Following my posts on the work of Philippe Sands, on blind minstrels in the Ukraine, [1] and on the famines in Ukraine and China, I’ve been belatedly educating myself on the appalling history of the vast region introduced in Between East and West by reading

The region where some 14 million people (mostly civilians) were killed from 1930 to 1945, largely east of the Molotov–Ribbentrop line, includes Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Victims were Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. And it was to the bloodlands that most Jewish victims from west and south Europe, Hungary, Romania, and so on, were transported to die.

Growing up in post-war Britain, perhaps my ignorance isn’t so unusual—but it’s disturbing, and needs rectifying. As Anne Applebaum comments in her review,

If we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 […] and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

My own belated awareness is partly prompted by my studies of the fates of Chinese people whom I’ve met in the course of fieldwork. Indeed, it’s worth re-reading Ian Johnson’s article “Who killed more, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?”, itself a companion to an article by Snyder.

I wonder what would it take for this vast region of the bloodlands to be recognized as the central physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front. And as Snyder says, the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st.

One might even begin by reading his brilliant “Conclusion: humanity”. And apart from reading static silent texts, there’s a wealth of documentary footage online—which you can choose to explore, or not.

Snyder corrects many widespread misconceptions [here I combine his text and Ascherson’s review]. The western public still tends to associate mass killing with “Nazi concentration camps” (cf. my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and with Auschwitz in particular; and Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

  • In the Soviet Union, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, 90% of gulag prisoners survived. Stalin’s great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in 1930s’ Ukraine where at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the “kulak” peasantry.
  • In the Third Reich concentration camps, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. US and British troops liberated some of those camps, but none of the major death camps, which were further east. And 10 million others who never entered any of the camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war), or gassed in special “killing centres” which were not holding camps at all. Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims were already dead. Some—Polish Jews especially—had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
  • So more common methods of killing than gassing were starvation and shooting. Most of those Jewish victims had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German Einsatzgruppen operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, moving from village to village behind the front lines of war.

In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps. […] The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen–Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

  • Nor is it widely understood that Jews were fewer than 1% of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and about one quarter of 1% by the beginning of World War Two. The great majority of murders of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but […] fewer than 3% of the deaths of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (over 3 million) and residents of besieged cities (over a million), or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (nearly a million).
    And until 1939 Stalin, later credited with defeating Hitler (if not in British public opinion), had a still worse record of mass killings—of his own civilians, moreover. Until then, Soviet terror (against both class and national enemies) was not only far greater in scale, it was incomparably more lethal—and largely unnoticed. By the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany, and far more Jews.

Poland, fatally partitioned between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, suffered terribly—with Warsaw subjected to brutal successive destructions. In western Europe this period was known as “the phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. But on 22nd June 1941 (“one of the most significant days in the history of Europe”) Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, while sealing the fate of the Reich, was a further disaster for the civilian inhabitants of the whole region. It was only with these incursions that Hitler’s territory came to include large numbers of Jews to be (literally) disposed of. And

As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.

As to Ukraine, already decimated by Stalin,

Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.

The Germans implemented mass starvation in POW camps:

As many Soviet prisoners-of-war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the entire course of the Second World War.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.

This had the effect of strengthening Soviet resistance; and while local populations had already suffered terribly under Soviet rule, many now wondered if it might be a lesser evil. Still, in desperation many Soviet citizens were recruited for duties with the German army and police.

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. […] The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. […] They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another.

When the Germans conquered an area they often found that the NKVD had shot prisoners. In 1943 they seized on their discovery of the 1940 massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn. But on 29th–30th September 1941 near Kiev, the Germans had murdered 33,761 Jews at Babi Yar; between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed there during the German occupation.

Local militias also took part in pogroms:

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. […] Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves collaborated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint.
Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

Snyder details the fates of urban centres like Lviv, Łódź, Riga, Vilnius, and Minsk, giving background to Applebaum’s visits in Between East and West. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or deported.


Warsaw, 1944.

His story returns to Poland and the unimaginable final agony of Warsaw. As the Red Army advanced on Berlin, their revenge was horrific.

* * *

And thence to continuing sufferings after the formal end of war, with Germans now among the main victims of ethnic cleansing and transports (for an overview of the aftermath across Europe, see Keith Lowe, Savage continent). Through the war the Soviets had continued sending their own citizens to the Soviet gulag (not least the peoples of the Caucasus and Crimea; entire populations of Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Tatar, Meshketian Turks, and so on, still less known in the West than the bloodlands), and in the post-war years deportations only increased.

As Stalin fabricated his own unblemished legend of the Soviet Union and its role in the war, belittling that of Soviet citizens in the Holocaust, he now engaged in his own anti-semitic purges. Although mass terror was no longer pursued after Stalin’s death, repression continued throughout the Soviet bloc, and the fates of the real victims were concealed.

The communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.
Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. […] During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth.

In his “Conclusion: Humanity”, Snyder explores the complexities of collaboration and victimhood—even now a pressing issue for all these traumatized nations. Most peoples suffered double or triple occupations, trapped helplessly between evil regimes, forced into agonizing dilemmas with a view to mere survival. In a telling passage, Snyder reflects on choices:

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

The comparisons between leaders and systems began the moment that Hitler came to power. From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would, all too often, determine their fate. This was true of unemployed German workers in early 1933, who had to decide whether they would vote for social democrats, communists, or Nazis. It was true, at the same moment, of Ukrainian peasants, some of whom hoped for a German invasion that would rescue them from the plight. It held for European politicians of the second half of the 1930s, who had to decide whether or not to enter Stalin’s Popular Fronts. The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years, as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

When both the Germans and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Polish officers had to decide to whom they should surrender, and Polish Jews (and other Polish citizens besides) whether to flee to the other occupation zone. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Soviet prisoners of war weighed the risks of collaboration with the Germans against the likelihood of starving to death in prisoner-of-war camps. Belarusian youth had to decide whether to join the Soviet Partisans or the German police—before they were press-ganged into one or the other. Jews in Minsk in 1942 had to choose between remaining in the ghetto or fleeing to the forest to seek Soviet partisans. Polish Home Army commanders in 1944 had to decide whether or not to try to liberate Warsaw for themselves, or to wait for the Soviets. Most survivors of the Ukrainian famine of 1933 later experienced German occupation; most survivors of the German starvation camps of 1941 returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union; most survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Europe also experienced communism.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial time, were condemned to compare.
In the decades since Europe’s era of mass killing came to an end, much of the responsibility has been placed at the feet of “collaborators”. The classic example of collaboration is that of the Soviet citizens who served the Germans as policemen or guards during the Second World War, among whose duties was the killing of Jews. Almost none of these people collaborated for ideological reasons, and only a small minority had political motives of any discernible sort. […] In eastern Europe, it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.

Snyder goes on:

In the 21st century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.

And he reflects on the purpose of history, describing all kinds of later nationalist agendas, highly relevant today:

Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder. […] Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.

Snyder’s detailed breakdown of figures is numbing (note also his Appendix “Numbers and terms”). [2]

In policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war, Nazi Germany murdered about ten million people in the bloodlands (and perhaps eleven million total), the Soviet Union under Stalin over four million in the bloodlands (and about six million total). If foreseeable deaths resulting from famine, ethnic cleansing, and long stays in camps are added, the Stalinist total rises to perhaps nine million and the Nazi to perhaps twelve. These larger numbers can never be precise, not least because millions of people who died as an indirect result of the Second World War were victims, in one way or another, of both systems.

But as he concludes, such statistics still have to be converted back into the stories of individuals: not the abstraction of 5.7 million Jewish dead, but 5.7 million times one.

It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 individual people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenburg, whose clothes clung together as they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber.

As the Jews of Minsk were liquidated in 1942,

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

* * *

Apart from providing us with essential basic education, such work, both detailed and humane, should inform our historiography generally—all the more with the current worldwide fomenting of ugly xenophobia.

For China, despite all the noble work on the famine and laogai camps, truth remains to be publicly told. In the official myth, the concession of Cultural Revolution “mistakes” conspires to sweep under the carpet the earlier successive terrors of land reform and campaigns throughout the 1950s, as well as long-term hunger. Even studies of expressive culture and ritual need to take all this into account.


[1] In such posts I mention the painful maintenance of expressive culture through times of trauma (and indeed the theme of the music of the camps is both macabre and inspiring), but here it seems unthinkable even to try and do so. It does, however, put into even starker perspective both regimes’ showcasing of Great Works of National Art directed by Great Conductors (see e.g. here). See also e.g. Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (ed.), Music traditions in totalitarian systems (Musicology Today, 2010).

[2] Statistics are always problematical. In China, as Ian Johnson observes, famine deaths alone over a mere four years seem to far outnumber the combined totals for killings under Stalin and Hitler from 1930 to 1945. But for the latter, if one includes “foreseeable” deaths caused by deportation, starvation, and incarceration, as well as combatant deaths and those due to war-related famine and disease, the numbers shoot up astronomically. Slowly, Hitler’s numbers approach Mao’s.
Issues with statistics are illustrated by the conclusion of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (esp. ch.5), based on detailed yet unpalatable arguments, that the 20th century was probably not the bloodiest in history. His diachronic table (pp.235–6), adjusted to give mid-20th-century population equivalents, shows death tolls from many other conflicts worldwide outranking those discussed here. Highest on the list is the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion (said to have killed up to 5% of the world population, though even a substantially lower revised estimate seems exaggerated), followed by the Mongol conquests; global deaths for World War Two surpass those of Mao’s famine, but even they only come in 9th and 11th respectively—with the Taiping rebellion in between. See here for Pinker’s responses to some inevitable questions.

But again, we should return to Snyder’s Conclusion.

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.


Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe (see also Bloodlands), and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

William Noll has a most thoughtful article unpacking ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho.

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Another salient, and distressingly topical, instance is Chinese studying Uyghur culture.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels* accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:


As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking, the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).


Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Some of the songs of the kobzari had anti-Soviet overtones, but that was the least of their problems. One author described them as “whiners” and  “smelly riff-raff”. Most of them

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Apart from its effect on social life, this also contributed to the erasing of historical memory. Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the bards under Maoist China, where local cadres showed a certain concern for the welfare of blindmen—which, I should say, is not to excuse their sufferings. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

Robert Conquest’s The harvest of sorrow led me to a reference in Shostakovitch’s Testimony, and to this article, telling how in 1930 or 1933 several hundred kobzari were summoned to a Congress of Folk Singers in Kharkiv—only to be taken to the forest at dead of night and shot. Fortunately I haven’t heard of such stories about the official festivals in 1950s’ China.

Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes (for an informed review, see Songlines #142). For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards…

Moving forward in time, I like the look of

  • Adriana N. Helbig, Hip hop Ukraine: music, race, and African migration (2014).


* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *


Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the former, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.


I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy has unpacked his “othering” nostalgia. But Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.


*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. Another good one is to substitute words like “borders” and “laws” with “bowels”, as in fatuous Brexit phrases like “It’s high time for us to take back control of our own borders”.





Lives of female mediums

Here’s a companion to my post on female spirit mediums and sectarians in Yanggao.

As I observed there, alongside the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China, mediums also play an important role in local society. The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life. [1] For them in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable.

Their abilities often stem from traumatic domestic and psychosocial crises—which the Maoist era provided in plenty. [2] Mediums we met came from a wide age-range: some began their careers under the commune system, others since the 1980s’ reforms.


Me-mot spirit mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Perhaps the most detailed research on spirit mediums in China comes from Xiao Mei 萧梅, with her study of me-mot mediums of the Zhuang people in Guangxi in southwest China—including a diary of one medium’s busy healing schedule over a month (a fruitful way of studying the lives of local ritual performers—cf. household Daoist Li Bin).

In this region, as Xiao Mei explains, [3]

Whether mediums are biologically male or female, when performing as mediums they adopt the role of female. But they all have experience of having encountered intractable calamity, either personal (such as incurable illness or mental disorder) or domestic (such as frequent illness or death in the family) [SJ: here Xiao Mei doesn’t consider socio-political aspects], and it is only through becoming a medium that they can be released from such calamities.

In Jingxi county the me-mot have a close relationship with household Daoist priests. The latter not only play a major role during the process of someone becoming a medium, but also need to collaborate with the medium in practising rituals for averting calamity and seeking blessing.

* * *

But mediums are also just as common among the Han Chinese in north China.

For Yanggao in north Shanxi, I’ve just added Wu Fan’s interesting notes from 2003 to my post on mediums there. That post also includes some material (including photos) from the Hebei plain—which is now even nearer Beijing than it was when we were doing fieldwork on ritual groups through the 1990s. In the course of our studies we met many mediums; on and around Houshan they often channeled the goddess Houtu (see also here).

Zhang Zhentao (Yinyuehui, pp.302–4) introduces some of them in his notes from 1995, offering rare glimpses into their activities during the Maoist era:

Liu Derong (b. c1941), from a village near Houshan, used the ritual name (faming 法名) Longding 隆定. As she told us, while giving birth in 1954 and 1961 she “went mad”, clambering up the walls, fearless; in a dream she saw Guanyin of the Southern Seas seated in lotus posture before a table on the kang brick-bed. She would levitate, only coming back to the ground when she called out to the deity. She began healing at the age of 31 sui, around 1971, and had by now healed over a thousand people, notably for gynaecological ailments. We heard her sing “ritual songs” (foge 佛歌) such as The Ten Lotus Leaves (Shiduo lianhua 十朵莲花).

We also chatted with Ren Xiuzhi (then in her 60s), who came from another village in Yixian county. She had begun to “fall ill” in her 20s, and began healing people when 42 sui—in the mid-1970s.

These accounts also suggest that there could be quite a long gestatory interval between the initiatory crisis and the consolidation of healing powers.

Dingxing HTM 1995

Houtu temple, Dingxing Northgate 1995.

Still in 1995, nearby at the Houtu temple (formally called Taining gong 泰宁宫) in Northgate of Dingxing county-town, we met the exceptionally renowned medium Chen Shiying (1907–98), [4] who was still in charge of the temple. Indeed, its popularity rested mainly in her reputation as a healer.

I have supplemented our notes with the 1994 biography (indeed, hagiography) displayed in the temple, which shows a rather distinctive path:

Chen Shiying bio

Unusually for a medium, she came from a successful literate family. This precious old photo of the Chen family is said to date from the 1930s:

Chen Shiying old pic

As always, I wonder what became of them all through the ensuing turbulent times.

After the early death of her husband, Chen Shiying contemplated suicide. But when she was 37 sui (1943) her husband appeared to her in a dream, telling her that her mission was to become a healer.

Chen Shiying continued her story for us. By the age of 46 sui (1952!) she had earned such merit that Houtu occupied her body, telling her that as she had no resting-place, Chen should collect funds to build a temple for her. With collectivization escalating, she now had to persuade the reluctant village authorities. As she tearfully threatened the village chief that she would die if he didn’t give permission, and that he would soon follow her, eventually he had no choice but to allocate a plot of land by the river. She told us that she practised as a medium throughout the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution, though “Granny” (Houtu) didn’t necessarily possess her body then.

Now one would clearly like to learn more about this whole period… When we visited the temple in 1995, Chen Shiying was still living there, healing a regular succession of patients there. A placard was displayed, reading “Holy physician, sacred practitioner” (Shenyi shengshou 神醫聖手). “Granny” had recently told her she also needed an opera stage before the temple, so she was now busy assembling funds to build one.

As Zhang Zhentao observes, the popularity of the cult to Houtu depends largely on the great faith that villagers place in the efficacity of both the mediums and the deity occupying them.

* * *

In Shaanbei, spirit mediums (both female and male) are also ubiquitous (for an introduction to the various categories, see Chau, Miraculous response, pp. 54–6).

Here, again, we find that the waxing and waning fates of temples (not always evident from written sources) may depend largely on the efficacity of their presiding medium. The intrepid Guo Yuhua (Minjian yishi yu shehui bianqian, pp.378–9) gives an interesting illustration of such change over a brief period—in this case referring to a male medium:

On a hill above Yangjiagou village the Lingguan temple (full name Heihu lingguan miao, to Efficacious Officer Black Dragon) was rebuilt in the early 1990s and rapidly became very popular, thanks to the renowned efficacity of its healing matong medium. Villagers throughout the area flocked to its temple fair on 7th moon 15th, making donations of several thousand yuan that financed the new god statues and the performance of a “holy opera” down in the village.

But suddenly in 1996 the temple revenue declined sharply, because the medium died. Villagers explained that the god had departed along with him. Then over the following New Year the temple mysteriously caught fire. burning the “god places”, an offerings table, the door, and windows.

At the same time the village’s Longwang miao and Pusa miao temples were enjoying a revival with their successful rain processions during the droughts of 1995 and 1997. So villagers soon transferred their loyalties. As the “rain opera” at the Longwang temple on 5th moon 15th became popular, the Lingguan temple accordingly moved the date of its own temple fair to combine with it. The villagers even moved the Lingguan god statue, responsible for healing, to the Pusa temple so that they could seek cures before it at the 4th moon 8th fair, and “hang the locket” there for their children—not part of the temple’s original functions.

With this in mind, a return visit to Chen Shiying’s temple in Hebei, since her death, would be interesting.

As Guo Yuhua notes, this is also an instance of the resilience of popular strategies, by contrast with state measures towards religion. Temples are not just timeless ancient vestiges of some ancient cultural heritage, but depend on people—both educated and illiterate, both male and female.

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, now forlorn, Yangjiagou 1999.

* * *

The healing sessions of mediums, while now acting in tandem with (rather than in conflict with) more orthodox medical procedures, are clearly a significant and enduring aspect of folk healthcare. And in all these regions, mediums vocalise in various forms including singing: soundscape is always an important aspect of our ritual studies (see also here, and here).

While it is hard enough to unearth the history of household Daoists under the Maoist era, it’s even more so for the female mediums. Their domestic healing activities never drew much outside attention, so it seems likely that they discreetly maintained their activities under the commune system. But since women tend not to relate their stories to the public life of the society, and such mediums are often illiterate, it will take thoughtful work to explore this topic. Similarly, fieldworkers are unlikely to happen upon the initiatory crises that first trigger their possession, which might also make a revealing study.


[1] Note the bibliographies here and here. See also my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese music (2013), pp.32–4 and n.40.

[2] For a fine ethnography of an Yi community in Yunnan, describing possession and exorcism as symptoms of (and strategies to handle) the violent traumas of both Maoist and reform eras, see Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001). For a blunt psychiatric perspective, see Albert C. Gaw et al., “The clinical characteristics of possession disorder among 20 Chinese patients in the Hebei province of China.” Psychiatric services 49.3 (1998), pp.360-65. 

[3] Adapted from Xiao Mei, “Bodies, gender and worldviews: me-mot spirit mediums in the Jingxi region of Guangxi”, in Gender in Chinese music, pp.247–64. For more, see Xiao Mei, “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷) [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, vol.2, pp.328–494; note also the amazing scenes on the DVD). On the initiatory crises, see p.438 ff.; for the diary, pp.455–7.

[4] For her birth-date, the biography gives a Guangxu year of Yiwei 乙未, equivalent to 1895, but then states that she was 88 sui in 1994 (indeed, in 1995 she told us she was 89 sui), so perhaps we should read the year as 丁未。


King Kong: temple Chinglish

The intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes continue to bear fruit.

Apart from his amazing images of village temple murals around Hebei and Shanxi, he has recently found these helpful Chinglish translations at the Chongfu si temple in Shuozhou county—which, incidentally, is one of the most fruitful sites for household Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

Here’s the Amitābha hall (Mituo dian), arcanely rendered as “Indemnity Tuo Temple” (“I’m like, WTF?”)—blowing plastic and threat paternity (has clearly experienced vicissitudes of life):

indemnity tuo

It’s also gratifying to learn that between 1987 and 1991 the country allocate huge funds to a landing gear overhaul—presumably to help the deities descend after riding the clouds 駕雲 (for their earlier modes of transport, see here).

And a fine interpretation of the deity Jin’gang (Vajracchedikā) in his local reincarnation as King Kong:*

King Kong

The four kings are cool, but I have no idea where the “three with disabilities” came from.

In the Manjusri hall [Gosh, jolly good show! It’s all about comic timing], along with yet more plastic, we find the splendid Boulez Lichtung (in niche homage to Stockhausen’s Licht and Stimmung?):

Wenshu tang

Hats off to this budding comedian on the local temple circuit.

* * *

More disturbingly, here’s a poster advertising state intrusion in an inauguration ritual at the newly refurbished Sanhuang miao temple in nearby Hunyuan county:


I’d like to know which Daoist group took part (that of Jiao Lizhong, I surmise), and what ritual segments they performed—unsurprisingly, details not found on the poster.

Anyway, as Hannibal notes, with the core of the event formed by not one, not two, but three speeches from the leadership, I think we can all agree that under the resolute guidance of Uncle Xi‘s New Epoch Socialist Thought, Daoist ritual will certainly attain a high level of development. Now that’s what I call ritual redundancy. Whoever said chanting scriptures was boring?

While Party involvement in the rituals of larger official temples is common, such encroachment into local ritual practice is (so far) rare; but as usual, everyone is probably just going through the motions—like under Maoism, when the bard might perform a token new section before the traditional story that peasants actually wanted. Keep calm and carry on.


*I heard a story that since the Danish for “king” is kong, King Kong was translated as Kong King, but disappointingly it turns out to be apocryphal.


With thanks to Hannibal



Ritual studies mildly censored


I’m happy to see a Chinese translation of the Appendix “Ethnography, performance, and history in Daoist ritual studies” of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, just published in the fine series Dayin (“Ritual soundscapes”—which, BTW, is always full of excellent field reports) from the enterprising Centre for Chinese Ritual Music Research at the Shanghai Conservatoire 上海音乐学院中国仪式音乐研究中心:*

  •  “Daojiao yishi yanjiuzhongde minzuzhi, biaoyan he lishi” 道教仪式研究中的民族志、 表演和历史, Dayin 大音 vol. 13, pp.112–30.

This Appendix explores many of the main themes in my research, not just on the Li family Daoists but on my whole fieldwork on ritual practice in rural China. I worked on the translation together with Zhang Lili, whose recent PhD thesis explores my relationship with the Hebei village of Gaoluo, as in my ethnography Plucking the winds. She’s thoroughly familiar with my work.

Dayin p.1

Amidst current anxieties over censorship (for Chinese pressure on Western academic publication, see e.g. this NYT article), my own arcane publications hardly merit much attention. But here at last I did come up against a little issue.

Earlier this year in my talks in Beijing I noted an impressive candour about modern history amongst Chinese colleagues (cf. this article), and Chinese social media and websites resound with yet more controversial material (such as on, including this recent English translation); but print publication is a rather separate matter.

As we worked on the translation, we very occasionally adapted a phrase to read more naturally in Chinese, but left my content intact. It was then accepted for the Dayin series—which is gratifying, since while I stress the crucial role of soundscape in ritual, my Appendix contains rather little material on “music” as such. And Dayin also makes a suitable home for my work since the Centre for Ritual Music Research (despite its name) has long advocated the use of the term “soundscape”, while taking a broader anthropological view than other Chinese “music” journals.

Later during the editing process, the doubtless well-meaning editors were mainly concerned about the potential political sensitivity of one sentence (in bold below) under “The 1949 barrier”, where I explore the status of research on ritual in the PRC:

Scholars of Daoism recognize the historical importance of politics, describing machinations at imperial courts, or campaigns in the Republican era. But then their enquiry abruptly stops. So religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Indeed, early history has long been a safer topic in socialist countries, as Vesna Goldsworthy notes for Serbia. In the discussion at one of my Beijing talks, a senior Chinese scholar made a similar point, even while noting greater freedoms in research since the 1980s’ reforms; and I’m sure personally the Dayin editors (like everyone in China I know in the field) concur with it. I’ve made such observations in many previous English (and even some Chinese) publications, read by my Chinese colleagues and their students; after all, the dominant theme of my research is the maintenance of ritual activity under Maoism and since. Though my critique applied as much to Western as to Chinese scholars, some—even within the PRC—have published honorable ethnographies that I often cite.

But constrained by the current climate, the editors observed that if I wanted to retain the sentence in bold above (indeed the whole passage—see below), then it would need to be submitted to a whole chain of meetings of Higher Authorities, which could be both time-consuming and tedious. Reluctant to do a King Canute, and bearing in mind the fieldworker’s maxim “abide by local customs“, I found myself willing to make a certain compromise.

Our Chinese draft had gone:


For “whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained” the editors at first suggested a softer 无论管得严还是松 (“however strict or lax the control”); it’s not quite what I wrote, but I liked it since it read more idiomatically. I wasn’t privy to later stages in editing, and the final version turned out closer to our own—but at the expense of a cunning adjustment to the previous phrase. In the end the sentence came out as


Thus, following “But then their enquiry abruptly stops” (from which the deletion of “abruptly” also subtly transforms my intent), the sentence now reads

So religious practice in different historical periods—whether [“savagely” cut] repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

In other words, they’ve replaced my “religious practice since 1949” with “religious practice in different historical periods”. That totally garbles my point: it’s not the whole political history that’s sensitive, just that since 1949!

Of course, the beauty of it is that precisely by censoring the sentence they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly showed that it was… Ha! I rest my case.

Leading on from that idea, our translation of the following section has also been garbled in the publication:

Ironically, modern history (as for earlier periods) is not entirely about political campaigns; general social and economic trends also need discussion, but they too are casualties of this taboo mentality. It is ironic, or significant, that this self-censorship has largely emanated from projects led from Hong Kong and Taiwan—their caution perhaps deriving partly from not wishing to implicate mainland authors and subjects. But such idealization of both present and past feeds into the rose-tinted patriotic subtext of recent cultural heritage projects.

Of course, this is a far wider issue than ritual studies, involving the whole historiography of modern China. The next paragraph also received subtle yet significant editing:

Actually, it is not only religion that is sensitive. When discussing with Chinese colleagues the lack of detail on modern history in reports on local folk culture, one often hears the riposte “Everyone knows [again they’ve added “tacitly” here, which I like] what happened since 1949—there’s no need to discuss it.”
*Such a conspiracy of silence is both erroneous and dangerous [that phrase altered], repressing memory. There is a remarkable ignorance among younger Chinese of basic details about modern history [that whole phrase cut, and thus the following two words]; even older people who lived through the period must have had different experiences, that are still poorly documented.* If we refrained from writing about World War Two because “everyone knows what happened”, we might assume that the experiences of people of various classes in Latvia, Puglia, and Singapore were similar and so not worth recording.

For the record, here’s our draft of that further offending passage (between asterisks above):

这种保持缄默的密约是错误和危险的,它抑制记忆。年轻的中国人对近代历史基本细节的知识很有限。即使是生活在那段时期的老年人也一定有不同的经验 ,这种记录仍然很缺乏。

Of course, Western editors can be critical too—but this is a translation of a published work, not a manuscript submitted for assessment. Our Chinese version may not always have read well, so I welcome stylistic suggestions—but here there’s also another agenda for editor and author to ponder. I didn’t write my book, or any of my other English works, with a view to publication in Chinese; while always sensitive to the condition of Chinese people, I carry out my research in the context of Western academic discourse. But reading my original, perhaps you will think me naive not to have engaged in self-censorship even while working on the translation.

Innocuous enough, the incident may not be the end of the world, but it’s a slippery slope. Whatever the result, now I’m free to document it all here, somewhat salving my conscience, and I’m not blaming the editors in the least. Everyone involved acted in good faith—these are just the kind of issues with which we all have to grapple through variable political climates.

Anyway, I am glad to see my Appendix in Chinese—very nearly complete, and more or less accurate. Far more impressionistic translations, in both directions, have doubtless been published.

The same volume also includes updates on research on Buddhist and Daoist “music”—which, though I dispute such concepts, are useful if one reads between the lines, just as my own article suggests.


* BTW, following my peeve about the Western academic convention of disrupting authors’ melliflous prose with garrulous parenthetical in-text citations, the name of the Dayin editorial committee would make another fine case (Shanghai yinyue xueyuan Zhongguo yishi yinyue yanjiu zhongxin Dayin bianjibu weiyuanhui 2018, personal communication).