Regional cultures

An ethnologist rarely noted is Ken Dodd, who commented profoundly on variations in regional cultures—as in the Chinese “customs differ ever 10 li” (shili butong su 十里不同俗):

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

Michael Billington reflects:

It strikes me I’ve been lucky enough in my lifetime to see two performers kissed with genius. One was Laurence Olivier, who could enthral an audience with his animalistic power and interpretative originality. The other is Ken Dodd, who has the capacity to take a roomful of strangers and, through a fusillade of verbal and visual gags that never lets up, induce in them a spirit of collective ecstasy.

Ken is renowned for the length of his shows. Lord Grade has suggested that Xi Jinping’s recent interminable address to the Chinese party faithful was secretly scripted by Ken. If only…

Revolution and laowai

liuxuesheng

Acting the part: new UK students from class of 1975, Foreign Languages Institute, Beijing.
Robin Needham (R.I.P.), Andrew Seaton, Howard Nightingale;
Frances Wood, Derek Gillman, Richard King, Steve Crabbe;
Harriet Evans, Pippa Jones, Beth McKillop, Rose Kerr, Sarah Garbutt.
Photo taken at Wudaokou photo shop and hand-tinted there, autumn 1975.
Courtesy Beth McKillop.

In the light of later exposés of the Cultural Revolution, the acquaintance with Chinese society of laowai (“Wogs”)* from my generation, idealistic students at Cambridge, now inevitably seems somewhat less than well-informed.

The great Frances Wood, long-term curator of the Chinese collection of the British Library, and whose insights and mellifluous voice regularly inform BBC Radio 4’s series In our time, evokes that generation’s experience of revolutionary China in her brilliant memoir Hand-grenade practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution. The blurb makes a good summary (extra points too for eschewing the standard “smorgasbord” and “picaresque swathe”):

In 1975 I went to Peking for a year, together with nine other British students who had been exchanged by the British Council for ten Chinese students.** The latter knew exactly what they were doing: learning English in order to further the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We were less sure.
From 1966, China had been turned upside down by young Red Guards who were encouraged to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Professors, surgeons, artists, pianists, novelists and film directors were attacked for their bourgeois pursuit of excellence or their attachment to decadent Western ideas.
Though by 1975 there were no longer violent street battles or badly beaten bodies floating down the Pearl River, we found Peking University governed by a Revolutionary Committee of workers, peasants and Party members determined that we should not learn too much and become experts divorced from the masses.
With our Chinese classmates, we spent half our time in factories, getting in the way of workers making railway engines, or in the fields, learning from peasants how to bundle cabbage or plant rice seedlings in muddy water. Heroically, we stayed up half the night to dig rather shallow underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. Much of the rest of the time was spent in class, with two compulsory hours of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought every Saturday morning and compulsory sport, which included hand-grenade throwing. I studied Chinese history which had to be revised overnight when Deng Xiaoping was criticized for the second time and erased from the record. The constant hammering of political rhetoric, broadcast from tannoys hidden in every tree, and the endless expositions of Marxist-Leninist dialectic were only interrupted by funeral announcements as yet another ancient revolutionary went to join Karl Marx.
Just after I returned home, the Great Helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, died. Within weeks, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not only over but renamed “The Ten Disastrous Years”. The reinstated Deng Xiaoping bounced back and declared that it was glorious to be rich: all my helpful digging and enginemaking had been a mistake.

To some, the book may seem to make light of what was a distressing period for Chinese people, but as Frances notes:

To all those in China who suffered terribly at the time I apologize for my determination to amuse myself and be amused by what I found. I only began to discover what was happening to China’s intellectuals [not just them, I might add—SJ] when I got home.

With quaint stoicism Frances and her fellow-students learn the arts of aimlessly moving rubble, the “ceremony of entering into traffic” (as a Chinese student interpreted the phrase rite de passage) on rickety bikes, and the labyrinthine system of coupons, chits, and travel permits. Cabbages play a major role. Her description of the dangers of eating the baozi dumplings of unheated restaurants in winter brought memories flooding back (also evoking Bill Bailey’s “soaking in the hoisin of your lies“):

They were difficult to pick up and dip in soy sauce at the best of times, even if you had all your fingers free to manipulate the chopsticks. Eating them in in an outer coat and padded cotton mittens was a very messy business, and it didn’t take long for the front and cuffs of our coats to become stiff with soy sauce and bits of baozi.

Frances relishes her excursions in search of imperial architecture—which, distressingly, even in those revolutionary times (despite the best efforts of the Red Guards) was much more abundant than today.

With vital government departments depleted, and “so-called experts” dismissed, in favour of glib and dangerous populist slogans (now where have we heard that recently?), Frances reflects on the weird campaign extolling Lei Feng, with its classic song

I would like to be a tiny screw… Put me in place and screw me tight.

Meanwhile, pressed into finding a party-piece to compete with their North Korean and Albanian counterparts, the UK students soon become adept at trotting out “the British national song” Old MacDonald had a farm. On other occasions, wheeled out for visits of foreign dignitaries, they feel like model prisoners.

As she devours “negative teaching material“, Frances identifies many experiences familiar to foreigners in China, like holding a fluent conversation in Chinese with a local, who then suddenly interjects, “Can you understand Chinese?” Even her final chapters on the culture-shock of returning to Blighty, bewildered by excessive choice, rank alongside the dénouement of Nigel Barley’s The Innocent anthropologist after his stay in Cameroon.

In his introduction, Oliver Pritchett regards Frances as part of the great tradition of intrepid British women explorers—reminding me of Ronnie Ancona’s spoof. The book is perceptive, hilarious, and warm-hearted, and you must read it at once!

Cambridge 1974

Partying at the Oriental faculty, Cambridge 1974. Beth McKillop, Carol Murray, Catharine Saunders, Tim Wright, Hisako Tottori (later Princess Takamado), a fragmentary bearded Paul Kratochvil, Nick Menzies, Craig Clunas with hair, Evelyn X, me with even more hair, André (then “Al”) de Vries.

All the while, amidst the deep waters and raging fire, I was granted a welcome sick-note to remain safe in the ivory towers of Cambridge. When I wasn’t drunk in charge of a string quartet (with grateful thanks to Adnams and Bartók), my own naïveté focused on obstinately reading Tang poetry and Huineng’s Platform Sūtra, inspired as I was by fine scholars like Denis Twitchett and David McMullen—as well as Laurence Picken‘s work on Tang music, and Michael Loewe’s training in Han-dynasty texts. As Frances observes,

Learning Chinese then was like learning a dead language: there seemed no hope of ever using it in China.

For me (rather like the attitude of the LA Phil board towards composers) it wasn’t so much a case of “no hope of using it in China” as “no danger of having to use it there”. My classical bent went along with my stammer—reluctant even to speak English, I couldn’t imagine ever trying to communicate with foreigners. Quelle horreur!

The fusty pursuits of Tang history were already somewhat antiquarian in an increasingly leftie Cambridge, and hardly appealed (then) to my fellow students. Apart from Frances and Craig, others like Beth McKillop and Nick Menzies, as well as students from other UK universities, were plunging into the fray and Becoming At One with the Masses with extended stays in China as part of their course. Some were rather keen on the revolutionary baptism; the tastes of others were more historical (in China, as Frances notes, “History was regarded as a very dangerous weapon which could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands”). More than flared trousers, history—which had then seemed like, well, history—soon came back into fashion, and many of my fellow-students later became distinguished sinologists of imperial China; but unlike me, they had already noticed that one’s studies needed to be grounded in some kind of current reality.

Still, I suspect few of us were at all clear by this stage that the Labouring Masses were in a depression that must have seemed terminal, bitterly disillusioned with constant lurches in central policy, and suffering from constant hunger; or that this was already prompting a “silent revolution” in private enterprise, some years before decollectivization became an official policy.

Another 1975 photo [1] of the great Craig Clunas makes an evocative image:

Craig
Craig’s own caption:
Shock and awe on childish faces as Foreign Friend massacres the greatest hits of revolutionary modern Peking opera, Yan’an, 1975.
My take:
Becoming At One with the Masses: revenge for Langlang. “Wow—Taking tiger mountain by strategy! Don’t get to hear that much—just what we need!”

Back at Cambridge my only compromise to modern China (indeed, anything after the 9th century) was taking supervisions with Paul Kratochvil, although his expert guidance consisted mainly of plying me with beer and jokes in the pub—for which I’m eternally grateful. But in the vein of Arthur Waley, cocooned in a disembodied dream of ancient oriental wisdom, I only began spending time in the Real China a decade after my fellow-students; whereas they had evidently got time off for good behaviour, I’ve since made up for my insouciance by spending the last three decades traipsing around dusty Chinese villages trying to document the fortunes of ritual culture under Maoism, learning to read between the lines of the arcane socialist vocabulary that Frances explores so tellingly.

Still, my first trip in 1986 was hardly prompted by any desire to engage with modern China: I went in search to clues to Tang-dynasty performance practice in living genres. It was only when I found folk culture a vibrant and fascinating theme that I switched my focus to modern society and the ethnography of local religion.

Since 1993 my lengthy stays Becoming At One with the Masses as guest of the Gaoluo ritual association, and later the Li family Daoists, belong under the heading of dundian, “squatting”, or more elegantly “making a base”. I was never dragooned into moving rubble, but in Gaoluo I did spill the occasional bucket of water from the well—and in 2013 I managed quite effectively to get in Li Manshan’s way (my book, pp.132–3):

Coming across the phrase Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin… as I made inept attempts to help him with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

For my counter-productive work on the harvest we reached a deal whereby Li Manshan would pay me at the rate of 1950s’ work-points. As I suggested that he might extend this arrangement to my sessions depping in his band for funeral rituals, that month I must have earned several pence.

How I envy Frances’s early excursion to Datong and its temples, the Yungang grottoes, and even a nearby coal mine. From the train she observed the very villages where I was later to immerse myself in household Daoist ritual groups like the Li family—then nearing the end of over a decade of forced inactivity. In 1974 Li Manshan and his wife had their second daughter, Li Min; their son Li Bin, later to become the ninth generation of Daoists in the lineage, was born in 1977.

The innocence of us laowai at the time is all the more reason why we need to continue our quest to understand the period—and those before and since.

In a topical—somewhat older but no less relevant—kind of remembrance, Frances features in the new Channel 4 documentary Britain’s forgotten army. Meanwhile our teacher Michael Loewe is still going strong at the age of 95. Craig couldn’t attend his lecture at SOAS recently, since he was himself giving a talk on Freud and China—one of those niche Mastermind topics like Norman Wisdom and Albania (I know which I’d choose).

 

* If the more polite term waiguoren (“foreigner”) was in use in the 1970s, then by the time I arrived in 1986 the more informal, and less diplomatic, laowai was often heard as we walked the streets. Or at least that’s what they always shouted at me

**For the British Council to send ten UK students to Beijing in exchange for ten Chinese students sounds like a hostage deal gone wrong. Maybe bumbling Boris has this up his sleeve?

[1] Among many great sites for photos of the Cultural Revolution, see here.

The Houshan Daoists

*Click here to read page!*

So far, most of my pages on local ritual have described traditions in Shanxi. The province of Hebei, surrounding Beijing, may seem “too close to home”, lacking the romantic image of either the ethnic minorities or the barren northwest, but it is a remarkably fruitful site for fieldwork.

While the topic belongs with my pages on Gaoluo (under Other publications), I’ve put it under Local ritual, since it sets forth from the lives of Daoist priests.

You can find background on the Hebei plain south of Beijing by consulting the many sources in my introduction here, but one major site in our fieldwork on ritual life there was Houshan 后山, in Yixian county, centre of the cult to the female deity Houtu 后土, whose temple fair I’ve already outlined.

This sketch of the Complete Perfection Daoist priests of the temple there on the eve of the 1949 Liberation again illustrates their close connection with the ritual life of local villagers. In a (lavishly illustrated!) article I introduce the Houshan priests; the village ritual associations and sects nearby which continued their ritual tradition; the rich trove of “precious scrolls” in the region; and nearby temples to Houtu.

Pantheon, Liujing 1995

One belt, one road

In the CCP’s latest claim to end poverty, the title of the enigmatically-named One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) policy may sound to some more like a critique of Maoism—perhaps a succinct postcard home from Shaanbei written by an Educated Youth sent down in the Cultural Revolution:

One belt [per family], one road [in the whole county].

And it wasn’t a Gucci belt, either.

Stories are common of families who only had one pair of trousers between them, to be worn by whoever had to go out. Like the traveller’s tale of fieldworkers finding villagers who hadn’t even heard of Chairman Mao, this sounds far-fetched. There’s a celebrated critique of such inflated poverty stories in At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”):

But in this case there’s plenty of evidence. Among many such accounts, the story of Wang Xiangrong (b.1952), “king of Shaanbei folk-song”, is interesting. He fought his way up from grinding poverty to become a major folk-song star, and his story has become part of the romantic official myth of Shaanbei.

You can see that in this documentary, but it’s still a good ethnography of his changing life, with some precious old footage, and relatively free of the usual hagiographic style of such programmes:

Of course, such superstars are merely the glossy tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed hanging out with Wang Xiangrong in Yulin in 2001, finding him engaging and unpretentious. I did a little sketch of him in my Shaanbei book (pp.210–12) [1] —a rare excursion for me into the world of both folk singing and mediated urban performance (for the former, do read the works of the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck):

Wang Xiangrong was brought up in a poor desert village with a population of only a few dozen, 45 kilometres from Fugu county-town to the northeast of Yulin. He recalls, I fear not fancifully, that he had no clothes of his own till going to school at the age of 8. The youngest of four surviving children out of nine, he was 13 when his father died. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to graduate from senior secondary. From 1971 he worked as a schoolteacher; in 1975 he toured Inner Mongolia with a band performing Errentai. In 1977 he took part in the county band, in 1979 he was spotted by Yulin cultural cadres at a training session in Fugu county, winning a prize in a festival in 1980 and joining the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe by 1983. He has recorded for many films and TV programmes, and since 1988 has made several foreign tours, including a highly successful tour of Japan in 1999.

The kind of singing paraded by the troupe is mostly heavily mediated with kitsch orchestral accompaniment. Wang Xiangrong is perfectly aware that it is a manufactured style, attuned to the rosy official Communist image of Shaanbei. In between the extremes of that style and folk-singers performing in village life, even the few unaccompanied recordings of Wang and others show a certain refinement of rural style, such as a studied vibrato and the dramatic holding of high notes.

Wang makes something of a play of his “shaman songs” (shenguan diao), learnt when he was young from two shaman uncles; he is familiar with the “precious sword” (baojian) and the sheepskin drum struck with a stick. Similarly, he learnt rain songs by participation in rain ceremonies in his youth, for which a group of six villages regularly formed a “parish” (she) from 1957 to 1962, and even—still more secretively—through the Cultural Revolution.

I get to meet the jovial Wang Xiangrong, and with the help of a friendly cadre in the troupe who is a neighbour of the Qiao family, I am surreptitiously invited to the troupe’s evening concert, to be held in the great hall of the fancy hotel that I can’t afford to stay in.

It’s a private invitation concert for a high-ranking deputy of Li Peng, and I am not officially invited, but my new friends smuggle me in backstage to watch from the wings. If I attend formally in the audience, the bigwig will have to meet me, which would cause complications; he is happy to pretend I’m not there, and I’m happy not to get involved in courtesies. So, after all this time openly attending village rituals that some cadres might consider sensitively backward or superstitious, now that I finally find a concert showcasing the official image, I am forced to attend it in secret!

From the wings I watch the troupe go through their programme, announced suavely by a glamorous female MC in qipao costume speaking standard Mandarin, which I haven’t heard for ages, even from local cadres. Wang Xiangrong isn’t singing this evening, but there are two solo singers, accompanied by a full orchestra in the pit. Introduced by the MC, a plump female singer does two sets, changing from a red ballgown with a magnificent ruff to a pink ballgown – hardly outfits that reflect the dress of the Shaanbei countryside. With the aid of a mike, she milks the songs, using all the studied hand gestures of conservatory style, backed by the orchestra in national silk-and-bamboo style, with dizi flute solos and pipa lute tremolos to the fore. A male singer in elegant white silk costume also performs a set, his songs introduced by a mellifluous dizi solo. The singers’ facial expressions range from the smile of contentment to the longing gaze afar.

Illuminated by fancy lighting, male and female dancers wear a variety of glitzy costumes, wielding props such as fans, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs, stock props of national dance. For one dance the girls perform acrobatics while holding aloft lotus lanterns, kitted out in green trousers, skimpy tops with fishnet midriffs, and little red floral headpieces. From my forays to the villages I have always been mystified why Mizhi county is nationally famed for its beautiful women. Now I realize they have evidently all been poached for the Folk Arts Troupe; I am reminded of the palace girls of imperial times, slave-girls at the mercy of predatory officials.

Having failed to witness shamans practising in the countryside, it is ironic to see the troupe performing a so-called “shaman dance” for the Party bigwig, the male dancers wielding cute papier-maché tridents, accompanied by the orchestra in pompous martial vein. In another dance the men wield cymbals, lighting effects adding to the drama.

Anyway, you get the idea: such staged performances are a world away from those I had been witnessing in the countryside. I won’t go into detail, as you can see this kind of thing daily on Chinese TV; but the links with local culture are tenuous.

 Whereas rural music-making depends on family and community solidarity in ceremonial traditions stretching back to imperial times, I can detect no social base for the stage performances of the official troupe, and its kitsch versions of Shaanbei culture are utterly diluted; it is contextually, historically, and musically light. I can’t see whom this kind of thing satisfies; but of course one could say, as I would for the music of the chuishou shawm bands, that this too is ritual, not “merely” music; the official culture sanctioned by the state serves a need for “civilization”, for modern “national” values on a token base of traditional local culture, on behalf of a segment of the population. And I realize there is fieldwork potential here too: these performers have lives too, doubtless a lot less glamorous than their stage personas. But if this style is part of the overall picture, it’s a very small one; no-one in the countryside seems to be emulating it.

 A few days later Wang Xiangrong takes me for a song-session in a fancy Mongolian yurt restaurant in town. His best buddy Li Yu, the charming and portly boss of the Puhui liquor factory, arrives late, having already got a considerable head start in the evening’s drinking activities. Brought up in Yulin, Li recalls his time doing army service in the Cultural Revolution mainly for picking up a repertory of dirty songs, which were then all the rage—a lot of that generation will give you a similar alternative view of the period. Now doing a roaring trade with his liquor business, Li is a model capitalist, with rather good taste in music. In 2000 he organized a contest for drinking songs (jiuqu dasai) at his liquor factory, which was apparently a great success.

Li and Wang, veteran drinking artists, are the stars of the banter over supper; other guests (including a nice academic from Yan’an, two young and distinctly nervous women, and me) are in their thrall. Wang holds court with his songs while Li Yu keeps his glass topped up with fiery baijiu liquor. The colorfully-costumed waitress is expected to sing for guests, and doesn’t expect to be forced to drink, but with Wang Xiangrong she has bitten off more than she can chew: she is expertly, ritually, cajoled into joining in a toast after repeated verses. Wang is enjoying singing, but the fun is as much in the ritual badinage.

Wang is a real character, but I’m not in my element. One of those pathetic English men who has never sung a song on his own in his life, in 1999 I had managed, virtually at gunpoint, to sing Do, a deeand Rule Britannia at a banquet in a Shaanbei temple, which still haunts me—the sacrifices we make for our art! I got away without singing that evening in the restaurant—thankfully, Wang Xiangrong had my number. Indeed, apart from rural contexts for singing, such restaurant settings may be becoming a common context for singing among the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

Wang’s accounts of his poor childhood might seem suitable material for work-teams encouraging people to “speak bitterness” about the “old society” before Liberation—only they refer to the period long after the arrival of the Communists, as many work-teams discovered to their consternation. For Shanxi peasants’ discontent at their inability to clothe or feed themselves under the commune system, see here.

Talking of “liquor songs”, here’s a related passage from my Shaanbei book (pp.13–14):

Though the Communist myth of Shaanbei has ingeniously, or ingenuously, portrayed it as an archetypical paradise of industrious peasants, a rose-tinted homeland for both traditional and revolutionary folk-song, it is no simple task today to get a handle on the life of singing in society there. In view of the continuing vitality of social folk-song culture in Gansu and Qinghai provinces to the west, the lack of local folk-song festivals in Shaanbei (either now or before Communism) is curious. And if the romantic depiction in the film Yellow Earth of a shepherd declaiming a song from a mountainside was once true to life, it appears to be rare now. Also largely absent from social life today are “revolutionary songs”; even during the commune period, renditions were largely limited to (albeit frequent) political meetings. Change is hard to assess—if only one could eavesdrop on daily life in 1934, 1964, and 1994, for instance—but recollections of senior villagers suggest that singing is heard less often today than earlier in the twentieth century.

Since the 1990s, record shops, both locally and throughout China, have sold highly mediated CDs of “Shaanbei folk-songs”, including some revolutionary songs. Shaanbei folk-song now has a rich virtual life in many Chinese websites. Indeed, peasants seem to be aware of the label “Shaanbei folk-songs” when talking to outsiders, even if their own terms for the songs they sing in daily contexts are more nuanced. The gulf between such mediated, commodified versions, with their polished singing style and smoochy or disco accompaniment, and singing in social life, sung in a rougher voice and usually without accompaniment, is easily heard.

“Famous singers” highlighted by Chinese scholars often come from strong family and village traditions, but tend to tailor their style to the demands of the state troupes to which they graduated. However close such singers remained to the folk style, or however far they departed from it, their stage performances accompanied by new-style “folk ensembles” have remained the tip of the iceberg. All music is worthy of study, but it is a less mediated style that dominates singing in daily life in the poor countryside of Shaanbei.

Thus under the broad umbrella of “folk-song” are singers performing for drinking parties, the consecration of a new cave-dwelling, calendrical and life-cycle ceremonies, rain processions, and shamanistic exorcisms. Beggars doing the rounds of weddings and funerals now appear to be among the most common exponents of song (also featured on the DVD with my Shaanbei book).

Otherwise the nearest I got to hearing singing in context was when I visited a villager at his cave-dwelling during a lunchtime drinking session with a group of his male friends (DVD, C2). The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed. Even if I could stomach the liquor, I realized how hard it would be for me to participate meaningfully in their world. Where opportunities to hear impromptu singing are few, asking singers to perform their repertory is sometimes a necessary expedient. I have attempted to get a few song sessions going, but have never overcome the artificiality of the occasion.

So much for “One Belt”—as to “One Road”, even in the 1990s when we went in search of village ritual groups, whenever someone gave us a lead to a village worth visiting our first question was always “Is the road OK?” (lu haozou ma 路好走吗?). We lost count of the times our jeep got stuck in mud or found the track impassable. This became known as “travelling the socialist road”. Indeed, it can still happen today, although the transport network has improved significantly since around 2000.

XYB despairs

The ever good-humoured Xue Yibing feigns despair, Xinzhou 1992.

For Chinese fieldworkers’ mixed feelings about rural China, see here.

 

[1] Whose footnotes give further leads—though Shaanbei bibliography, discography, and filmography all need constant updating.

Cultural revolutions

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

For some reason, I found Frank Dikötter’s book The Cultural Revolution far more rewarding than the two previous volumes in his popular trilogy on the Maoist era, The tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s great famine.

Ritual and religious life under Maoism
From the perspective of my own fieldwork on local ritual, there has been no single decade in history where culture has been independent of society— as observed by none other than Confucius and Chairman Mao (see the Coda to my book Plucking the winds), in what may seem like reproaches to the “living fossils” fallacy.  To be sure, Gaoluo villagers themselves failed to admit a connection between their ritual association and society:

“The association has nothing to do with politics”
“The association has nothing to do with the Boxers
“The association has nothing to do with the history of the revolution“.

But all the while they were providing rich material that contradicted their assumptions.

So I would hope that ritual studies can fit into our picture of social change. As I suggest in Appendix 1 of my recent book, scholars of Tang Daoism expect to relate it to the wider history of the period; so why would we who document local ritual groups, whose material derives largely from contemporary fieldwork, not also do so? However deep we probe, the social, economic, and political history of the past century is the air that ritual specialists and their patrons breathe—so what kind of air might scholars breath by downplaying it?

By failing to study the nuances of the period through which we and our Daoist masters have lived, we ignore precisely the kind of material that historians of earlier periods would die for. Sometimes we fall back on facile clichés about the eternal nature of tradition until the 1940s, and the subsequent destruction of cultural practices (after 1937? 1949? 1966?). All, supposedly, before the untrammelled restoration since the 1980s ushered in an equally timeless and transcendent new Golden Age—unless urban migration and the new pop culture have rendered further study superfluous by destroying tradition further?!

And vice versa, work like this on the changing lives of local communities should also be a contribution to modern historiography—a convenient prism through which to view the “negotation of identity” (a hoary cliché that I generally avoid!).

With some noble exceptions (such as ter Haar, Ruizendaal and Mueggler), religious life under Maoism is not the strong suit of scholars of religion, but I find it crucial. So I write this partly with a view to reminding those documenting folk ritual in China—and even those who do fieldwork mainly in order to reconstruct the culture of previous ages—that the whole Maoist era is an indispensable part of our background reading and enquiries in the field.

Religion features in many accounts mainly as protest against campaigns (for the 1950s, see The tragedy of Liberation, pp.196–206; Mao’s great famine, pp.227–8), but it’s also worth documenting the “obstinacy” of everyday practice (e.g. The Cultural Revolution, pp.294–6; see also the revival on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, pp.31–2). I belatedly note incidents in places where I did fieldwork innocently in the 1990s, such as the 1966 massacre in Daxing county outside Beijing (p.78).

Maoism
As Dikötter observes (p.119),

Many ordinary people had accepted liberation with a mixture of fear, hope, and resignation. There was widespread relief that the civil war had come to an end. The proclaimed values of the regime, including equality, justice and freedom, were genuinely appealing, and the Part tirelessly trumpeted the New Democracy, a slogan promising the inclusion of all but the most hardened enemies of the regime. Above all, the communists promised each disaffected group what it wanted most: land for the farmers, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.

Classic studies of local life through the whole Maoist period, a model for detailed local fieldwork, are

  • Chan, Madsen, and Unger, Chen village under Mao and Deng (1992) and
  • Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes Chinese village, socialist state (1991) and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China (2005).

As a counterbalance to such authors, I like to cite William Hinton (whose Through a glass darkly grinds a leftist axe against the latter), as well as Mobo Gao’s fine ethnography Gao village.

Short of expecting ourselves to read detailed scholarly accounts of the period, such works are important preparation. For our own local studies, apart from works in Western languages, the modern county gazetteers (xianzhi 县志) are an indispensible resource.

A lot has been written about the Cultural Revolution; the period often stands as a simple and misleading soundbite for the whole three decades of Maoism—indeed, ironically, as a shorthand for the first couple of years of extreme violence up to 1968. So since the details of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic are less well known outside academia, Dikötter’s first two volumes should be more illuminating; in Mao’s great famine individual chapters focusing on topics like agriculture, women, and accidents are well chosen and revealing. But for all the undoubted iniquities that he gruellingly parades, I found the first two books inevitably impersonal, suggesting a lack of empathy that may seem merely to follow a wider pattern in foreign studies of simplistic Commie-bashing.

Studies of the famine years around 1960 (from both foreign and, laudably, Chinese scholars; note e.g. Wu Wenguang’s project, and the works of Xun Zhou) are a growing topic, on a par with other state-engineered famines like that of Ukraine in the 1930s—as Anne Applebaum’s new study reminds us. But the whole period preceding the Chinese “years of difficulty”, to adopt a bitter metaphor, was no picnic either.

The Cultural Revolution
Conversely, we already know more about the Cultural Revolution, but Dikötter explores and augments such material in a communicative way. The Cultural Revolution seems to me less plainly propagandistic. It’s not that the insanities he documents are any more flagrant; rather, perhaps, the account seems more personal. Dikötter effectively meshes central and local perspectives, while showing clearly how the period, often dismissed as a “ten-year disaster” was not one undifferentiated black hole. But as we break up the whole Maoist era into manageable chunks, they bleed into each other—a sadly apt metaphor.

Despite revolutionary fervour being whipped up among naïve youths, cynicism, boredom, and lethargy had set in as early as 1967 (p.165). Any idealism among those students sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants was short-lived, as they encountered the sheer destitution there (ch.15). As I also learned in Yanggao, severe food shortages continued right until the 1980s.

In the countryside, as organizational chaos spread, market enterprise—which had previously revived in the wake of the famine—also persisted early in the Cultural Revolution; despite a re-imposition of collectivization in 1968, private initiatives were increasingly widespread (pp.225–8). By the “grey years” from 1971, private trade began to expand further. Still many regions were mired in desperate poverty, like Ziyang in south Shaanxi (pp.262–5).

Notwithstanding a late rearguard action (ch.23), Dikötter describes the “silent revolution” in the final years of the Cultural Revolution (chs.21–22) that continued the process of abandonment of the commune system which had come in waves ever since the early 60s. In Henan (pp.274–5) blockades to prevent the private sale of grain were easily evaded:

A weakened state was no longer any match for determined individuals who had honed their skills over many years of hardship. Villagers who had survived the horrors of Mao’s Great Famine were not about to be intimidated by a tax officer hanging about at a roadblock in a conspicuous uniform.

Urban migration, too (a crucial social factor under the 1980s’ reforms), began early. Dikötter even shows an early revival of traditional culture (opera, poetry, story-telling, and so on: p.276).

As in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a hidden, underground, largely invisible society lived in the shadow of the former political system. (p.287)

Still, it’s always worth consulting Mobo Gao’s book Gao village, where with personal experience he gives a more positive, less adversarial picture of Maoism.

Anyway, when the commune system was officially dismantled from 1982, it was largely a fait accompli.

A case-study
I discussed the whole Maoist era in some detail in both Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family. In the former, since Gaoluo village lies rather near Beijing and Baoding, the members of its ritual association, themselves active participants, were able to give a rather detailed account of factional warfare and people’s lives through the Cultural Revolution (Plucking the winds, ch.6). But here I’ll just give a few vignettes from my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi (from my book, ch.6)—who were less actively involved in wider events.

With hindsight, surveying the apparent thriving of religious activities today, the Cultural Revolution period—perhaps even Maoism as a whole—may seem like a blip; but both are crucial elements in the transformation of peoples’ mindsets under the more liberal religious landscape since the reforms of the 1980s.

Household Daoist families in Yanggao had continued performing their liturgy for funerals intermittently for the first fifteen years after Liberation, although the domestic ritual Thanking the Earth was rendered largely obsolete by escalating collectivization from 1953, and temple fairs were silenced.

The immediate precursor of the Cultural Revolution was the Four Cleanups campaign. In many areas of China, “superstitious” artefacts had already been taken off and destroyed in the 1940s as the Communists came to power, but in Yanggao villages Daoist families seem to have kept most of their old ritual manuals until the mid-1960s. Meanwhile Yanggao was still in the grip of ongoing natural disasters.

The Four Cleanups must have come as a real shock for kindly Li Qing; having weathered the tribulations of the early 1950s, and then landed a prestigious and secure job in Datong (see photo above), he was even more revered after his return in 1962, and able to practice his beloved ritual again. But so it went for innumerable victims of the “class struggle” system. After the respite of the early 1960s, the mood was now to be grim right until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Li Qing’s rich-peasant “hat,” though enforced as early as 1948, hadn’t had any great effect until now—not even disqualifying him from joining the prestigious arts-work troupe. But early in the Cultural Revolution he was again classified as a rich peasant.

The Smash the Four Olds campaign from 1966 was the culmination of two decades of measures to limit religious practice. At the same time, campaigns were sporadic.

Following a Four Cleanups re-inspection, late one night in 1966 Li Qing sneaked out to bury his most precious ritual manuals in the sorghum fields just east. Next day, to allay the suspicions of the Red Guards, he burned a large pile of other volumes in his courtyard—he had a large collection of printed volumes and almanacs, not necessarily ritual manuals.

The callow Red Guards paraded Li Qing a few times in a high white dunce’s hat with the characters “ox demon and snake spirit” written on it. But, just like hapless village cadres all over China who were now victimized too, the degree of punishment of so-called landlords and rich peasants depended a lot on their character and reputation. While privately retaining their sympathy for Li Qing, villagers had no choice but to go through the motions of “struggle meetings” dictated from above. Li Qing and his wife bore their sufferings with dignified silence throughout.

When Li Qing’s sensitive sheng mouth-organs were confiscated and deposited in the brigade office, kids messed around with them. Poor peasant Kang Ren was not under suspicion, so he managed to keep his sheng. But here no-one dared ask friends or family to help hide suspect items for them.

Meanwhile in Yang Pagoda, Li Peisen continued to weather the storm. The son of his wife’s younger sister was a Red Guard chief, so they discreetly agreed he would just take off a few scriptures for show—Li Peisen would have chosen decrepit or duplicate volumes that he considered less important.

Li Qing’s son Li Manshan, twenty-one sui in 1966, had gained an impression of the liturgy before his father left for Datong in 1958, and after he returned in 1962 he had nearly two years of relative freedom to continue learning. After the Four Cleanups campaign of late 1964, though there was no pressure on the children of bad elements to “draw the class line” from their fathers, he felt seriously depressed. At least he didn’t have to join the Red Guards—his status as son of a “black” family disqualified him. One day in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out, Li Manshan found himself in the county-town, and had his photo taken there. He hinted to me that it was virtually designed as a farewell to the world; exhausted by constant labor on the reservoir, with his family’s so-called “rich peasant” status boding ill as an ominous new campaign was brewing up, he could see no future.

In 1960, when Li Manshan was fifteen sui, he had “studied Russian for two whole days” at school. Later, when the Red Guards found his notebook with a few Russian words written in it, they confiscated it and cursed him for being a spy. In many parts of China, the innocent possession of a mere scrap of supposedly reactionary material, or a careless comment, could condemn people to long spells in labor camp.

Whereas the neighbouring county of Tianzhen was described as more “barbaric”, the relative peace in Yanggao didn’t mean that Daoists there somehow had any latitude to keep practising. In some parts of rural China traditions were maintained more or less furtively even through the Cultural Revolution, but here the Daoists were forced into total inactivity from 1964 to 1978. Daoist arts went into hibernation. Li Qing’s family, with their black class label, suffered more than other Daoists, but everyone was pretty desperate.

Villagers weren’t becoming any less “superstitious”. Public rituals might be impossible, but there was still a clandestine demand for determining the date, under cover of darkness. For a daring couplet pasted up in the period to satirize the poverty of their conditions, see here.

In 1967 Li Manshan was among a group of Upper Liangyuan team members who had to walk to the commune seat of Greater Quanshan, in the hills to the west, to take part in one of a series of huge public criticism meetings of the disgraced Party Secretary of Yanggao county before his incarceration. By now this model commune had been eclipsed by Dazhai further south in Shanxi, but it still had to host visiting delegations and mass meetings. Ten thousand people from five communes attended the struggle session, all arriving on foot. Although Li Manshan was a “rich peasant,” he had no choice but to go, or else people would accuse him of being counter-revolutionary.

The Sojourn of Educated Youth

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty (see also my Shaanbei book, p.9).

From 1967, large groups of secondary school students were sent down to live in many Yanggao villages. Over thirty stayed in Upper Liangyuan for a year or so, but Li Manshan had no contact with them. A group from one Beijing school descended on Golden Noble’s village of Houying in 1967, then another batch the following year; most managed to leave around 1972. Golden Noble’s cousin married one of them in 1971, condemning her to rural life; desperate to escape, she eventually divorced him, getting back to Beijing around 1980.

These groups of students brought their musical and acting skills to some villages where they were based, performing revolutionary songs and model operas to dour bemused peasants. Li Manshan never heard them sing or play, but in nearby Shizitun Older Li Bin learned the modern system of cipher notation from educated youth billeted there.

Just when convulsions seemed to have eased, Li Qing’s rich-peasant status was re-imposed in the Cleanse the Class Ranks campaign of 1968. If there had been a certain basis for the original classification around 1949, by now—in a ravaged countryside where everyone was virtually destitute—the label caused his fellow villagers bitter mirth, who ribbed him, “Call yourself a rich peasant?!” After the chaotic first couple of years, things quietened down by around 1969, but there was always tension. As Li Manshan recalls, “We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Life Goes On
Even then, life was not entirely about campaigns. Having had four children by 1954, Li Qing and his wife had been separated for four years while Li Qing was in the Datong troupe, but in 1967 they had a third daughter, and then in 1969 a third son, Li Yunshan (known as Third Tiger), twenty-three years Li Manshan’s junior. For the lovely little wooden folding stool that Li Manshan made in the late 1960s, see here.

Then, in the winter cold late in 1971, Li Manshan married, aged twenty-six sui. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform. In the Cultural Revolution Li Qing “bought” it back, but village cadres accused him of illegal trading, and confiscated it again. Anyway, from 1948 right through till 1980 their conditions were cramped. In 1972 Li Manshan had to spend another six months away laboring on the reservoir project, only returning for the autumn harvest. The couple’s oldest daughter was born in 1973. That year Li Qing and his wife took their youngest son Third Tiger, five sui, into town for a group photo—now nowhere to be found. Around that time Li Qing managed to get his mother’s ashes back from Inner Mongolia, reburying her with his father’s coffin in the family graves outside Upper Liangyuan—though without any ceremony, of course.

All this was around the time of the campaigns to Study Lei Feng and Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. The latter, prompted by the mysterious 1971 death of Lin Biao in a plane crash in Mongolia, caused major convulsions in Party and army ranks, but Li Manshan has only the vaguest memories of these campaigns.

Whereas through the 1950s and 60s the Party had somehow managed to whip up enthusiasm for further campaigns despite constant abuses, by the 1970s people had thoroughly lost their appetite for the constantly changing directions of policy. Indeed, in Yanggao people were largely unaware of the machinations at the heart of the Party in distant Beijing.

I would gladly qualify all this gloom with reminders of the benefits of Maoism such as are offered by apologists like Bill Hinton and Mobo Gao. But I can find no-one in Yanggao who can think of any. There were some harbingers of reform, like a certain freeing up of markets in 1972. Education too was expanding again. A sporadic supply of electricity eventually reached villages like Upper Liangyuan by the mid-1970s. Before that people used kerosene lamps, but they slept soon after it got dark—except, of course, when there were rituals to perform. The electricity supply in the countryside remains unreliable.

By the 1970s the national population was increasing rapidly, but that of villages like Upper Liangyuan grew little. Under Maoism there was hardly any new house building in Yanggao; by the 1970s, over ninety percent of houses in the county had been built before 1937. By the mid-1970s a few villagers managed to buy watches; even by the end of the decade only a few cadres enjoyed the luxury of riding bicycles.

Traditional culture was still on hold. Without the benefit of hindsight, there was no end in sight to the depression of the commune system. And people—not just the Li family, but the whole population—were still seriously hungry.

***

For local Daoist ritual, I must stress that none of this obviates the need for the study of early textual history of ritual manuals, which should continue to play a major role. However, the life stories of Daoists (and all kinds of religious practitioners) are just as important for the modern era as for the imperial period—but with careful and sensitive fieldwork they are much more available. And they can not only clarify aspects of textual transmission, but also (more crucially?) illuminate the changing performance of ritual. So it seems to me that whether sinologists and ethnographers like it or not, our subject has to embrace both early and contemporary periods. At the same time, modern historians may even find our discussions of ritual life in living times to be of some relevance to wider histories.

 

 

Folk ritual: testing the waters

As I observed, the recent confiscation of instruments in Pingyi county was only one aspect of the directive aimed at decimating funerary traditions there. It reminds me of an early incident during the revival of Daoist ritual in Yanggao (my book, ch.7; cf. my film), illustrating constant nuances in local relations as people explore ritual boundaries through changing times. So here’s a kind of prequel to my post on the Pingyi flapdoodle.

By 1979, as the commune system began to crumble, the great Li Qing (1926–99) and his colleagues in Upper Liangyuan, along with other Daoist groups in the county, were clandestinely performing Daoist rituals again, testing the waters. There was now demand again; as soon as villagers were once again able to stage proper funerals, they sought to invite Daoists. Seeing other households beginning to make money outside the collective, Li Qing would soon have realized this was a chance for him to feed his family too (they had been hungry throughout the Maoist era, not just around 1960). Most simply, Daoist ritual was in his blood: it was what the family had always done. A major stimulus for Li Qing’s band was the return in 1977 of his uncle Li Peisen (1910–85) from Yang Pagoda, where he had laid low throughout the Maoist period, preserving ritual instruments, costumes, paintings, and manuals.

Over a long period from 1979 to 1984 the Daoists performed for funerals at first furtively and gradually more openly. In those early days they didn’t stand directly in front of the coffin, just playing “little pieces” on the shengguan instruments without any vocal liturgy. And they wore their ordinary clothes; before 1981 a host wanting them to wear their ritual costumes had to pay danger money. As anxieties dwindled, they first donned their black costumes without hats, then the red costumes with hats.

One early occasion when they dared perform vocal liturgy, however clandestinely, was for the funeral of Li Peiye (another Daoist uncle of Li Qing) in the 2nd moon of 1980. Born in 1892, Li Peiye had learned Daoist ritual under the Qing dynasty, living just long enough to witness hope of a revival of tradition. Li Manshan recalls Li Yuanmao (1919–92), then with a long white beard) leading the reciting of the scriptures for the funeral.

Soon after Li Peiye’s funeral, a great burden was lifted for Li Qing. The county authorities sent official letters to all the village brigades listing the rehabilitation (pingfan) of people whose “black” class label of “rich peasant” was now to be removed. Li Qing was among thousands in Yanggao alone who were reprieved. The family no longer bore any stigma; at last there seemed some hope for both them and the wider society.

One of the first funerals for which the Daoists wore their full costumes was for Golden Noble’s grandmother in Houying in 1982. She died on the 6th of the 2nd moon, and the date of the burial was determined for the 19th.

But on the first day of the Houying rituals, someone returned from the county-town with the news that the Wangzhuang Daoists had been arrested while doing a funeral there. Senior Daoist Yan Mei—one of many Daoists who had served as brigade accountants under Maoism—was band boss; Liu Zhong (1930–96), soon to be a regular member of Li Qing’s band, was taking part. As luck would have it, the house where the funeral was held happened to be right opposite the police station. They managed to perform the rituals all day, but then two cops turned up, detained two of the Daoists, took mugshots, and confiscated their instruments.

As the liberalizations gathered pace, the incident soon became something of a local joke; people take such minor reverses in their stride. Naively, the Wangzhuang Daoists had supposed the climate to be relaxed enough now that Deng Xiaoping was in power—but surely they could have seen this coming. Things were indeed easing up in the countryside, and after a few weeks the Daoists reclaimed their instruments and got back to work, but official attitudes in the county-town were always more sensitive.

Even when I attended funerals in the town in 1991, it was still only possible to hire gujiang shawm bands, not Daoists. And still today it remains rare for town-dwellers to use Daoists; and since there are groups nearer whom patrons can invite, the Li family seldom performs there. But ever since the revival, and all the more since around 2009, they and other groups in the area have been worked off their feet performing rituals throughout the villages—despite urban migration and the “left-behind” patrons’ preference for the glossy pop shows outside the gate of the soul hall.

Ever since those early days of the revival, I occasionally hear of transitory campaigns against mediums or sects, but funeral practice has remained largely untouched—so the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message still seems fair.

informal session
Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

The psychology of evil

Still thinking about fieldwork, I’ve cited an extreme instance of “participant observation” in the work of Germaine Tillion in Ravensbrück concentration camp, as well as the ethical quandaries of Sudhir Venkatesh in Gang leader for a day.

Among all the literature on the psychology of evil, as a chilling instance of fieldwork interviewing, Gitta Sereny held lengthy talks with Franz Stangl over three weeks in 1971, after he was belatedly sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people at the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps. [1] Stangl died of heart failure nineteen hours after Sereny’s last visit.

As she observes (The German trauma, pp.88–9),

I decided to find one perpetrator if possible less primitive and with at least a semblance of moral awareness, who, if approached not as a monster but as a human being, might be able to explain his own catastrophic moral failure. […] I found Stangl more complex, more open, serious and even sad than any of the others I had observed; the only man with such a horrific record who appeared to manifest a semblance of conscience.

Within the extraordinary circumstances of these prison interviews, Sereny’s account is a model of detailed and sensitive work, reflection, and even empathy; as she carefully elicits as much candour as can be expected, she meticulously documents both his self-delusion and her own feelings.

Also importantly, her interviews are founded on much research and personal authority—experience of the period in question, in-depth study of the material, and discussions with people who worked under Stangl, witnesses, and survivors. All such background is important for fieldworkers, enabling them to ask apposite and probing questions sensitively.

Equally sobering is Sereny’s discussion of her meetings with Albert Speer—which indeed he initiated after reading her book about Stangl. [2] She unpacks the different and complex feelings of the generations since the war, notably in “Children of the Reich” (including their early worries about right-wing sentiments in the east after reunification).

I can’t think of a close parallel for other societies lastingly afflicted by the ghosts of unspeakable evils—certainly not for China, where what little we know of the “catastrophic moral failure” under Maoism (which was very far from being limited to the “usual suspect” of the Cultural Revolution) tends to be through the accounts of with victims rather than perpetrators—and it’s just as important to explore the mass of cases along the spectrum between those extremes. And of course, whereas such exposés depend on free media, for China such first-person reflections might only ever be muffled at best—since despite a change of direction, the same Party remains in power. Anyway, Gitta Sereny’s interviews are a model.

 

[1] “Colloquy with a conscience”, in her brilliant book The German trauma; more detailed is her book Into that darkness.
[2] The German trauma, pp.266–85, based on another of her books, Albert Speer: his battle with truth.