Pelshi Po-la, staring without expression at the camera lens, must have momentarily exchanged eye contact with the PLA official behind the view finder of the camera: my father.

The reflections prompted by such images almost recall representations of the Crucifixion.

This gallery concludes with fine essays on “ox-demons-snake-spirits”; the diversification of activists as they manufactured “class struggle”:

a considerable number of activists pivoted dramatically to religion after the Cultural Revolution was over. […] It was often said that these people’s passion in embracing religion was as intense as the zeal they had previously displayed in destroying it.

and “Rule by intimidation: life under the neighbourhood committees”.

  • Gallery 4, “Changing names”—streets, stores, villages, people. As Woeser’s mother explained to her:

Back then [in my work unit], we were all required to change our names, we were told that our Tibetan names were tainted by feudal superstition and were therefore signs of the Four Olds. So we were to change both our given names and our family names. For me and my coworkers in the [school of the] TAR Public Security Bureau, when we handed in our applications for our names to be changed, they were all processed within the Bureau. You could choose which name you wanted to change to, but it had to be approved by the Bureau’s Political Affairs Office. Usually everyone chose Mao or Lin as their new family name. Or some chose to be named Gao Yuanhong, which meant “Red Plateau.” My first choice was Mao Weihua, meaning “one from a Mao family who protects China,” but that name had already been taken by someone else in the Bureau. So then I thought that since Yudrön sounds similar to the Chinese name Yuzhen, maybe I could be called Lin Yuzhen, and that would mean I could have the same family name as Marshal Lin.

We were all told to use our new names. But except for those times when representatives from the Military Region did the head count before each military drill session held in the Bureau, no one actually used these names. Many people forgot their Chinese names. One of my colleagues, Little Dawa, was also Gao Yuanhong. But every time the name Gao Yuanhong was called during the head count, she missed it. We had to poke her—“Dawa-la, they’re calling you”—and then she’d shout out, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!” in a rush. Now when I think of it, it was really funny.

The second group of galleries has the theme “Civil War among the Rebels:
 ‘whom to trust—the faction decides!’ ”

  • Gallery 5. Here the theme is the violent civil war broke out between the two main rebel factions Gyenlog and Nyamdrel in 1967, with the military playing a disturbing role. “Although the two groups were bitterly opposed to each other, their aims and methods were almost indistinguishable.”

Violence continued into 1969 throughout most of the TAR—including the Nyemo uprising, on which Woeser provides further material.

The following galleries move away from Lhasa. The third group is headed “The dragon takes charge: the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet”:

  • Gallery 6: the PLA in Tibet
    Woeser’s father was a deputy regimental officer in the Tibet Military Region during the early phase of the Cultural Revolution; after the Tibet Military Control Commission was established, he was assigned to its propaganda team. As Woeser’s mother explains, he was a firm supporter of the Nyamdrel faction. He was purged in 1970, transferred to a post in Tawu county in Kham.
  • Gallery 7: the Tibetan militia.
    In Tawu, Woeser’s father was responsible for training the militia. As Woeser notes, his photos were now staged rather than shots of action taken in real time, lacking the immediacy and authenticity of his earlier Lhasa photographs. By now the images come more often from other sources.

The fourth group, “Mao’s new Tibet”, includes

  • Gallery 8: the Revolutionary committees from 1968. As ever, Woeser gives detailed accounts. Violence and destruction continued, including the destruction of Ganden monastery. But religious activities resumed from 1972, gradually and discreetly.
  • Gallery 9, “The people’s communes”. Here Woeser describes the adverse effects of the establishment of people’s communes with yet another fine essay. The communes were only set up in TAR from 1965, much later than in mainland China. Woeser notes again that her father’s photos did not capture the heavy repercussions of communalisation in many of the farming and nomadic areas of Tibet.

After he had witnessed and documented those terrible scenes of monasteries being wrecked, statues of the Buddha being destroyed, and Buddhist texts being burned in their thousands, did he really believe in the new era of Tibetan rural happiness that he tried to capture with his camera? I still struggle with this question.

  • Gallery 10, “Installing a new god”, Chairman Mao—again mainly illustrated with sanitised propaganda images.

The final group, “Coda: the wheel turns”:

  • Gallery 11: the karmic cycle. This brief section on the reform era is based on the experiences of Jampa Rinchen (see below).

Those who had been ox-demon-snake-spirits in the previous cycle were now wheeled out once again into the political arena, this time in their function as “political flower vases” […] Ordinary Tibetans picked up their rosaries and prayer wheels and reentered the shells of ruined and half-restored temples to resume the worship of the Buddha.

46 years later, Woeser used her father’s old camera in 2012–13 to revisit some of the scenes in his photos, now mostly using colour film. At yet another sensitive moment, following the 2008 protests and as self-immolations spread to TAR, she was under surveillance.

Trying to retrace his footsteps in Lhasa so many years later was anyway confusing and difficult. There was almost nothing that I could see in front of me that was shown in the photographs he had taken. It was as if that which should be remembered had all been removed.

Chinese tourists have replaced Red Guards, but security cameras, metal detectors, and police booths are now very much in evidence—as well as new propaganda. In the book Woeser sometimes contrasts old and new images. Still, she managed to find many traces of the past.

I tried to adopt the same camera angles, focal length, and exposure that my father had used, and to imagine what he might have felt, but the attempt to make his camera work again taught me what the more advanced technology could not replace: the immediate realities his camera captured, the changes that have happened since then, and the complexities rooted in human intention. […]

fig.285An Appendix reproduces from Tibet remembers the testimony of Jampa Rinchen, whose recollections have featured in various episodes of the book. A former monk at Drepung Monastery, he had become a Red Guard, and then a member of the militia and the Gyenlog faction. In 1986 he volunteered to serve as a cleaner at the Jokhang temple (right: helping monks at the Jokhang fashion sculptures out of tsampa and butter to be offered to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas). As he reflected sadly to Woeser in 2003,

I destroyed a stupa. It’s no longer proper for me to wear monks’ robes.

But on the night he died,

all the monks from the Jokhang chanted for him. They prayed for him again in the evening when his body was sent for sky burial. These can be said to be the best arrangements that could have been made for him. Yet he had been unable to wear the robes again that had meant so much to him, that had symbolized for him the purity of monastic life, and that had marked the greatest loss in his life.

* * *

Again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Lhasa and TAR don’t represent the whole story for Tibetan peoples; our studies should also include Amdo and Kham. Amdo in particular has been the focus of several fine recent works by scholars such as Charlene Makley and Benno Weiner. Alongside the recent escalation in the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, we should never forget the Tibetans. And meanwhile in China, academic freedom is increasingly constricted.

Less melodramatic than many Chinese memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, this distressing, nuanced book makes a template not just for Tibet, and China, but (as Yu Jie observes in this review) for many regions of the world where victims and persecutors have to come to terms with a traumatic past.


[1] Tsering Dorje had been sent to take photos during the Sino-Indian War in 1962; and as early as 1956, to document the Lhoba people, perhaps the smallest of the many ethnic minorities in the region—images I’d love to see. En passant, you can hear some audio recordings of Lhoba folk-songs on CD 6 of Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind records, 1994).

[2] For Ian Johnson’s 2014 interviews with Woeser and Wang Lixiong, see here and here; cf. Woeser on the recent wave of self-immolations.

[3] Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) is a masterly, balanced single-volume history of modern Tibet, besides the ongoing multi-volume work of Melvyn Goldstein.

[4] Within the much larger image database for the Cultural Revolution in China, note Li Zhensheng’s photos from Heilongjiang, Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution (2003).

Spirit mediums in Henan

Ng cover

The grassroots ubiquity of spirit mediums (often female) in Chinese religious life is increasingly recognised (see here, with many links). I often plea for them to be recognised as among the most important practitioners “doing religion” in China—and now, as if in divine response to my entreaties, a welcome addition to our knowledge is

  • Emily Ng, A time of lost gods: mediumship, madness, and the ghost after Mao (2020),

on spirit mediums in a county of central Henan province. [1] Here’s the blurb:

Traversing visible and invisible realms, A time of lost gods attends
to profound re-readings of politics, religion, and madness in the
cosmic accounts of spirit mediumship. Drawing on research across a
temple, a psychiatric unit, and the home altars of spirit mediums in a
rural county of China’s Central Plain, it asks: What ghostly forms
emerge after the death of Mao and the so-called end of history?
The story of religion in China since the market reforms of the late
1970s is often told through its destruction under Mao and relative
flourishing thereafter. Here, those who engage in mediumship offer a
different history of the present. They approach Mao’s reign not simply
as an earthly secular rule, but an exceptional interval of divine
sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos. Caught
between a fading era and an ever-receding horizon, those “left behind”
by labour outmigration refigure the evacuated hometown as an
ethical-spiritual centre to come, amidst a proliferation of
madness-inducing spirits. Following pronouncements of China’s rise,
and in the wake of what Chinese intellectuals termed semicolonialism,
the stories here tell of spirit mediums, patients, and psychiatrists
caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.

Ng begins by reflecting on her initial confrontational encounter with the medium Zheng Yulan, who soon moved from indifference towards her guest to rejecting any further engagement, a telling story that rings true—the perceived dangers of transmitting messages “across what the mediums deem enemy lines”. [2]

Henan [3] 
Ng notes the “demonising” of Henan, in Ma Shuo’s term “a symbolic place of stagnation”:

Now, in place of a civilisational centre, Henan is more potent in the national imaginary as a land of poverty, backwardness, charlatans, and thieves, evocative of the famines of the 1940s and 1950s under Nationalist and Maoist rule, and of the HIV scandal of the 1990s, when villagers contracted the virus from blood plasma sales for cash.

Indeed, Henan suffered particularly grievously from the famine during the drive to communisation in the late 1950s. Citing Ann Anagnost on the “spectralisation of the rural” since the reform era, Ng evokes a society in which “ghostly presences swirl amid the hollow of an emptied centre”.

Mediums and vocabulary
Rather like Henan itself, mediums have been written out of the official history. They themselves have an alternative view of the Maoist and reform eras:

The purportedly antireligious campaigns of the socialist state, for the mediums, constitute cryptic acts of divine intervention—acts inaugurated by otherworldy forces that allowed the earthly state to misrecognise itself as secular.

Ng unpacks the local vocabulary for mediums and possession. The verb kan 看 is used, which she translates as “see”, as in kanxiangde 看香的 “one who sees incense”; as with the kanrizi “determining the date” among household Daoists, I’d suggest the more active rendition “looking with incense”, with the further implication of “taking care of through incense”. Mediums are also described as “those who walk/run/stand guard for spiritual power” (zougongde 走功的, paogongde 跑功的, shougongde 守功的). [4] Ng defines mediums broadly, as “those who regularly receive supplicants at an altar and those who regularly undergo possession at temples without necessarily receiving supplicants”, “lending their bodies” to spirits—as opposed to (usually male) diviners and fortune-tellers. Again like household Daoists, their domains are the yin and yang realms. The common term for the deities who possess mediums is xian 仙 “immortal”—who may also be ghosts.

Ng’s host quips with her by using the standard term shenpo 神婆 “witch”,

a term […] that I had brought to the scene, one intelligible to her while marking my externality to local articulations. It was a phrase more common with urban friends with less familiarity with such matters and carried a slight air of modern accusation. The term is rarely used in Hexian without either a note of disdain from those who denounce so-called superstitions or a knowing emphasis from those who do engage with such practices.

The aftermath of Maoism
Ng notes how the Cultural Revolution (and indeed, its first two years) often stands misleadingly as a condensed image of the Maoist era in its entirety. At a certain remove from Jing Jun’s study of the revival of a Confucian temple in Gansu, Ng approaches evocations of culture in a shifting moral landscape “not as a straightforward continuation but as painful enunciations and wounded reworkings after the cultural as such has been rendered petrified and petrifying”.

Despite variations on divine details, spirit mediums who frequented Fuxi temple in Hexian agreed: it was upon Chairman Mao’s death that the ghosts returned to haunt. Just across the road, in the psychiatric unit of the People’s Hospital,  patients lament accursed lives, tracing etiological paths through tales of dispossession, kinship, and betrayal. South from the hospital, a Sinopec gas station sits atop what was once known as the “ten-thousand-man pit” (wanrenkeng), where bodies of the poor and treacherous were flung, throughout decades of famine and revolution.

Ng describes “a set of tensions, between a reconstituted rurality and an ambivalent urbanity, a mournful psychiatry and a shaken cosmology.” She evokes “culture as aftermath”: “the time when Chairman Mao reigned” (dangjia 当家, “in charge”, an ubiquitous term for both secular and sacred leaders, as we heard constantly in rural Hebei) is recalled as an interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos.

Recognising a painful rupture to traditions of thought, in this sense, is not antithetical to taking seriously ongoing engagements with a cultural repertoire, as the cultural is loosened from assumptions of its qualities as an immobile, unbroken, closed system, and fragmentation is no longer assumed to be characteristic only of the modern or postmodern. Instead, attention to the aftermath of culture allows us to address how “culture” in the historical present  is not simply an anachronistic concept but seethes in its simultaneous transmission of efficacious potential and tormenting attacks—from within and without.

At the temple square
Chapter 2 opens at the gate of the Fuxi temple in the county-town, as a man recites a Mao poem in a voice “from above”. For many mediums the journey consists in “walking Chairman Mao’s path”, and this is the focus of Ng’s study. But almost in passing she makes an important qualification:

Not all [mediums] centre their practices on Mao. They might be chosen by a number of tutelary deities from Buddhist, Daoist, and local pantheons to join their spiritual family and work in their service, or they might simply be vulnerable to possession by ghosts and spirits without an allocation of a divine task. But those who walk Chairman Mao’s path have a continual and notable presence at the temple square, on and beyond common ritual days, and even those who dedicate their ritual labour to other deities acknowledge Mao’s position in the cosmology.

So Ng surveys work on the Mao cult in the religious sphere—the study of Mao worship has become something of an industry (cf. this post on Gansu). As she notes, while commentators such as Geremie Barmé have described the “new Mao cult” as offering an implicit counterpoint to official portrayals, almost entirely divested of its original class, ethical, and political dimensions, her own work in Henan shows Mao still serving as ethopolitical and even cosmological figure.

In an inversion of the state’s ritual displacement of popular religion, the potency produced through Maoist-era political rituals is reactivated in post-Mao mediumship. Sharing a symbolic repertoire with the earthly state, the spectral polity speaks to the sense of a morally hollowed present and a revolution incomplete.

At the square she observes the scene acutely:

The air is dense with anticipation. Those who do not otherwise frequent the temple rush toward the gate, jostling their way through the crowds to burn the last batch of incense for the year. Making my way across the square, I am drawn toward a rumbling drum beat, steady and declarative, in sets of three. A large circle of onlookers gather around six women and two men, middle aged, as they prepare for ritual. They don matching and seemingly brand-new green Mao-era army coats, topped with brown Soviet-style fur hats, a single red star at the centre. One woman at the inner edge of the crowd holds a tall pole, topped with a large yellow flag with the word ling (lit. “command, order, or decree”; in this context meaning “divine command”) etched in red.

Ayahao!” Another woman, in a red parka and a red embroidered dress reminiscent of old Shanghai, traces the edges of the encirclement with her steps, passing at its northernmost point. Facing the heavens, hands outstretched, her arms slowly lift toward the sky. She is receiving not only lingqi from above but also divine command for the opening of the ritual. “Ayahao!” she cries again—an interjection confirming an otherworldly presence or signal, often one’s own possession or infusion by spiritual personae or airs. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!” echo several spectators in the crowd—a signal that they too acknowledge and experience the presence and signals of the spirits. While some rituals on the square involve particular appeals to the powers above, rituals such as this are often considered a mode of acknowledgement and oblation for the gods as well as a means of gathering spiritual force.

Inside the circle eighteen sheets of yellow fabric—used commonly in local rituals and often considered, on the temple square, the colour of the emperor—have been laid out in the shape of a fan, flanked by a head of cabbage and two large stalks of scallions. Agricultural goods are often incorporated into ritual spreads at the temple square, sealing within them symbolic meanings and forces both shared and esoteric. […] North of this more yellow fabric, this time in a row of five, every other sheet topped with a bamboo platter […] is covered by paper cutting of four concentric red stars, one embedded in another, the emblem of the Communist Party.

On the central bamboo platter, three cigarettes point northward, an offering to the gods, I am told. A common offering in Hexian in ritual and mediumship, cigarettes are often smoked by mediums and at times are burned in an upright position in place of or in conjunction with incense on the temple square. Some say the use of cigarettes was a carryover from the Cultural Revolution, when incense sales were banned and visits to mediums were held covertly behind closed doors in the night. Above the cigarettes four sticks of incense burn in a golden urn—three for humans, four for ghosts, as the saying went—aside a row of plastic-wrapped sausages, “because gods like to eat too”.

At the very top, farthest north, thus of highest position in the cosmic-symbolic geography, is a large poster of Mao in a red-collared shirt, seated and flanked by his generals in blue uniform. Placed on the poster are three mandarin oranges and three slices of metallic-gold ritual paper—two covered in looping spirit writing, the third with the words “Through virtue, one gains all under heaven” (de de tianxia).

Fifty or so onlookers have gathered around by now; men smoking, women bundled in scarves, several in their teens and twenties peering on, gawking, giggling. A man, perhaps in his late thirties, cigarette dangling from his lips, begins swinging a three-feet-long necklace of Buddhist beads above his head. After a minute or so, he meticulously lowers the necklace atop the poster of Mao and the generals. The two men in Maoist army coats begin striking a gong and cymbals, tracing deliberate steps across the spread of ritual offerings. Others—mostly those I have seen frequenting the square before—join to walk the perimeter of the encirclement, some singing, some dancing, some plucking offerings off the spread, brandishing them toward the heavens. The percussion gains speed. The cries intensify. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!”A woman walks to the centre of the circle and closes her eyes. Another twirls, palms up highto collect spiritual airs from above. A voice bellows amid the drum and song.

“Wansui! Wansui! Mao zhuxi wansui!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years for Chairman Mao! A woman, standing beneath the yellow flag of divine command, howls at the top of her lungs. “Wansui! Wansui!” she calls out again and again, until her voice grows hoarse. In an adjacent ritual circle, the drumming also reaches its peak. “Shenglile! Victory! Dajia shenglile! Victory to all! Shijie dapingle! The world has reached supreme peace! Zhongguo shenglile! China has reached victory! “Wansui! Wansui! Wanwansuiiiii!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Tens of thousands of years!

Probably out of discretion, the book only includes two photos:

Left: drawing of Mao on yellow fabric, with characters on watermelon reading junling “military [divine] command”. Right: “Cartography of loss”, showing stitching with neon yellow thread on red fabric, with character zhong “middle” in centre.

Ng points out that while corruption is a common lament, it is deeply embedded at all levels of society. She adduces the common issue of exorbitant entrance fees to temples (cf. Houshan). With the world of deities also tainted, the image of Chairman Mao has remained virtuous; many associate him, and the campaigns he led, with a kind of spiritual rectification.

In what is a widespread karmic trope, Ng notes that several Red Guards who took part in destroying the temple artefacts fell prey to strange illnesses or died bad deaths.

Acutely aware of fakery throughout reform-era society, local people struggle to distinguish fake mediums, and indeed fake deities who may possess them.

With the Chairman’s withdrawal back to the heavens postreform, an epidemic of brazen charlatanism and greed was unleashed across human and spiritual worlds.

So even if the “Mao shamans” are only one part of the picture, Ng contributes nuance to the discussion.

Consulting a medium at home
By contrast with the more performative public spectacle at the square, in Chapter 3, “Spectral collision”, Ng accompanies her host Cai Huiqing as she takes the bus to consult a medium at her village house, noting its unobtrusive “minimalist” nature, in Adam Yuet Chau’s term. As was common at the houses of mediums whom Ng visited, her altar had its own dedicated wing in the house complex, with its own entrance.

At the altar we take a seat across from Zheng Yulan on the west side of the square ritual table—the spiritually and symbolically less powerful side of the arrangement, in contrast to the east. In front of the altar, sitting between Zheng Yulan and us, is a large metal wash bin filled with incense from previous sessions. North of us all, thus at the top of the cosmic hierarchy, is the altar lined with several icons flanked by guardian lions, with Queen Mother of the West (Xiwang mu) at the centre. Cai Huiqing places a five renminbi note on the table as incense money (xiangqian)—a gesture that initiates the ritual exchange. *

* (Ng’s note:) In Hexian incense money is always laid on the table before a session begins. The amount given is usually volunteered rather than specified and often ranges from 10 to 50 renminbi at the village home altar session I saw. Compensation in gratitude for the completion of ritual assistance (huanyuan) is more likely to be specified and is higher than the initial incense money, ranging from the low to high hundreds of renminbi. More elaborate rituals or ones that require a medium to visit one’s home may reach into the thousands.

Zheng Yulan unwraps a a new batch of rusty-gold incense, lighting it slowly, attentively, squinting to determine whether the batch was properly lit before finally planting it into the large metal bin. […]

Zheng Yulan closes her eyes and begins yawning. In Hexian, as in many regions of China, yawning is a sign that the spirits had arrived and were entering the medium’s body, given the airy, pneumatic quality of other-worldly presences. “What is the name?” she asks.

Cai Huiqing responds with [her husband] Li Hanwei’s name, on whose behalf she is consulting the deities. As is often the case, the main supplicant of a session is not assumed to be the person who arrived at the altar; consultations are often initiated for others in the family. The reading of one’s own cosmic circumstances is not uncommonly left until last, after having inquired for others.

Zheng Yulan asks of Li Hanwei’s whereabouts. In an era of rural outmigration, family members are not always assumed to reside locally. Cai Huiqing replies that he is away, on the road, driving a large truck, delivering goods.

“Where does he drive?”

“From here to other counties, at times much farther, via the highway, to make deliveries.” Zheng Yulan contemplates this; then her right hand begins shaking as she whispers rapidly under her breath, conversing with her tutelary spirit. Another yawn hits her, and her eyes snap open. “He hit someone while he was driving.”

When it transpires that it was not a mortal but a xian ghost whom he had hit,

After enquiring about Li Hanwei’s local truck route, Zheng Yulan chuckles knowingly. “That corner—don’t you know it’s the ten-thousand-man pit, the wanrenkeng?” She is speaking of a major intersection, which for decades prior to the reform era was known locally as the site of a mass grave. During the famines of the 1940s and 1950s, it is said that those who simply collapsed of cold and hunger and died in the street or those whose families did not have the land to bury them in were simply tossed into the pit. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, it also served as resting place to those accused of political dissent—they were killed point-blank at the edge, I was told.

Now the ten-thousand-man pit lies beneath a Sinopec gas station. It is no longer so actively feared as it once was yet still houses countless hungry, wandering ghosts from decades past. […]

The ten-thousand-man pit is but one among many sites for spectral collisions in Hexian. Ghosts are also said to be common at intersections where their souls had been released during mortuary ritual; their personal gravesites; homes of women who recently miscarried; sites of past wrongs, reminiscences, and ghostly sociality […]; and simply arbitrary places along their driftings.

Ng goes on to illustrate such collisions through the history of the ten-thousand-man pit, and the famine of the 1940s and 50s. While she mentions in passing the terrible famine that followed the 1958 Great Leap Backward, I wonder if this is also a common theme of spectral encounters; rather,

in Hexian recollections of the pre-Maoist Old Society, transmitted through oral accounts and corroborated in national media, together with the sense of precarity and moral collapse in the post-Mao present, heightened the sense of safety and exceptionality of Maoist times.

As the consultation continues, Cai Huiqing rushes to the kneeling mat south of the altar and begins to kowtow northward, but the gesture seems insufficient. “Seeing with incense”, the medium gives a spoken exegesis, instructing Cai to burn six hundred ingots folded from gold spirit money to placate the ghost and ten reams of yellow spirit money to show gratitude to the deities. She correctly foretells that her client will have revealing dreams, which she describes on their next visit some days later. As Zheng Yulan requests clarifications, she concludes that a ghost is trapped and choked beneath “ a certain arc-shaped object, stuck beneath Cai Huiqing’s home, in the southwest corner”.

On her return, Cai indeed excavates an old, rusted pipe clamp from her yard, which she must get rid of. Such concealed artefacts may indeed be deemed malignant: in my book on a Hebei village I noted a story of villagers consulting a medium to locate a trowel accidentally buried in a wall as they were building a house.

Even if her husband and children disparage her recourse to mediums as a superstitious squandering of time and money, Cai Huiqing regards it as a way of mitigating danger for her family.

Ng notes that such spectral collisions may overlap with the potential natal calamity of one’s horoscope.

On the psychiatric ward
With striking, cinematic abruptness, Chapter 4, “A soul adrift”, transports us to the psychiatric unit of the county People’s Hospital, which indeed is across the road from the Fuxi temple—there’s even an advertisement for it on the big screen in the temple square.

In a highly original and insightful juxtaposition, Ng spends time with several patients whose crises seem to call for such a modern form of intervention, considering medical anthropology, madness, and the divided self, and again drawing on much research. She had already worked among psychiatric patients in Shenzhen, where she found that “the post-Mao generation increasingly individualised and psychologised their illness, with a heavy sense of self-blame, in contrast to the political, sociomoral, and situational accounts from those who came of age in the Maoist era”. Indeed, this perspective first came to my attention with an article on psychiatric patients in Hebei (n.2 here).

Ng also refers to Arthur Kleinman’s study of neurasthenia, which he found to provide a somatised, medically legitimised, and politically tolerable idiom through which to articulate otherwise punishable laments during the Cultural Revolution.

Many of the problems that people experienced stemmed from the pressures created since 2005 by the state’s New Socialist Countryside project (the object of several trenchant critiques by fine scholars such as Guo Yuhua)—people’s precarious economic prospects associated with migration and return, and familial tensions. At the same time,

many patients and families speak of the illness for which they come to seek treatment in terms of possession, soul loss, and ghost encounters or as the blurred boundary between madness and otherworldly happenings.

For some, social disintegration and crisis in filial relations are a manifestation of cosmic chaos.

The hospital might serve, modestly, as a “tentative site of retreat” from such pressures.

Save weddings, birth celebrations, and funerals, hospitalisation—psychiatric or otherwise—seems to be one of the few occasions in Hexian that draws local extended family and immediate family near and far, along with select friends and neighbours, into a circuit of visitations.

Ng meets a withdrawn, wandering mother, whose few utterances often reference the commune era; her crises have not been mediated by spirit mediums. Her worried daughters take turns attending to her, returning from Beijing.

Next Ng meets a female student, disturbed by the pressures of education and her impasse with her migrant father, who only thinks about money yet whom she describes critically as an “honest” (laoshi 老实) type. She reflects well on that common yet ambivalent term:

Until the early 1980s honesty connoted a good person, hardworking and trustworthy, the ideal marriage partner, particularly when describing men. With the turn toward market competition and growing disparity in the reform era, the same term began morphing in connotation, pointing to a naÏveté vulnerable to exploitation and duping, which would not fare well in the new moment and risks falling short of supporting a family amid the social games of the privatised world. Honesty also came to mark a caricature of the rural, of peasants too simpleminded for complicated times. As Yunxiang Yan writes of young women he encountered in rural Heilongjiang in the 1990s, “a number of them maintained that that [honest] young men had difficulty expressing themselves emotionally, and lacked attractive manners”. By contrast, articulate speech, emotional expression, ambition, and a capacity for advancing one’s social and economic position had come to be valued, reversing the previous connotations of similar traits as unsavoury signs of empty words, lasciviousness, and aggression.

I’m sure this is right, though I haven’t picked up so much on it. Often when I’ve heard the term used, I’ve felt that it was not only an implied rebuke to the widespread current avarice and duplicity, but also a tribute to those who had managed to maintain a moral core under Maoism, resisting fickle political pressures—like the much-admired Li Jin in Yanggao.

The patient’s mother has visited various “superstitious” guides on her behalf, both mediums and fortune tellers—“those who ask for directions for you” (gei ni wenwenlu nazhong, another formulation likely to serve fieldworkers better than alien, judgmental terms like shenpo “witch”). Like Ng’s host, the mother engages with the spirit world on behalf of her kin, “in search of otherworldly forces shaping the predicaments of the present”. While the student herself seems indifferent to all this, she doesn’t think the various drugs she has been prescribed (olanzapine, alprazolam, paroxetine) will suffice to help her, though she feels comforted by the IV drip. She places greater faith in counselling, but it’s available only in the major cities.

Next comes an injured former miner diagnosed with acute psychosis. Ng gains background from his wife. His frustration at his loss of earning power and, again, tensions with his father clearly play a role in his disorder. A female relative had consulted a medium on his behalf, who again diagnosed a spectral collision, but a “soul-calling” session was unsuccessful.

Here Ng reflects on what Yan Yunxiang described as the crisis of filial piety, “a deep shift in notions of intergenerational reciprocity”.

Across my conversations with patients and families, the language of psychiatry is present but, to some extent, sidelined. For most the psychiatric ward is one stop in a broader search for healing, and psychopharmaceutical cures are one hope among many.

Chapter 5 goes on to describe another patient, Xu Liying, herself a medium “summoned to the revolution” eighteen years previously by a vision of Chairman Mao and the Ten Great Marshals, struggling against evil spirits—a mission that torments her.

Brought to the ward by her husband and son, she is the only patient there diagnosed with “culture-bound syndrome”, but remains devoted to her divine task. Several fellow mediums come to visit her, trying in vain to convince the doctors to release her so that she can continue her work.

Again, much of Xu Liying’s task consists in discriminating fakery and corruption. Her cosmos depends heavily on the ledgers of the courts of hell. Among her few trusted deities is none other than the Eternal Mother (Wusheng laomu), the central figure of “White Lotus” eschatology. For her and other mediums in Hexian,

the historical arrival of Mao is at times linked with the arrival of the Maitreya Buddha, in a moment when China had reached the brink of ruin and calamity.

Ng notes that

The spatial face-off of the temple and the hospital follows a series of encounters between health and religiosity throughout the 20th century.

She makes another important qualification:

To be sure, psychiatry and mediumship do not always overlap in Hexian. Plenty of those in Hexian who have experienced possession by deities or ghosts do not wind up at the psychiatric ward, and many at the ward do not describe their ailment in terms of the invisible yin world. At the same time languages of madness pervade contemporary mediumship, and talk of possession is very much familiar to psychiatrists and patients at the ward.

In the Coda Ng observes

The mediums, having been written out of modern religious and medical legitimacy, continue to address madness in their consultations and ritual repertoires. Symptoms, for the mediums, are not merely representations of biological truth or psychiatric reason but signs of cosmopolitical disarray. Possessed bodies and disturbed dreams link the present with its hauntings, reinvesting the most local of geographies with significance across national, world-historical, and cosmic scales.

The mediums of China today are not those of the imagined past.

* * *

Now I’d like to read more about other local temples, further sessions, the role of gender (Ng notes that more women than men become mediums, but doesn’t go into detail), economic aspects, and the part mediums may play in any sectarian activity. I also find Xiao Mei’s diary of a busy medium in Guangxi makes an instructive template. Mediums have domestic altars, but Ng doesn’t mention any painted pantheons such as we find in parts of Shanxi and Shaanbei. As to performance, her comments don’t go much beyond “the song and drums reverberating from the proliferation of ritual across the temple square”. I wonder if the Hexian mediums perform group sessions in domestic settings as well as in the temple square. In some regions (such as Yanggao), they may speak and sing in dialects of which they have no knowledge in their mundane life.

XLY mediums

Mediums at temple fair, Yanggao 2011. My photo.

Ng does both descriptive ethnographic detail and broader theory very well, but I often found the former getting buried beneath her impressive array of theoretical citations and reflections. We can always consult Foucault and Derrida, but the grassroots detail of ritual life in rural China need to be evoked. Since Ng met many mediums, I kept wanting more thick descriptions of what they actually do.

It’s often a challenge to balance ethnography and theory, but to my taste I’d sacrifice some of the latter for more of the former. Still, A time of lost gods is a most original portrait of an important topic, sympathetic and non-judgmental.


[1] Ng uses pseudonyms both for the location and for personal names.

[2] For Navajo ceremonies for protection against baleful ghosts amidst modern traumas, see here—including Barre Toelken’s cautionary tales (n.5 there), evoking Ng’s initial encounter in Henan.

[3] For Henan, Peter Seybolt, Throwing the emperor from his horse (1996), a biography of a village leader through three eras, remains useful. Note also sectarian groups such as Eastern Lightning (see e.g. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, chapter 25). I really should get a grasp on ritual life and expressive culture in Henan—perhaps setting forth from the relevant volumes of the Anthology.

[4] Among many local terms for mediums, see e.g. HebeiShaanbei (Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8, Religion in China, pp.117–21, and forthcoming), and south Jiangsu. For educated and local vocabularies more generally, click here.

Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma


Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.


In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aborigines in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here, moving on to the Navajo and the Ghost Dance.


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.


Sister drum

Sister durm

As Tibetan culture continues to change, and as scholarship has matured, it’s worth revisiting a lucid article from 2002,

  • Janet L. Upton, “The politics and poetics of Sister drum: ‘Tibetan’ music in the global marketplace”, in Timothy J. Craig and Richard King (eds), Global goes local: popular culture in Asia. [1]

To the consternation of many, the album Sister drum (Ajiegu, 1995) by the Han-Chinese singer Dadawa (Zhu Zheqin) soon became a huge hit in East Asia, and sold well in the West too.

Amidst an increasingly diverse pop scene with the PRC, the CD was part of the packaging of Tibet for a Chinese audience—the “Tibet craze” since the 1990s in literature, art, and film, to which some Tibetans also subscribe.

While Zhu Zheqin, a native of Guangzhou, had no prior experience of Tibetan culture, composer He Xuntian and his brother He Xunyou, the main lyricist, had experience of collecting folk-songs and working in Tibetan areas. In summer 1993 they all travelled to Tibet to collect and record folk-songs.

The primary intent of Sister drum’s producers seems to have been to use Tibetan culture and quasi-Tibetan religious themes to explore musical and spiritual worlds of their own.

Rather like people have long done in the West, you might think—the so-called “singing bowls” are just one extreme instance; the “om mani padme hum” mantra of the title track has, after all, been amply exploited in the West too. Indeed, the sound of Sister drum appealed not only to the Chinese but to the wider world music and New Age markets. The liner notes spell out the Exotic Othering image of a “primitive” society (a notion also long promoted in the West), providing more classic entries in the Catechism of cliché:

Tibetans are a community noted for group dances and choral singing. An alien land filled even today with marvelous tales and legendary colour. Lacking the so-called “individual” or “individual consciousness”, people there still live as one, according to the ancient custom.

Cultural appropriation is the tightrope that “world music” constantly has to tread.  Chinese people, sharing with Westerners an enthusiasm for an image of Tibetan culture, are hardly responsible for the actions of their government—but they are likely to come in for more criticism.

Zhu Zheqin was rebuked for assuming the name Dadawa, and for dressing in quasi-Tibetan costumes for the artwork (which for exiled Tibetans resembled an abomination of a nun’s robes). On the album’s creators, Upton comments:

On the one hand, they focus on the “traditional” qualities of Tibetan culture and the authenticity of their interpretation of Tibetan music; on the other hand, they stress the innovative aspects of their presentation. At one point, for example, the project is described as “a record about Tibet” that represents “20 years of Tibetan folk music”. Yet in the following paragraph, composer He Xuntian states, “We didn’t go to Tibet to find Tibet as such, we went to find ourselves.”

Again, such interplay of innovation and appropriation seems normal in the world music scene.

Noting that the album didn’t emerge from a cultural vacuum, Upton considers some antecedents of the Tibet craze in Chinese intellectual and artistic circles, such as the short stories of the Tibetan author Tashi Dewa, the modern art of Tibetan painter Nyi-ma Tshe-ring, and collections by Chinese photographers. Yet all this enthusiasm, by contrast with romantic Western imaginings,

is framed within a state-sanctioned discourse that demands the representation of Tibet as “an integral part of the motherland”.

As Upton observes,

It is easy to condemn Sister Drum and other products emerging as part of the “Tibet craze” as callous Chinese appropriations of Tibetan culture in response to a new market for the exotic, but the process is much more complex and historically situated. […]

Attempts to incorporate Tibet and Tibetan culture within a Chinese nationalist discourse began long before the founding of the PRC. […] The field of music has been an especially productive terrain in this respect. Ever since the 1930s, Chinese musicians have been utilising Tibetan themes, including Tibetan folk tunes, as they seek to construct a new national music that embraces all of the modern nation-state’s ethnic diversity. This pre-revolutionary pattern of cultural appropriation was continued in the early post-1949 period, when the collection of folk songs was used by the new regime as an important means of coming to know the social concerns of the minority populations of the new People’s Republic. Collections of Tibetan folk songs were published in the 1950s, and their contents represent a more or less balanced presentation of Tibetan musical style, if somewhat weighted toward new revolutionary concerns in content.

These compilations demonstrate a real concern with the accurate portrayal of Tibetan musical life and the cultural context from which it derives, a concern that is remarkable given that many of the compilers were members of the People’s Liberation Army, the agency enforcing the “liberation” of Tibet [cf. Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans]. [2]

Upton goes on to outline the state-promoted “Tibetan folk songs” of the 60s and 70s.

Ironically for the Tibetan people themselves (and for other minority groups as well) their appearance at the centre of the stage of state-sponsored culture was contemporaneous with the physical and spiritual destruction of much of their historical and cultural legacy. […] So effective were these media campaigns that even when confronted with physical evidence of the devastating effects of revolutionary policies on Tibetan culture, many Han Chinese have difficulty reconciling that reality with the images they carry in their heads.

Meanwhile at the commercial level, by the early 1990s saccharine-sweet cassettes of “folk-song” featured Tibetan and other minority songs prominently. While one aspect of the collection of folk music under Maoism was as source material for new socialist creations, the “new-wave” composers who studied at the conservatoires after the end of the Cultural Revolution (such as Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, and indeed He Xuntian) were now adopting a more challenging approach to incorporating traditional ethnic culture into their work, often on the basis of fieldwork—liberating themselves from the constraints of Maoist orthodoxy.

Thus, as Upton points out, Sister drum built on a long tradition of co-opting Tibetan music. She then discusses the hazards of cultural appropriation as the album came to be digested outside China. As Tibetans in exile gained a higher profile, they and other reviewers soon published detailed rebuttals. As one review commented:

For the Western listener, it is hard to tell whether the album represents a Chinese claim on Tibetan culture, sympathy for Tibet, or simply musicians seeking spiritually tinged exotica.

All of the above, perhaps. Anyway, the hype around the album did at least draw wider attention to the Chinese ravaging of Tibet.

In a balanced conclusion, Upton recognizes the positive role of the album in espousing Tibetan culture and religion, and reminds us that Western interest has itself grown out of a legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. Such creations may prompt re-examinations and reworkings of these legacies, both in the West and in China, and even as a forum for protest. Still, for many Han Chinese the state-sponsored image of Tibet—“as backward, under-developed minorities on one hand, and smiling, dancing recipients of the Party’s benevolence on the other”—wields considerable power.

Upton ends by considering a follow-up release, Voices from the sky, which includes a song whose lyrics are adapted from poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Moreover, the song “Himalayans” addresses the departure of many Tibetans for a life in exile, invoking a terrible sense of loss. However deliberate, such works “can and will be read in different ways”.

* * *

Upton’s article was a rather early venture into the contested field of Tibetan popular music in the global bazaar, but remains instructive.

§10 (“Pop music, world music and contemporary genres”) of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s extensive, essential Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts lists impressive research covering pop both within the PRC and in exile, including work by Nimrod Baranovitch, Keila Diehl, Anna Morcom, and Yangdon Dhondup, and singers as diverse as Tseten Dolma, Han Hong, Yungchen Lhamo, Yadong, and Sa Dingding. This article by Henrion-Dourcy herself makes a good introduction.

Since the early years of the reform era, it’s good to see young Tibetan musicians forging their own interpretations (see sites such as High Peaks Pure Earth and And Tibetan thinkers like Woeser continue to further the dialogue.


[1] The same volume also includes an article by Rachel Harris on the Uyghur music industry.

[2] I would add that by the 1980s, in the spirit of pioneers like Yang Yinliu, local cultural cadres were engaged in the vast nationwide Anthology project—including the documentation of the vocal, instrumental, and dance traditions all around the Tibet Autonomous Region [sic], Amdo, and Kham, county by county. Like their counterparts in Han Chinese regions, they were genuinely concerned to document their local traditions, and many of them would have done what they could to bypass any expectations of serving state cultural propaganda. As with the material on Han Chinese traditions, the project is flawed, but provides valuable leads.

Cf. William Noll‘s comments on ethnographers of one cultural heritage conducting fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, where both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.




The temple of memories

Jing Jun cover

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

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

The opening of the book is compelling:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

After “Liberation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dachuan 1

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

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

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

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

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

Dachuan 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Jing Jun observes, the reinstated worship of Confucius in the Dachuan area is not an isolated case of religious revival in a rather remote part of China. He places it in the broad context of the religious revival in China, if not in Yongjing county. Thus while we find vignettes on other forms of religious expression (mediums, sectarian groups), his coverage might have benefitted from an outline of the broader fortunes of ritual life in the area through the 1950s, such as the fate of other temples in Dachuan and nearby, funerals and temple fairs, and the activities of household Daoists and bards. The story of the Dachuan temple make a particular but revealing case. [1]



[1] Though focusing on ritual life before and since the Maoist era rather than on state initiatives under Maoism, a project on cults in Shaanxi and Shanxi led by Christian Lamouroux and Marianne Bujard, with Qin Jianming, Dong Xiaoping, and Patrice Fava, is also relevant. See e.g.

  • Marianne Bujard, with Dong Xiaoping, “Hydraulique et société en Chine du Nord: une coopération franco-chinoise en sciences sociales”, BEFEO 2001, notably the Yaoshan shengmu cult in Pucheng, Shaanxi:
  • Qin Jianming 秦建明 and Lü Min吕敏 [Marianne Bujard], Yaoshan shengmu miao yu shenshe 堯山聖母廟與神社 [The sacred mother temple and holy parishes of Yaoshan] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2003).


Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

[2] Further to Mayfair Yang’s article “Shamanism & Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity”, I also look forward to reading her Re-enchanting modernity (2020).


Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards


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

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

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

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

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

LHQ book

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

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

ZQ pic

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

At dead of night appeared a star
The whole world weeping in unison, Oh brother, for you

Snowflakes flurrying over three thousand leagues
Sleepless for the first time, Oh brother, and who’s it for?

Semi-translucent like lighting eggshell lanterns
First they sealed your lips, Oh brother, then they sealed the city

All over the world people’s feelings are bitter
When has it become to hard to tell the truth, Oh brother, about one’s feelings?

When you blew the whistle in the twelfth moon no-one listened
Amidst the bustle of the first moon, Oh brother, the sound of your song was silenced

Lighting lanterns at New Year to see you off
But throughout the land, Oh brother, it’s like observing the Feast of the Dead

Bright blue skies of Sovereign heaven
Now that the whole nation has awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away

Now that the whole nation was awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away.

LWL lyrics

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

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

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

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


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

church murals

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

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

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

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

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


The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory


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

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

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

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

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

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

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

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

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

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

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

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

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

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

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

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1929 ganbu

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

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

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

As with the later Chinese famine,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he explains,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here.


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

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

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

I am writing a book about war…

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

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

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

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

As a review comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another exchange:

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

The truth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

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

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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


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


Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shuilu details

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Crime fiction: China and Germany

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


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

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

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

* * *


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

In the compelling Prague fatale, where Bernie’s main antagonist is Reinhard Heydrich, the reader is led to an awareness of the horrors of the Eastern front (cf. Bloodlands), the Lidice reprisals and Ravensbrück. Sub-plots feature the “S-Bahn murderer” Paul Ogorzow and a Klimt portrait.

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

For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. There’s a rich vein of books to explore here (see e.g. here, and here). See also More crime fiction.


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

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

Blind shawm players of Yanggao


Liuru, 2003.

To follow my post on the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, here I’d like to expand my article on shawm bands in China to introduce further some of those from whom I learned in Yanggao county—based on my book

  • Music and ritual of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi (2007)
    (which, need I add, is available in paperback, with its fine DVD complementing my film on Li Manshan! See also here).

As you read this, do also listen to the amazingly complex, visceral suites that the Yanggao shawm bands (here known as gujiang 鼓匠) performed for folk ceremonial through turbulent times right until the 21st century (Dissolving boundaries, and ##5 and 11 of the Playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

* * *

As throughout the world, blind musicians in China have been much praised, from the ancient Master Kuang to the Daoist beggar Abing; but their real lives are far from such hagiography. By contrast with Shaanbei, or indeed further south in Shanxi, (see n.2 here), where blind boys might find a livelihood either through solo narrative-singing or by taking part in shawm bands (again, for Shaanbei, see here, under “Expressive culture”), in north Shanxi the latter made a more common career path.

The gujiang bands of Yanggao county commonly included blind players. By 1958 Yanggao town had three bands, one led by blindman Song Chengxin (c1921–76), a disciple of Chen Gang in Anjiaxiang lane. But town players were reluctant to accept disciples from outside their own family, and two of the blind players we met sought their apprenticeship in nearby Xiejiatun village.

1991 funeral

Blind shawm players, Greater Antan village funeral 1991.

I found blind shawm players among a group at a village funeral in 1991, and there were still three distinguished blind gujiang in Yanggao town in 2003. But by then, along with slight but significant improvements in healthcare, there were now fewer younger blind men and thus fewer blind gujiang. Although the senior Erhur and Yin San still managed to lead bands by dint of their seniority and support network, other blind gujiang were less able to keep up with the times, and it was becoming a less likely profession for blind boys.

By 2003, the most senior gujiang in the county-town, Li Liuru (c1931–2007, known simply by his given name Liuru; photo above), was pitiable. His eyes went bad when he was 4 sui. His poor family was always on the move, renting rooms. He “did nothing” at home till “learning gujiang” around 18 sui (c1948), but he really liked listening to gujiang before he took it up. He learned with the band in Xiejiatun village just north of the town, a distinguished group whose most famous player in modern times was Yu Fucai (c1925–68). Liuru studied as an apprentice in the Xiejiatun band for three years, and then did another three years for free (“studying three years, repaying three years”), as tradition prescribed; when there wasn’t much business, he played for other bands too, but Yu Fucai’s band was most in demand.

Liuru stopped playing in the Great Leap Forward “because the officials wouldn’t let us play”, and he apparently then played little until after the Cultural Revolution. He only played the lower part, and was not regarded as an outstanding gujiang. Liuru had four brothers and sisters, but they were “all useless”, and the family had no contact. He did manage to find a wife, though, when he was almost 30—also blind, she was a water-seller. The fate of blind girls was even more pitiable: their only hope was begging, and their life expectancy was even shorter than that of blind men.

Another young blindman who apprenticed himself to Yu Fucai was Erhur (real name Wang Hui, b.1946). A wonderful man, he has a deep knowledge of the “old rules” and an exceptional love for music: his face becomes a pool of adoration when he recites the gongche solfeggio outlines of the old suites.

Erhur 2003

Erhur, 2003.

Like Liuru, Erhur’s family lived in Yanggao town. He went blind at the age of 3 sui. When he was 12 sui his mother took him to a hospital in Datong; realizing his sight couldn’t be cured, he resolved to seek a way of making a living. They then bought a dizi flute for 36 fen at a Datong stationery shop (there were no instrument shops then). “It took me ages to get a note out of it, but once I did, I didn’t dare take it from my lips,” he recalled. “I played anything I heard, popular folk-song melodies like Anbanshang kaihua.”

Neighbours knew Erhur played well, so one New Year the neighbourhood committee asked him to represent them for a secular county festival. He was a bit apprehensive, but played. There were also an erhu player and a banhu player who played a version of the popular folk-song Wuge fang yang 五哥放羊. He tried to play along with them but found he couldn’t. The erhu player explained it was all to do with tuning! Still, he won a prize of 20 jin of frozen radishes, then worth the princely sum of 2.5 kuai.

This strengthened Erhur‘s resolve to take up music, so he bought a rudimentary erhu in Yanggao town, made from a tin and a stick, costing 4 mao. He soon picked it up, and began getting the hang of scales. He still wanted to learn more instruments. Around 1959, when he was 14 sui, he bought a decrepit sheng mouth-organ for 10 kuai. After taking it home and piecing it together, he began practising “small pieces” like Shifan. All this, remember, at the height of the Great Leap Forward and famine, which were not part of Erhur’s account.

Erhur first spent some time learning with a gujiang called Siban (surname Zhang) in Jinjiazhuang village—for whose band the renowned yinyang household Daoist Liu Zhong also played occasionally when ritual business was sparse during the Cultural Revolution. But after hearing Yu Fucai’s band doing a funeral in town, Erhur asked his parents if he could switch over to Yu as “disciple transferring to another household” (guomen tudi). By this time Yu Fucai was the “main beam” (zhengliang 正梁) of the Yu family band in Xiejiatun village. His fee to take a disciple was 100 kuai a year. Erhur lived at Yu’s house around twenty days a month—the learning process naturally involves taking on the whole gujiang lifestyle. Masters had no way of teaching, pupils just picked it up as they went along; Erhur could only hear his master playing when they performed for ceremonials. He learned along with his master’s oldest son; they got along well at first, but then when Erhur learned faster, the son was always getting criticized, so their relationship deteriorated. Every morning the son was reluctant to get out of bed and go with Erhur into the fields to practise; while Erhur practised, the son would go and look for firewood to make a fire to keep warm.

Yu Fucai’s gujiang father was a hard case, always conning, robbing, and beating people up. He spent some time in prison and eventually, in the 1940s, got his head smashed in with a hammer. Before Liberation gujiang were commonly given opium to smoke by the host family to help them play better. But Erhur knew that addiction was a danger—he had heard of gujiang who had to sell their roof-beams or demolish their outhouse in order to get a fix. Yu Fucai himself had been locked up in an opium-prevention cell for a year soon after Liberation, still only in his teens, and by the time Erhur was studying with him, opium was hard to come by.

As collectivization began to be implemented from 1954, many Yanggao people took refuge further north. Two of Yu Fucai’s uncles fled to Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and there are still many craftsmen from Yanggao around Hohhot and Baotou.

Yu Fucai had eight children, a heavy responsibility. Erhur had to ask him to recite the gongche solfeggio in the evenings after he got back from the fields. In the mornings after he had practised, he would do chores for his master like milling, fetching water, and ploughing. There were so many mouths to feed that all the flour you milled in a morning was only enough for one meal. In 2003 three of Yu Fucai’s sons, as well as a nephew, were still active as gujiang in Xiejiatun.

Erhur 2003.2

Session at Xiejiatun, 2003.

If all was not all sweetness and light in the Hua family band, gujiang relations in Xiejiatun sound still more fraught. Several gujiang from Xiejiatun apprenticed themselves to the Hua family: one Erxianr (surname Xie) from Xiejiatun got into a feud with the Yu family, so he made a point of antagonizing them by going over to Hua Fa as “disciple crossing the gate”. Another blindman, Duan Guanming (b. c1927, known as Liuzhi “Six fingers” as he had an extra finger on one hand), also came from Xiejiatun, but got on better with Hua Yinshan than with the Yu family—we found him playing in Hua Yinshan’s band in 1991.


Duan Guanming on woodblock, 1991.

Erhur came back to the county-town when he was 18 sui (c1963) to set up his own band, taking disciples. Hua Yinshan didn’t mention this, but in his teens he sometimes played for Erhur’s band these next couple of years; he only played sheng at first, but was beginning to get the hang of the shawm too. There was also a great player in Erhur’s band called Little Jinxi (surnamed Wang), from nearby Qingshunbu. For the operatic pieces played in the afternoon of funerals, he used to play two kouqin whistles at once, making a big sound that drew the crowds. He died on the eve of the Cultural Revolution aged only 41 sui, coughing up blood in the middle of playing—an alarmingly common and prestigious way for shawm players to die.

Yin San
Meanwhile, another blindman was “learning gujiang” in the town. Like Erhur, Yin San (b. c1947) played dizi flute when young. He began learning shawm from 16 sui (c1962) with the blind town gujiang Song Chengxin. Yin San also studied at some stage with a gujiang in Wangguantun township, learning the gongche solfeggio of the shawm pieces from him—which he later forgot.


Yin San (right) with Liuru, 2003.

Yin San and Erhur both had town registration, and were blind, so they did not have to apply for leave of absence from any production-team or hand over any money to them, unlike village-registered gujiang. Moreover, their ceremonial activities were tolerated more readily by cadres; blindmen could put all their energies into being gujiang, so they could do well. Yin San recalled that in the early 1960s a band got around 5 kuai for an afternoon, 8 kuai for playing all day, 10 kuai including the burial procession next morning. Erhur claimed that while most bands could earn about 12 kuai a day, his own band was so admired that he could charge 22 kuai. In fact payments were only calculated in terms of cash, they were still paid in food: peanuts or gao paste, 1 jin or half a jin each per day—Yu Fucai’s hemp sack was tough from the oil.

But even sighted village bands could still get permission from their production-team to go out on business. The Xiejiatun band earned a dozen kuai a day then, of which they had to give the commune 1.5 kuai each day they were away, in return for one whole work-point each. The band boss Yu Fucai took 15 shares of the fee plus 10 shares for providing the instruments, while everyone else got 10 shares. Yu only used one or two musicians from outside his own family, so it was worth it. Doing funerals they got to eat out for free too, and didn’t have to till the communal fields all the time, so it was a better life than being a peasant.

Still, I can’t quite build a consistent picture from such accounts of gujiang business before the Cultural Revolution. They articulated no clear distinction between the various periods from 1949 to 1966, though I surmise that business must have been easier before collectivization around 1954, and again briefly during the lull in campaigns from around 1961 to 1964. Yin San claimed rosily, “Before the Cultural Revolution business was even better than today, around twenty days a month—there weren’t so many gujiang then, so there was more work to go round.” But he only took part in the life from the early 1960s.

Conversely, Liuru, who was trying to make a living through the 1950s, said times were tough. Erhur pointed out that there was less business under Maoism than either before Liberation or since the 1980s reforms, because people had less money; one death provided no more than three days’ work in all, whereas earlier and later, taking into account all the subsidiary observances before and after the funeral proper, it might provide up to ten days’ work. He reckoned that in the 1950s, bands might go out on business seven or eight times a month, or “every three days or so”.

They agreed that despite all the famine deaths around 1960, there wasn’t so much business then—if people had any money at all, they’d buy something to eat, not invite gujiang. Liuru recalled that for funerals during the famine years, people could only put out a couple of mantou bread rolls on the altar table before the coffin; whenever there was a death, work-teams turned up to prevent gujiang playing and stop the family burning paper spirit-money, on pain of a fine. Indeed, in Yanggao the famine continued until at least 1965, and people were hungry right into the late 1970s. Still, I think we have to assume a slight and temporary improvement in people’s lives in the early 1960s when Erhur and Yin San set up in business.

The Hua band
In Yangjiabu village just north of the county-town, Hua Fa (1917–87), father of Yinshan and Jinshan, was much admired as a gujiang. His nickname was “Heavenly dragon” (Tianlong); soon he was simply known as “Great gujiang” (Da gujiang). He was also known as “Sighted Fifth brother” (Zhengyan wugar) or “False Fifth brother” (Jia wugar), by contrast with another famous blind gujiang in Zhenmenbu village just further east called “Blind Fifth brother” (Xia wugar, surnamed Xue) or “True Fifth brother” (Zhen wugar)—“true” and “false” alluding to the fictional character Monkey. There was no love lost between rival bands: “True Fifth brother” was murdered by a rival gujiang while they were performing for a funeral in the 1940s.

Hua Yinshan’s second uncle Hua Yi, known as “Second gujiang” (Er gujiang), also smoked opium. Their drummer was a blind man—Hua Fa was also a fine drummer. The celebrated gujiang Little Jinxi, from nearby Qingshunbu, sometimes played for Hua Fa band as well as for Erhur. The Hua band had a long-standing feud with the Xiejiatun band, though some Xiejiatun men preferred to come over to Hua Fa’s band, like blindman Duan Guanming, long a regular recruit. Another disciple of Hua Fa was known as “Second Dragon” (Erlong), from Yaozhuang village just east.

Duan Guanming accompanying Hua Yinshan in trick repertoire, 1991:
note Yinshan’s cloistered daughter.

Hua Yinshan claimed he became the “main beam” of the family band on large shawm from the age of 17 sui (c1964). He had heard the classic suites in the family band for many years, but had apparently only just begun playing them on large shawm.

Hua Yinshan was also working with several other bands in this period, with his father’s blessing, as the family needed all the work they could find. He spent some time in the bands of blindmen Erhur and Yin San, both based in the county-town, playing the lower part on shawm, as well as the sheng mouth-organ and the drum. As we saw, Erhur was a disciple of Yu Fucai’s band in Xiejiatun; the Yu band had a long-standing feud with the Hua band, but there was always some interplay.

Apart from the county-town and the villages of Yangjiabu and Xiejiatun, nearby Guanjiabu was the base of another fine gujiang band. The senior gujiang Shi Youtang (d. c1998) had a blind disciple called Shi Zhenfu, a distant relative of his (though their surnames were different Shi characters); he was known as Errenr “Two people”! Both led bands into the 1980s. Another blindman from Guanjiabu, called Yinhur (surname Li), became a disciple of Hua Fa.

Hua Yinshan told me the story of his father’s no.1 large shawms. In the 1940s a blindman called Chanxi in Guanjiabu wanted to buy a pair of shawms. An itinerant shawm maker called Wang Lianguo had moved from Yuxian in Hebei to Chenjiabu, near Yangjiabu. He went to Chanxi’s house to sell him a pair of shawms—this would have been around 1945, when Hua Fa was in his early 30s, between the births of Jinshan and Yinshan. But Chanxi didn’t know how to choose them, so he asked Hua Fa to help him. After Chanxi died, he left the wooden bodies of his shawms to his daughter, who later sold them to Yinshan.

Over twenty-six days in 1989, as part of their work for the Anthology, the Yanggao Bureau of Culture used their limited equipment to make a whole series of precious cassette recordings of the most distinguished shawm bands, including those of the Hua family, Shi Ming in Wangguantun, and Yang Deshan (father of Yang Ying) in Gucheng, as well as the bands of Xiejiatun, Guanjiabu, Luowenzao township, Qingshunbu, and Greater Antan (see my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.49).

Li Zhonghe
South of the county-town in Shizitun township, yet another celebrated blind gujiang was based in Yaozhuang village. Li Zhonghe (1908–88), known as Second Kid (Erwa 二娃), went blind at the age of 5 or 6 after an itinerant doctor tried to cure his ailing eyes by putting eggshell over them. Li Zhonghe learnt sheng and shawm from 15 sui, sometimes making up a band with an outstanding gujiang called Wantai (surnamed Cui) from Zhouguantun village nearby. Li had two younger colleagues (shidi) in his village, the brothers Fan Liang and Fan Gao.

Around 1952, after the death of Li Zhonghe’s first wife, he married a widow who already had a son and daughter. The son Li Bin (b.1945, not the same as his namesake, Li Manshan’s son!) played percussion in his stepfather’s band from around 1955, and began learning sheng and shawm, as well as gongche solfeggio, with him about four years later. Li Bin claimed his stepfather’s band didn’t stop playing through the Great Leap Forward or the ensuing famine.

Since the reforms
The collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s allowed an impressive revival of tradition (for the Daoists, see e.g. here). But by 2003 the scene was changing further. Erhur was still leading a band, having readily taken pop on board. He and his wife made a handsome couple, and had a lovely clean household in town—though their son, who managed to enter the police force despite (or by dint of?) a dubious reputation, was a worry. Erhur claimed to be able to perform the three suites that we couldn’t track down; but he was later reluctant to recite or perform them for us, perhaps worrying about my relationship with his rival Hua Yinshan.

Yin San, also married, was getting 90 kuai a month from the government disability benefit, and still led a band, usually playing cymbals. Of his two pupils, the younger had been with him for eight years. They could play the few traditional pieces still required for rituals, and Yin San felt no need to transmit the ones that weren’t. After his fine drummer Ling Dawenr (b. c1924) retired, Hua Jinshan had no competition.

Liuru hadn’t played since around 1988. Now he reckoned that only sighted people could do business (chixiang 吃香, a common term for popularity)—no-one wanted blind people any more. Erhur and Yin San were still doing well by adapting; they were a bit younger, more enterprising, and had more of a reputation as musicians. But he was right that in a cut-throat pop market, blindmen were no longer able to hold their own as gujiang without a solid support network.

The decrepit little shack where we found Liuru living in 2003 had been his “base area” for over thirty years; he bought it with the little money that remained when his parents died. His registration was at Xibei village commune, from whom he got 60 kuai a month benefit; as an urban resident his wife (also blind) got 90 kuai. Since giving up the shawm in 1990 Liuru had survived by begging the left-overs from restaurants, but led a pitiful life. He had no contact with his brothers and sisters, and just before we met him his wife had “gone crazy” and he had seen fit to lock her in an outhouse.

Such is the disturbing fate of a lovely senior musician who could still recite the gongche solfeggio of the eight suites more fluently than any other gujiang in the area. Listening to him as he sat cross-legged on the kang brick-bed which takes up most of the space in his pathetic little room, his eyes vacant yet placid as he spoke with dignity and insight of his days as gujiang, would be an upsetting experience for the most hardened fieldworker.

Li Zhonghe’s stepson Li Bin is an exceptional case. Unusually for a gujiang family, Li Bin did quite well in school. Though intermittently active as gujiang through the early years of the Cultural Revolution, around 1970 he went off to work in the coal mines of Datong city, becoming a cadre there, only resuming gujiang business again when he retired in 1996.

Li Zhonghe had taken up as a gujiang again after the reforms, and was still playing right until his death in 1988. He had a blind disciple (younger brother of talented young yinyang Wu Mei) who showed great promise as a gujiang, but he had only been learning for a few months when Li Zhonghe died. Li Bin now wanted to complete his stepfather’s mission in helping him learn, but the disciple soon decided against becoming a gujiang. However, Li Bin soon found another promising disciple.

By 2003 Li Bin had handed over the leadership of the band to Yu He (Quanmin, b. c1960) who played drum and yangqin; he only took up the business after being demobbed from the army in 1984. So the band was now based at Yu He’s home of Fanjiatun village nearby in Tianzhen county. Yu He’s son Chunbo (known as Bobo, like Hua Yinshan’s grandson; b. c1987) became Li Bin’s only pupil, learning since 2001. Li Bin could afford to be choosy; his criterion for accepting a pupil was that they have to be “of good character” (renpin)—an unlikely demand for a gujiang. After leaving primary school, Bobo “wasn’t interested in anything”, so his dad took him along with the band to show him how tough it was making a living; but Bobo fell in love with the life and became a brilliant musician. Though he mainly played pop, Li Bin also taught him pieces from the traditional repertory.

Da Li Bin 2003

Li Bin (left) with Wu Fan, 2003.

Li Bin is at a certain remove from the tradition, far more educated than most gujiang, and quite articulate. Living in Yanggao county-town, his house is comfortable, and the family is quite well-off. His wife became a Protestant around 1993; Li Bin was still at the mines, and she had a tough time having to look after their three children all alone, with no-one to talk to. Li Bin (not himself a believer) sometimes set Protestant lyrics to pop songs for her to use in church. Sincere and curious to study local traditions, he made a rather ideal co-fieldworker.

We saw how gujiang, outcasts in the “old society”, have gradually become rather more assimilated into society, first by being forced into a sedentary agricultural life under the communes, and then by the equality brought by earning power since the reforms. Along with their outcast status before Maoism came a lack of education or upward mobility. Among gujiang families, Li Bin was exceptional in doing relatively well at school, and even more so in finding a job as a cadre. Still more surprising is that having apparently escaped from the lowly life, he then chose to return to it after retirement. In his case, apart from supplementing his pension and giving him something to do, he feels a genuine enthusiasm for the music he learnt from his stepfather in his youth, only tempered now by its rapid loss under the assault of pop music.

Meanwhile Li Bin has been painstakingly making emic transcriptions of his father’s repertoire (both the suites and the many “little pieces” also formerly required for particular ritual segments), writing a 126-page score with parallel gongche solfeggio and cipher notation. While scholars (myself included) have transcribed the Yanggao shawm suites, this is a unique labour of love from a performer.

Very few gujiang could graduate to the world of urban troupes (for Shi Ming’s brief sojourn in Datong, see here), and while most sons of gujiang were now inclined to seek a more respectable profession, other poor village boys might still see it as a better option than tilling the fields—all the more now that learning pop music is less demanding than the traditional training. Today gujiang bands are often in the age-range of 15 to 45. Their main repertory is pop, besides Jinju and Errentai opera pieces and a dwindling repertory of traditional shawm pieces still required to maintain a façade of ceremonial propriety.

Li Sheng

Li Sheng, 2018.

The two Li families (those of Li Zhonghe and the Li family Daoists) have long been on good terms. The great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s, when Daoist ritual was on hold. Li Bin’s younger stepbrother Li Sheng (b.1954) learnt suona and sheng from his early 20s upon the revival, spending some years as disciple of Hua Yinshan. He did some petty trade in Datong, as well as doing, returning around 2000. Gradually he gravitated to playing sheng with the Li family Daoists; he has long been a regular member of Li Manshan’s band.

I introduced Zhang Quan, a rather younger semi-blind gujiang in Pansi village whom I’m always happy to see, in these vignettes of the diverse personalities from whom we learned in Yanggao.

* * *

In some other parts of north China (like the Northeast, or Shandong) shawm bands have long and prestigious hereditary traditions, but here, as in Shaanbei, few bands can trace their history back more than three generations—though their classic suite repertoire is more ancient. Note that rather few gujiang live to old age; until the 1950s many were blind, smoked opium, and died young, and it is still quite unusual to find gujiang still playing in their 60s; anyway, opium-smoking blindmen from a despised caste found it hard to set up a family. By the early 21st century senior gujiang were still happy to take disciples, but as it is a low-status occupation they didn’t necessarily encourage their own sons to learn, hoping they would get an education and a proper job instead. If this is true today, there was less choice in the past, with education even rarer and job opportunities fewer.

While sighted players also deserve recognition as gujiang, and suffered from similar discrimination, blindmen formed the core of many Yanggao bands right until the 1990s. Since then they have become less common, along with the whole rich culture of shawm bands in north Shanxi.

But I still cherish the memory of these blind shawm players—outcasts who embodied the wealth of traditional folk culture that somehow survived down to the eve of the 21st century, dovetailing with the rituals of the household Daoists. With their deep experience of the “old rules” of ceremonial, far from the abstruse erudition of the literati who dominate sinology, they were among the main transmitters of imperial Chinese culture, who should be esteemed.





Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup


There’s been some fine media coverage to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. So apart from my numerous posts under the Maoism tag, here’s a roundup of some of my posts on life, and death, behind the Iron Curtain—always bearing Chinese connections in mind.

On the GDR (for which note the useful Twitter # @DDROnline):

On the USSR:


And for bitter jokes from behind the Iron Curtain:

See also various posts under the Czech tag, notably

All this complements posts on Nazism, such as

Uyghur culture in crisis

My love’s flames, I have become a beggar, indeed Allah
Before the whole world I stand alone, indeed Allah
I have suffered for an age, Allah, my patience is ended, Allah
I have become a moth drawn to the beauty of your face, indeed Allah
Oh lovers, your desire, Allah, my heart is addicted, Allah
I revel in your pleasure, Allah, I have become a drunkard, Allah
In the city, Allah, I have become a wine shop boy, indeed Allah
Before the whole world, Allah, I have been ruined, indeed Allah

—from Chahargah muqam, fifth mäshräp,
translated by Rachel Harris.

I’ve already featured Uyghur culture in Ashiq: the last troubadour, shrine festivals, and drum-and-shawm bands, I began writing this post with the simple idea of sharing an exquisite free-tempo prelude from the great muqam suites; but, as often, it has grown into more wide-ranging reflections.

In particular, since I noted the perceived crisis of “serious music” in the West, the current plight of Uyghur culture makes an extreme instance of crisis—to which the muqam’s lyrics of religious anguish make a sadly fitting commentary.

The muqam
I’ve been revisiting

  • Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Chinese Central Asia (2008),

a book that seems even more important now that virtually all of the culture she describes, which having been tolerated (and in its official manifestations even supported) by the Chinese state for more than half a century, is now being ruthlessly extinguished. [1]


Over an economical 157 pages, Harris pinpoints a range of major issues.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national aspects. Thus we find in this new period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertories imbued with aesthetic value.

The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop [sic!] the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage.

Describing the wider project on minority cultures, she comments:

Subject to processes of “reform and ordering”, dance styles were transformed into group choreographies, songs were transcribed and fixed, scales and musical instruments standardized, and a nation-wide system of professional performers was put in place, trained in arts academies, and organized into state-sponsored performing troupes.

These versions are disseminated through live performance, TV and radio, publications and recordings. Still, while documenting the official urban troupes, Harris never loses sight of local folk traditions. She also places the Uyghur muqam within the wider context of Central Asian muqam families (notably in Chapter 5).

Perhaps I should now use the past tense in this section:

The muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes, and instrumental sections. Lyrics by both the major Central Asian poets and folk poetry. Religious mendicants also perform versions of the songs, and drum-and-shawm bands play the instrumental melodies. All this music is traditionally handed down without notation.

The titles of the muqam denote modal attributes, while the names of the pieces within them denote rhythmic patterns. Its tripartite outline subsumes numerous subsections:

  • chong näghmä, a lengthy suite of sung pieces with märghul instrumental interludes
  • dastan: a sequence of folk narrative songs, again with märghul
  • mäshräp: faster dance pieces, sung to folk lyrics.

One fascinating theme of Chapter 2 is how canonisation predates the PRC initiatives, with Uyghur troupes in the Soviet Central Asian states formalising the repertoire as early as the 1920s under the influence of Soviet ideology.


From Wong, “The value of missing tunes”.

In China under the PRC, the 1951 and 1954 recordings of the Kashgar master Turdi Akhun (1881–1956) formed the basis of transcriptions by the Beijing-based scholar Wan Tongshu, published in 1960, and went on to become the core of the whole glossy edifice of the official Twelve Muqam. [2]

So it seems strange that these celebrated recordings (apart from a brief section on the CD with a 2007 book) have remained under a cloak of secrecy. Doubtless Turdi Akhun’s performing style was less polished than that of the state troupes, but archive recordings of Chinese music [sic] from the pre-Cultural Revolution era have been issued.

Wan Tongshu also headed a new state-supported Muqam Research Working Group, which in 1957 organised a three-month fieldtrip to the southern region. Another leading Han Chinese scholar working on the muqam in the 1950s was Jian Qihua, whose transcriptions of the “Ili variant” were belatedly published in 1998. The official song-and-dance troupe in Urumchi began performing sections of these arrangements until the Cultural Revolution disrupted traditional activity. Meanwhile similar initiatives, producing composite versions of the muqam, were under way beyond the borders of China.

Ozhal coverIn Xinjiang the liberalisations following the collapse of the commune system from 1979 allowed the resumption of both folk activity and official research. Furthering the work that had begun in the 1950s, a Muqam Research Committee was formed in 1979, soon incorporated into the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. They went on to produce major series of recordings and transcriptions. Meanwhile the compilation of the Anthology provided a major new stimulus to fieldwork.

The 16th-century princess Amannisa Khan, subject of a popular 1993 film, was now claimed as an early fieldworker and compiler of the muqam, providing a fanciful historical cachet. Chinese state support for the muqam continued despite the increasing tensions that followed 9/11.


Reminding us that the musicians and researchers involved in such projects are real people with real lives, Chapter 3 is a vivid portrait of the eccentric musician Abdulla Mäjnun (b.1946). Indeed, the word mäjnun denotes an ashiq religious mendicant and a fool, a sarang: intoxicated and infatuated. Though he identified strongly with the ashiq, and was an outsider in the official Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble troupe where he was employed, he had learned to consider himself not a muqamchi, a term to describe an accomplished folk performer (cf. the Chinese minjian yiren), but a “muqam expert”, a more prestigious term with connotations of science, modern scholarship, and the urban world. In the professional musical circles of Urumchi, where drinking culture loomed large, he was in a league of his own.

Harris gives lively vignettes of a trip with him back to his native Khotan, observing his prestige and capacity for liquor. She concludes:

On one level Mäjnun’s conversations are revealing because he is so clearly engaged in strategically deploying the range of different metaphors at his disposal. On another level Mäjnun is interesting precisely because he embodies that collision of metaphors which I delineated in my discussion of Uyghur music histories: the disreputable, uncontrolled aspects of music and creativity in Uyghur tradition which sit uncomfortably with the notion of “national traditions” and the canon.

Abdulla Mäjnun is heard, solo, on the CD with the book, notably in some intimate muqaddime preludes. For these he favours the diltar, a combination of dutar and satar that he himself invented, “a cross between a double-necked electric guitar and a cathedral, or perhaps, rather, a mosque.” He also features on the CD Majnun: classical traditions of the Uyghurs.

Harris mentions Sabine Trebinjac’s brief biographies of female beggar musicians such as Shāyrnisa Khan,

living in Kashgar in the 1980s, who had had four husbands. Her husbands had disapproved of her begging, but she suffered from a sickness, and had to sing and play daily, in front of the mosque or at festivals, or on pilgrimage. She was a member of Naqshbandi Sufi group, and also took part in regular zikr rituals.

Such accounts, like my own for Han Chinese folk musicians, contrast with the compulsory image presented in Chinese biographies, in which folk musicians “selflessly present their art”, the vicissitudes of their lives under modern regimes largely ignored.

Contrary to the current tendency to regard the Twelve Muqam as something isolated and essentially different from the song repertoire (“classical” versus “folk”), in practice the two have often been mixed together, and it is common practice to follow the muqaddime with a suite of folk songs.

Chapter 4 gives details of the musical structure of the competing, evolving versions, showing that in the diversity of traditional performance, both the musical and lyrical repository of the so-called Twelve Muqam have long been combined in different ways.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Twelve Muqam have existed less as an actual body of music and more as a kind of idealised framework surrounding a much more fluid oral tradition, from which individual musicians would learn and perform different parts, and into which musicians might slot their own local repertoires and compositions.

After an astute historical introduction, Harris shows the links between the mäshräp sections of the muqam with hikmät prayers of Sufi religious mendicants. She notes the Muqam Research Committee’s ongoing quest for another Turdi Akhun among the folk:

They were not above pulling in ashiq they found begging in the bazaar to see if they might possess the holy grail of previously undiscovered parts of the repertoire. Mäjnun told me one morning as I arrived for my lesson:

We found an ashiq on the street this morning, playing sapaya [wood or horn percussion sticks set with metal rings]. We brought him to the Muqam Ensemble to see what he could do, but he was all mixed up, he played a bit of Chābayyat then followed into Ushshaq.

She goes on to give a diachronic analysis of renditions of the muqaddime preludes:

If there is any vestige of an improvised tradition in the Twelve Muqam, then it would be these muqäddimä sections, which are structured like an exploration of the mode.

As she notes,

Traditionally the lead vocalist would accompany himself, but specialisation in professional training has meant that these roles are separated in the troupes.

Sensibly, she gives reductive outline transcriptions, rather than the etic versions of other publications; indeed, I favour this method for traditional Han Chinese melody. Despite the importance of notation for the canonisation project, among Uyghur performers its influence is limited.

In orchestration too, Harris notes the contrast between folk and professional ideals, citing Ted Levin on the Bukharan Shash Maqām—the “limpid filigree” of the traditional small ensemble versus the “bloated heterophony” of the large-scale professional versions.

The muqaddime
In my post Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham I gave a little introduction to free-tempo preludes around the world. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intense muqaddime of Özhal muqam—perhaps because of its tonal variety, with new scales, featuring a flat 7th and sharp 4th, introduced gradually. Here’s a 1997 recording:

My afflicted soul heads towards the Valley of Insanity
I hope this already wretched life of mine will break
The gravedigger who ignores the candle of my tomb
Will surely have his house and rags burnt by its sparks
Do not ask where I go—I have no choice
I have surrendered choice to the hands of Destiny
The rose-coloured tears have dried up, leaving but a withered face
The tyranny of Fate has exchanged my spring with autumn
My people, together with my beloved, gave me much trouble
What will become of me if I resolve to leave them behind?
Anyone’s chest will ache for my condition, when they see
My face smeared with blood from the broken pieces of my bosom
Peace is impossible until one abandons the world
Nawai, burn my existence, and deliver me
Way, derdim ah!

Abdulla Mäjnun was especially devoted to Chahargah muqam, said to be for the ashiq (CD #7, which he played with tears running down his cheeks). But all the muqaddime are exquisite—here’s a transcription of Nawa, from the climax (äwäj): [3]


Chapter 6 explores the impact of canonisation, not least the inclusion of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since 2005. She discusses the impact at grass-roots level of efforts to “rescue” local traditions:

To what extent had these efforts established hegemony over local practices? Had rural musicians adopted the officially promoted repertoire or were they maintaining local traditions, and how did these traditions relate to the official repertoire? What plans had been drawn up as part of the UNESCO plan, and how were they being put into action?

Among the local traditions, the “raw, macho sounds” of the Dolan muqam were now elevated to become a folk counterpart to the official professional version. But other local folk styles were fragile and perishable; and as in other parts of the world, any official promotion played little part in their evolution. Harris describes the impact of the independent recording industry, finding the cassettes of performers like Abliz Shakir more significant an influence than those of the official troupes:

The failure of the Muqam Ensemble to capture the popular imagination lies in a combination of aesthetic and political considerations. Firstly the state-run ensemble is arguably too closely associated with the Chinese regime for their performances to be popularly adopted as Uyghur nationalist icons. Secondly, amateur musicians were deterred by the complexity of the chong näghmä section, and by the heavy orchestral-choral arrangements. In fact these aesthetic and political considerations are inseparable, as the ensemble aesthetic—one which is modelled on transnational models of canonic, national traditions—is itself representative of the state. Abliz Shakir’s recordings, released through the independent recording industry and sold on stalls in the bazaars, signalling another kind of authenticity in their performance style, and perhaps aided by the performer’s own ambivalent relationship with the authorities, achieved a far greater popularity.

She notes

concerns about the possibility of negative impact following the UNESCO bid, with local muqam traditions becoming increasingly commercialised and exploited in Xinjiang’s exploding tourism market.

She illustrates the complexities of local activity with a vivid description of a village mäshräp festivity. Indeed, the mäshräp always made an implausible candidate for the ICH: having been commodified by the state it has recently been coopted into the sinister form of the “mäshräp to tackle religious extremism“. [4]

In conclusion Harris comments:

If the few surviving local traditions of Twelve Muqam, which are all too lacking the glamour and musical sophistication of the recorded versions recorded by star performers, are to be locally revived and maintained then they must somehow achieve greater relevance to local musicians and audiences.

But as she stresses, the canonised Twelve Muqam are only one aspect of the whole muqam tradition, elements of which may be found in a wide range of Uyghur musicking. Or rather could be found, until 2016.

Among the scholars whom Harris cites is the Han-Chinese Zhou Ji (1943–2008), who by the 1980s was the leading figure in Uyghur music research. A native of Jiangsu province, in the critical times of 1959, aged 16, he set off to Xinjiang in response to the state’s call to “support the frontier regions”. He remained based there for the rest of his life; from 1985 he was employed at the Xinjiang Arts Research Unit in Urumchi, which he went on to lead. Thoroughly immersed in Uyghur culture (not least its drinking culture), Zhou Ji was highly regarded in the Uyghur musical world. [5] Chief editor of the Xinjiang volumes of the Anthology, he took the folk ritual life of the Uyghurs seriously—note his major 1999 book on Islamic ritual music of the Uyghurs—[6] and even studied female ritual specialists and their repertoires. While he was inevitably involved with official promotions such as the ICH, Harris notes that he dared to publicly voice a number of criticisms concerning the canonisation project.

Zhou Ji

Zhou Ji with Uyghur musicians.

But it was Uyghurs who formed the core of researchers before and since the Cultural Revolution. More recently, scholars such as the anthropologist Rahilä Dawut—also supported within the academic apparatus of the Chinese state—furthered scholarly work.


Rahilä Dawut.

The current devastation
Harris’s book was published in 2009, at a time when Uyghur cultural life was still much in evidence despite growing restrictions since 9/11; Uyghur, Chinese, and foreign scholars were still able to do fieldwork. Apart from local traditions such as shrine festivals and pilgrimages, the state (for all its ideological motives) was still actively promoting Uyghur culture.

And then, from 2016, came the repression—in which musicians like Sanubar Tursun and academics like Rahilä Dawut are among innumerable casualties. The ruthless current assault is being diligently documented in the media, such as

As centuries of magnificent lyrics are erased, sporadic official performances set to secular Chinese texts now reduces the muqam to flagrant propaganda, mere political rituals of loyalty to a Han nationalist vision of the Chinese state.

I used to think that such demonstrations of state power were tangential to folk life, but in the current plight of the Uyghurs, with the whole culture—architecture, religious life, clothing, hair styles, food, language—being purged, little else may remain.

Despite all the difficulties of maintaining Uyghur culture since 1949, and the political tensions that state performers, and Uyghur and Chinese scholars, had to negotiate, the scene before 2016 now seems almost unimaginable. Both urban and rural, folk and academic life, even the state-sanctioned versions of Uyghur culture, have been decimated.

The current campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture is an affront to humanity.


[1] For her numerous other publications, see, with further material under Note also Nathan Light, Intimate heritage: creating Uyghur song in Xinjiang (2008). Among many recordings, note the 2-CD set of local folk groups by Jean During and Sabine Trebinjac, Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïgoure (1990).

[2] See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).

[3] For a complete version of the Özhal suite, click here (for the jarring exoticised visuals, “an imagined idyll of the past”, see Harris, pp.91–2). Since I never got to master its muqaddime with the London-based singer Rahime Mahmut—my attempts to learn the satar being even more inept than my limited abilities on ghijak—I was happy to hear her performing it (with ud!) at the 2019 Muslim news awards for excellence (from 10.38). Abdulla Mäjnun plays the Nawa muqaddime on the CD, #6; for another version, click here; and for the complete suite, here.

[4] See Rachel Harris, ” ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang”, in Roberts and Bovingdon (eds), “Develop the West”: Chinese state development and Uyghur cultural resilience, adaptation, and cooptation in Xinjiang (2018).

[5] Tributes, mainly from Chinese musicologists, are assembled in a commemorative volume edited by Tian Qing 田青, Mukamu weini songxing: Zhou Ji jinian wenji 木卡姆为你送行:周吉纪念文集 (2009).

[6] Zhongguo Xinjiang Weiwuerzu Yisilanjiaode liyi yinyue 中国新疆维吾尔族伊斯兰教礼仪音乐—a title that could not be published today; it’s still visible online in the PRC, though no longer for order.


A village scholar

My vignettes from Gaoluo, taken from my book Plucking the winds, have featured both performing members of the village’s amateur ritual association (Cai Fuxiang, He Qing, Cai An) and supporters like the venerable Shan Zhihe. The name of Shan Fuyi has already cropped up in several posts, but he deserves a separate account.


Shan Fuyi (right) with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, 1996.

Shan Fuyi (b.1940) is considered the village’s xiucai talented scholar. Amateur historian, painter and calligrapher, he is widely admired for his intelligence and artistic bent. He was given the task of writing the village history in 1965, and in between making donors’ lists for the opera troupe and the ritual association he did artwork for the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupe. Latterly he became a trusted employee of Boss Heng, the village’s own nouveau-riche entrepreneur.

We had heard so much about him, but since he was based at Boss Heng’s workplace near Laishui county-town, we never coincided in the village—he seemed elusive, and we even joked that maybe he was a figment of our imaginations.

Finally in 1996 we sought him out in his work-unit. He affably sat us down and, without any preamble, launched into a detailed account of the village from its founding through to the 1990s, instinctively understanding our brief without any need for the long justifications which we sometimes have to give cadres or even ordinary villagers. Indeed, later we did indeed meet up back in the village. Our hopes were well rewarded, and we had many edifying sessions with him, learning from his wide-ranging and impartial knowledge; his detachment in observing the vicissitudes of the village’s history was of rare value.

He is the main source of my account of the village’s early history (Plucking the winds, chs.1–3); indeed, his work gave us valuable perspectives on the history of the whole area, not least the terminology of village names and the she parish network.

Shan Fuyi is not a ritual specialist, and regards himself as a “thorough atheist”, but he takes a keen yet dispassionate interest in all aspects of human behaviour. He’s never been the leading type; unlike most Chinese, who are long accustomed to public speaking, he is petrified of such occasions; with my own stammer, this further endears him to me. He seems to float above the village, observing with detachment and perception. He understood our mission implicitly. He is at once down-to-earth and transcendent. Unassuming, introverted, yet humorous, he never bothered with the empty platitudes of Party-speak. Still, recalling his experiences in the Cultural Revolution and since, he reckons “I keep right up with the way things are going”, a charmingly ambiguous comment; perhaps his very detachment has enabled him to ride all the storms.

Shan Fuyi’s early years
Born in 1940 to a virtually illiterate father, Shan Fuyi attended private school in Zhuozhou county just north for half a year during the civil war when he was 7 sui. With quiet humour, he recalls:

Our texts were The Hundred Family Surnames and The Three Character Classic; when the 8th Route Army passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Mao”; when Nationalist troops passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Jiang” [Chiang Kaishek]; having not offended either of them, when they had both left we could get back to reciting “Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li” [The Hundred Family Surnames] again!

His godfather was Sun Xiang, a spirit medium and folk healer. In 1949 he entered 2nd grade at the village primary school. He recalled the village’s last rain procession that summer. From 1955 he attended the No.1 Secondary School in Laishui county-town, graduating from the junior department early in 1958. He then passed an exam to study surveying at technical college in distant Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province to the west. In 1960 he began training at the Shanxi Machine Building Factory, but like many villagers, he was forced by the grave national economic hardships to return home to South Gaoluo in the autumn of 1961, cutting short a promising career. He now served as book-keeper for the brigade orchards.

Meanwhile the village ritual associations continued to adapt to the new regime. After the Great Leap Forward and the famine, the revival of the early 1960s (however short-lived) was significant for the transmission of traditional culture. Not only were the village’s ritual associations reinvigorated, with a substantial group of new recruits training, but the opera troupe also revamped their equipment (Plucking the winds, pp.143–5). Like the ritual associations, they too sought donations from all the village households, shown on Shan Fuyi’s donors’ list dated 2nd moon 1964. In 1996 the musicians took it out to show us:

opera beiwen 1964 edited

Writing a village history
In 1965 the Four Cleanups work-team ordered Shan Fuyi to compile a history of the village up to Liberation in 1948. This may seem like an unlikely task, but their purpose of this was frankly political: in order to “cleanse the class ranks”, they needed a definitive version of the village’s history.

In north China, apart from county gazetteers (from imperial, Republican, and reform eras), and in some counties one finds slim volumes of “material on cultural history” (wenshi ziliao); but with rural literacy low, this is the only history of an individual village that I have seen compiled by a local scholar.

As I observed here, in my work with the Li family Daoist in Shanxi I mainly talk with one extended family, seemingly detached from politics, and with hardly any contact with local leaders. Indeed, the experience of “freelance” household Daoists was different from that of peasants tied to the land, and they were always straining to gain some independence from the production teams. Though inevitably deeply affected by political vicissitudes, they had little investment in the public affairs of the village. In Gaoluo, by contrast, several sources helped me to put the village’s ritual and social culture in political context: many of the members of the association held positions of authority under all three periods of 20th-century history, so we naturally talked with the village leadership. With their detailed knowledge of the modern history of the village, several men were able to offer clear accounts of major events in the area and to connect them to the village’s ritual association. But some of our most detailed material came from our talks with Shan Fuyi.

Back in 1965 he conscientiously set about the task of compiling the history. Though the avowed focus would inevitably be the modern political background, he avidly sought evidence for the early history of the village, right back to its founding in the Yongle reign-period (1403–24) of the early Ming. Apart from documenting oral traditions, he consulted several steles: those of the North Baibao temple from the Ming-dynasty Jiaqing era (1522–66), the temple of North Gaoluo from the Qianlong reign (18th century), and the Wenpu si temple in South Gaoluo from the Daoguang era (1840s).  All these steles were soon to be destroyed. Still, even by the 1990s considerable material evidence for the history of both North and South villages of Gaoluo survived, supplementing Shan Fuyi’s research.


The opening of Shan Fuyi’s village history.

After our first meeting with Shan Fuyi in 1996 we all sought the history everywhere in the village and in the county-town, but it didn’t surface. In 1998 he finally brought out a revised version of the history for me, with a mere twenty pages; as he told me, his 1965 version was rather more detailed but also couched in more revolutionary language, full of criticism of “bad elements”, while for his new version he used a more natural style. In a charming reversal of one’s preconceptions, he was apparently giving the foreigner a version from which Communist propaganda had been censored!

In fact our detailed conversations with Shan Fuyi were much more honest and complete than any official version could possibly be. Moreover, his written history went only as far as 1948, whereas our sessions together took the story on to the present. Indeed, he was a thoughtful source for the Maoist and reform eras too.

One topic on which I was able to find considerably more detail in sources from outside the village, unavailable to Shan Fuyi, was the 1900 massacre, which turned out to be a major episode in Boxer history (Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and p.387 n.42). A team from Tianjin University even came to carry out interviews in 1974. Similarly, while elderly villagers still recalled the Italian missionaries before 1949, I managed to document them further through the Stimmatini archives in Verona.

Inevitably, the representation of events surrounding the complex struggle for Liberation was particularly sensitive and controversial. In 1965 Shan Fuyi was still able to interview most of the protagonists in the revolution, including long-serving Party Secretary Heng Futian—despite his recent demotion—and the traumatized Cai Fuxiang.

The brigade gave work-points to those taking part in the meetings—I had to note them down. We met sometimes at Cai Fuxiang’s house—the meetings were held anywhere convenient.

By no means all the meetings were group sessions:

To understand the situation with “negative characters” (those with particularly bad historical problems) we usually did one-to-one interviews—viewpoints could be so different, you couldn’t sort it out in group meetings.

The next stage was to seek corroboration:

After absorbing the statements we’d taken from people in the village, we needed to corroborate them with historical material, so we sent to the county-town for old police statements. We were very conscientious about seeking proper evidence. Whenever I needed any material, I wrote a note for the work-team, and they sent people to get it.

Cai Fumin, one of the large group of young men who had just begun learning the ritual music, was secretary of the village Youth Corps. He recalled,

The work-team wrote a letter of introduction, and me and Ding You went down the county police station to copy a load of statements, like He Jinhu and He Jinshui’s confessions (they’d been executed as counter-revolutionaries), about how they’d fled, how they’d organized the Return-to-the-district troupes and stuff.

The Cultural Revolution
Shan Fuyi remained largely aloof from factional upheavals. He was known as a good writer and artist, and just as in 1964 he had made the donors’ list in traditional style for the opera troupe, now he inevitably got roped in by both factions to write the inscriptions for armbands and flags, and to paint cartoons of “class enemies”. “Large-character posters” were pasted up on the wall of the brigade just opposite maestro Cai An’s house, beside Shan Fuyi’s spirited cartoons showing Capitalist Roaders in dunce’s caps and ratlike figures carrying sedans. As he recalled:

I criticized Deng Xiaoping, criticized Confucius, criticized Liu Shaoqi, criticized the Gang of Four—I criticized everyone except Chairman Mao!

The activities of the village Red Guards were both farcically infantile and casually vicious. While factional strife was not as yet too serious, the Red Guards now singled out not only cadres but helpless individuals with bad class backgrounds.

One main target of the Red Guards’ mission to destroy the “Four Olds” was the demolition of the Catholic church. But they had to work harder to find other icons to smash. The statues in the old temples were so decrepit that no-one had cared much when the brigade finally got rid of them in the early 60s. As Shan Fuyi observed caustically,

The Red Guards were searching for more things to destroy, but there was nothing left, so they had to fight each other instead!

Meanwhile stalwarts of the ritual association scrambled to rescue what artefacts of the village’s tradition that they could, like the Houtu scroll.

Shan Fuyi helped out in the village’s Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupe, painting scenery and doing make-up. Still, petty rivalries persisted. Shan Fuyi recalled the troupe going to perform in nearby Fuwei village in 1967 or 1968. Just like a traditional association, they sent someone ahead to issue a red “paper of homage”; the host village then made preparations, setting up the opera stage and matting tent, and making arrangements for feeding the performers. When the day arrived, the hosts walked to the entrance of the village to receive the Gaoluo troupe:

The United faction managed to put the boot in that day. They spread a rumour that the opera troupe was only going to perform there so they could cadge a free meal. The performers had no choice but to display their revolutionary fervour by nobly declaring that they wouldn’t perform at all if the village insisted on feeding them; they had brought their own rations, and they would absolutely not eat other people’s food! It was late at night by the time the performance came to an end, but they stuck to their guns and went home with empty stomachs, honour intact.

For more on the Cultural Revolution in Gaoluo, see Plucking the winds, ch.6.

Shan Fuyi’s wedding
Meanwhile, at the height of factional conflict, Shan Fuyi got married on the 29th of the 10th moon in 1966. The wedding was a sign of the subtle obstinacy of tradition. Though no great traditionalist himself (his historical erudition is quite dispassionate), as he recalled it for us thirty years later, it was the resistance to imposed modernity which he stressed—he didn’t mention the correct “revolutionary” part of the ceremony at all. They naturally wanted to invite the school percussion band (“gong-and-drum brigade”, luogudui) to give them a lively send-off.

Although these bands were widely used by work-units everywhere to “report joy”, at the time the use of such music for private celebration was considered feudal—indeed, loud percussion in China commonly serves an exorcistic function to “chase off ghosts”. So at the time the school band was not supposed to play for weddings: the revolutionary slogan went “new affairs must be conducted in a new way”. But they weren’t putting up with that: the evening before the wedding they still borrowed the instruments, and our friends suave Shan Ling and upright teacher Shan Rongqing got up a band to play on the edge of the village; on the big day they played in Shan Fuyi’s courtyard.

Incidentally, the blowers-and-drummers from Shiguzhuang just north (who had escorted Shan Zhihe‘s bride in 1937) had still kept active in the 1950s, but after the Cultural Revolution broke out they too were silenced; during wedding feasts some families now asked the blind Shan Jiuhong to sing a few stories instead.

The other area of conflict between tradition and revolution in Shan Fuyi’s wedding was the custom that the couple should ride horses. The chief of the Women’s Association had dutifully informed them that the bride must not observe this feudal custom; but again they got round the problem. They got hold of a couple of horses and rode the three or four hundred metres from his bride’s house to his own, led by villagers taking the bridles. There were five or six tables at the feast, mainly for the two immediate families.

The response of the village cadres was also a sign of the times. They diplomatically stayed away, making excuses that they had business to do outside the village; if they went to the wedding, they’d have to criticize it, or else they’d be criticized themselves later, so it was better just to stay away and feign ignorance. Such “one eye open, one eye closed” behaviour has ever been a major part of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”: within the village, ideology and policy have always been sensitive to local conditions.

Since the reforms
Through the 1980s, after the collapse of the commune system, Shan Fuyi farmed his own land. He also found outlet for his artistic talents by painting landscapes for the corridors and gardens of a hospital in the suburbs of Beijing.

Shan Fuyi enjoys painting and calligraphy—as with his penchant for local history, he is self-taught. He did traditional paintings on the walls of the houses of his musician friends Cai Ran, Cai Yurun, and Shan Ling, a rare sighting in such villages. Maestro Cai An told us:

He did four paintings in his house showing the quarrels between his mother and grandmother, like a sort of cartoon. And he wouldn’t let his family take them down, so everyone could see—that takes a lot of guts! The women quarrelled less after that.

Quite soon after the 1980 restoration, Shan Fuyi made a painting for the ritual association. Depicting Dizang, god of the underworld, it was displayed at for funerals and also for the New Year rituals:

GL Dizang

During this period while he was quite free, he also wrote a lengthy novel, “Dream of the spring boudoir”, aka “Miasma on the river of love”:


novel intro

It describes illicit young love and wedding customs against a background of a village opera troupe and the reclaiming of village land during the Cultural Revolution. He sent it to the Literature Association of the regional capital Baoding, who responded frankly that while it was well above the level demanded for publication, it wasn’t commercial enough since it was “pure literature”, not like the popular martial-arts romances that people wanted to read nowadays; if he wanted to publish it, he’d have to put up the money himself. So he put it back in his drawer. But in a poor rural society where literacy was still low, it’s impressive.

It was Shan Fuyi who made the ritual association’s handsome new donors’ list in 1990. Though we didn’t meet him until 1996, he was well aware that our first visit in 1989 had acted as a stimulus for a reinvigoration of the association. His phrase on the list, showing that the decrepit nature of their ritual building seen by a foreign visitor “lost face” for the Chinese people, turns out to have been sincere. For his story about the sexism of such donations, see here.

1990 beiwen

Shan Fuyi’s circumstances were transformed in 1991 when Boss Heng invited him to work at his embryonic tourist complex north of Laishui county-town, where he was made responsible for designing and organizing architectural and horticultural features.

Shan Fuyi’s wife sometimes looked after the luxurious mansion of Boss Heng in South Gaoluo—a remarkable contrast with the lowly dwellings of other villagers. Of their four children, one son, training for a post in the air-force, married Boss Heng’s daughter on the politically-correct day of 1st October 1997, anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Though his connection with Boss Heng seems an uneasy alliance, this match must have confirmed his position as Heng’s protégé.

In 1995 my Gaoluo friends asked Shan Fuyi to do the calligraphy for a poem they had composed for me, which is one of my most treasured souvenirs:

GL scroll

One day, at a quiet and informal lunch with him and his family in the village, feeling utterly relaxed, I even broke my rule never to touch the lethal baijiu Chinese liquor, so free was he of the usual pompous macho ceremony which accompanies a drinking bout, and A Good Time Was Had By All.

Edifying commercial break: the highly palatable and efficacious Chongzhi Spirit, like Laishui county-town’s most enterprising institution, the Chongzhi Secondary school, is named after the great local mathematician Zu Chongzhi (430–510), who made what was to be the world’s most accurate measurement of Pi until the 16th century. A lot more accurate than if he’d been imbibing his eponymous spirit, I mused as I staggered out into the alley.

* * *

Again we see how the ritual association involved the whole village, serving its ritual needs both before and after Liberation. While Shan Fuyi was not an active member of the association, his research made major contributions in unearthing its history, and his artistic talents were in constant demand. We learned a lot from him.



Customs of naming


LPS jiapu detail

Detail of Li family genealogy copied by Li Peisen, showing Li Xianrong’s generation, and his sons and grandsons.

Lineages in rural north China commonly (though not invariably) observe the custom of alternating single and double given-names by generation.

Most of my instances come from household Daoist lineages, which happen to be my main material. Whereas most of their fellow villagers were illiterate, and common families might not be aware of their forebears’ names beyond their grandfather, household Daoists were often part of a prestigious local gentry, and their rather stable hereditary transmission has preserved names over many generations.

The genealogy of the Li family in Upper Liangyuan village makes a clear instance. The tree below shows only the Daoists in the lineage (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.5). Thus Li Qing gave double names to his sons (like Li Manshan), while their own sons received single names (like Li Bin):

Li jiapu

Daoists in the Li lineage, from Li Fu, himself the 16th generation in the lineage.

Indeed, Li Bin has continued the tradition by naming his son Li Bingchang. You will have noticed that this is a firmly patriarchal tradition; though wives’ surnames are listed on such genealogies, daughters don’t appear at all, and until the 1950s their formal names were little used anyway. While the rule seems to used more flexibly for daughters, they too sometimes follow the pattern, as with Li Bin’s feisty sister Li Min.

Moreover (Daoist priests, p.40), for the double names used every other generation, in one generation the constant element in the given names is the first character, while in their grandsons’ given names it is the second character. Thus the first character pei [1] is the constant in Li Peiye 培業, Li Peixing 培興, Li Peilong 培隆, but in the names of Li Peixing’s grandsons it is the second character shan that is constant: Manshan 滿山, Yushan 玉山, Yunshan 雲山. Brothers with single names receive related characters, like Tao 淘, Qing 清, and Hai 海, all with the water radical; or in that same generation, Tong 桐, Xiang 相, Huan 桓, and Hua 樺, all with the wood radical, like their grandfathers Shi 柘 and Tang 棠.

Among many fine artefacts that Li Peisen handed down to his son Li Hua (see also here) is his 1981 copy of a memorial for a domestic Thanking the Earth ritual dating back to around 1930. Li Peisen dated his copy “70th year of the Republic” (which we perhaps needn’t consider as an affront to the Communist regime), but he didn’t copy the date of the original memorial. The latter was written by his father Li Tang (c1879–c1931) along with a fine genealogy of his branch of the lineage; moreover, when Li Peisen copied it in 1981 he updated it with a list of more recent kin.

And at New Year 1989 Li Qing edited it for his own branch of the family, also as part of a Thanking the Earth memorial. These documents are evidence of the rather prosperous status of the Li lineage. For a start, only relatively well-off households would commission a Thanking the Earth ritual. But further, such genealogies are less common in north China than in the south; Li Manshan estimates that only 10 or 20% of lineages in the area would ever compile their own genealogy. A family commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual would invariably list the previous three generations of ancestors, but it was less common to use the occasion to copy such an extensive genealogy, so we are lucky here.

And here’s the Wang lineage of Baideng township (Daoist priests, pp.78–9), descended from the stepson of Li Zengrong—and also Daoists:

Wang jiapu

This custom is common further afield in north Shanxi, as you can see from many posts under Local ritual. Still in Yanggao, here’s another Daoist lineage in Luowenzao township:

Li Fa 李發
Li Wanxiang 李萬祥
Li Tai 李泰
Li Jincai 李進财
Li Ke 李科
Li Deshan 李德山
Li Yuan 李元
Li Tianyun 李天雲

Li Yuan writing

Li Yuan writing funerary documents, 1992.

And the Zhang family Daoists in Jinjiazhuang:

Zhang Lianzhu 張連珠
Zhang Kui 張奎
Zhang Wenbing 張文炳
Zhang Bi 張弼
Zhang Deheng 張德恆
Zhang Mei 張美
Zhang Jincheng 張進成
Zhang Nan 張楠

Zhang Nan and LMS

Li Manshan with Zhang Nan, Jinjiazhuang 2018.

And just south in Yingxian county, here are seven generations of Longmen Daoists in the Zhao lineage:

Zhao Tianyu 赵天玉
Zhao Ming 赵明
Zhao Yongzhen 赵永珍, Zhao Yongbao 赵永宝
Zhao Zhong 赵仲, Zhao Xiu 赵秀, Zhao Cai 赵财, Zhao Rui 赵瑞
Zhao Guowen 赵国文 (son of Zhao Xiu)
Zhao Fu 赵富, Zhao Pu 赵普
Zhao Shiwei 赵世伟

On a practical fieldwork note, as soon as you manage to get to grips with these names, you realize that no-one really uses them. Instead they use nicknames like Golden Noble (Jingui) or Zhanbao, their “little names” (xiaoming)—itself an informal term for “breast name” (ruming). Li Manshan doesn’t even necessarily know the formal names of some of the Daoists from other lineages that he calls on as ritual deps. Actually, this discrepancy with “standard” names is entirely normal in social groups, as I noted in this post featuring the conductor Charles Mackerras (“Slasher”).

The Li family also used another naming system. Males of the same generation were given a double name whose second character was the same; for Li Qing and his siblings it was shun 順, for Li Manshan’s generation it was heng 衡. Thus Li Qing was known as Quanshun, while those who know Li Manshan well call him Manheng. His son Li Bin seems to be known as Li Bin, though even this is complicated; Li Manshan gave him the name Bin 斌 (the characters for “civil” and “martial” combined), but he often uses the name Bing 兵 “Soldier”—he’s not fussy. But most often they refer to each other by kinship terms, like “third maternal uncle”—their precision only useful if you happen to have a detailed genealogy in your head.

* * *

Meanwhile in Hebei province, we can see that the custom of alternating single and double names by generation was widely used in the various lineages of Gaoluo, stalwarts of the village ritual association (Plucking the winds, genealogies pp.357–61) such as the Cai lineage:


As with the Li family in Shanxi, the generational names often shared a stable element. For instance, the given names of Cai Yurun’s grandfather and his two brothers all had the “mountain” 山 component (Shan 山, Ling 岭, Chong 崇), while their cousins’ names incorporated the “rain” 雨 component (Lin 霖, Lu 露). Traditionally, families would often invite an educated villager to choose suitable characters for the name of the new-born, but by the 1950s the tradition was attenuated, with the parents themselves choosing the name less conscientiously.

The Fu generation there was crucial to the transmission of the ritual association under Maoism, with a whole cohort of distinguished performers. Apart from Cai Fuxiang, old revolutionary and vocal liturgist (like Cai Yongchun, also part of that generation), Cai Fuquan was the leading guanzi player, and Cai Fulai, Fuzhong, Fulü, Fushun, Fumao, Fulin, Fumin, and Futong were all keen members. It was their sons who were our own mentors through through the 1990s, like Cai An, Cai Ran, and Cai Yurun (the latter, son of Cai Fuzhong, being a curious exception to the naming system). Under both the Maoist and reform eras many of them served as village cadres even while supporting the ritual association.

Cai Fulu

A rare image from Gaoluo on the eve of the 1937 invasion:
left, vocal liturgist Cai Fulü; right, Catholic Shan Wenyi, brother-in-law of Woman Zhang.

Back in 1930, when Painter Sun visited Gaoluo to depict ritual images for the association, the Cai lineage had used the occasion to ask him to make a fine genealogy for them on cloth—and it seems to be the only one that has survived decades of turmoil. Somehow it was handed down to Cai Haizeng, third generation of vocal liturgists in his family following in the footsteps of his father Cai Fulü (another exception to the naming rule). When Haizeng hung it up for me to photograph in 1998, he insisted on preparing an altar table with incense, candles, fruit, tea, liquor, and cigarettes.

Cai 1930

Cai lineage genealogy, 1930.

Unlike the Cais, most branches of the Shan lineage simply used double given-names for every generation, but the case of Shan Zhihe (1919–2002), one of our most venerable mentors in Gaoluo, is interesting. His father Shan Futian (1882–1953) gave his two sons their “official names” Zhizhong and Zhihe after their coming of age with the “lesser capping” ceremony. He named them thus because his public baths in Hohhot were called Zhonghe 忠和 (Loyalty and Peace) baths; their names showed that the baths would one day belong to them. The zhi 之 element in their given names was an “empty character”, and so they were considered single names.

But by the 1940s the “old rules” were already being diluted here. The two sons of Shan Zhihe, Shan Ming and Shan Ling, who would eventually become ambiguous figures in the village’s ritual association, were born in Hohhot in 1942 and 1948. Though the custom of alternating single and double names by generation persisted in the Cai and He lineages more than with the Shans, by this time it was becoming more flexible. So when it came to the naming of his own sons, although Shan Zhihe’s own name was effectively, and properly, single, they too were given single names; it was actually their grandfather Shan Futian who made the decision. From the 1950s some families were beginning to adopt “revolutionary” names (see e.g. the wonderful photo of the Qiao family in Yulin, here); but in the Shan family the old tradition was losing ground irrespective of political control.

Here too, people had variant names. At least until the 1980s, after reaching the age of 50 sui, men adopted an “old” name (laohao 老號) beginning with the character “old” (lao). In principle, the new name should complement the original name, in a charming parallel with Cockney rhyming slang. Just as “apples” stands for “stairs” by way of “apples and pears”, so Shan Chang (eternal) took the “old” name Laole (old joy) by way of the binome changle (eternal joy). Cai Qing’s given name Qing (verdant) was associated with the phrase “verdant hills and abundant waters” (shanqing shuixiu) to create his “old” name Laoxiu.

Incidentally, villagers agree that as long as the characters for their given name reflect its pronunciation, it’s not important which characters are used—admittedly within a very narrow choice of two or three. This is evident in the association’s own donors’ lists, where different written versions of the same given name appear. And I must say it’s one of the few reliefs available to us in making fieldnotes.

* * *

While the alternation of single and double given-names is far from a universal rule in rural north China, I suppose it must have been common in the cities too—is it still so? And what of other regions, like south China, where lineage consciousness is more deeply embedded? Comments welcome!

Click here for compound surnames in Chinese and English.


[1] By the way, the pei character is 培, though they often use 丕 (officially pi) as a simplified character. They also often write a simplified character for zeng 增 in several Daoists’ names, with zhong 中 to the right of the earth radical; I haven’t found this in dictionaries.



A village elder


Shan Zhihe at home, 1998. In background, his older son Shan Ming.

My book Plucking the winds is a historical ethnography of Gaoluo village in Hebei just south of Beijing, focusing on its amateur ritual association. I’ve already posted several vignettes assembling material from the book (listed here); so here’s another one: the story of the venerable Shan Zhihe 单之和 (1919–2002).

By the time of our stay at Gaoluo in May 1996, while my fieldwork with Xue Yibing was going well, we still hoped to be able to visualize the earlier 20th century in greater detail. One evening, invited to supper with our urbane friends Shan Ming and Shan Ling, now among the leaders of the ritual association, we finally met their elderly father Shan Zhihe.

Like his own father, though never a practising member of the village ritual association, Shan Zhihe was a long-standing benefactor. Whereas most Gaoluo villagers had little or no experience of the world beyond a day’s walk, Shan Zhihe had travelled quite widely, and his father even further. Although he spent little time in Gaoluo between 1931 and 1951, some of our most personal information for the changing times under the Republican era, Japanese occupation, and Maoism derives from our sessions with him.

His own experiences through the complex events before and after the 1949 Liberation don’t fall comfortably into the pattern prescribed by official jargon. After his higher education was disrupted by the Japanese invasion in 1937, he found himself working “on the wrong side” in the 1940s. Though his family was then handicapped with the label of “rich peasant”, and he never held any official position in the village, he was a much-admired figure.

Shan Futian
First Shan Zhihe narrated the remarkable story of his father Shan Futian, born into a very poor family in South Gaoluo in 1882. That very year his own father was beaten to death after being framed for the stealing of a donkey. The orphaned Shan Futian studied at the village private school for only three winters. He must have married not long after the 1900 Boxer uprising. His bride came from the Eastgate quarter of Dingxing town nearby. What with chaos of the Taiping uprising of the 1850s and the Boxers, villagers in the area, situated between the strategic centres of Beijing and Baoding, were constantly fearful for their unmarried daughters. So her family had sent her off to relatives in an isolated village just northwest of the Houshan mountains, centre of the cult to the goddess Houtu in whom locals still believe. As tradition demanded, the betrothed couple were not to meet until their wedding day. Shan Futian’s house, on the site of their present house, had only two bare rooms covered in thatch, empty apart from a clay vat to store millet.

But Shan Futian’s fortunes soon took a turn for the better. In about 1910 he found a job through relatives as tea-boy at an inn in Xiheyan in central Beijing, near the Forbidden City. There he earned the pittance of 12 dazir per month, equivalent to about 20 yuan today, according to Shan Zhihe; half of this he sent to his family back in Gaoluo. One day a general called Cai Chengxun came to the inn and noticed Shan Futian’s impressive build and honest demeanour. Cai was a platoon leader in the retinue of Yuan Shikai, who stepped in after the collapse of the Qing government and proclaimed himself emperor before his death in 1916.

Shan Futian now leapt at the invitation to become a bodyguard for Cai Chengxun: as a tea-boy he was bullied, and he couldn’t wait to move on. When Cai was promoted, he gave Shan Futian the post of banner-official in his cavalry. Shan was soon sent on duty to Baoding, where his oldest son Zhizhong was born in 1917, and then to relieve the garrison at Zhangjiakou further north, capital of Chahar; again, after some time his wife was able to join him there, and Shan Zhihe himself was born there in the 3rd moon of 1919.

Warlords were engaged in fierce fighting through the 1920s. The complexities of the political history of the time need not concern us here, but briefly, in 1922 Cai Chengxun, along with another warlord Sun Chuanfang, was sent by Cao Kun to reconquer the distant southern province of Jiangxi. Cai “bought” the governorship of the province, while Sun went on to control Fujian. Based at the Jiangxi capital Nanchang, Shan Futian now acted as cavalry commander.

SFTCai Chengxun, victorious in battle, had now made his fortune. Returning north, he retired to his old home in Tianjin. “When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter”; Cai Chengxun’s retinue had now lost their patron. But Cai recognized Shan Futian’s honesty—Shan had never exploited his position in order to enrich himself—and before retiring he wanted to make Shan Futian mayor of De’an county, between Nanchang and Jiujiang, hoping Shan could use the opportunity to make a fortune for himself at last. Shan declined, afraid that his “lack of culture” would make the job difficult for him, although Cai offered him an adjutant. Instead he took the post of county police chief. The 1924 ceramic portrait of Shan Futian, which now had the place of honour overlooking the Shan family’s eight-immortals table, was fired at the famous kiln of Jingdezhen while he was serving in Jiangxi.

But without a patron Shan Futian found the work difficult, and in about 1927 he returned north, having made little money. After a brief reunion with his family in Gaoluo, he was introduced by a relative to do business back in Zhangjiakou. Before long he moved still further north to what is now Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, riding by camel. There he opened a leather business called Total Victory Leather Corporation; he also opened a public baths there in partnership with a relative from Dingxing. Different trades in Beijing were often monopolized by people from a particular area of the surrounding Hebei province; people from Dingxing and Laishui counties (the area of Gaoluo) used to work at public baths—this remained a traditional speciality of Gaoluo villagers right until the 1950s.

Shan Futian was one of several opium smokers in South Gaoluo, along with landlord Heng Demao and village bully He Jinhu. As Shan Zhihe observed, “It wasn’t just the rich who smoked: sick people and general reprobates also had recourse to it. I reckon no more than ten people in the village had the habit”. In 1935 Nationalist official Wang Zuozhou held a bonfire in the county-town as part of anti-opium campaigns throughout China. No-one heard of any such campaign reaching Gaoluo, but the habit—or perhaps rather the addicts themselves—must have died out soon after the Communist Liberation.

Early days of a scholar
Seated magisterially at his fine eight-immortals table, Shan Zhihe now began to relate his own story to us. Third of Shan Futian’s four children, he was born in 1919 at Zhangjiakou, where his father was then based. He and his older brother were given their “official names” Zhizhong and Zhihe after coming of age with the “lesser capping” ceremony. They were so named because their father’s public baths in Hohhot were called Zhonghe (Loyalty and Peace) baths; their names showed that the baths would one day belong to them.

Back in Gaoluo, the Juma river just east of the village had flooded in 1917. Though the flood was not serious and no-one died, it is still famous today in Gaoluo. The only other major flood in the village occurred in 1963. Gaoluo was fortunate, since throughout the whole area floods were frequent and devastating; indeed the village’s long-term immunity from natural disasters is still commonly attributed to the divine blessings brought by its ritual associations.

With his urban education, Shan Zhihe came to know the year of his birth, 1919, as the year of the May Fourth movement, a great urban intellectual ferment modernizing literature and social thinking. In fact, most villagers probably knew nothing of this movement: as amateur historian Shan Fuyi pointed out to us, the only big national historical event villagers definitely knew of was the Marco Polo Bridge incident on 7th July 1937, which unleashed the Japanese invasion. And if they do know such dates, they know them only in terms of the 8th or 26th years of the Republic, not by the official Western calendar.

Rather, most Gaoluo inhabitants know the 8th year of the Republic (1919) as the year of a serious epidemic in the village. In the heat of the 6th and 7th moons, “just as the melons were ripening”, villagers started to get stomach cramps and diarrhoea, death following quickly. Over sixty people died within a month. When one of the coffin-bearers died too, no-one dared observe proper funerals any more—the ritual associations too must have stayed away.

By now Shan Zhihe’s father was doing well in his business enterprises in Hohhot, and had bought up several dozen mu of land back in Gaoluo. In 1922, Shan Zhihe, still only 4, was sent back to South Gaoluo while his father went off to war in distant Jiangxi. Three years later he began attending private school in the village, studying along with forty or fifty other children. The school was at the home of his first teacher, Yan Zhan’ao. Seated before a portrait of Confucius hanging on the wall, the pupils learnt the standard Confucian curriculum, such as Surnames of the hundred families and Document of one thousand characters. Young Shan Zhihe studied there for five years. Since the older masters were less clear in their enunciation, pupils preferred younger teachers like Shan Hongru.

School tuition fees were 3 silver dollars per year. The teachers lived well; apart from tuition fees, pupils were also expected to present gifts three times a year: not only at New Year, but also on the Double Fifth (5th moon 5th) and Mid-Autumn (8th moon 15th) festivals—which have since lapsed in this area. The value of these gifts depended on family circumstances: better-off families might offer a pig or a sack of refined flour, but some poorer families were unable to give anything, and the teachers never blamed them.

The 1930s

1930 donors' list, South Gaoluo

1930 donors’ list, South Gaoluo.

Shan Futian was among the five “managers” on the ritual association’s precious 1930 donors’ list.

My father always thought to give the most money to the association, as much as 5 silver dollars. That was a lot of money then—2 silver dollars bought a sack (44 jin) of refined flour in Beijing. Whenever donations were required, the leaders of the association would go round all the households in the village. Leading members of the Heng lineage always gave last, so that they could display their economic power by giving the most, a bit more even than my father, and “taking first place”.

More charitably, some said it was also so that they could make up for any shortfall in donations. Indeed, on the 1930 list Heng Jun and his son Deyong head the list, before Shan Futian.

On the 6th day of the 9th moon in 1931, just a month after the benediction of the Catholic church, our venerable mentor Shan Zhihe, now 13, left Gaoluo to join his father Shan Futian in distant Hohhot, where he joined in classes of the province’s 4th Primary Comprehensive. Shan Futian wanted his son to continue his education; as we have seen, his own father was a pauper beaten to death without the least pretext, and Shan Futian himself had been poor and uneducated; persistent Confucian values still allotted far higher prestige to the scholar than to merchants like him. Having had such a hard time, he now considered giving his children an education more valuable than any material inheritance he might leave them. I wonder how this decision seems now: many educated Chinese today feel effectively discriminated against for having an education, not only during the Cultural Revolution, but under the market reforms since.

Shan Zhihe recalled ritual life before the Japanese invasion. I cited his account of processions to pray for rain here. He also had insights on the Italian Catholic missionaries, led by Bishop Martina, and the building of the church in 1931.


On the 6th day of the 9th moon in 1931, just a month after the benediction of the Catholic church, our venerable mentor Shan Zhihe, now 13, left Gaoluo to join his father in distant Hohhot, where he joined in classes of the province’s 4th Primary Comprehensive. Shan Futian wanted his son to continue his education; as we have seen, his own father was a pauper beaten to death without the least pretext, and Shan Futian himself had been poor and uneducated; persistent Confucian values still allotted far higher prestige to the scholar than to merchants like him. Having had such a hard time, he now considered giving his children an education more valuable than any material inheritance he might leave them. I wonder how this decision seems now: many educated Chinese today feel effectively discriminated against for having an education—not only during the Cultural Revolution, but under the market reforms since.

Shan Zhihe takes a bride
The next time Shan Zhihe returned to Gaoluo was for his wedding in the spring of 1937. One fine morning during New Year 1998 he finally described it for us; he had omitted to mention it during our previous talks, for reasons which will soon become clear.

My Beijing companion Xue Yibing and I both relish his refined conversation. He too is always glad to see us, to chat with relatively educated outsiders about current affairs and history, reflecting on and trying to make sense of his own extraordinary life. With his father’s portrait overseeing us, we sit round his lovely table munching melon seeds in our overcoats (it’s still terribly cold), his children and grandchildren regularly refilling our teacups.

After graduating from primary school in Hohhot, young Shan Zhihe was sent to secondary school in the Xuanwu district of central Beijing. On the 26th day of the 2nd moon in 1937, aged 19, he took leave from his studies to make a special trip back to South Gaoluo for his wedding. The betrothed couple, naturally, had never met. His bride came from the Eastgate quarter of Dingxing town, just like his mother, whose family had arranged the match. She had bound feet and was uneducated; Shan Zhihe was full of modern thinking and had learnt to oppose “feudal customs”, but he had to obey his parents. His return to Gaoluo must have seemed like surrendering himself to the servitude from which his education was promising to free him.

This was to be one of the last lavish weddings in the “old society”, costing the astronomical sum of 300 silver dollars. His bride was carried in an expensive new sedan; Shan Zhihe himself rode a sedan borrowed from landlord Heng Demao. The procession to meet the bride at Dingxing, 5 km distant, started out in pitch darkness at 4am: to set off back home with the bride after midday was taboo, spelling ill-fortune for the match.

The amateur ritual associations perform only for the “white rituals” of funerals, not for the “red rituals” of weddings. For the latter it is common to hire a professional shawm-and-percussion band, known as “blowers-and-drummers”. Since Gaoluo itself had no such band, one was hired from Shiguzhuang village just north. On the procession to collect the bride, the shawm band played as they passed through each village, called “crossing the villages”, as firecrackers were released deafeningly. By tradition the route back to the groom’s home must be different: they passed through Xicheng village in the Northgate area of Dingxing to Nanhou, crossing the river again at Wucun. On arrival at Gaoluo there was a sumptuous feast. The five blowers-and-drummers were handsomely rewarded with half a silver dollar each.

Shan Zhihe spent a month in the village before returning to his studies in Beijing, leaving his new bride behind. Apart from taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, it was the time of the 3rd moon festival for the goddess Houtu, when many villagers went on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountains. It was also Easter, and Shan Zhihe recalls seeing Bishop Martina ministering to his flock in Gaoluo.

Even in a society in which gender equality was still not remotely on the agenda—we saw the dreadful isolation of Woman Zhang—Shan Zhihe and his wife were to make a particularly incongruous couple, as he recalled dispassionately for us in 1998. She was what he now calls a “housewife” (jiating funü, a term which reveals his own education), and hardly literate; she was five years older than him, and with her bound feet was barely mobile (that was the idea, of course); he was tall and commanding, a scholar with ample experience in the outside world. Couples simply weren’t seen in public. She used to nag him to take her to watch the local opera; one day he had to give in, but as he says they must have made quite a spectacle themselves, with him reluctantly trying to adjust his manly stride as she hobbled along trying to keep up. They never went out together again, and she never forgave him. As he recalled wistfully, they never exactly had any problems: “She didn’t curse me, and I didn’t beat her.” When she died, on the 13th of the 7th moon in 1983, the funeral was quite grand; the ritual association performed, and lavish paper artefacts were displayed and burned, though there was a continuous downpour.

Courteously accepting another cigarette, Shan Zhihe reflects: “My brother and I were both victims of the feudal system of marriage. You can’t blame my parents, they were products of the system themselves. My older brother married a couple of years before me, in 1935, but then went away to study in Baoding; in 1939 he got into the 29th Army, stationed in Hebei, and after going south with the army he stayed there. It was all just to get away from the wife! She stayed behind in Gaoluo the whole time—she was only able to remarry after they got a postal divorce in 1957.”

Incidentally, in 1998 there were still about forty or fifty women in the village with bound feet; of those above 70, only one had natural feet.

The devils invade
In the summer of 1937, back in Beijing after his wedding, Shan Zhihe was in the midst of his studies when the “7th July incident” (Qiqi shibian) occurred. This battle between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, midway between Beijing and Gaoluo, marked the formal outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan. It was a decisive moment in modern history for villagers, which they often call simply “the incident”. Of course, the preceding period too transpires to have been anything but rosy, but they often periodize cultural loss by this date, rather than by the Communist “Liberation” some ten years later—the Japanese invasion tacitly marking for them the increasing control of the Communists over their lives, as I eventually deduced.

With the whole Beijing area in chaos, Shan Zhihe eventually made his way back to Gaoluo on foot, by a long route avoiding the area of the Marco Polo Bridge, arriving back home late in July 1937. But what was he supposed to do now? His father had indeed blessed him with an education, and by now he didn’t relish the prospect of taking up as a peasant. The very fact of his education also made his situation precarious, for rival factions would seek to exploit his knowledge, and it would be difficult to choose his own path.

A month or so after his return to Gaoluo, it was clear that the Japanese advance along the main transport routes south could not be contained. Shan Zhihe’s older brother Zhizhong was part of the army which engaged the Japanese at Mentougou west of Beijing, but by the 7th moon they had to retire in defeat. Ordered to regroup at Zhengzhou, quite far south, they were constantly retreating through the area—Shan Zhihe’s mother was busy making bread for them. Zhizhong stopped off in Gaoluo for three days. After he resumed his journey, the brothers were not to meet again until after Liberation, over ten years later. Zhizhong later went off to work in Hubei province far to the south.

Their father Shan Futian was still in distant Hohhot. Shan Zhihe, though reluctant to abandon the family’s considerable property in Gaoluo, was responsible for his mother and sisters, and resolved to take them south out of danger. It was only when they heard the sound of heavy artillery that they decided they must go. But before they had even reached Baoding, they heard that the Japanese had already advanced as far as Shijiazhuang, still further south. Flight was impossible—they had no choice but to return to Gaoluo.

Japanese warplanes bombed Laishui county-town at 8am on 17th September (the 13th of the 8th moon) 1937, and that same day Japanese troops first entered Gaoluo. Coming from the direction of Wucun to the south, they were just passing through; they had about fifty tanks, and were covered by aircraft. The troops entered the village before Woman Zhang could take her children to the church to hide; they passed by her house. In order to dissuade them from murdering them all and setting fire to the village, the village leaders went out to welcome them. Before the Japanese even entered the village, they shot dead a villager who rashly stuck his neck out to look, but after entering Gaoluo they harmed no-one, just asking for fresh water, eggs, and meat. Shan Zhihe himself, along with Cai Ming (a sheng-player in the ritual association who worked as a pig-slaughterer), was responsible for looking after them and giving them water—the Japanese made them drink some first to be sure it wasn’t poisoned. Though they soon went on their way after a token search, Japanese cavalry and infantry passed through constantly for several days on their way to Baoding, and Gaoluo villagers had to look after them.

Seeing our evolving sketch-map of the village gave Shan Zhihe conflicting feelings:

Before the Japanese arrived they had prepared maps which they used when they first entered the village—they made me point out the way to Baoding. In the first party of Japanese troops were some savages [Ainu?] from Hokkaido. When they entered the village they caught some chickens and tore them to bits, eating them raw. When the troops discovered my hands weren’t calloused like those of a peasant they pointed their bayonets at me. I frantically tried to explain by gestures that I ran a baths, and they let me off.

The lawless conditions of the early 1930s had prompted many villagers to arm themselves. Soon after the Japanese invasion in 1937, some Gaoluo villagers sought to set up “Anti-Japanese brigades”. Villagers with guns were invited to join the new militia or at least to give their guns to the resistance effort. Within a couple of days some two hundred volunteers had assembled, including Catholics like Cai Chen and Cai Xing. The new militia called itself by the grandiose title of “The Rear Anti-Japanese self-protection troupe”, and even drew up a constitution. The house of North Gaoluo landlord Yan Shide served as command-post.

But educated Shan Zhihe soon found with dismay that most of the recruits were just village good-for-nothings. While a student in Beijing, he had taken part in patriotic demonstrations boycotting Japanese goods. Now finding himself back in his home village, taking his gun along and soon becoming one of the leaders of this motley crew, he was full of misgivings. Untrained, they were a menace to people outside their own village. “Ordinary people didn’t understand what this ‘anti-Japanese’ stuff was all about anyway, they thought the Japanese devils were just another bunch of bandits.”

The Japanese, learning that Gaoluo had organized a “Red Spears Association”, now sent a division of troops to “encircle and suppress” them. Shan Zhihe had a cousin called Wang Futong, whose family was quite well-off, owning over 100 mu of land. Wang was notorious as a wastrel who kept bad company. When an enemy of his spread a rumour that he was a militia leader, the Japanese came looking for him. Shan Zhihe had gone to Dingxing county-town that day to buy shoes for the militia, and by the time he got back the Japanese had gone, having failed to find Wang. But that was the end of the Gaoluo militia: some hid their guns or threw them down the wells, some went into hiding, while others joined militia groups in other villages, calling themselves anti-Japanese but actually plundering ordinary Chinese houses.

Cultured Shan Zhihe obviously had no future in such a militia. He handed in his gun and took no further part. Events now forced him to flee Gaoluo. Before long his profligate cousin Wang Futong was murdered by a drinking-buddy called Huo Zhongyi, leader of the militia in Xiazhuang just east of the river. Afraid that Shan Zhihe would seek revenge, Huo Zhongyi decided to “destroy root and branch”. He had Shan Zhihe summoned to the house of South Gaoluo landlord Heng Demao, but Shan suspected a trick and decided to flee. For a while he hid out at his grandmother’s house in the nearby town of Dingxing, and then set off to find his father again in distant Hohhot. The 10th moon of 1937 had still not arrived—an eventful start to his married life.

In occupied Hohhot
Shan Zhihe had already begun telling us his story in Gaoluo in 1996. We were back in Beijing for a few days between visits when we learned that he too had come there to stay with a family who needed his medical help. Back in the frenzy of ring-roads and fancy hotels, we missed Gaoluo already; glad of the opportunity to seek his guidance again, we asked him to continue his story for us.


Hohhot, 1930.

Shan Zhihe left for Hohhot in the 9th moon of 1937, where his father was still running a public baths. Shan Zhihe’s wife, as well as his mother, were able to join them in 1938; the sons Shan Ming and Shan Ling were born there in 1942 and 1948 (for naming customs, see here). But the war had made business enterprises highly subject to intimidation, as Shan Zhihe soon found out when he started working at the baths. Early in 1938 posters advertising for examinations for the police force seemed to offer him a better alternative. Shan Zhihe was a tall and well-educated young man; he passed the exam with no trouble. Only when he started the Japanese-style military training did he realize that what the poster had presented as a force for the protection of Hohhot was in fact a training for the collaborative “traitor army”. By the time he realized he had been conned, it was already too late, and Shan Zhihe was now subordinate to a Japanese police chief. If his story may sound disingenuous, it apparently didn’t seem so to later Communist investigators.

Shan Zhihe was first sent to work at the police station in Great South Street, the most affluent quarter of Hohhot; then after a month he was promoted to personnel management in the police department in the old town. Over the following years he gained promotion through the ranks of the Mongolian and Japanese armies. “I had contact with the Japanese all the time—I got to read the Japanese news, so I knew quite a bit about World War Two.” He was better informed than I about Dunkerque, which in itself was no great feat. He managed to save several Communist guerrillas: when the Japanese caught someone, friends got him to go and set things right, so they were set free.

In the 9th moon of 1942 Shan Zhihe at last got permission to return to Gaoluo for a visit. His military permit entitled him to carry firearms, and his first thought was to seek out Huo Zhongyi and “settle the debt” for the murder of his cousin. But he soon learnt that fate had done the job for him. Huo had gone over to the Japanese, and then, resentful of their cruelty, had resolved to rebel against them; but they had found out and executed him. Shan Zhihe spent only one night at home before setting off back towards Hohhot. On the way he spent a few days at the home of his older sister’s husband in Beijing, and applied for permanent leave from the Japanese army. This was granted, but after he returned to Hohhot he spent most of the next three years virtually unemployed, earning a bit from renting out rooms.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Nationalist commander Fu Zuoyi had entered Hohhot and gradually “suppressed” the most evil of the Japanese collaborators. “Times were tough in Hohhot after the Japanese surrender”, recalled Shan Zhihe. “There was no coal, and no barley—we had to eat ‘secondary barley’, a mix of husked sorghum and husked barley. The Nationalists had heard that I was educated and had military training, and they offered me an official post in their army, but I refused. Still, I was only 26, in the prime of life. Frustrated, I could see no options for myself, and in 1946 I ended up as a medical orderly in a hospital at Hohhot. The hospital was of regimental rank, and orderlies were between 1st and 2nd lieutenants in rank.”

Under Maoism

SZH 1948

Shan Zhihe worked as an orderly for the Nationalists in Hohhot through the civil war, witnessing different traumas from those taking place in Gaoluo. In 1948 he took some relatives to Beijing; a photo of him in military uniform shows his impressive stature.
Hohhot was “peacefully liberated” for the second time on 19th September 1949. For the time being the Shan family stayed on there; the family’s bath-house then had five rooms, two of which they rented out for use as a general store, selling off some of their furniture.

But eventually, as private enterprise under the Communists became untenable, the whole family had to return to Gaoluo. Shan Zhihe came back in 1951 with his wife, his daughter, and younger son Shan Ling—the first-born Shan Ming stayed behind with his grandparents, but he too came back with his grandmother in the 3rd moon of 1952.

The aged Shan Futian was last to return, in the following winter. By this time he was seriously ill. Ever filial, Shan Zhihe wanted to sell off the family’s property to help him buy medicine. The family had owned over 90 mu of good land before Liberation. Since they were absentee landlords, they had let villagers cultivate it; the villagers were liable to pay grain tax on it. But the Shans took only a nominal rent, and so upon land reform they were classified as “rich peasant” but were not made an “object of struggle”; they were allowed to keep over 40 mu of land, while the rest was parcelled out, but their property was not touched. Still, the family had been away from the village for the whole preceding period, and Shan Zhihe felt unhappy about his class label. Though the “hat” of landlord or rich peasant was not always brought into play (“neither hot nor cold”), it was a sword of Damocles.

As his father’s health declined, Shan Zhihe sold off 10 mu of the family’s remaining land in the hope of saving him, but Shan Futian wouldn’t let them dispose of more of their assets, and in the 6th moon of 1953 he died. Even in absentia he had been a longstanding benefactor of the ritual association, and his family used to give the association a banquet at New Year. Naturally the association played and performed the vocal liturgy for his funeral; Shan Laole played the drum, Chen Jianhe the guanzi. But the funeral was not especially grand, as Shan Futian had spent little time in the village. Since his son Shan Zhihe had done well since returning to the village by helping at the new village school, the teachers made a traditional offering of cloth.

Mindful of his dubious employment record serving Japanese and Nationalists, Shan Zhihe wrote a “self-examination” after returning to South Gaoluo in 1951. Investigators went to interview people in many places where he had been, but no “historical problems” were unearthed; everyone was full of praise for him. So, remarkably, he remained safe from assault—even through the Cultural Revolution.

Whatever his background, people like Shan Zhihe, the most educated man in the village with enviable modern learning, were much needed to consolidate the revolution in the countryside. He must have known he was skating on thin ice, and having to prove himself he now showed willing.

When I came back to Gaoluo they asked me to teach at the village school. I declined, but I did teach at the People’s School (the evening school) in the Sweep Away Illiteracy campaign of 1953. I was a leader of the West Yi’an district Sweep Away Illiteracy campaign then too. But I felt ashamed of my past, and threw myself into studying Marxism-Leninism, reading works like Das Kapital, On practice, and On contradictions. I read other revolutionary literature like How to make steel [an influential translation of a Soviet novel]. I taught the pupils about Marxism-Leninism, and won an award as a model teacher in the People’s School.

Apart from the four ritual associations of North and South Gaoluo—which managed to maintain activity through the first fifteen years after Liberation—both villages had an opera troupe, performing a local genre called bengbengr or laozi. In South Gaoluo in the early 1930s Shan Zhihe remembers his older brother Zhizhong getting money from his family to buy the troupe some costumes. But it had to disband after the Japanese invasion.

After Liberation the revamped South Gaoluo opera troupe acquired a great reputation locally. The troupe was to become a flagship for new official cultural policy, based at the village primary school. The reorganization of the troupe was strongly supported by the new Party Secretary Heng Futian, who thought it would be a good way of expanding the village’s influence.

The troupe now resolved to rehearse modern operas which had been created and performed in the revolutionary base of Yan’an in the 1940s: The White-haired girl (1945), as well as Liu Hulan (1948) and Wang Xiuluan. By performing these operas they identified directly with central official artistic policy on the modernization of traditional culture as canonized in Mao’s 1942 Talks at the Yan’an forum on literature and the arts—in stark contrast with the total impasse with the new political ideology which the ritual association continued to represent. Women now took part in the troupe for the first time.

Another main driving force for the opera troupe was Shan Zhihe. Though without formal dramatic training, he had gained experience of the arts while a student, and, despite his dubious work experience before Liberation, was respected as the most “cultured” person in the village. He now acted as director for The White-haired girl. He even brought out his father’s old clothes, hat, and pocket-watch to use as props for the part of the evil landlord Huang Shiren—a fine irony, since his own family had just been landed with the “hat” of rich peasant.

BMNThe virtuous part of the heroine Xi’er’s father Yang Bailao was originally given to He Junyan, Party Secretary of the village Youth League. But he wasn’t up to it, and took the part of Huang Shiren instead, while Shan Zhihe himself took over the role of Yang Bailao—a quaint reversal of their allotted roles in the village. Secretary Heng Futian’s son, Deputy Secretary Heng Qi, took the part of the kindly servant Zhang Dashen. I wonder if the White-haired girl herself, mistaken for a spirit until it transpires that she is merely a common villager whose suffering had turned her hair white, would have reminded locals of their own goddess Houtu.

Incidentally, as a sign of the times, when the Cultural Revolution ballet version of The White-haired Girl was revived in Beijing in 1996, some younger members of the audience missed the point spectacularly. The evil landlord is portrayed in the drama as shameless in his demands for repayment of debts from poor downtrodden peasants, and beats the heroine Xi’er’s father to death when he is unable to repay. At some early performances in the 1940s audience members had so hated the landlord that they virtually murdered the actor, and the plot had to be changed to reflect audiences’ hatred for him: in the revised version he is indeed sentenced to death rather than merely re-educated. But by 1996 his character attracted some sympathy: when interviewed, some said it was quite proper for the landlord to demand repayment! Official commentators understandably lamented the decline of morality: “Thanks to the introduction of a market economy, young Chinese are becoming business-oriented, and their comment reflects the philosophy of business.” Decades of socialist education had come to nought.

Like many Chinese, Shan Zhihe considered the social breakdown to have occurred only with the Cultural Revolution and the loss of integrity thereafter. As he reminded us, in the 1950s life was at last stable, and the Party was popular. Chairman Mao was revered: people said there had never been such a great figure in the whole of China’s long imperial history. The army served the people, fetching water and clearing the land for the villagers. Cadres abided by the “three main rules of discipline and the eight points for attention”, theme of a catchy new song. New Party Secretary Heng Futian was rushed off his feet for a whole month organizing the collection of grain taxes, and the village cadres just had a quick bowl of noodles before their meetings—there was not the least suggestion that they might be fleecing the people.

Shan Zhihe may have had reasons to thank the Party, but he voiced the feelings of many poorer villagers. People we met articulated no negative memories of the campaigns of the early 1950s, and I do not believe this was mere prudence. No-one found labour gangs at all sinister. Many of those who suffered, like the old bullies, were thought to deserve it. It was simply not in people’s vocabulary to sympathize with the plight of the Catholics. And as the landlords disappeared, people neither remembered them badly nor spared the sentiment to miss them. The political mood dictated from above was pervasive: people had no choice but to take part in the elaborate game of “snapping at each other”. People related to or erstwhile friends of those now classed as “elements” went through the motions. Sons of so-called rich peasants, such as young musician Shan Bingyuan, naturally had a tougher time than others from unassailable poor-peasant backgrounds. But even a cadre like Cai Fuxiang, with his impeccable revolutionary credentials, was traumatized by the violence of revolution.

As a former medical orderly, Shan Zhihe had later studied medicine under his older sister’s husband, and was now quite well qualified. He now started to treat patients for free in Gaoluo.

Despite their later nostalgia, many villagers must have been increasingly anxious as collectivization looked imminent. Some households certainly stood to gain from an efficiently-run system. By now the “rich peasant” family of venerable Shan Zhihe was poor: their labour force was weak and they had no experience of tilling the land, so they had no objections to joining the collective. Such families went along with the changes, but many already working efficiently with their own carts, tools, and draft animals saw communal agriculture as inefficient and alienating, and were reluctant to join. Though disgruntled, few were rash enough to articulate such thoughts: complaint was dangerous, and could instantly be interpreted as opposition to the sacrosanct state. The government had also just devised an unenviable class category of “new rich peasant”. Still, collectivization did arouse resistance and sabotage, and in many places (if not in Gaoluo) religious sects resurfaced to oppose it.

After the Great Leap Backward and the ensuing famine, a lull between extremist campaigns allowed a brief revival of the ritual association in the early 1960s. Among thirty new recruits in 1962 was Shan Zhihe’s son Shan Ling.

The Cultural Revolution, opera, and the reform era
Soon after the Four Cleanups campaign opened in 1964, Shan Zhihe wrote a letter to the authorities complaining of the unfairness of his “rich peasant” hat, but once the Cultural Revolution started he was unable to pursue it any further. He realized chaos would be unleashed as soon as he heard the ominous slogan “attack with culture, protect with force”, providing a pretext for violence. In Plucking the winds I describe the factional fighting that spread from the county-town to Gaoluo in 1966—including the remarkable rescue of the Houtu precious scroll. But despite his dubious past, Shan Zhihe remained immune from attack.

The village opera troupe had performed modern opera in the early 1950s, abandoning it in 1958 for the traditional bangzi style. By 1964, at the instigation of the county Bureau of Culture, themselves under orders as part of a huge national drive against the traditional “feudal superstitious” operas which had resurfaced widely, they started performing modern operas again. They then inevitably blew with the winds to serve as a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team, performing the “revolutionary” model operas, as throughout China. By winter 1967 the troupe was performing revolutionary dramas like Shajiabang, Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy, as well as Stealing the seal (Duoyin 夺印, an opera about class struggle) and The commune-chief’s daughter (Shezhang de nü’er 社长的女儿). For most of our friends, erstwhile members of the utterly conservative, but now dormant, ritual association, the development of the opera troupe had an inevitability about it. Even ritual stalwart He Qing now relished playing the smugly virtuous revolutionary Li Yuhe in The tale of the red lantern.

But some other members were none too impressed. Shan Qing, then in his 20s, had learnt the bangzi style in 1962, and only wanted to perform the old operas; he didn’t approve of the model operas, so he withdrew. And despite having subscribed readily to the social goals of the 1950s, Shan Zhihe decided the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team wasn’t his cup of Chinese tea.

Xie JinBut meanwhile he collected material in order to compose a libretto on the theme of Lin Zexu, hero of the Opium Wars. Like the Boxer uprising (also the object of much fieldwork under Maoism), this was always a popular theme rallying the people against the evil foreign imperialists; following a 1959 film, by 1997 the story was taken up in a big way in a blockbuster film by veteran director Xie Jin, making propaganda for the handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese. The county Bureau of Culture supported Shan Zhihe in his project, but it never came to fruition—too bad, as I joked with him, or I might have landed a part in the revival, though I’m not sure I’d be up to playing Queen Victoria.

For better and for worse, the economic liberalizations after 1978 effectively brought an end to over twenty years of Maoist policies. A new era now began. Class labels were finally abolished, as Shan Zhihe (who had suffered less than many for his bad label) reminded us, causing people to praise the national leader Deng Xiaoping as “Blue Sky Deng”.

In 1980, just as the commune system was being dismantled and the ritual association reviving, South Gaoluo villagers dipped their toes in the newly flowing waters of emergent capitalism as a group of enterprising friends tried organizing an “incense factory”, and soon (sorry, I can’t resist this) got their fingers burnt. The village brigade, led by Cai Yurun, back from the army and just appointed Party Secretary, as well as a keen new recruit to the reviving ritual association, took the lead. The incense factory was also an early experiment in business practices for Heng Yiyou, former “backstage” supporter of the United faction, soon to become a leading local entrepreneur. Even the otherwise sage Shan Zhihe, already in his 60s, took part. Also in 1980 he passed an exam at county level, promoted by the commune, and went on to open a private clinic in Dingxing in partnership with some colleagues.

In 1998 we paid him further delightful visits. Still supporting the association in his old age, by the standards of rural China in the 1990s he was comfortable, well looked after by his family.

Meanwhile a miraculous revival of the village opera troupe was under way. Political freedoms after the dismantling of Maoism then allowed them to restore the traditional style from 1979 to 1981, but economic pressures soon forced them to disband. They started rehearsing again in 1997. The newly formed group was an extension of the village’s new shawm band; thus several members of the ritual association were also taking part, including Shan Zhihe’s urbane sons Shan Ming and Shan Ling. The troupe’s repertoire now subsumed both traditional and modern styles. For New Year 1998 they were preparing classical bangzi excerpts as well as parts of their newer repertory such as Liu Qiaor and the teahouse scene from the Cultural Revolution “model opera” Shajiabang, still in bangzi style. But the revival exacerbated animosities within the ritual association.


Shajiabang, New Year 1998: Cai Tingwen as Nationalist general, Shan Rongqing on fiddle.

In contrast to the rather insular world of many peasants, the Shan family continued to be rather well acquainted with world events. Indeed, some other villagers too were interested in the Iraq crisis which was reported on Chinese TV—they questioned me about Britain’s role. But the Shan family’s curiosity was rather exceptional, going back to the early 20th century with Shan Futian’s experiences in Beijing, Hohhot, and south China, and continuing with Shan Zhihe’s own background of studying in Beijing and working for the Japanese and Nationalists in Hohhot.

Shan Zhihe, who over half a century earlier had learned of the Normandy invasion, had maintained his interest in world events: he mentioned the death of Princess Diana and the channel tunnel between England and France. So the whole family, including his urbane sons Shan Ming and Shan Ling, naturally had an interest in new culture from outside. They had good contacts in Beijing, where Shan Zhihe paid occasional visits; his daughter’s husband had retired early and become a taxi-driver, making a regular trip to and from Gaoluo—another link to the modern world of the Shan household.

* * *

For me, Shan Zhihe’s story encapsulates the complex transition from the old to the new society. I shared the villagers’ great respect for him. Of course he presented himself in a good light; nearly half a century after having to write “confessions”, Shan Zhihe doubtless found our visits a further opportunity to reflect on his experiences. Now he was writing his memoirs, only partly under the stimulus of our visits. As he reflected to me,

I’ve got a good memory, but my fate is no good. Otherwise after studying in Beijing I might have gone off to England to continue my education! The year the Japanese surrendered I was already 26, but by then it was too late. While I was working for the Japanese I managed to save several Communist guerrillas. But for having served the Japanese I was condemned to live and die in the village, a dismal life.

But things could have been far worse: he could so easily have been branded for life as a Japanese and Nationalist collaborator. By his own analysis, he had gone down the wrong road just once in his life. Having demonstrated against Japanese goods while still a student, he still couldn’t understand how he ended up as a policeman under their rule. Although he had done no wrong, it somehow seemed right that he should return home to reflect on his past and his future—not that he had much choice.

If many people with similar experiences were persecuted under the Communists, many also must have been well treated. It seems that the new leaders knew whom they needed, and that local loyalties also counted. But of course there were also innumerable senseless casualties in the Chinese Revolution; over the following years many Party members who suffered to help build the new society, and remained wholeheartedly loyal to it, were to be ruined. Shan Zhihe now had reason to be grateful to the Party. Psychologically his story is complex. He seemed sincere in parroting the Party-speak cliché of “I reformed my thought through labour and sweat”: layers of irony are hard to fathom.

But he had survived. “My father taught me two things: ‘If you make money, you mustn’t look down on people; if you become an official you mustn’t con people’—I’ve managed to live right down to today by those two mottos.” I believe him, too; his refined demeanour is a far cry from that of so many cadres and nouveaux riches under the reforms. By the 1990s, his family were living rather well; his children and grandchildren were bright. The family has survived—what more could they ask? Zhang Yimou’s moving film To Live (Huozhe, surely better translated as “Surviving”) gives an impression of this instinct. And many ordinary Chinese today still revere Mao, despite all the appalling gratuitous sufferings he inflicted on them, and are actually nostalgic for Maoism, admiring strong leaders; they are confused and alienated by the reforms since the 1980s. We must beware reading such alienation into the vicissitudes of the 1950s.

Do read Plucking the winds!










Buddhism under Mao: Wutaishan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YX score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bapaizi melody for shengguan, in Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1978 mim

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

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

The Anthology coverage is also substantial:

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Wutai xianzhi, p.581.

[5] Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.

[6] Wutai xianzhi, p.643.

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

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

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

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

A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956


SZ 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XMG 1956

The Xuanmiao guan temple, 1956.

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

The book contains three main parts:

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

Jifu guan

ritual pics

ritual 2

placard 1placard 2Placards proclaiming the Offering ritual.

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

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

SZ daoshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tianshi hymn JCTianshi song hymn as transcribed by Anthology collectors.

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


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

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

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

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

What was not on the agenda in 1956 was a description of ritual activities in the wider society around Suzhou at the time—more on that story later. Meanwhile, let’s pause again to marvel at the energy of ritual research under the taxing conditions of Maoism.


With many thanks to Tao Jin






Images from the Maoist era

Xi'an village festival, 1950s.

Village festival near Xi’an, 1950s.

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

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

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

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

Zhihua temple 1954

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

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


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

Huashan 1965

  • Shifan groups in Jiangsu:

  • Fieldwork in Hequ, Shanxi, 1953


Confucian ritual in Hunan

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

LQM shiban

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

ALX group lowres

  • Recreational ensembles in Yulin, Shaanbei:

  • including this wonderful 1962 photo of the Qiao family:

Qiao family 1962

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

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

For the Li family Daoists in Shanxi,

LPS and wife

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