Hequ 1953: collecting folk-song

Hequ

The fieldwork team sets off into the Hequ countryside, 1953.

After the Russian revolution, the work of ethnographers in the Soviet Union and their satellites was severely hampered right until the 1990s (see also here). So turning to China, I remain deeply impressed by the energy of fieldworkers documenting folk culture in the first fifteen years after the 1949 “Liberation”, for all its limitations.

In autumn 1953, in one of the first major field projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu and Li Yuanqing dispatched a team to spend three months collecting folk-song in rural Hequ (“river bend”) county in Shanxi. On the banks of the Yellow River at the borders of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, this large isolated area in the far northwest corner of the province connects the Datong region and the much-studied Shaanbei (see also here).

The results of the project were published in the 244-page

  • Hequ minjian gequ 河曲民間歌曲 [Folk-songs in Hequ], ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1956, reprinted 1962).

Hequ cover

The team of eight was led by Xiao Xing 晓星, and included Li Quanmin 李全民 and Jian Qihua 简其华, who went on to do significant field research further afield.

Meanwhile back in Beijing, a Czech couple were documenting narrative-singing, while Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi were discovering the shengguan wind ensemble of the Zhihua temple. Whereas the study of temple music was rather bold, folk-song—the creation of the labouring masses—seemed to make an acceptable topic.

But despite the experience gained in the Yan’an base area in the 1940s, where collecting folk-song was already a pillar of CCP cultural policy (as shown in the 1984 film Yellow earth), the editors reveal a certain resistance among local cadres to the idea, and go to some lengths to justify it. With the social changes upon Liberation, they hint that it was already to some extent a salvage project: “people don’t sing shanqu nearly as much as before”.

Hequ singer

Here one can hardly expect candid ethnographic coverage of the Japanese occupation, civil war, and the early years of Liberation (cf. Hinton‘s detailed, but also ideologically-driven, accounts for the land reform and later campaigns in a village in southeast Shanxi). And sadly, the volume includes only a few very brief biographical accounts of the singers. This 1953 photo of Guan Ermao was reproduced in the Anthology.

As in Shaanbei, the repertoires are dominated by “mountain songs” (shanqu), “Walking the Western Pass” (zou xikou), and errentai genres. Through the zou xikou songs the collectors paid attention to seasonal migration, and songs about love and marriage prompted them to explore the lowly status of women—in the “old society”. They documented work hollers (including those of boatmen), and the songs of miners. Apart from lyrics and transcriptions, the introduction (5–41), and the substantial report (107–224) are inevitably pervaded with the language of the day—”feudalism”, “working masses”, and so on; the authors’ attempt to explore the relation of the songs with people’s lives is constrained by ideology. Still, there’s rich material here.

For a definitive 2-CD set with archive recordings of Chinese folk-song, note

  • Tudi yu ge 土地与歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs], ed. Qiao Jianzhong (Taipei: Wind Records, 1996).
Hequ map

Field sites in Hequ county, 1953.

The bleak Hequ landscape later formed the backdrop for Chen Kaige’s 1991 film Life on a string. By the way, I’m curious to learn of any household Daoist activity in this little-studied region.

* * *

After the Cultural Revolution disrupted research, and lives, the collapse of the rigid commune system from the late 1970s soon allowed the task of documenting expressive culture to resume—now with the monumental Anthology project. The folk-song volume for Shanxi

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中國民間歌曲集成, 山西卷 (942 pp.)

was published in 1990. For Hequ, indeed, it includes some transcriptions from the 1956 volume.

I touched on folk-song collecting in

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

Clearly, as William Noll also observes, we always have to interpret texts in the context of their time; learning to read between the lines is a basic task in studying both early and modern Chinese scholarship. Yang Yinliu and others had to learn to use the rhetorical language of communism to handle ideological pressure. However obligatory his language of class struggle, he documented both folk and élite traditions with great insight.

Still, explicit or implicit ideological frameworks will inevitably affect the work of collection and presentation. An obvious case is the former Maoist highlighting of “revolutionary songs”.

It is a tribute to the advances of Chinese musicology since the 1980s that Yang Mu’s comments (“Academic ignorance or political taboo? Some issues in China’s study of its folk song culture”, Ethnomusicology 38.2 [1994]), based mainly on his experiences in China in the 1980s, now look dated. Yang caustically describes the limitations of Chinese folk-song collection, questioning the “authenticity, representativeness, and reliability” of the early Anthology folk-song volumes. He observes the narrowly political nature of fieldwork in China: that “the arts must serve proletarian politics”, and that collection often served as material for new composition. Yet this criticism again seems to fail to distinguish slogans from genuine intent or actions.

Yang Mu reasonably finds such collections misleading, with revolutionary songs being given space far above love songs. Yang points out that revolutionary songs are not representative of actual folk-song activity, as they were not popular, being performed only for government-sponsored events—at least by the 1980s, and quite probably through the Maoist era too, I might add. Such songs may be academically significant as reflections of the Party’s artistic policies, but as Yang Mu says,

after asking the local singers to sing all types of their local folk songs, and having listened to them singing for many hours, I never heard a single song that could be considered “revolutionary”.

Singers may know a few such songs, but they are not part of their customary repertory. Yang Mu claims the scholars arguing against political control lost the battle, but revolutionary songs take a more modest place in most of the published volumes, so quickly has Chinese thinking shaken off Maoism. Whereas until the 1980s revolutionary songs compulsorily opened most collections, in the Anthology they take their chance along with other songs.

in the Anthology the list of themes at the end of each volume (with minor variations), however subjective, is as useful as any rough-and-ready system. Political songs are included under the headings “social struggle” and sometimes also “revolutionary struggle”, both with sub-categories; a category called suku, “speaking bitterness” or lamenting hardship, may be included under either heading. In many volumes these songs occupy around 10% of the total, which one may still find “unrepresentative”, though by no means as dominant as Yang Mu suggests. I gave a couple of examples:

table 3

table 4

Yang Mu also criticizes the excessive selection of “texts describing or complaining about the bitter life, suffering, and distress of the laboring class people before they were liberated by the CCP”. But such songs are not always clearly about the old days, and even if they are (such as deploring a cruel landlord), songs lamenting the bitter life of olden times are rather common in many societies, and motivations for singing them may be quite complex; they may embody a kind of historical memory, and might even be seen as a subtle criticism or expiation of current woes. Many songs I have consulted in this category seem, like the blues, to be simply lamenting hardship or separation, with no clear time-frame. So I would be less keen to assume political bias here.

Still, if songs praising the CCP are no longer dominant, songs criticizing it are entirely absent, which may or may not reflect reality! Songs with “negative” (e.g., feudal, religious, or sexual) texts may have been censored, both by singers and collectors.

In the Anthology love songs and work songs are in a majority. The ritual and religious soundscape has been allowed a certain presence throughout; but if the collectors and editors have significantly reversed any revolutionary bias, a secular bias may remain. How may one assess their relative importance? Short of fly-on-the-wall recording of folk-song life over a long period, singers may indeed censor songs they see fit to sing for outsiders, long before collectors and then editors make their own selections.

By contrast with Yang Mu’s criticisms, I’ve already discussed the choice of one local cultural cadre collecting the repertoires of blind itinerant male bards in 1980s’ Shaanbei (see here, 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!”

For more on folk-song collection, see here.

* * *

For Shanxi, neither in the 1956 report nor in the Anthology folk-song volume do the collectors give revolutionary songs pride of place; but they hardly fulfil their aspiration to evoke people’s lives. And while the 1980s’ Anthology fieldwork now looks impressive by comparison with the later superficial reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, it too falls short in ethnographic detail.

All the same, I’m full of admiration for the team that spent those months “among the people” in 1953. And how one wants detailed accounts of the fortunes of their peasant hosts as collectivization and campaigns got under way.

Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei

The “little pieces” of Yulin

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Source: Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji. Right, top: the “study group”, 1980.

In modern China we can find plenty of exceptions to the simple dichotomy between rural ritual and urban entertainment, but it’s a useful framework. I’ve written a series of posts on ritual activity around the Shaanbei countryside (starting with this, recently-updated), but here I enter the regional capital Yulin to outline a recreational form of vocal music with ensemble, now moribund.

In chapter 12 of my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei (where you can find further leads) I gave an overview of musical activity in Yulin—far short of the thorough treatment of Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 book The hidden musicians, for, um, Milton Keynes.

Once again, as the Maoist era recedes, it still makes an important yet little-explored bridge between earlier history and the reform era.

The regional capital of Yulin
The bustling county-towns, commercial hubs dotted around the barren landscape of Shaanbei, already represent a more modern environment than the chronically poor villages and little district townships remote from the main transport arteries. But entering Yulin, the capital city of the region, one feels frankly in a different world, even if traces of tradition remain.

Yulin, a likely starting point for forays into the countryside, lies towards the far north of Shaanxi province. From the west and north the desert is creeping up year by year. Access was difficult until very recently. The main road going south towards Yan’an, and eventually the provincial capital Xi’an still further south, has been improved since the 1990s; and even by 2000 it was a 20-plus-hour bus ride east to Beijing. A train runs from Shenmu, not far northeast of Yulin, east to Datong in Shanxi province; by 2002 direct train routes all the way from Beijing to Yulin, and from Yulin south to Xi’an, were promised. By 2005 there was a direct flight from Beijing, “Opening up the West” still further.

The city has something of the feel of the wild-west frontier. Main Street (Dagai) retains its old-world charm, though in the evenings bikers rev up at the crossroads. There are four funeral shops along Main Street alone. There are also several bookshops, none of any distinction, and many shops selling CDs and cassettes; even a Buddhist shop selling CDs and cassettes as well as statuettes, incense, scriptures, and so on. Second Street (Ergai) is a kind of Wangfujing or Oxford Street, with pop music blaring from the sound-systems of shops. Away from the centre, the urban sprawl contains both new tower-blocks and rows of single-storey dwellings in traditional cave format. Even the old city walls remain. Coal bricks are piled up in courtyards to protect against the winter cold.

By the 1990s traditional musical activity in the city seemed much impoverished. Yet weddings, funerals, and temple fairs are held here too, all requiring live music. Few of the Yulin city temples have been restored to their former opulence. Vocal liturgy is still performed in the temples, but shengguan instrumental ensemble, once a feature of Yulin funeral ritual, has not been heard since the monks were laicized in the 1950s.

twins

Mother with twin daughters, Yulin 2001.

The state-funded Yulin Region Arts-Work Troupe and several opera troupes perform Qinqiang opera, as usual mainly for temple fairs. Towards the secular end of the continuum, the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe performs conservatoire-style arrangements of local singing and dancing.

In 2001 genial cadre in the troupe had a few young erhu pupils, to whom he taught the standard modern national repertory. There was a School of Arts (Yixiao), teaching national styles of singing and dancing. Yangge dance parades were held by work-units, including schools. But with pop music now dominating the soundscape, karaoke, TV, and VCD-players were doubtless city dwellers’ main exposure to music.

Before Liberation, funerals in Yulin, as in Beijing and other northern cities, were often accompanied not only by shawm bands (chuishou; see here, and for Shaanbei also here), but by temple priests, both Buddhist and Daoist. Shawm bands continued activity in Yulin city under Maoism, but since the 1980s’ reforms their activities have expanded; by 2001 there were at least eight bands, all migrants from the countryside.

But their extrovert style seems to hide a lack of discipline. Young shawm-band boss Feng Xiaoping observed, “Yulin is without order (mei guiju). Yulin people can’t appreciate the shawm—they don’t react even when we play well, and if we play badly, no-one ridicules us.” Both here and in the countryside, in the new undiscriminating get-rich-quick climate, ceremonial ostentation is rampant, while the “old rules” go into further decline.

The Yulin “little pieces”
Throughout China, many rural genres with long traditions have managed to outlive Maoism, thanks largely to the continuing demand for ceremonial. In the Shaanbei countryside, folk opera troupes, itinerant blind bards, shawm bands, folk-singers, and spirit mediums managed to weather political campaigns before reviving more openly in the 1980s for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Even in Yulin city, there is demand for occupational chuishou.

The city also had a distinctive amateur vocal music with instrumental ensemble. Like many genres in world music, it barely had a name; like many genres in China, if people needed to call it anything, they might mention “little pieces” (xiaoquzi), “playing little pieces” (shua xiaoqu), or “playing silk strings” (shua sixian). The official title Yulin xiaoqu was casually given in 1958. [1]

As a relatively literate genre, its popularity was largely limited to the city—unlike small-scale vocal and instrumental groups like errentai or daoqing, widely performed throughout the countryside. We saw how the literate elite patronized the music of the lowly chuishou, employing them as a ritual duty. But the Yulin elite supported the “little pieces” as amateur recreation, and might even perform. The elite outside Yulin city, though thin on the ground, sometimes performed it too; in Yangjiagou village, landlord stronghold until the 1940s, young members of landlord families sometimes got together to play string and wind instruments. But in Yulin city by the 20th century, its main clientele was among ordinary citizens, and its main performers were male manual workers.

Imperial and Republican periods
As often with folk traditions, early evidence is inconclusive. By the 15th century regional governors were often posted from the distant Jiangnan–Zhejiang region of east China, and brief passages from the 1670s show musical activity at the Yulin court. Indeed, from the presence of many southern titles in various Shaanxi narrative-singing repertories, and indeed throughout China, one should not underestimate the wider influence of Jiangnan culture in imperial times. Among the themes of the Yulin songs (mainly love and city life), Jiangnan scenery also features; musically too, traces of Jiangnan style may be heard, although the dominance of the so mode appears to be a local modification. Another theory (also said to be supported by musical similarities) is that the style was based on the opera of distant Hunan, which may have been brought to Yulin in the Tongzhi reign-period (1862–74) by a company attached to a division of Zuo Zongtang’s Hunan army on campaign in the region.

The music is said to have been transmitted outside the regional court in the Daoguang era (1821–50) by Li Diankui and his son Li Fang. Oral tradition names musicians since the late 19th century. More pieces were composed in the early 20th century, and pieces arranged by the literatus Wang Jishi. Later Zhu Xiaoyi (1905–88) was a respected musician; a carpenter, he was also a luthier, making zheng zithers, yangqin dulcimers, sanxian plucked lutes, and erhu fiddles, which he sold as far afield as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

luo and wang 2001

With Luo Xinmin (left) and Wang Qing, 2001.

Musicians were amateur, and male—mainly artisans (silverworkers, watchmakers, tanners, woodworkers, plasterers, cobblers), as well as doctors and dentists. Apart from getting together for fun, musicians were also invited to perform for life-cycle ceremonies. In 2001 I met musicians Luo Xinmin (b.1925) and Wang Qing (b.1954). Luo recalled:

In the 1940s we took part in weddings, longevity celebrations (for which the piece Rejoice in a Thousand Autumns [Xi qianqiu] was prescribed), and first-full-moon celebrations for babies. We played seated on the host’s kang brick-bed—the chuishou played in the courtyard outside. We played mainly in the evenings, the chuishou mainly in the daytime.

Some children of landlord families might play music similar to the little pieces, on pipa plucked lute or bowed fiddle (as in Yangjiagou), but in Yulin the landlords and merchants didn’t maintain a regular band for the little pieces, though they might have a few instruments for people to play; they just invited musicians when they held a ceremonial.

Sources barely discuss the fortunes of the music during the troubled 1930s and 1940s. It is said—compulsorily—to have suffered in the War against Japan and the civil war, but Luo recalled:

The War of Liberation didn’t affect us—people from the Red and White areas got along quite well, going back and forth.

A popular venue was run by one Wang Yunxiang at the Qingxing silver furnace, by the old Drum Tower.

After Liberation
Typically, the sources stress the Party’s avuncular concern for the Yulin little pieces. Along with state organization came research and control—as an urban genre it was quite susceptible to official supervision.

Still, folk activity continued alongside official initiatives until the Cultural Revolution. Memories of old musicians suggest that in this case the “new life” compulsorily claimed for all genres after Liberation was not so fanciful:

After Liberation there was even more activity than before. In the evenings, because there was no electricity, and no other entertainment, people liked to get together.

I chatted with the musicians about our common friend Qiao Jianzhong, a Yulin native who had become director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, and whose encouragement had led me to Shaanbei. The oldest of nine brothers brought up in an old house in Main Street, his parents were typical of the city folk who enjoyed the little pieces.

Especially in summer evenings, a lot of people came to listen, they could understand the words—Qiao Jianzhong’s mother used to say “This is much better than a film!” Mostly they invited us by treating us to tea and cakes (chayebing).

In the 1950s we were active in the common hall (jiti tingtang) by the Bell Tower in the city centre. The silverworkers’ shop next door to the Qiao family’s house in Main Street was a venue—instruments were available to play there for anyone who came along. And there was an old Chinese doctor called Lin Maosen [1903–68] who loved to sing—he often invited people to his house to play in the [early] 1960s.

If such recreational activity remained common, the life-cycle celebrations at which they had also participated before Liberation were now drastically reduced.

As to the official side, in 1950 a study group was organized in the Yulin workers’ club, and musicians met three evenings a week, training over forty performers—now including women for the first time. The genre gained a wider profile as musicians took part in festivals and won awards at provincial and national level from 1953 to 1960.

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Top: Beijing 1957 (left to right, Ran Jixian, Wu Chunlan, Hu Futang, Wang Ziying, Bai Baojin). Middle: preparing for Xi’an festival in 1953. Lower: Hu Yingjie and Wu Chunlan, 1979. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

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Top: female singers consult Hu Yingjie (date unclear). Middle: filming “Music of the Western Regions”, with Hu Yingjie. Lower: filming “Gazing at the Great Wall”. Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

The life of the music through this period, both official and amateur, depended on a group of admired senior musicians. [2] Zhang Yunting (1900–64), a leather worker, was a fine sanxian player as well as singer. From 1950 he was the main teacher for the study group in the Yulin workers’ club. He won awards at festivals in 1956, 1957, and 1960, and recorded for provincial radio. In 1962 fieldworkers from the Shaanxi volume of the folk-song Anthology visited him. Bai Baojin (1914–83) was a tileworker; a zheng player, he also played jinghu and erhu fiddles, as well as singing. He too took part in the festivals of the 1950s.

Hu Yingjie (b.1921 or 1923) was an admired singer. A manual worker, he later worked for the post office.

In the 1950s some young women were recruited to sing, but most gave up after they got married. Most celebrated was Wu Chunlan (b.1930), a senior-secondary graduate, who learnt with Zhang Yunting in the first group after Liberation. Taking part in official festivals from 1953, she went on to win an award in a 1957 national exhibition.

Two vocal styles have been identified, mainly distinguished by enunciation: the Back street (Houjie) style of Zhang Yunting and Wen Ziyi (1911–68), later only represented by Wu Chunlan, and the Front street (Qianjie) style of Lin Maosen and Hu Yingjie.

Through the Cultural Revolution both folk and official contexts were basically silenced. There were occasional sessions on the quiet; once in the early 1970s, a general from the Lanzhou military region came and insisted on hearing the “little pieces”, so the musicians were assembled at the Hall of Culture, the gate was locked, and they performed for him in secret.

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Top row: Wang Jisan, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi, Bai Baojin.
Middle row: Lin Maosen, Zhang Yunting, Hu Futang, Ran Jixian.
Lower row: Zhu Xiaoyi, Li Xinghua, Hu Yingjie, Wu Chunlan.
Source: Yulin xiaoqu (1994).

Here as ever, expressive culture is about people’s lives through turbulent social change, about which musicking can offer us a revealing window; but the story needs supplementing. As collectivization was raging in the poor villages, how did artisans and manual workers in a regional city weather successive campaigns (on which the sources are scrupulously taciturn)? Of course, they weren’t vulnerable like “superstitious” ritual practitioners, but how were public and private spaces, and expressive culture, influenced by the changing economic fortunes of urban dwellers? [3] This issue is also relevant to 1950s’ Beijing.

Since the reforms
Official patronage resumed after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but if folk activity revived, it was short-lived; by the 1980s there was little folk counterweight to official modernization.

As early as 1976 a conference on the “little pieces” was organized by the Yulin Hall of Arts for the Masses and the Hall of Culture. In 1977 a team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing came to record. In 1979 a group took part in the folk arts festival for the Yulin region, they recorded for provincial radio, and in 1982 they performed in Beijing. The music was featured in TV documentaries such as “Music of the Western Regions” (Xibu zhi yue) for Shaanxi TV and the CCTV “Gazing at the Great Wall” (Wang changcheng); a Taiwanese TV station broadcasted a programme on the music. An arrangement of the piece Fang fengzheng 放风筝 became part of the touring repertory of the glossy Yulin Folk Arts Troupe.

In 1986, as work on the Anthology progressed, another “study group” was formed to document texts and study the history of the genre, resulting in a useful 1994 volume. A performing group was officially set up, organizing rehearsals twice a week and cultivating new performers—including ten female singers. Hu Yingjie, who had retired in 1980, was a leading member, and even sat on the Yulin city political committee.

Ironically, this period of revival, like that after Liberation, is hailed as another triumph for the Party’s avuncular concern for folk music. But however well-meaning these efforts, since the 1980s there has been virtually no folk activity, and the genre was now performed mainly for visiting dignitaries. Some senior instrumentalists remained, but they rarely got together as there were few singers in the old tradition—and younger people, now mesmerized by pop music, were reluctant to take part.

The polished arrangements of the fewer and shorter pieces played by the official group were increasingly remote from the traditional soundworld. Though the repertory had long been expanding, it was largely after Liberation that pieces were incorporated from other genres, even from outside Shaanbei. As the old vocal dadiao (see below) were rarely performed, and changes were made in instrumentation and technique, the genre was diluted. Luo and Wang found the troupe arrangements incongruous: “The Folk Arts Troupe plays it, but the flavour is all wrong.”

In 2000, students from the composition department of the distant Wuhan conservatoire came for a study-trip. By 2006, keen elderly amateurs in the research association for the little pieces told participants at the CHIME conference at Yulin that they still met informally. Though playing occasionally for life-cycle rituals and temple fairs, they now did so to scrape funds together for the group, and had to meet the tastes of audiences for other less “refined” vocal genres, further diluting the genre. They were gloomy for the future.

The kiss of death
As with other official attempts to “improve” traditional music in China, the change of context from regular amateur entertainment to sporadic cultural showcase on the concert platform naturally led to changes in style. Instruments, technique, and structure were all modified.

Through the 1950s, despite official involvement, instruments had stayed largely immune from modernization. The basic traditional instrumentation is yangqin dulcimer, zheng plucked zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and jinghu bowed fiddle; the singer beats time by striking a ceramic bowl with chopsticks. Until the 1970s all the melodic instruments were small local versions; apart from the yangqin, the strings were made of silk.

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Left, lower rows: Zhang Yunting, Wang Ziying, Wen Ziyi; Hu Futang, Ran Jixian, Bai Baojin. Right: yangqin, pipa, yueqin, zheng; and Zhu Xiaoyi playing a zheng that he made . Source: Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji.

The yangqin dulcimer was a small instrument with fourteen metal strings, known as “ten-note instrument” (shiyin qin) after its main ten pitches. The pipa plucked lute had four xiang frets and thirteen pin frets. Musicians only used three fingers to stop the strings, sounded by false nails of eagle’s wing-bone. Wang Qing recalled a more simple playing style: his father Wang Ziying, a great pipa player, used few finger-rolls (lunzhi). The sanxian plucked lute was quite large, tuned to the pitches so, la, and mi, and played in only first position, the strings sounded one at a time. Again, Luo and Wang lamented that later the common sanxian used for northern drum-singing was adopted, and that younger conservatoire-trained players used a more virtuosic, “less rhythmical” style.

The zheng zither is often portrayed as a kind of folk equivalent of the qin, but like the pipa it too is quite rare in north (and even south) China. In the 1980s some provincial scholars became excited about reviving the Shaanxi (Qin) style of zheng (秦箏); a “Qin zheng” society was founded in the provincial capital Xi’an (see Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations, ch.4).

The Yulin zheng was perhaps the most convincing candidate. It was a small instrument with fourteen silk strings. A fifteenth string made of ox tendon, tuned very low, was only used as an effect for the piece Jiangjun ling to add to the percussive feel, but later as the piece fell from the repertory they didn’t put the string on any more. Luo and Wang recalled that they still used silk strings for the 1979 Shaanxi Radio recording, and in 1980 the zheng teacher Zhou Yanjia, on a visit from the Xi’an conservatory, encouraged them not to change; but in 1982 the decision was taken—by whom, one wonders?—to adopt a standard national conservatoire zheng with twenty-one metal strings.

False nails, again traditionally of eagle’s wing-bone, were used to pluck the zheng strings. Luo and Wang wistfully contrasted the traditional style with that of the recent official version:

Their playing techniques are different from ours. Our zheng uses no “flowery fingerings” (huazhi)—originally the right-hand glissandos (guluzi, guolengzi) were very innocent (danchun).

Luo Xinmin showed us his old zheng, made before Liberation. It has gongche solfeggio names for the strings on the bridge. The older generation sung gongche but didn’t write it down; Luo had learnt the modern system of cipher notation, but knew the gongche names, like the string tunings.

From the Republican period, erhu fiddle and yueqin plucked lute were often added to the ensemble. But since the 1970s, under official influence—again typically—further instruments were added like dizi flute and, to boost the bass, dihu cello and zhongruan plucked lute, as well as the zhonghu alto fiddle. Call me old-fashioned, but the modern plucked bass in Chinese music is unutterably naff. Also since the 1970s, the traditional instruments themselves were modernized; as well as the zheng, “national” standard versions of the yangqin, pipa, and sanxian were adopted; even the erhu rendered the traditional jinghu marginal.

As to structure, phrases are short and four-square, with instrumental guomen interludes. Before Liberation, in a session of three or four hours, the instrumental ensemble usually played a few pieces before the singing began. [4] Short vocal items in simple strophic form (xiaodiao, “little melodies”, known as yizidiao 一字調) followed, and then, after a break, longer vocal sequences (dadiao, “large melodies”). Dadiao may be either sequences of melodies, or the same melody varied in many verses—or both together. Some melodies may be sung to different texts. Most pieces are sung by one singer, but dadiao may include some duet singing and recitation.

The dadiao are most complex—and, according to elderly musicians, best to listen to. Local scholar Huo Xianggui recorded all the dadiao from 1980 to 1982. By the 1990s, Hu Yingjie was the only one who still knew the dadiao, and he was in his autumn years. The official programme of the Folk Arts Troupe was largely limited to the shorter xiaodiao—the only style the women were taught.

If recordings of the shawm bands are quite hard to track down, at least one still hears them performing for ceremonial. How I hope Huo Xianggui’s precious early recordings of the “little pieces” and other genres will be made available! Online the closest I can find to the traditional Yulin style is something like this.

So for all the riches of musical life in rural Shaanbei, it seemed to me that there was precious little left to study here. It was always instructive to consult ebullient Yulin cultural pundit Meng Haiping—I’ve already cited his comments on the general cultural decline (here, under “The reform era”). He felt the Folk Arts Troupe had basically preserved the regional style at first; but later, finding its “development” unsatisfactory, he rarely went along. As he observed,

If you try to force a cultural form to destruction, you can’t; but some people try to protect it and end up loving it to death.

I still don’t quite understand the dynamics of official involvement. In the 1980s several senior musicians remained, and officials like Huo Xianggui and Meng Haiping clearly had their hearts in the right place. Somewhere along the line, people fall prey to the insidious conformism of modernization and “improvement”. Recently, in Beijing at least, there have been several voices resisting this trend, but they came too late for the Yulin little pieces. The dwindling scene today seems dominated by staged heritage performances on demand, remote from tradition. The Intangible Cultural Heritage project constantly wrings its hands over the crisis of such genres, touting the Party’s embrace while both compounding the problem and refusing to engage with the complex factors involved in the decline.

* * *

In Yulin city after Liberation, the “little pieces” were maintained by amateur enthusiasts even as official efforts were made to publicize and “develop” the music. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, as folk activity failed to revive, official control distorted the traditional features of the music, and by the 1990s it was moribund. So whereas I often discredit “salvage“, and in my work on rural ritual genres I’m keen to document all periods right down to today, in a case like this nostalgia (albeit for Republican and Maoist societies rather than the Tang and Song!) may play a larger role.

Again I’d stress that the main stories in Shaanbei, as throughout China, are to be told in the innumerable poor villages. The ability of cadres to “control” the Yulin little pieces in the regional capital, and the decline of the folk base there, contrast with the independence of the genres in the surrounding countryside.

But again in Yulin we find the conundrum that I broached in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing. Whereas amateur activity in chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the reform period, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, genres like the Yulin little pieces effectively died out.

I surmise that in Yulin since the 1980s, the base of senior amateurs was simply too small to resist the official pressures of modernization. Musicians can typically be found to participate in the official modernizing agenda, but here it’s hard to find anyone who believes it a success.

In both ritual and music studies, received images are misleading. In ritual studies, south China dominates the field, but it’s just as important in the north; in musicology, the apparent dichotomy between southern entertainment and northern ritual groups also needs refining.

Of course, the varied local conditions we find throughout China today are obscure heritages from imperial times, complex amalgams of factors such as ecology, economy, lineage customs, and historical migration, further complicated by local histories in Republican, Maoist, and reform eras (local politics and personalities, Japanese occupation, radical Communist leadership, local protectionism, and so on). It is hard as yet to explain these variations, and we need a far more detailed body of work.

 

[1] Note Yulin xiaoqu, special edition of Yulin wenshi ziliao vol. 13 (1994), and Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji [Collected Yulin little pieces] (Xi’an: Shaanxi lüyou chubanshe, 2005).
See also the Anthology: (under narrative-singing) Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1995), pp.607–15, 758–9, transcriptions 616–757; (under folk-song) Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1994), pp.421–2, 464–81; (under instrumental music) Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan (1992), pp.858–9, 878–83, 899–905.
The genre is not to be confused with the rural errentai music of nearby Fugu and Shenmu, also casually named Yulin xiaoqu since 1953, popularized by Ding Xicai: see Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, p.17 n.31.

[2] For brief biographies, see Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.311–18.

[3] A starting point might be the Yulin county gazetteer; perhaps studies like 高雨露,近现代榆林城市文化空间形态演变研究 (西安建筑科技大学) are relevant.

[4] For full scores, see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.899–905; Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan, pp.614, 639–44; Huo Xianggui, Yulin xiaoqu ji, pp.269–94. Some pieces may be played solo by zheng, yangqin, or pipa.

 

Guide to another year’s blogging

 

Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!

 

 

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

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。

 

Rain rituals in north China

From Xiao Mei’s DVD footage of rain processions in Shaanbei.

In barren mountains barefoot males, stripped to the waist, adorned with head-dresses of willow branches, kneel in the dust to pray hoarsely to the Dragon Kings.

That’s the closing scene of Chen Kaige’s 1984 film Yellow Earth, evoking Shaanbei in 1939. An iconic image, of course it’s romanticized, but it’s based on an enduring reality; while successive waves of social change have occurred, processions to pray for rain are still widely performed today

* * *

Images of the Dragon Kings in temple iconography are all the rage (see also my post on Elder Hu), but the practical purpose of veneration for such deities is expressed in performance—in this case, rituals to pray for rain.

Daniel Overmyer collects early sources on rain rituals in Chapter 1 of his Local religion in north China in the twentieth century. A slim tome by Dong Xiaoping and David Arkush also gives interesting clues for north China, including Gansu, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei. [1]

Apart from calendrical rituals like temple fairs, the most important occasional observances are funerals—for which demand, of course, has remained constant. Another important ritual occasion until the 1950s was the ritual procession to pray for rain, held in the summer months—broadly to be subsumed under “rites of affliction” (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.9). On behalf of the whole community, it is organized by the village leadership.

The extreme weather of north China has long prompted processions to beseech the gods for rain. There is rarely any rain at all from September through to the following June; drought is common—although when it does rain in the summer, it is often torrential, and floods become a serious problem. So rain processions may be held in the summer during times of exceptional drought. But in many areas they may also be calendrical, part of temple fairs (see below), subsumed into Fetching Water (qushui) rituals there. [2]

Indeed, Fetching Water is a routine segment of funeral rituals; in such cases it commonly represents a more generalized prayer for well-being.

Here I’d like to pursue the story through Maoism and the reform era since the late 1970s. As with other areas of religious culture, we can’t simply assume that rain processions ceased after the Communists took power in the 1940s. We may question the official version that they became naturally obsolete after irrigation projects became efficient, but the general picture is that such public “superstitious” extra-village activities were severely restricted.

In some regions such processions restored from the 1980s along with the revival of tradition, but since such demonstrations require significant mobilization, as time went by they became less common. The close links between secular and sacred village leaderships had already been attenuated under Maoism; under the reforms urban migration and the loss of community cohesion, along with ever-diminishing reliance on agriculture, have had a major impact. Even so, the “sufferers” left behind still occasionally hold rain rituals.

These rituals are not liturgically complex. Texts to bring rain appear in the Daoist Canon, and local scholars in Tianshui (Gansu) have collected several rain scriptures, though sadly we have no notes on how, or if, they are performed (Dong and Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, pp.20–21). Indeed, rain-making, and the Dragon Kings, are just as much Buddhist as Daoist: there are texts in the Chanmen risong. Overmyer also describes clerics reciting scriptures. Some early sources mention jiao Offering rituals performed as part of the observances. However, in modern times rain ceremonies in north China seem rarely to involve Daoist or Buddhist clerics: even household ritual specialists play a minor role. In Hebei the shengguan ensemble of village ritual associations may perform “holy pieces”.

The Hebei plain
The case of the Hebei plain is rather exceptional, in that most villages had an amateur ascriptive public body for organizing rituals such as funerals and temple fairs, called yinyuehui and overlapping with various sectarian groups.

Our notes from many villages on the Hebei plain south of Beijing (links here; NB also Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.354–61, and Hebei tag) supplement Overmyer’s survey, showing how very common rain processions were before Liberation.

The letters of the Stimmatini Catholic priests from their parish of Yixian in the 1930s show the desperation caused by drought. Despite their faith in the miraculous appearance of the Madonna to protect the village of East Lücun, the priests mock the credulousness of the villagers. They often mention rain processions in Shannan village, in the southern part of Yixian county.

Rain ceremonies are held at a network of pilgrimage sites. These are often occasions when the associations go beyond the boundaries of the village, and establish or confirm links with other villages. As such, they have suffered with greater political control, since solidarity within the village may be threatened when worshippers leave the confines of the village. Thus the Xiaoniu Music Association continued to make the Houshan pilgrimage in the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, but in a smaller group, and not daring to bring their association pennants with them. Part of the significance of the rain procession, musicians observed shrewdly in Gaoluo, was to demonstrate their adversity to the county authorities, in the hope of remission of taxes.

Rain prayers are most common in mountainous areas, but besides temples, wells and rivers are generally the goal. Most of this area is rather flat, but the mountains in northwest Laishui and Yixian seem to invite rain prayers.

As elsewhere, the main deities worshipped for rain here are the Dragon Kings (Longwang), Guandi (Laoye), and Erlangye, as in Qujiaying.

Gaoluo
My ethnography of Gaoluo village, in Laishui county, has some notes on rain rituals there (based on Plucking the winds, pp.93–4):

Since droughts were frequent and often disastrous, summer processions to pray for rain were a major part of villagers’ ceremonial life. By the 1950s rain processions in this area were rare, but not non-existent—some nearby villages even observed them in the early 1960s, as the pressures of campaigns and famine forced them to seek divine help. There are still occasional observances in this area today, but they are far less common than in more remote, barren mountainous regions like Shaanbei or Gansu, where they are regular and imposing. As Communist analysts would say, such “superstitions” persist largely where economic progress and ideological pressures have been ineffective. One nearby village which we visited in 1994 had just held a rain procession as a protest against the exorbitant water rates charged by the local authorities.

To pray for rain before Liberation, Gaoluo villagers once used to make a pilgrimage to Baiyutang in the mountains of Fangshan, quite distant, about 60 Chinese li (30 km) north, where they “fetched water” from a big gulley where turtles swam, taking a statue of the Dragon King. They filled a gourd with the water and took it back to the village. Venerable Shan Zhihe also recalled a rain pilgrimage to Xianggai village 10 li to the south, near which there was an auspicious well in the grounds of the Dragon Kings Temple. Someone from Bailu village had to come and take water from the well, since the Dragon Kings’ mother was said to come from there; she had married to Xianggai. Villagers could only take water from the well when there was a drought. They lowered a jar made from willow branches into the water, drawing it up with a pulley. They then emptied the water into a gulley nearby, from where it flowed into the Juma river towards Gaoluo.

Before 1932 young Shan Zhihe had himself gone twice on the procession to Xianggai, and had seen how efficacious it was: “it usually rained even before the water could reach the river. If it didn’t work the first time, it always rained the second time!” Our friends knew of the custom of putting a god statue out to make it suffer in the sun until it rained, which is commonly attested, but no-one recalled having to do so.

The statues taken by the villagers on these processions were of the Dragon Kings or Guangong (Laoye). The statues used for pilgrimages were smaller portable versions of the big clay ones in the temples, about a metre high, but not every village had them, and so rain-prayers were sometimes known as “stealing the statue” (touxiang), since they had to borrow one from a nearby village. Of course, it was a formal ritual procedure. They made a sedan for the statue out of willow-branches and carried it on poles. The ritual association would lead the procession; Cai Fuzhong, father of Party Secretary Cai Yurun, had fired the three-cartridge cracker-firer. The borrowing village would usually repaint the statue; egg-yolk, also used for the animation of god-statues, was used. Finally they returned it to the temple with great ceremony.

When the village men went to pray for rain, the ritual association decked out its “public building” with god paintings and incense. The men parading in front of the sedan sang “songs of rejoicing” (xige 喜歌)—a rare admission of any former folk-song tradition. The association would lead the procession; Cai Fuzhong, father of talented Yurun, fired the three-cartridge cracker-firer. Part of the significance of such processions, our friends observed shrewdly, was to demonstrate adversity to the county authorities, in the hope of remission of grain taxes; the Baiyutang procession actually stopped off at the county government yamen.

The second time Shan Zhihe went on the Xianggai procession was in 1930, when he was 12 sui and studying at the village private school, just before the Catholic church was built. Erudite Shan Fuyi recalled that the village’s last rain procession was in the summer of 1949 just after [the village] Liberation, when he was in 2nd grade at primary school. Though it was quite a small-scale occasion, the ritual association played. The villagers toured a statue of Laoye which they had “stolen” from Xiazhuang village just east of the river. After parading through North and South Gaoluo villages, they had the statue repainted, inviting a painter and ritual paper maker called Yang, from South Dawei; he repainted the statue in the ritual association’s “public building”. Some musicians even recalled a rain pilgrimage when Shan Ling was at secondary school, which must have been in the mid-1950s, when collectivization was already under way. That time, they claimed, they made the more distant procession to Baiyutang.

A similar ritual which soon became obsolete in Gaoluo was “setting out the river lanterns” (fang hedeng), an exorcistic ceremony still performed today by ritual associations on the 15th of the 7th moon in several other parts of the region. Genial Shan Yude recalled seeing it in Gaoluo for the last time when he was 8 sui, around 1949. Lanterns were placed in a paper boat and in hollowed-out gourds to light the way for the souls of the drowned and avert flooding, while the association perfomed. The ritual may have been discontinued largely through official disapproval, though the river was anyway becoming more shallow.

Yixian county
Just west of Laishui county, in Liujing at the foot of Houshan, the guanshi assistants of the village’s four ritual associations go to a spring on Houshan called “water room” (shuifangzi) to offer incense and pray for rain. Menstruating women are forbidden to go, since they would offend the Dragon Kings and prevent rain falling. In 1985 the people made Dragon Kings and Dragon Mother statues. Around 1991 the four assistants were asked by the villagers to pray for rain; the cadres didn’t interfere, but the associations didn’t go because it would take too much arguing between the ritual representatives of the four villages.

Nearby in Baoquan, Li Yongshu (b. c1926) said they still performed rain ceremonies, burning incense and reciting scriptures—he said there was no special ritual manual, but the Ten Kings scroll was often used. They sang the Hymn to the Dragon Kings, inviting other gods like Laoye or even Houtu—the people decided which, depending on which they believe in. Li Yongshu had first prayed for rain when 17 or 18 sui (c1943), when five villages combined to take statues of the Dragon Kings and Laoye on tour.

Further south in Yixian, Shenshizhuang villagers used to go to the summit of Zijinguan, 100 li distant. They went in 1947, and again after the temples were destroyed in the Four Cleanups, around 1965. Then the brigade organized the ritual association to play on the pilgrimage; wearing hats made of willow branches, they took their own provisions, while locals provided firewood. They played any pieces, there was no fixed repertory. That very evening as they were walking home, it started to rain!

But most elderly villagers describing rain ceremonies remembered them only as a thing of their youth. Even Wei Guoliang in Matou described it thus. The last time his son’s wife recalled was in the 1950s. According to Wei, it was also called “catching the turtle” (zhua gui), just like an exorcism. There were two ritual sites on Houshan to seek water: Matou zhai and Taohua an. They used to go for three days, bearing aloft statues of the Dragon Kings, the ritual association playing in front. Daoist priests recited the Mantra to Mulang (Mulang zhou); Wei didn’t know what the Buddhist priests recited.

East Baijian village used to perform a rain ceremony called Offering for Hailstones (ji bingbao 祭冰雹). They went on procession to the Central Yi river to float lotus lanterns (or river lanterns?), with the ritual association accompanying. They still did it once after the Japanese invaded, but it became very rare thereafter. They had prayed for rain clandestinely in 1962 and even in 1964, by agreement with the village brigade, but they didn’t dare use the shengguan wind ensemble of the ritual association.

Remarkably, in the 7th moon of 1994 the East Baijian village men again prayed for rain, wearing headgear of willow branches and bearing aloft an image of Laoye. Unlike the clandestine observances of 1962 and 1964, this time the ritual association accompanied the procession with their shengguan. Despite the common official claim that irrigation has rendered such superstitious observances obsolete, this ceremony was precisely a kind of demonstration against the exorbitant water rates charged by the government. The authorities were charging the village 28,000 yuan for the irrigation of their land for only a dozen or so days—elders remembered when it only cost 300 yuan for a whole month! The villagers bore aloft an image of Laoye. So they still felt that they had to “rely on Heaven to eat” rather than on the government, or science.

Dingxing county
Zhang Mingxiang, former Daoist priest at the Donglin si temple in Dingxing county town, recalled their prayers for rain. The people bore aloft a statue of the Dragon King (Erlangye?), with a bell around its neck. They wore willow headdresses, went barefoot, even the county chief. There were wells at the Nanyin si and Longmu miao temples south of the town, one for praying for rain, the other for hailstone rituals. They took a bucket of water from the well, sprinkled it on the ground as they lit incense, set fire to an old gu tree, and recited the Zaotan shenzhou 早壇神咒 manual. If their prayers were answered, they staged an opera in the autumn. Here the last rain prayers were held in 1937–8—after that it became impossible because of the fighting.

Xiongxian and Renqiu counties
We found more clues to rain processions in the villages of Hanzhuang, Gegezhuang, Dabu, and Mihuangzhuang.

In Hanzhuang, Xie Yongxiang recalled rain ceremonies, which hadn’t been performed in the region since 1937—the last time was when Xie was 12 sui, his wife 15, the year they got married! For the first three days they took an image of Laoye (Guangong) outside the temple to expose it; after the third day the ritual association and the villagers, with willow branches on their heads, took it on a tour in a sedan. If it still hadn’t rained after nine days then they took the statue home. The ritual association played small pieces (lingqu 另曲), mainly three melodies given the acronym of Jin–Wu–Cui (Jinzi jing, Wusheng fo, and Cuizhulian).

Gegezhuang had last prayed for rain around 1945. They “beseeched Elder Wang”. The incense head (xiangtou, here the leader of the ritual association) was in charge. but the chaozi association played, not the ritual association. They went to the Yaowang miao temple, to beseech the three Wang Elders, of whom Liu Wangye (Yaowangye) was in charge. They took the Yaowang statue on a tour of the village—the last time was around 1945.

They had heard a story of nearby Dabu village praying for rain in the late Qing. There was not a cloud in the sky, but as soon as the incense head took the sword of fate (mingjian 命剑) of Yaowang and pointed it to the northeast, clouds appeared, and before long there was a downpour. But it fell only on the village; there was not a drop outside the village! In cases when it didn’t rain, they punished the incense head by locking him up for a few days.

Mihuangzhuang had a Yuwang miao temple (alas we omitted to clarify if this was Yu the ancient emperor or Yuhuang!). Two red poles, 5 or 6 metres long, were held horizontally, with a cover (mogai) hung from them. They brought out the statue of Guangong (Laoye) and placed it on the structure, parading to a large open space. People wore tabards. Everyone faced outwards in a circle, and the statue was paraded all round. Two people called “bridge-grabbers” stood on the poles, in the “eight-step zen position”, and while the carriers raced as fast as they could, they had to stand firm. There was no incense head—the organizer was just a senior villager. Again the percussion of the chaozi association, not the yinyuehui ritual association, performed.

Further south on the plain, North Hancun in the south of Renqiu county also went on a tour. Wherever the Dragon King Elder of a village was efficacious, they took it on tour around the villages, and the receiving villagers would provide refreshments of tea and snacks. The procession was accompanied by large drums, but no shengguan, and the nuns of the village didn’t take part. procession often went on for seven days, and if no rain, they extended it for three further days. There were “songs of rejoicing” for “red rituals” such as weddings and building a house—for which the village had a special singer.

Tianjin municipality
We have a description of rain-prayers “in the past” in the greater Tianjin area, in which Dharma-drumming associations (faguhui 法鼓会) playing shengguan music took part.  [3] One would like an update.

Praying to Dragon King Elder, the procession was led by pennant-bearers. A gong was sounded to Open the Way; four men carried a statue of the dragon, one carried on his back a tortoise-shell made from a sieve, holding a large mace in each hand; another man pulled along a leech (representing the aquatic kingdom); and a man dressed as a leech wore a leather coat inside-out, his face painted red and black, wearing a “god hat” (foguan, known as mazi) made of paper, with a painting of Dragon King Elder on it, attached to the head with red string.

Immediately behind followed the incense bowl, and barefooted villagers. The Dharma-drumming association with their shengguan music brought up the rear (Guo writes “blowing”, not just percussion). As they proceeded, the musicians played the percussion item Changxingdianr, as someone shouted “Black dragon head, white dragon tail, day and night come to bring water”. When they reached the riverside all made kowtows, burned incense, chanted prayers, and the association played various melodies. Finally they threw the Dragon King statue into the river and dispersed, making their way home.

Shanxi
For north Shanxi, I have given some clues to former rain processions in Yanggao, home of the Li family Daoists[4] Going south, in Xinzhou before Liberation, “rain-thanksgiving” (xieyu) did require Daoist and Buddhist clerics. Rain ceremonies continued there after Liberation, and were still performed in the 1990s, though it is unclear if ritual specialists took part; we were even told of a village that held a rain procession in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, rain ceremonies persisted in the Wutai area after Liberation, and even took place on the quiet through the Cultural Revolution, continuing since.

Catholics in Shanxi also hold ceremonies for rain, like the Catholic village of Wujiazhuang, Xinzhou county, that we visited in 1992. Henrietta Harrison’s fine work on the Catholics of central Shanxi contains several instances. [5]

Daoists took part in rain prayers in the Liulin area of the Lüliang region in west Shanxi (Dong and Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, p.74), which belongs culturally with Shaanbei.

Shaanbei
In Shaanxi, pilgrimages to the mountains south of Xi’an in the sixth moon remain popular: see map here[6] But we have more detailed reports from Shaanbei, the northern part of the province. [7]

Rain processions in Shaanbei are commonly referred to as “shouldering the god sedan” (tai shenlou) or “shouldering the Dragon Kings” (tai Longwang). They mostly take place in the searing heat of the 6th moon. They are organized by a committee of senior male villagers, with all households contributing—except that the women are not allowed to observe. The route is thought to be determined by the gods: in one village they had to stop because the gods were leading them over a cliff.

As to soundscape, male villagers sing (or “shout”, as they say) in solo and choral response, the “rain master” playing gong, another villager playing drum, while shawm bands may play on arrival at ritual sites. Since many Dragon King temples are on remote hillsides, opera stages are often in the village; on return to the village an opera troupe is commonly invited to perform to thank the gods.

Notes from our 2001 visit to the Jiaxian opera troupe (my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, pp.17–19):

They take work all over the southern Yulin region. Sometimes (mainly in the winter) opera troupes are invited for weddings and funerals, costing around 1,000 yuan. But their main context is temple fairs from the 1st to the 8th moons, mainly in the six southern counties of the Yulin region—without temple fairs, as Li said, they would be out of business. They take part in over thirty temple fairs, large and small—most such contexts demand that they perform a series of items over three days. They also perform “three or five times a year” for villages holding rain prayers, from the 5th to the 7th moons.

Guo Yuhua‘s chapter on Yangjiagou in her Yishi yu shehui bianqian opens with an account of a rain ritual there. A chapter on Shaanbei rain rituals by Xiao Mei 萧梅,

  • “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” [The buzz of praying for sweet rainfall: field survey on ritual and music of rain prayers in the northwest (Shaanbei) region], in Tsao Poon-yee [Cao Benye] (ed.), Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, Northwest vol.] (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD), pp.419­–88,

is enriched by two sequences on the accompanying DVD, filmed in 2000 at Longyangou and the Black Dragon Temple (for which Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response is a must-read), and documented in her chapter. As ever, even a short film is worth hundreds of pages of silent, static textual accounts. Some screengrabs appear at the head of this article.

Xiao Mei begins her account like a traditional sinologist, with a useful survey of early historical sources, complementing those of Overmyer. But then she pursues the theme with a rare participant’s description, using an anthropologist’s eyes and ears. The only woman allowed to participate was a spirit medium (p.443).

And while you’re about it, do read Xiao Mei’s long article on spirit mediums in distant Guangxi (again with DVD), cited in n.4 here.

This documentary, filmed at a village in Hengshan county in 2005, is also worth watching.

Ningxia

Lianhuashan

Several volumes of the Anthology gives further slim leads to rain ceremonies, such as that for Ningxia, which has photos of the qingmiao shuihui Green Shoots Water Assembly procession on Lianhuashan mountain in Tongxin county—grandest of a network of calendrical observances for rain, with its main day on 4th moon 15th. [8]

I may add that the photos in the Anthology often surpass the texts in suggesting promising leads—even if in this case they considerably predate the iniquities of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, this event was recreated and elaborated quite soon after the 1980s’ revival with involvement from cultural cadres.

* * *

These piecemeal instances merely hint at the ubiquity of rain rituals in north China before the 1950s. As ever, such rituals might be large or small in scale. But as with all aspects of religious behaviour, they have undergone a fundamental change, not just since the 1950s but under the reforms, with rural populations depleted and community cohesion attenuated. Still, those rituals that are still performed are not some exotic vestige of “heritage”, but a sign of ongoing suffering. Contemporary ethnographic accounts are not just a means of imagining the dry accounts of past rituals, but a major part of our understanding current society.

 

[1] Dong Xiaoping and David Arkush, Huabei minjian wenhua, pp.20–22, 72–5, 106–13. For further early sources, see articles by Zhang Zhentao and Xiao Mei in this post.
[2] E.g. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, ch.3; see also Yuan Li, “”Huabei diqu qiyu huodongzhong qushui yishi yanjiu” [The Fetching Water ritual in north Chinese rain ceremonies], Minzu yishu (Guangxi) 2001.2, pp.96–108 and 121. For Fetching Water in Yanggao funerals and temple fairs, see also my film, and the DVD with my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.
[3] Guo Zhongping 郭忠萍, Fagu yishu chutan 法鼓艺术初探, p.10.
[4] See my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.72–4; Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, ch.3. Further leads for other areas of Shanxi are to be found in Wen Xing 文幸 and Xue Maixi 薛麦喜 (eds.), Shanxi minsu 山西民俗 (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin cbs, 1991), pp.399–400. Cf. Wang Lifang 王丽芳,”Minzhong qiuyu xisude shengtai jingjixue sikao: yi Shanxi minjian qiuyu xisu weili” 民众求雨习俗的生态经济学思考——以山西民间求雨习俗为例, Shengchanli yanjiu 2006.6.
[5] E.g. The man awakened from dreams: one man’s life in a north China village, 1857–1942and The missionary’s curse, pp. 104–7.
[6] Tiny clues in Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan: text 920, transcriptions 926–7.
[7] For some sources, see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, pp.22–3. Cf. Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan, text p.572, transcriptions (from Dingbian, Jiaxian, and Fugu) pp.606–8.
[8] Transcriptions, with texts, from Lianhuashan and Xiangshan, as well as Pingluo and Yinchuan, in Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Ningxia juan, pp.713–46. See also Zhang Zongqi 张宗奇, Ningxia daojiao shi [History of Daoism in Ningxia] (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua cbs, 2006), pp.210–11, 261–7. The term “water association” (shuihui) is quite common; though some such urban groups were more or less secular—local militia for protection against fire and robbers—in rural north China they were often associations for rain, as in the pilgrimages just south of Xi’an (for refs. see my In search of the folk Daoists, p.81). The term Green Shoots has only been attached since 1983.

Updates: Shaanbei, bards, heritage

WKM

Headsup for major updates to several posts in the light of Wu Ka-ming’s fine book Reinventing Chinese tradition, a valuable addition to the literature on Shaanbei— where she gives a nuanced appraisal of paper-cutting, bards, and spirit mediums under changing rural conditions since 2004:

Bards of Shaanbei

In my summary of Guo Yuhua’s fantastic book on a Shaanbei village, I mentioned the blind bard Li Huaiqiang. The complex fortunes of these bards under Maoism and since the reforms require a nuanced approach, and deserve a separate post. [1]

As I edit my old material from around 2000, I’m aware that fieldwork is always of its time. I haven’t sought to update it, but the period since then will also have seen rapid change—which I discuss further below in my review of a more recent book.

LWJ in courtyard

LWJ shuoshu

Sighted bard Li Wenjin performs a “story for well-being” to protect the son of the host family, first inviting the gods in the courtyard and then narrating a sequence of stories before the altar inside the cave-dwelling (see DVD §C4 with my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, and pp.83–4 there).
Photos: Guo Yuhua, 1999.

Introduction
In Shaanbei, as in much of rural China, while many blind men earn a living by taking up the shawm (on which see my post on Guo Yuhua, and here), others have also long served as protectors of children, acting as godfathers and healers, and telling fortunes—as well as singing “stories for well-being”, accompanying themselves on a plucked lute and clappers, a kind of one-man band. They are itinerant, going by foot over quite a wide area.

Though in decline since the 1960s, the bards appear to have adapted rather little in context or sound. Under the Maoist collectives, some spent brief periods being taught new stories in the county-town “propaganda teams”, but this hardly affected their repertory or performing contexts. Since the 1990s, the popularity of the genre has been further threatened by the media of TV and pop music; and little bands now increasingly supplement the solo performers.

Social background
Blind bards also tell fortunes, cure illness, and act as godfathers—occasions when they do not necessarily perform stories. As godfathers they perform ceremonies protecting children (including hanging the locket, the annual Crossing the Passes ceremony at temple fairs, and opening the locket). These ceremonies have doubtless become rather less common since the 1950s, though neither campaigns against superstition nor any gradual improvement in healthcare entirely explain this.

Li Huaiqiang, in his 70s, had hung the locket for three or four hundred children; Guo Xingyu, in his 50s, for “over 290”.

Like geomancers and mediums, the blindman performs healing in a ritual called Settling the Earth or Settling the Earth God. For this he recites incantations and depicts talismans, but does not perform stories.

These occupations were a lifeline for males only: the fate of blind females was pitiable.

Occupations for blind men in Shaanbei

  • begging (yaofan 要饭)
  • playing in a shawm band (guyue 鼓乐, chuishou 吹手)
  • telling fortunes (suangua 算卦)
  • exorcism / healing (antushen 安土神, zhibing 治病)
  • hanging the locket (baosuo 抱锁, daisuo 带锁), opening the locket (kaisuo 开锁), Crossing the Passes (guoguan 过关)
  • narrative-singing (shuoshu 说书).

Contexts for narrative-singing

  • Stories for vows (yuanshu 愿书), to fulfil a verbal vow (huankouyuan 还口愿):
    household (jiashu 家书), for well-being (ping’an shu 平安书)
    temple fairs (huishu 会书: miaohui 庙会)
    parish (sheshu 社书)
  • less common: weddings (hongshi 红事), moving into a new cave-dwelling (nuanyao 暖窑), going off to the army (canjun 参军), official meetings (jiguan 机关).

Ritual equipment, stories, and music
For the narrative-singing contexts, the bard performs before a small temporary altar. Inscriptions for the gods and family, rectangular paper “god places” with a triangular head, mounted on gaoliang stalks, as well as changqing yellow paper streamers, are inserted into one or two rectangular bowls filled with grains of millet or corn. Before the altar are placed a lit candle, small bowls to hold incense and burn paper offerings, and offerings such as dough shapes, biscuits, dates, fruit, peanuts, cigarettes, and cups of liquor.

The altar is placed on the family stove or on a table; for the rituals to invite the gods and escort them away at the beginning and end of stories for well-being, it is placed on a table in the courtyard outside. Li Huaiqiang, though blind, prepared the changqing streamers himself; someone sighted and literate has to be found to write the inscriptions. Incense and paper are burnt before the altar periodically throughout the performance.

The bard takes with him a red cloth bearing the titles of a pantheon of gods. When not in use it is rolled up and kept in the bard’s bag. The cloth is unfurled and placed upright behind the altar, supported by two sticks inserted into a sleeve at either end of the cloth.

Cloth pantheons:
(left) Li Huaiqiang, 1999;
(right) Xu Wengong, 2001 (for a list of these gods, see Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen, p.356).

Stories overlap with opera plots, relating historical tales of love, official success, solving of crimes, famous battles, and righteous protest—all familiar in Chinese fiction since the Ming dynasty, and often referring to still earlier times. Like opera, these stories have long been a dominant form for poor people to learn of history, legend, and morality, only being challenged by schooling since the 1950s. Schooling even now is quite elementary, though TV and pop music are doubtless replacing traditional stories for entertainment.

Indeed, bards’ stories are like a cheaper, more portable version of opera that can be brought into the home to bring good fortune to the family. Like opera (and indeed TV soap opera), stories may be performed in sections at successive sittings—commonly three episodes (huihui).

Bards improvise phrases on the basis of a well-known story—as He Guangwu observed: “We respond to the changes on the spur of the moment (suiji yingbian 随机应变), the lyrics aren’t fixed and dead (dingsi 定死).”

The solo performer accompanies himself on a plucked lute and usually two percussion instruments attached to his left leg and right hand. He may rest his right foot on a low stool, and drapes a towel over his shoulder to wipe sweat from his face. The plucked lute is either unfretted three-stringed sanxian (known as xianzi) or the fretted four-stringed pipa; the sanxian is most common, the use of pipa declining drastically in this area since the 1980s.

This rare form of pipa (see below), held less vertically than the “modern” pipa, and played with a plectrum, was a major discovery, reminding scholars of the Tang dynasty pipa. As was the trend through the 1980s, they were keen to conjure up “living fossils” and evoke the glories of ancient dynasties, but they mustered less publicity for this supposed relic of the Tang pipa than did scholars of nanyin in southeast China.

Han Qixiang and the training sessions
As with many other genres in China, the national reputation of narrative-singing in Shaanbei rests largely on one performer who came to the attention of cultural cadres and was cultivated by them. Han Qixiang (1915–89), dubbed “China’s Homer” but redder than red. The Party’s model blind bard in Shaanbei during the Yan’an period.

Han Qixiang

from http://www.confucianism.com.cn/html/minsu/15021455.html

In my book I outline his career, trying to read between the lines of hagiographic Chinese accounts on the basis of the 1993 article

  • Chang-tai Hung, “Reeducating a Blind Storyteller: Han Qixiang and the Chinese Communist Storytelling Campaign”, Modern China 19.4 (1993).

From 1945, Party ideologues went to some lengths to reform storytelling with a network of training sessions. After the national “Liberation” of 1949, every county government throughout China set up an arts-work troupe, which soon metamorphosed into an opera troupe; some county authorities further set up a narrative-singing artists’ propaganda team (shuoshu yiren xuanchuandui). These narrative-singing teams were less permanent (and much less costly) than the opera troupes; they held training sessions before dividing into smaller teams to go off on tour round the villages. Bards were lodged together, sometimes for a few months but often for just a few days, and even if they could remember the new stories, they remained reluctant to perform them once they went on the road.

Apart from Han Qixiang, another blind performer mentioned in the 1940s as creator of new stories is Shi Weijun (b.1924), who organized training sessions for bards around Suide county. Blind bard Guo Xingyu (see below), himself no simple official mouthpiece, hinted that Shi Weijun found it hard to adapt to official demands after Liberation. “But then he gave up—he didn’t even want his wages, he lost his standing, and went off on his own to tell stories.” He was clearly reluctant to take part in official events.

We can discount the rosy official image, but even the candid local scholar Meng Haiping recalls the period before the Cultural Revolution as a golden age for the blind bards, with county Halls of Culture organizing them into teams and issuing permits, so that district and village leaders had to receive them, hosting and feeding them—an unprecedented and welcome way to guarantee their “food-bowl”.

Conversely, if the state now acted as the bards’ patron, their richer patrons had disappeared, and their poorer ones were becoming wary of inviting them; temple fairs and “superstition” were under threat. Many bards were not recruited to the teams or were unwilling to join, and even those who did take part did so only intermittently. Although those not registered in the teams were not given permits, they still managed to perform, relying on the old contexts such as “stories for well-being” and godfather duties. But the climate was changing: as the power of campaigns sunk into people’s consciousness, they would have been increasingly nervous of inviting bards openly.

Even those bards who did spend periods in the official teams learning new stories continued to earn their living from more or less “feudal superstitious” contexts. You couldn’t perform new items for hanging the locket, or as stories for well-being.

Party ideologues admired popular oral literature; while deploring its links with superstition, they were unsuccessful in seeking to break such links. The new stories were often based on novellas or opera scripts, and composed with the “guidance” of cadres. As Hung points out, it was hardly a collaboration between peasants and intellectuals—it was never in doubt who was in charge.

It’s hard to assess is how the new stories were received. Even clues in the unremitting hagiography unwittingly give glimpses of constant conflict and difficulties. Han Qixiang composed a new story called “We can’t withdraw from the collective” (Buneng tuishe) (how very true!), reportedly converting peasants who were opposed to collectivism. Having heard that in some Zichang villages women were reluctant to work in the fields, and men reluctant to tolerate them doing so, he composed pieces exhorting them and praising female labour heroes. During the famine of 1959–60 he performed “Turning over a new leaf” (see link in Comment § below) for peasants disgruntled with the paltry goods available on New Year’s Eve, supposedly enlightening them as to how much their lives had improved since the bad old society. Yeah right…

Still, Han Qixiang was a fine performer; even when he told new stories, he would naturally vary them every time, like bards worldwide, and he retained the colourful local vocabulary of bards throughout the area. One cannot merely assess his stories from the page, without being able to witness his performances and those of other bards of the day. Bards I met were less impressed by his technique or creativity than by his good fortune in meeting the right people at the right time and getting onto the government payroll.

So whereas Han Qixiang appears to have been a model “folk artist” propounding Party policies with conviction, most bards in Shaanbei have continued to eke out a living from their traditional exorcistic “stories for well-being”, both under Maoism and since the reforms.

Immortal Li
Among the characters in Guo Yuhua’s book on Jicun is the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known in the village as “Immortal Li”, Li xian); as ever, my notes benefit from her rapport with him. Visiting his cave-dwelling in 1999, she introduced us and we all sat ourselves down on his kang brick-bed; having explored my facial contours with his hands, he gently held my hand throughout our chat.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang was among the great majority of bards (and audiences) not amenable to the new stories. Under Maoism, though he gained a house and a family, his livelihood was reduced; since the reforms of the 1980s he suffered both from the decline in popularity of the art and his own dwindling skills.

Li Huaiqiang was born to a poor family of hired labourers working for the village landlords. Such poor families couldn’t afford to send their children to school, and he attended “winter school” for a mere few days. He lost his sight completely by the age of 10 sui. When he was 15 or 16 sui (c1936–7) his father took him to a blind bard to “learn up the arts” of narrative-singing, “history”, fortune-telling, and healing. Learning stories phrase by phrase was time-consuming and expensive—his father had to scrape the fees together. Li contrasts that ruefully with the ease of young upstarts today who can learn just by listening to tapes.

Li began “going out of the door” to earn a living before he was 18 sui, practising both healing and narrative-singing. He was often in demand to cure illness: when someone’s child was seriously ill, Li could give acupuncture and Chinese medicine. When adults had some irregular illness (xiebing), some bad karma, for which orthodox medicine was no use, he’d find them some special herbs.

Since Yangjiagou was still a landlord stronghold, in the early days Li often performed stories all four seasons of the year for the landlords in the village itself. Such performances—like longevity celebrations, or for the first full moon of newly-born children—often lasted seven or eight days. The landlords had a shrine to the god of wealth in their houses—before it bards would tell their stories, and Buddhist monks would recite their scriptures.

Ritual has always remained paramount for bards like Li. “Poor people (shoukuren) worship the Dragon King Elder (Longwangye), stockbreeders worship Horse King Elder (Mawangye), people in business worship God of Prosperity Elder (Caishenye). When people make vows they invite us to tell stories, that’s how we make our living.” Since vows were often fulfilled in the 1st and 2nd moons, bards were most busy then.

By the 1940s, Li’s itinerant business was taking him—by foot—all over Shaanbei. Recalling the old temple fairs, he mentioned the two most famous, still very active now: “I used to go to Baiyunshan for over twenty years, I even went once after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I used to go every year, there were kids there that I’d hung the locket for.” Li performed for the small temple fairs in his home village too, notably the 4th-moon fair at the Pusa miao temple. The temple fairs in the neighbouring hamlet of Sigou were planned best, and were popular; people liked listening to narrative-singing there.

Li Huaiqiang’s early visits south to the Yan’an region, in 1938 or 1939, were part of his routine itinerant business. He told stories around Hengshan and Bao’an (Zhidan) counties too. “No-one controlled what stories you told then, you could narrate what you liked.”

In 1943, after the Suide–Mizhi area was taken over by the Communists, Li found himself unable to make a living there, and went off to Yinchuan in Ningxia and nearby Xichuan. The Nationalist officials loved listening to stories—bards were invited to their quarters. They could travel freely then—only later, when the Communist–Nationalist collaboration ended, did the roads become impassable.

Still, his assessment of the Red and White areas was ingenuous. “It was just the same under the Communists and the Nationalists. Under the Nationalists it was easy to earn money, people liked to listen to stories. After the Communists took control over people, not allowing superstition, at least there was provision for us disabled people, there was relief. So things were the same.” But he did remark, “In the end the Communists came along and broke all the temple fairs up, so there was nothing left.”

I wonder how many bards chose to seek a living in either the Red or White Areas. Evidently old stories did not suddenly vanish throughout the Yan’an countryside. The Yulin region was a seesaw area between the two sides, and most local leaders would, as yet, be broad-minded about traditional forms. We can’t judge, but it is worth challenging the propaganda. And having blithely equated “new stories” with items supporting the Communists, I wonder if bards in the Nationalist areas performed new stories opposing the Communists.

Li Huaiqiang dismissed our queries about the officially-organized groups—he had only the vaguest recollection of this experience. It might have remained an exciting moment in his life distinguished by its uniqueness—but apparently hadn’t. Li went on:

From 1945 they summoned all the blind bards to meetings—they weren’t allowed to sing old stories any more, they had to sing new ones. I studied them and then forgot them all—well, I basically didn’t study them! When you go out [on business], the common people don’t listen to that stuff! New stories aren’t good to listen to—people don’t like listening to new stories, they like old ones! I could never forget the old stories I learned when I was young, though. I can tell twenty or thirty stories. When you went out in the old days there was business, you could count on it—who’d have thought it would all come to an end?

He knew of Han Qixiang but didn’t hear him perform or meet him. “That Han Qixiang, he got onto the official payroll. Oh yes, people in our business all know about Han Qixiang. In the Yan’an period people reformed it into new stories, but they didn’t control us lot who narrated old stories, we just went off round the countryside narrating on our own.” He knew that some performers sang for political meetings, but didn’t admit to doing so himself.

Li Huaiqiang was lucky to find a wife:

I was 24 when I got married [c1946]. They came to take conscripts—people stuck to their old habits, no-one wanted to go off, but they forced them. But us blind people, we couldn’t go off to the army, no-one wanted us—that’s how I got a wife. People were afraid of joining the army, both sides were taking people off, no-one dared go, as soon as you went off you’d get killed. If it was today I couldn’t get married—now it’s hard enough for sighted men to find a wife.

During land reform there were meetings all the time. The Communist Party controlled people, eliminating superstition. When they wanted to hold a meeting they first summoned a bard to narrate a [new] section, so everyone turned up—then the bard sang the old stories that people liked.

This was a common theme, of great significance for our understanding of the Maoist period. The bard would attract people to turn up for tedious political meetings, and satisfy the demands of political expediency by performing a brief political item first, before the fun began. Scholar Meng Haiping recalled: “Both old and new stories were heard then. Until 1956, they began with a short section with new content, then moved onto the old stories like ‘The story of five women reviving the Tang’ (Wunü xing Tang zhuan).”

Li Huaiqiang originally lived in a miserable cave-dwelling made of earth, but after land reform, he was helped to “buy” a comfortable cave-dwelling right at the top of the village from the former landlords, which had been servants’ quarters. The landlords also had to “sell” him their precious sanxian banjo, which he bought for one dan of grain.

If in that sense Li was able to profit from the overthrow of the landlords, he soon suffered from their demise. “We were allowed to narrate stories in the early days after Liberation, but people’s consciousness was raised, people had studied a lot of books.” I didn’t care to argue with him there, so he went on, “They said narrative-singing was boring, so there was a lot less of it—it got less all of a sudden with the collectives [from the mid-1950s]. People like us just tilled the fields, told fortunes, we could just about get by, the state gave us relief. We couldn’t just die off—some people were given relief, some were put in old people’s homes, some with skills could go out and heal illness and tell fortunes.” And he was still taking large numbers of godchildren, whose parents’ regular little gifts always presented a lifeline.

If Li Huaiqiang was unaware of it, the Mizhi county authorities were attempting to organize bards. Gao Zhiqiang, former chief of the county Hall of Culture, recalled, “The county first set up a narrative-singing team in the early 1950s, organizing over twenty blind bards, training them all together to sing new stories. The Hall of Culture issued them with performance permits, which meant that the district and village authorities had to host them—that resolved blind men’s problem of livelihood.” But the teams never controlled blindmen for long.

Li Huaiqiang, who had never belonged to a team or performed in a group, still relied on a minimal handout from the village government to survive; with his wife and five children, times were desperate. “In the Cultural Revolution they didn’t invite us bards any more, it just stopped. But people like us still went out—mostly to tell fortunes, not so much to narrate stories.” And he sometimes sneaked out to hang the locket for children in exchange for “a couple of little coins”. Li was soon branded an “ox demon and snake spirit”, accused of feudal superstition. They took his manual off and burned it; they took his sanxian banjo away too, but he got it back after half a year. “Pesky kids, coming to our houses to get us to hand things over—if you did, then you were let off, if you didn’t then they paraded you through the streets.” Li was only paraded once. The only time he could recall when the authorities regulated narrative-singing was in the year of rebellion (zaofan) of the Cultural Revolution, when all the brigades had to organize blind bards into narrative-singing teams to go round and make propaganda, the county Hall of Culture taking a cut.

The reform era
In Shaanbei, as elsewhere in China, as the commune system began to be dismantled from the early 1980s, traditional culture revived more openly. Bards had been active throughout the commune period, both in and out of the new teams; if the old contexts and stories had never died out, after the “rotting of the collectives” there was no longer such need for collusion or duplicity. As Li Huaiqiang recalled, “As soon as Mao Zedong died, they stopped controlling us bards.” But like other traditional performers, they were soon competing with new economic pressures, TV and pop music taking their toll: where Maoism had failed to marginalize tradition, capitalism looked like succeeding.

Despite his privations under Maoism, he warmed to the theme:

Society’s different now, people have “turned over a new leaf”, reforms and all that—too much reform, it’s all gone too far…

Ebullient local pundit Meng Haiping had a perceptive comment:

In those days [under the communes] they tried to destroy traditional culture, but couldn’t; now they don’t control it any more, but it gradually declines anyway. 1984 to 1990 was the best period. Ever since the great wave of economics started, culture has been dying out.

The agenda of the cultural authorities hardly changed, even if state policy would never again be so “hard”: they still sought to teach the bards new stories to spread education about party policies, and they still aspired to both “controlling” and “looking after” the bards—ambivalent meanings of the term guan 管.

By the late 1990s Li Huaiqiang, quite frail in his old age, was less active as a bard. Lucky enough to have found a wife during times of war, Li has two sons and three daughters; but the family has remained poor, and the sons have been unable to find wives. In 1999 Li performed for the 4th-moon temple fair in his village, and he still did the occasional story for well-being for families fulfilling vows. But he told us: “I’m almost without business these days, 80% of my work is gone. Most temple fairs don’t have narrative-singing any more. These days people read books a lot [surely he overestimates this!]—the state doesn’t control it any more, people just don’t want to be away from work. They’ve got TV and recordings too now.” He used to perform for audiences of 80 or 90 people, but now it’s only for around 20 or 30, mostly elderly. “I can’t keep up.” This didn’t apply generally to narrative-singing in the whole area, but to Li in particular—elderly, frail, and no longer a gifted performer.

In the exceptional conditions of Yangjiagou, the occasional visit from Japanese tourist groups, Chinese and foreign scholars, and visitors to the memorial hall to Chairman Mao’s 1947 sojourn, allowed Immortal Li to supplement his meagre income: “They always get me to perform when someone comes.” But his main income still came from his godchildren, as it had done under Maoism. While we were in the village, one of his godchildren’s children was getting married, and when he paid a visit he was given 20 kuai; when he left they gave him mantou steamed buns, and later they gave him some clothing.

LHQ qingshen

We took him to the cave-dwelling of our host Older Brother, the sweet blind shawm player, to perform a “story for well-being” for the family, as usual inviting the gods outside in the courtyard before telling a story indoors. Though his skills were in decline, it was a memorable occasion.

Li Huaiqiang died in July 2000, falling from a narrow mountain path while on his way to another village to hang a locket. Since his death, other itinerant bards occasionally stop off to perform in the village.

He Guangwu
He Guangwu (b. c1932) is a semi-blind bard from a village west of the river, south of Mizhi town. He began to lose his sight when 15 sui (c1946), so a couple of years later he began “learning the arts” with a master from Zizhou county, mastering a dozen traditional stories—although this was supposedly a climactic period for the new stories, the old stories were being transmitted as if nothing had changed.

He married when 21 sui. Their families arranged the match; his betrothed lived in a village only two li away, but they wouldn’t let her see him, and she only discovered his disability at their wedding. Now she jokes about it and is evidently happy that the family is relatively prosperous with many great-grandchildren; we didn’t like to press her on how it had seemed then.

He had taken part in training sessions in 1955 and 1964, but his concept of his livelihood barely took official contexts into account.

His family has done well since the reforms. He is active over a small area, proudly claiming to be well known within a radius of 20 li (10 kilometres), and he hasn’t taken any disciples. But he is busy. “People still invite me, and I still go. For temple fairs, or if a donkey isn’t eating its fodder, or if a family member is on a long journey, you must invite a ‘story for well-being’; and I tell stories for opening the locket, weddings, moving into a new cave-dwelling, and sons going off to the army.” He is also busy telling fortunes and healing.

HGW and me 2001

With He Guangwu, 2001. Photo: Zhang Zhentao.

In 2001 we found He Guangwu at a small temple fair at Jijiashigou, near his home village. He had agreed to tell fortunes for a family there to help them overcome adversity, and hadn’t brought his sanxian. He agreed to tell a story for us back at his home if we took him back to the temple fair later.

Tian Zhizi
We also visited Tian Zhizi (b. c1933) at his son’s home in a little town south of Zizhou on the road to Suide. He had belonged to the Zizhou team, and also studied in the Suide team. “My eyes were no good from young—I began studying narrative-singing in 1944. My master was Wang Jialai from Zizhou county. When I learned I lived at his house—his fee was 3 dan of grain per year, and I learned for three years.” Through the War of Resistance and the War of Liberation—precisely the period when the new stories were supposedly in the ascendant—Tian supported himself by curing illness, reciting incantations, and depicting talismans.

I began telling stories in 1951, and in 1952 became chief of the Zizhou blind people’s propaganda team, which had been formed the previous year. I was chief of the team for three years; it had over 60 members. Between 1952 to 1956 I studied new stories at the Jiuzhenguan hall in Suide.

Their boss was Shang Airen, an influential cultural official in Shaanbei. Despite my suspicions, Tian recalled,

In the 1950s the peasants loved hearing new stories. The main ones I learned were “The outstanding troupe member”, “Zhang Yulan takes part in the election”, “Opposing shamans”, “The tobacco pouch”, “Mother Gui makes shoes for the army”, and “Wang Piqin takes the southern road”.

Still, through the 1950s and 60s, while the bards from the team sometimes went on tour in small groups, Tian usually went round on his own. When he was 28 sui (c1960), Tian married a girl from the same town—which he claimed was “free love’” not arranged. In 1962 he spent a period working in Yan’an with none other than Han Qixiang, earning 36 kuai a month. Later he resigned and returned home, still making a living as an itinerant bard, also telling fortunes, hanging and opening lockets—by 2001 he had over 200 godchildren.

He went on, “I have 28 disciples in all, eight in Wubu, four in Yulin, two in Shenmu, also in Yan’an, Ansai, and Bao’an [Zhidan]. I took some disciples while I was at Yan’an in 1962, others stayed at my house to learn.”

Unusually, the Cultural Revolution was a significant period of activity for blind bards, who continued to perform both in their traditional contexts and in the state groups. The latter now had a new lease of life as “Blind artists’ Mao Zedong Thought propaganda teams”. In Mizhi county, the Hall of Culture organized a dozen bards into one such team, touring villages, mines, and schools—villages without electricity, mines where accidents were routine, schools with few tables or chairs, and the whole population constantly hungry and demoralized, if you will forgive me for reminding you.

“In 1972 I was mainly taking disciples in Wubu, ‘cos the Wubu Hall of Culture invited me to come to train members for their propaganda team.” Though it was ever harder for bards to perform without the sanction of the teams, popular taste still appeared to require an escape from the relentless revolutionary diet. Tian Zhizi had claimed that the new stories were popular in the 1950s, but “from 1967 [traditional] narrative-singing was forbidden—by that time people preferred old stories, or at least they didn’t like new ones, so we bards told some old ones in the villages on the quiet.”

Other bards also told us that while they couldn’t hang the locket openly during the Cultural Revolution, for those who needed it they still did it, and they still performed in secret in the villages—the people liked to listen and protected them. Geomancers were also still furtively active.

Ironically, perhaps the worst case of penalization was revolutionary Han Qixiang himself, inactive and subject to public criticism throughout the period. As late as 1976, just as the Gang of Four was about to be arrested, he was summoned to perform in Xi’an and criticized, though by late 1977 he was well back on the road to rehabilitation, taking part again in official meetings.

Guo Xingyu
A younger blind bard more able than many to move with the times is Guo Xingyu (b.1951), with whom I spent some time in 2001. His case is quite exceptional among bards I have met, following political trends astutely while continuing to take godchildren and cure illness.

Brought up in a poor Suide village, Guo Xingyu was blind from young. He studied narrative-singing and fortune-telling for ten moons with Wang Jinkao from the age of 12 sui (c1962). He started going out on business when about 16 sui, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. “When I was young I enjoyed learning everything from my master, curing illness, depicting talismans and chanting mantras”.

When I was just starting out we mainly told old stories, though in public contexts we told bits of new stories. New ones I liked telling, before and during the Cultural Revolution, were “Fuss over an abortion”, “Eliminating transactional marriages”, “The great immortal who eats ghosts”, “Eliminating superstition”, and “The tale of the city youth returning to the countryside”.

In 1968 Guo Xingyu joined the Suide county blind peoples’ propaganda team, which had several dozen bards, divided into three or four sub-groups:

In the 60s we were issued with narrative-singing permits; we had to hand over part of our income to the Hall of Culture as “public assets”—the state also took a certain amount of training expenses, but later that stopped. In the 60s and 70s the whole county probably had about 70 or 80 bards—about 40 or 50 didn’t enter the training bands, they had to tell stories on the quiet.

Guo Xingyu even took part in official festivals in Suide, Yulin, and Xi’an; he was praised by the venerable Han Qixiang. He appeared a model bard in the new mould—little would one think that all the while he was performing stories for well-being and healing.

From 1972 I was head of the blind men’s propaganda team organized by the Suide Hall of Culture. I entered the Party in 1975, and from 1978 I was political instructor of the team. In the 1980s I composed some new propaganda-type stories on the basis of the political needs of the time, mainly things like advertising the spirit of the Party’s 12th and 14th Plenary, and birth control, like “Fuss over an abortion” and “Marrying Late”.

By 2001 the team was moribund. Guo and his (sighted) wife were dividing their time between his home village and an apartment in the suburbs of Suide town. He had rarely performed as a bard since getting heart disease around 1991; now his main livelihood was curing illness by depicting talismans and chanting incantations, and hanging and opening lockets. Relying on his traditional magic, he legitimized it with a fashionably scientific-sounding defence: “magic power is rational (fali you daoli)”.

Guo Xingyu took us to see his blind master Wang Jinkao at his village home south of Suide town (DVD §C3).

WJK, GXY heying

With (right to left) Wang Jinkao, Guo Xingyu, and Wang’s son, 2001. Photo: Tian Yaonong.

Wang (known as Niur, b. c1930) married a sighted girl in 1947; they have three sons and a daughter, all peasants in the village. Wang accompanied himself on pipa rather than sanxian. When Guo Xingyu studied with him around 1962 he was running a kind of blind school in Qingjian; he learned in a group of five or six blind boys, whose parents had to pay fees. He was one of few bards still using pipa rather than sanxian.

Wang Jinkao had had minimal contact with the new ethos: he could tell new stories like “Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang”, but if he had ever taken part in training sessions or belonged to the county team, no-one cared to remember.

As we saw, bards mostly worked solo; even when they assembled for temple fairs and New Year’s festivities, they performed in sequence, not together. But under Maoism, bards were sometimes organized into small groups to perform for non-ritual contexts.

Still, both new contexts and musical innovations remained a minor feature even through the years of Maoism, and after the “rotting of the collectives”, tradition became yet more dominant. Some new stories were still performed—on the birth-control policy, the reform and open-door policy, the private enterprise system. Some county authorities continued their efforts to organize blind performers, even trying entry by ticket. But as prices rose and more modern entertainments became popular, they resorted to more viable money-making ventures like setting up halls for video games, or classes teaching electronic keyboards.

By the 1990s the propaganda teams were virtually defunct. As one cultural cadre told us: “Later the bards didn’t want people to control them, and we didn’t have enough money anyway, so we gave up.”

Blind and sighted bards
Though Han Qixiang mentioned competition between blind and sighted bards when he was learning in the 1930s, narrative-singing in Shaanbei was largely a monopoly of blindmen, and only since the eve of the Cultural Revolution has the taboo against sighted performers been seriously challenged.

By around 2000 it was a fait accompli for sighted men to muscle in on the trade. There were fewer blind people anyway, since health has improved (though still appalling); and they could now receive modest disability benefits, or migrate in search of work as masseurs.

Nor do sighted men fear going blind any longer if they take it up. Half of Tian Zhizi’s 28 disciples were sighted—presumably those he taught since the 1970s. Although one elderly bard commented that the new disabled allowance for blind people makes them lazy, blind performers who are still active rather resented the encroachment on their “food-bowl”. “Originally sighted people weren’t allowed to tell stories—if you’re sighted you can do anything [else].” Now not only can sighted people learn, but they can even learn from tapes, saving them money but depriving senior blind bards of teaching fees.

Scholar Meng Haiping pointed out: “In the old days, bards’ social status was low; now for everyone all that counts is money, social status no longer comes into it.” This was certainly true for trendy young chuishou shawm-band musicians in the towns, but less obvious for the bards. Unlike the chuishou, bards have not spruced up their image so ambitiously, and remain quite modestly paid; nor have they yet availed themselves of the mobile-phone revolution that has occurred since about 1998. Whereas chuishou often ride motor-bikes, bards (even sighted ones) mostly go on foot.

Guo Xingyu:

Now there are sighted bards everywhere—many senior-secondary graduates, not wanting a hard life, go and tell stories. In Zizhou, Hengshan, and Yulin there are a lot of sighted bards, and there are some in Mizhi and Jiaxian too. Now there are fewer than thirty blind bards in Suide, but there are more sighted ones. They began appearing in the 1980s or 1990s, they drove the blind ones away; the blind ones were very angry about it—but the sighted ones had permits too.

He went on darkly,

Now how did that come about, then? Perhaps by bribery. Now blind artists are in great difficulties. There are more of them west of the river, but quite a few of the old artists have died; east of the river their skills aren’t quite so good.

Li Wenjin
I met sighted bard Li Wenjin (b. c1943) with Guo Yuhua in 1999 when he performed informally for staff at the office of the Black Dragon temple (on which see Adam Chau’s fine book Miraculous response), as a kind of advertisement for his arrival in the area. He comes from a village in Zizhou county. Soon after Liberation, in the early 1950s, he studied for three winters in the evenings in the “school for sweeping away illiteracy”. His parents died early, but he only began studying narrative-singing in the early 1980s, with the old blind bard in his village. His master could never find a wife: “when the five organs are incomplete, no-one will follow you”—though most of our blind mentors were exceptions. There was a libretto (benben) that he could follow—even blind performers sometimes owned a libretto. Li Wenjin was active over quite a wide area. He usually sings with his eyes closed—in imitation of blind bards?

LWJ and GYH

Guo Yuhua and temple organizers listen to Li Wenjin, Black Dragon Temple 1999.

A couple of days after meeting him at the temple where we were staying, we bumped into him on our way back there, and he invited us along to hear a “story for well-being” that evening for a family in the nearby village (see photos at head of this post).

Xu Wengong
We met another sighted bard at the White Cloud Mountain temple fair in 2001. Xu Wengong (b. c1948), from a village in Qingjian county, began learning at 17 sui [c1964] from an uncle, so the taboo was perhaps being broken down even then. He has never taken part in any county-organized teams, or learned new stories. During the Cultural Revolution he was protected by villagers as he went round performing and hanging lockets on the quiet.

Many pilgrims attend the temple fair under the auspices of a dozen or so regional associations, each with particular allegiances among the many temple gods, sponsoring different daily rituals. Apart from the daily performances of opera, bards perform in a less public and commercial arrangement that is also typical of Shaanbei temple fairs. One evening we visit the cave of the Zizhou, Qingjian, and Ansai association where Xu Wengong was performing.

He comes to this fair every year as part of this pilgrim association, in order to fulfil a vow. “My father was a model labourer, and was head of this association”—note this typically casual link between Communist and traditional authority. “He came here to take part in the rituals and made a vow, because I’d had stomach disease for twelve years, and sure enough I got better. So I’ve been coming here to fulfil the vow every year since the temple restored, to revere the great god Zhenwu; I come here to avert calamity.” Some other bards also come to the temple fair not to make money but to fulfil vows.

There is no need to “invite the gods”, since they are already present, but on the left of the cave, as you stoop to enter, is an altar behind which the bard’s red cloth pantheon is displayed (see photo above). Individual pilgrims periodically burn paper and kowtow before it. Xu Wengong performs opposite the altar, the pilgrims sitting on mats at the rear of the cave, listening intently. They consist mostly of men over 50, but even those over 60 were brought up largely under Maoism. Yet such senior men entirely represent tradition; ritual associations like this surely represent a kind of passive alternative to government control.

Baiyunshan pilgrims 2001

XWG BYS 2001

Xu Wengong, Baiyunshan 2001

Old and new stories
Despite the propaganda surrounding Han Qixiang, not only does no-one value new stories now, but few recall them being popular even under Maoism. He Guangwu recalled, “In those days, usually we’d tell a section of a new story first and then tell an old one.” Other bards like Li Huaiqiang had no time for new stories at all. He had heard “Smashing superstition” on tape at a villager’s house, but “people don’t like it, it’s not good to listen to—you can’t sing stories like that for families, only for big meetings where tickets are on sale!” He Guangwu had learned “Opposing shamans” in the training session in the 1950s, but he too commented wryly, “You can’t tell that story nowadays—that’d be blasphemy!”

Even if the popularity of new stories was highly limited, and the subjects remained traditional, Li Huaiqiang pointed out that the bards’ language had been evolving along with the language of society generally. A certain change of style, reflecting the times, had evidently left him behind.

In the old days you sang of “Lady” or “Mistress” (furen, xiaojie), now it’s “missus” (poyi); in the old days it was “setting up as a family” (chengjia), nowadays it’s “the couple have got together”, “they held hands as they walked”, “they kissed”—it’s so lacking in culture! Old people won’t listen to that stuff, in the old days it was real cultured, now it just ain’t the same. But you have to adapt yer language to the times, eh?

So why should people apparently prefer stories about events many centuries earlier to ones about their society now? Local scholar Meng Haiping explained the ability of the old stories to survive under Maoism:

Traditional stories propound truth, goodness, beauty, and filial piety (zhenshanmeixiao 真善美孝)—that is China’s traditional morality, the Party doesn’t oppose that, and doesn’t suppress it.

Though there is ample evidence to show that they did oppose it, deliberately, regarding it under headings such as “bourgeois morality”, Meng was still making a fair point—because the Party he refers to is that on the ground, where continuity is more evident in local practice than the rupture often advocated by central theory.

Having complained about the coarsening of the bards’ language, Li Huaiqiang went on to lament the changing times:

In the old days bards used to wear a robe, and a hat with a pigtail. Nowadays it’s all simplified. Then it was wagai hats, sitting at a high table; now you don’t get changed, and just sit on a stool, it’s much simpler. And the gods used to be more efficacious, they were dead efficacious—if you didn’t follow them you could die. Once someone’s son died, and the parents made a vow to beg him to come back to life, so I obeyed the gods, and he really did come back to life.

So why didn’t the new stories become popular? Sure, villagers might be conservative and escapist in their tastes, finding stories of emperors and concubines, scholars and maids, generals and outlaws more attractive than propaganda. But the new stories might have been entertaining and meaningful in the contexts of the 1940s too. The irony was that the whole purpose of the new stories since the 1940s was to address current issues of great importance to the peasantry: namely tackling endemic social problems inherited from the old society.

But problems that might be arising under the new society were not now to be publicly aired. I would surmise that villagers might have been open to new stories, but were disillusioned by their glib political correctness, their failure to reflect complex new realities. The new stories were surely rarely heard in the villages apart from at mass meetings by which people were anyway alienated. If villagers were still able to host a performer to sing to invite the gods to heal their livestock, the new stories were inappropriate. In the early period of the 1940s, they might have had considerable novelty, and even helped people confront genuine problems, like forced marriages, opium, landlord exploitation. But maybe the themes didn’t keep pace with the problems: by the 1950s their perceived problems included campaigns, collectivization, irrational directives, and thus the new items seemed false, like the propaganda itself.

Still, as we saw, the stories Han Qixiang performed on his tours in the late 1950s were often semi-improvised according to the events unfolding in the village. That is, problems such as reactionary thinking among the peasants could be ridiculed; perhaps even bourgeois thinking of local leaders; but central policy could hardly be questioned.

As to issues topical since the reforms of the 1980s, several performers mentioned stories about the birth-control policy—that is, supporting it; given its massive unpopularity, has anyone dared sing stories opposing it? If no stories have arisen dedicated to sensitive issues such as official corruption, they are doubtless subtly aired in passing, if not as flagrantly as the fictional balladeer in Mo Yan’s visceral 1988 novel The Garlic Ballads (p.73):

A prefecture head who exterminates clans,
A county administrator who wipes out families;
No lighthearted banter from the mouths of power:
You tell us to plant garlic, and that’s what we do—
So what right have you not to buy our harvest?

Since the government mounts regular poster campaigns warning of sexually transmitted diseases, even if it was slow to admit to the danger of AIDS, I wonder if the bards could now be enlisted to tell stories warning of such perils. It seems unlikely. For a hard-hitting song from blind singer Zhou Yunpeng in Beijing, see here.

At any rate, one can only be impressed by the adaptability and creativity of storytellers, and whatever the constraints on public speaking both under the communes and since the reforms, they must always rely to some extent on keeping their audience entertained with topical remarks which will strike a chord.

Note that it was the texts that the Party cadres sought to reform—the traditional melodic and rhythmic elements were not an object of their attention.

Research and images
By the 1980s, while local scholars did most of the work by contacting the bards through the urban teams, rather than accompanying them on tour, they were now concerned to document ritual aspects of the performance. People’s mind-sets had become much more free than under Maoism—one local scholar who recorded bards for the Anthology was not going to be hoodwinked into toeing the Party line by recording new stories:

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

One might see this as a political bias in itself, but I would view it as a shrewd correction of any tendency the bards might have to play safe by performing a politically-correct piece for a government representative.

Since Shaanbei is often featured romantically in the national media as a revolutionary base, brief sanitized glimpses of Shaanbei folk culture are occasionally broadcast. The standard images are yangge dancing or a cheesey folk-singer, but in 2001 I saw a young sighted man do a passable imitation of a Shaanbei bard on a national CCTV chat-show featuring the cult Shaanxi novelist Jia Pingwa.

Avant-garde Chinese artists have presented a less revolutionary image of Shaanbei. One fine antidote to Han Qixiang is the blind bard in the novella Life on a string (Ming ruo qinxian) by Shi Tiesheng (b.1951), one of many “educated youth” rusticated to a village near Yan’an in 1969 (see my Shaanbei book, pp.8–11, 76–7). This 1985 story mystically evokes the life of an itinerant blind bard and his young blind disciple:

The old man believes that when he has broken one thousand strings, he can open up his sanxian and find a prescription inside which will restore his sight. When he finally does so, the piece of paper inside is blank.

The story was made into a film by Chen Kaige (1991), director of the brilliant Yellow Earth, also showing the gulf between the harsh realities of rural life and the Party’s ideals.

Such avant-garde creations, with their mystical minimalism, are more popular outside than inside China. While far from ethnography, they at least offer an imaginative alternative to the revolutionary idealism of official sources.

You can find many video clips of Shaanbei bards online (on Chinese sites and even youtube), most but not all in a commodified style. This one, while close to the traditional setting, is clearly specially staged. In recent years Cao Bozhi 曹伯植 has published prolifically on musical aspects of the genre.

* * *

Now I also learn much from

  • Ka-ming Wu, Reinventing Chinese tradition: the cultural politics of late socialism (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Though Wu immersed herself the lives of her village hosts, she also engaged more with officialdom than I did. She was introduced to bards through the propaganda teams, which look to be more important in her region of the Shaanbei field site than in mine. So whereas bards that I met—even those who had spent periods in the training teams—found the new initiatives evanescent, she tends to take the institutional level as primary, although local variation may also play a part.

For instance, her subheading to Chapter 3 “Propaganda storytelling turned into spiritual service” puts the cart before the horse—when the latter has such a long history, and the former remains only one aspect of their activities. Following blind bard Master Xu around for a month, she gives some excellent vignettes.

She found that

He had transformed his performance into a series of clandestine religious activities and religious performances.

But this was precisely how the blindmen had always earned their living throughout history! A similar slip is

Northern Shaanxi storytelling was originally designed as part of a government-sponsored cultural enrichment mission to poverty-stricken rural areas. (104)

 In Chapter 4 Wu valuably describes danwei work-unit performances, which I hadn’t found. She shows bards’ (not always successful) search for performances in such danwei; indeed, even when a bard goes on a solo tour of the countryside she suggests a rather formal arrangement with the village leadership. Conversely, the nearest to this that any bards I met got to was when Li Wenjin announced his arrival in the area to the Black Dragon Temple temple committee—whereupon word soon spread, and household patrons came forward.

Again she shows how bards tend to open with a brief modern propaganda item (no longer based on class politics, as she notes) before launching into a more popular traditional story.

She gives some valuable translations of lyrics, both traditional and modern. Further to my comments above on stories about topical issues, she translates a remarkable item “Quality Control System Spread to Millions” warning against fake consumer goods, performed at a factory; and the 2008 “Alleviate Earthquake Disaster, Look Forward to the Olympics, Increase Productivity” for a staff appreciation event.

While she notes that such national and government messages were overshadowed by the traditional stories that followed them, she reminds us to pay attention to the mutual interpenetration and agenda contestation among the local state, danwei, and folk cultural practitioners.

She finds that storytelling

neither resists nor colludes with the state; nor does it cater to urban tourism or consumption.

And she observes acutely:

Instead of attributing the spiritual revival to a simple return to the storytelling tradition from before the 1940s, I relate it to the huge movement of labor, objects, and emotions between the rural and urban areas.
[…]
My point is not that northern Shaanxi folk storytelling has revived because of depressing rural economic conditions. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the revival of storytelling practice becomes one of the rare social and communal occasions for rural villagers to get together where they can openly discuss all kinds of major rural developmental contradictions: lack of elderly care, split households, and youth who find no career development in remote rural hometowns and who encounter much difficulty surviving in cities.
In short, folk storytelling occasions are valuable not so much because villagers are getting more religious or that the practice is a time-honored heritage. Rather, folk storytelling has become what Megan Moodie called “platforms for articulation”, where local citizens draw traditional cultural resources to discuss pressing concerns of split households among left-behind elderly and young wives in remote communities in a translocal age. (101–102)

 Despite these areas for discussion, when she writes so perceptively such variations in focus are welcome.

Conclusion
Despite the substantial material published on Communist reforms of narrative-singing, and ethnomusicologists’ eager search for change and modernization, it was hard while observing daily life in Shaanbei around 2000 to credit the Party’s reform programme with much long- (or even short-) term influence.

As Guo Yuhua observes, people remained loyal to their traditional concept of local village culture rather than to the state. Though state-funded troupes are undoubtedly an aspect of overall activity, this point appears to be of wide relevance for ritual activity and expressive culture in the Chinese countryside today, and for our understanding of modern China.

If the bards are now threatened by the recent spread of TV and pop music, they are still in demand for their “stories for well-being” as well as for their healing skills. While they do assemble for public rituals like temple fairs and New Year, they mostly perform solo. From the 1940s, a disjuncture emerged between the secular political performances of the official teams and the rituals of the solo bards. Narrative-singing has perhaps become a lesser aspect of the blindmen’s activities than their godfather and healing duties. Indeed, since sighted bards do not necessarily learn the healing arts of blind men, a potential divorce also looms between narrative-singing and healing—all the more since people can now learn stories by listening to commercial tapes.

My point is not to belittle official efforts, either in the cultural or political spheres. But we should avoid basing our assessments either on the new stories of Han Qixiang or on a simple revival or reinvention since around 1980. As Ju Xi comments, criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.

The Party never managed to “eliminate superstition”, but complex social and economic changes continued to affect ritual life and expressive culture both under Maoism and since the reforms. Studying their changing fortunes in such a society requires a nuanced approach.

 

[1] This article is based on Part Two of my book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, (where you can find further refs. and characters)—note §C of the accompanying DVD. See also my “Turning a blind ear: bards of Shaanbei”, Chinoperl 27 (2007); Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen 声漫山门, pp.353–79. I use the term “bard” for convenience, and to hint at their broader ritual duties.