Social issues in rural Hunan

mine

Though my main focus is north China (see under Local ritual), I’ve introduced work on expressive culture in Hunan province, as well as Daoism and famine there.

Meanwhile the society of Hunan has seen constant change. The bleak documentary

  • Miners, the horsekeeper, and pneumoconiosis 矿民, 马夫, 尘肺病 by independent director Jiang Nengjie 蒋能杰 (b.1985)

has caused a sensation, with free viewing online in China and on YouTube—further evidence of the resilience of the independent cinema movement since its 1990s’ heyday:

Among interviews, see e.g. herehere, and (in Chinese) here. [1]

The documentary was filmed from 2010 to 2018 in the mountains of Hunan, where Jiang’s own family suffered from the dangers of the privately-run illegal mining industry. Under conditions that are anyway destructive to health, with lung disease rife, unauthorised explosives and mining disasters are routine. Despite local government attempts to control such mines, official corruption is chronic; and for all the general progress since the 1980s, such rural dwellers take a cynical view of the state poverty-alleviation project.

Zhao Pinfeng

The film ends movingly with the funeral of former miner Zhao Pinfeng (1968–2018), with a band of blowers and drummers (and a brass band for the burial procession) but no Daoists. It makes a stark reminder of the human cost at stake in what ethnographers and sinologists do as they affirm the ancient grandeur of tradition—cf. my comments on a similar scene from Gansu in Wang Bing’s Dead souls, with the wailing shawm band reflecting the anguish of the kin.

* * *

Jiang Nengjie had already made a series of documentaries on the left-behind children in his native region—including The road, Children at a village school, The ninth grade, Jiayi, and Junior Three, mostly available on Vimeo. For broader approaches to documenting the left-behind children, see e.g. here, and wiki.

It’s hard to reconcile harsh social realities like mining and migration with research on the continuing “vibrancy” of Daoist ritual in Hunan (cf. my query here about young people being keen to become household Daoists). As I’ve noted, the study of Daoist ritual may seem like an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry.

Since the 1980s the great majority of adult villagers in Hunan have left for migrant labour in Guangdong, and those that remain are vulnerable—surely all this should feature prominently in our discussions? The defence of sinologists might be that they focus on the culture of the pre-modern period; yet in addition to library work on ancient texts, it is precisely their own fieldwork in this changing society that has enriched the topic so greatly. Hence the shift of ethnographers like the great Guo Yuhua towards the plight of the “sufferers”. This is not to suggest that we should all become social activists: rather, as I suggested in Epidemics in a Chinese county, that cultural studies should bear social issues in mind.

 

[1] Mining is a theme in the feature films of Jia Zhangke set in central Shanxi, such as Platform—from a contract: “Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven. I am willing to work in Gaojiazhuang mine. Management accepts no blame for accidents.” Even nearer to my base in north Shanxi are the mines around Shuozhou—and Datong, subject of a recent article, with links including this documentary.

Just west of Beijing, ritual groups in the Mentougou district, within the ambit of the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, have traditionally served mining communities, which have suffered from recent closures. Meanwhile, with typical neglect of the gritty realities of changing society, village ritual groups there (such as Qianjuntai 千军台) have been conscripted into the Intangible Cultural Heritage shtick. Further to studies by Bao Shixuan 包世轩, Han Tongchun 韩同春 and others, I look forward to a detailed forthcoming book by the splendid Ju Xi 鞠熙, fully addressing the mining context—meanwhile, see this brief notice.

Fanyue

Source here.

One might compare the fate of brass bands in the north of England as representatives of local culture since the mine closures under Thatcher.

 

 

 

Navigation: local ritual

To help those interested in ritual to navigate around this labyrinthine site:

apart from the numerous posts (under MY BLOG), the menu at the top also contains pages, of which I’d like to draw attention to the many detailed field reports on local ritual under the Themes menu:

Local ritual menu

and there’s more if you keep scrolling down that sub-menu!

Most of them refer to household ritual groups in particular counties of Shanxi and Hebei, with further notes from elsewhere around north China—outlining their histories, artefacts, and ritual sequences for funerals and temple fairs. You can also explore the sidebar for the various categories (albeit voluminous) and tags. But these field reports under local ritual are a basic resource.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Ritual performers, North Xinzhuang 1959.

Posts on south China, collected under the south China tag (in addition to the south China subhead of the ritual category!), are more diverse.

Also in the menu is the Playlist—with commentary on the tracks contained in the Music player as you scroll down in the sidebar beneath the categories. The other pages to the right of the menu are worth exploring too, like the other material under Themes, and the Other publications and WAM sub-menus. And then, in the sidebar, there’s always the searchbox…

Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public

Flann O’Brien

 

Coronavirus in China: four posts

LWL

To date I’ve published four posts on Coronavirus in China—two featuring songs critical of the official response, and two on local ritual activity. How strange it now seems to reflect that when I wrote these, the virus seemed like a distant problem.

  • Here I feature a song by blind bard Liu Hongquan in Shanxi, mourning whistleblower Li Wenliang—also including a harrowing account of rural poverty
  • and this post has some fine songs by Gansu singer Zhang Gasong, with a note on the traditional morality tales he studied with senior blind bards.

I made a digested version of these two posts into an article for the stimulating online magazine First of the Month, and an edited Italian version appears in the journal Sinosfere, also worth consulting.

  • Moving on to ritual life, here I explore temple activity behind closed doors in Sichuan
  • and this post details the uninterrupted activity of individual household Daoists in north Shanxi, “serving the people” as they meet the constant demand for routine burial services. In a recent update, I note that the full ritual sequence, with the whole Daoist group performing funeral liturgy, has now been restored.

See also under Navajo ritual and musical culture.

 

Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards

LWL

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

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

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slogan

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

LHQ book

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

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

ZQ pic

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

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

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

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

TQ

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LWL lyrics

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

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

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

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


Appendix

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

church murals

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

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

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

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

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

 

Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.

Categories

The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

A new volume on Chinese religion

Cover

  • Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Jibian rujiao: jinshi Zhongguode zongjiao rentong 激辩儒教:近世中国的宗教认同 [Provocations to Confucianism: identifying religion in modern China] (2019).

In a recent volume in a series on “New Historiography”, the ever-industrious Cao Xinyu assembles substantial articles by international scholars on a variety of topics on Chinese religion, illuminating broad, long-term trends with detailed studies. In the tradition of Chinese scholarship, it’s based on “salvage” studies of the late imperial and Republican eras, and on texts rather than performance.

Rain ritual《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图

Cao Xinyu sets the tone with a substantial introduction, setting forth from a Song-dynasty rain ritual to explore the Catholic encounter with Chinese religion through the Qing rites controversy.

The chapters are grouped under four main headings. Philip Clart and Cao Xinyu explore grassroots Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China. Articles by Vincent Goossaert, Masaru Yamada 山田贤, and Wang Jianchuan discuss spirit-writing and charitable associations, and Zhang Chaoran contributes a substantial essay on Daoist ritual in history. For Shanxi, Yao Chunmin writes on changing village boundaries, and Henrietta Harrison on Catholic and local healing practices. Further afield, Takeuchi Fusaji 武内房司 discusses folk religion among communities of Chinese origin in South Vietnam. Finally Prasenjit Duara outlines the histories of religion and secularism in Europe, China, and Japan.

For recent English-language volumes on Chinese religion, note the surveys of Adam Yuet Chau and Ian Johnson, as well as the classic study of C.K. Yang.

Blind shawm players of Yanggao

Liuru

Liuru, 2003.

To follow my post on the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, here I’d like to expand my article on shawm bands in China to introduce further some of those from whom I learned in Yanggao county—based on my book

  • Music and ritual of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi (2007)
    (which, need I add, is available in paperback, with its fine DVD complementing my film on Li Manshan! See also here).

As you read this, do also listen to the amazingly complex, visceral suites that the Yanggao shawm bands (here known as gujiang 鼓匠) performed for folk ceremonial through turbulent times right until the 21st century (Dissolving boundaries, and ##5 and 11 of the Playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

* * *

As throughout the world, blind musicians in China have been much praised, from the ancient Master Kuang to the Daoist beggar Abing; but their real lives are far from such hagiography. By contrast with Shaanbei, or indeed further south in Shanxi, (see n.2 here), where blind boys might find a livelihood either through solo narrative-singing or by taking part in shawm bands (again, for Shaanbei, see here, under “Expressive culture”), in north Shanxi the latter made a more common career path.

The gujiang bands of Yanggao county commonly included blind players. By 1958 Yanggao town had three bands, one led by blindman Song Chengxin (c1921–76), a disciple of Chen Gang in Anjiaxiang lane. But town players were reluctant to accept disciples from outside their own family, and two of the blind players we met sought their apprenticeship in nearby Xiejiatun village.

1991 funeral

Blind shawm players, Greater Antan village funeral 1991.

I found blind shawm players among a group at a village funeral in 1991, and there were still three distinguished blind gujiang in Yanggao town in 2003. But by then, along with slight but significant improvements in healthcare, there were now fewer younger blind men and thus fewer blind gujiang. Although the senior Erhur and Yin San still managed to lead bands by dint of their seniority and support network, other blind gujiang were less able to keep up with the times, and it was becoming a less likely profession for blind boys.

Liuru
By 2003, the most senior gujiang in the county-town, Li Liuru (c1931–2007, known simply by his given name Liuru; photo above), was pitiable. His eyes went bad when he was 4 sui. His poor family was always on the move, renting rooms. He “did nothing” at home till “learning gujiang” around 18 sui (c1948), but he really liked listening to gujiang before he took it up. He learned with the band in Xiejiatun village just north of the town, a distinguished group whose most famous player in modern times was Yu Fucai (c1925–68). Liuru studied as an apprentice in the Xiejiatun band for three years, and then did another three years for free (“studying three years, repaying three years”), as tradition prescribed; when there wasn’t much business, he played for other bands too, but Yu Fucai’s band was most in demand.

Liuru stopped playing in the Great Leap Forward “because the officials wouldn’t let us play”, and he apparently then played little until after the Cultural Revolution. He only played the lower part, and was not regarded as an outstanding gujiang. Liuru had four brothers and sisters, but they were “all useless”, and the family had no contact. He did manage to find a wife, though, when he was almost 30—also blind, she was a water-seller. The fate of blind girls was even more pitiable: their only hope was begging, and their life expectancy was even shorter than that of blind men.

Erhur
Another young blindman who apprenticed himself to Yu Fucai was Erhur (real name Wang Hui, b.1946). A wonderful man, he has a deep knowledge of the “old rules” and an exceptional love for music: his face becomes a pool of adoration when he recites the gongche solfeggio outlines of the old suites.

Erhur 2003

Erhur, 2003.

Like Liuru, Erhur’s family lived in Yanggao town. He went blind at the age of 3 sui. When he was 12 sui his mother took him to a hospital in Datong; realizing his sight couldn’t be cured, he resolved to seek a way of making a living. They then bought a dizi flute for 36 fen at a Datong stationery shop (there were no instrument shops then). “It took me ages to get a note out of it, but once I did, I didn’t dare take it from my lips,” he recalled. “I played anything I heard, popular folk-song melodies like Anbanshang kaihua.”

Neighbours knew Erhur played well, so one New Year the neighbourhood committee asked him to represent them for a secular county festival. He was a bit apprehensive, but played. There were also an erhu player and a banhu player who played a version of the popular folk-song Wuge fang yang 五哥放羊. He tried to play along with them but found he couldn’t. The erhu player explained it was all to do with tuning! Still, he won a prize of 20 jin of frozen radishes, then worth the princely sum of 2.5 kuai.

This strengthened Erhur‘s resolve to take up music, so he bought a rudimentary erhu in Yanggao town, made from a tin and a stick, costing 4 mao. He soon picked it up, and began getting the hang of scales. He still wanted to learn more instruments. Around 1959, when he was 14 sui, he bought a decrepit sheng mouth-organ for 10 kuai. After taking it home and piecing it together, he began practising “small pieces” like Shifan. All this, remember, at the height of the Great Leap Forward and famine, which were not part of Erhur’s account.

Erhur first spent some time learning with a gujiang called Siban (surname Zhang) in Jinjiazhuang village—for whose band the renowned yinyang household Daoist Liu Zhong also played occasionally when ritual business was sparse during the Cultural Revolution. But after hearing Yu Fucai’s band doing a funeral in town, Erhur asked his parents if he could switch over to Yu as “disciple transferring to another household” (guomen tudi). By this time Yu Fucai was the “main beam” (zhengliang 正梁) of the Yu family band in Xiejiatun village. His fee to take a disciple was 100 kuai a year. Erhur lived at Yu’s house around twenty days a month—the learning process naturally involves taking on the whole gujiang lifestyle. Masters had no way of teaching, pupils just picked it up as they went along; Erhur could only hear his master playing when they performed for ceremonials. He learned along with his master’s oldest son; they got along well at first, but then when Erhur learned faster, the son was always getting criticized, so their relationship deteriorated. Every morning the son was reluctant to get out of bed and go with Erhur into the fields to practise; while Erhur practised, the son would go and look for firewood to make a fire to keep warm.

Yu Fucai’s gujiang father was a hard case, always conning, robbing, and beating people up. He spent some time in prison and eventually, in the 1940s, got his head smashed in with a hammer. Before Liberation gujiang were commonly given opium to smoke by the host family to help them play better. But Erhur knew that addiction was a danger—he had heard of gujiang who had to sell their roof-beams or demolish their outhouse in order to get a fix. Yu Fucai himself had been locked up in an opium-prevention cell for a year soon after Liberation, still only in his teens, and by the time Erhur was studying with him, opium was hard to come by.

As collectivization began to be implemented from 1954, many Yanggao people took refuge further north. Two of Yu Fucai’s uncles fled to Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and there are still many craftsmen from Yanggao around Hohhot and Baotou.

Yu Fucai had eight children, a heavy responsibility. Erhur had to ask him to recite the gongche solfeggio in the evenings after he got back from the fields. In the mornings after he had practised, he would do chores for his master like milling, fetching water, and ploughing. There were so many mouths to feed that all the flour you milled in a morning was only enough for one meal. In 2003 three of Yu Fucai’s sons, as well as a nephew, were still active as gujiang in Xiejiatun.

Erhur 2003.2

Session at Xiejiatun, 2003.

If all was not all sweetness and light in the Hua family band, gujiang relations in Xiejiatun sound still more fraught. Several gujiang from Xiejiatun apprenticed themselves to the Hua family: one Erxianr (surname Xie) from Xiejiatun got into a feud with the Yu family, so he made a point of antagonizing them by going over to Hua Fa as “disciple crossing the gate”. Another blindman, Duan Guanming (b. c1927, known as Liuzhi “Six fingers” as he had an extra finger on one hand), also came from Xiejiatun, but got on better with Hua Yinshan than with the Yu family—we found him playing in Hua Yinshan’s band in 1991.

DGM1

Duan Guanming on woodblock, 1991.

Erhur came back to the county-town when he was 18 sui (c1963) to set up his own band, taking disciples. Hua Yinshan didn’t mention this, but in his teens he sometimes played for Erhur’s band these next couple of years; he only played sheng at first, but was beginning to get the hang of the shawm too. There was also a great player in Erhur’s band called Little Jinxi (surnamed Wang), from nearby Qingshunbu. For the operatic pieces played in the afternoon of funerals, he used to play two kouqin whistles at once, making a big sound that drew the crowds. He died on the eve of the Cultural Revolution aged only 41 sui, coughing up blood in the middle of playing—an alarmingly common and prestigious way for shawm players to die.

Yin San
Meanwhile, another blindman was “learning gujiang” in the town. Like Erhur, Yin San (b. c1947) played dizi flute when young. He began learning shawm from 16 sui (c1962) with the blind town gujiang Song Chengxin. Yin San also studied at some stage with a gujiang in Wangguantun township, learning the gongche solfeggio of the shawm pieces from him—which he later forgot.

6 LR,YS

Yin San (right) with Liuru, 2003.

Yin San and Erhur both had town registration, and were blind, so they did not have to apply for leave of absence from any production-team or hand over any money to them, unlike village-registered gujiang. Moreover, their ceremonial activities were tolerated more readily by cadres; blindmen could put all their energies into being gujiang, so they could do well. Yin San recalled that in the early 1960s a band got around 5 kuai for an afternoon, 8 kuai for playing all day, 10 kuai including the burial procession next morning. Erhur claimed that while most bands could earn about 12 kuai a day, his own band was so admired that he could charge 22 kuai. In fact payments were only calculated in terms of cash, they were still paid in food: peanuts or gao paste, 1 jin or half a jin each per day—Yu Fucai’s hemp sack was tough from the oil.

But even sighted village bands could still get permission from their production-team to go out on business. The Xiejiatun band earned a dozen kuai a day then, of which they had to give the commune 1.5 kuai each day they were away, in return for one whole work-point each. The band boss Yu Fucai took 15 shares of the fee plus 10 shares for providing the instruments, while everyone else got 10 shares. Yu only used one or two musicians from outside his own family, so it was worth it. Doing funerals they got to eat out for free too, and didn’t have to till the communal fields all the time, so it was a better life than being a peasant.

Still, I can’t quite build a consistent picture from such accounts of gujiang business before the Cultural Revolution. They articulated no clear distinction between the various periods from 1949 to 1966, though I surmise that business must have been easier before collectivization around 1954, and again briefly during the lull in campaigns from around 1961 to 1964. Yin San claimed rosily, “Before the Cultural Revolution business was even better than today, around twenty days a month—there weren’t so many gujiang then, so there was more work to go round.” But he only took part in the life from the early 1960s.

Conversely, Liuru, who was trying to make a living through the 1950s, said times were tough. Erhur pointed out that there was less business under Maoism than either before Liberation or since the 1980s reforms, because people had less money; one death provided no more than three days’ work in all, whereas earlier and later, taking into account all the subsidiary observances before and after the funeral proper, it might provide up to ten days’ work. He reckoned that in the 1950s, bands might go out on business seven or eight times a month, or “every three days or so”.

They agreed that despite all the famine deaths around 1960, there wasn’t so much business then—if people had any money at all, they’d buy something to eat, not invite gujiang. Liuru recalled that for funerals during the famine years, people could only put out a couple of mantou bread rolls on the altar table before the coffin; whenever there was a death, work-teams turned up to prevent gujiang playing and stop the family burning paper spirit-money, on pain of a fine. Indeed, in Yanggao the famine continued until at least 1965, and people were hungry right into the late 1970s. Still, I think we have to assume a slight and temporary improvement in people’s lives in the early 1960s when Erhur and Yin San set up in business.

The Hua band
In Yangjiabu village just north of the county-town, Hua Fa (1917–87), father of Yinshan and Jinshan, was much admired as a gujiang. His nickname was “Heavenly dragon” (Tianlong); soon he was simply known as “Great gujiang” (Da gujiang). He was also known as “Sighted Fifth brother” (Zhengyan wugar) or “False Fifth brother” (Jia wugar), by contrast with another famous blind gujiang in Zhenmenbu village just further east called “Blind Fifth brother” (Xia wugar, surnamed Xue) or “True Fifth brother” (Zhen wugar)—“true” and “false” alluding to the fictional character Monkey. There was no love lost between rival bands: “True Fifth brother” was murdered by a rival gujiang while they were performing for a funeral in the 1940s.

Hua Yinshan’s second uncle Hua Yi, known as “Second gujiang” (Er gujiang), also smoked opium. Their drummer was a blind man—Hua Fa was also a fine drummer. The celebrated gujiang Little Jinxi, from nearby Qingshunbu, sometimes played for Hua Fa band as well as for Erhur. The Hua band had a long-standing feud with the Xiejiatun band, though some Xiejiatun men preferred to come over to Hua Fa’s band, like blindman Duan Guanming, long a regular recruit. Another disciple of Hua Fa was known as “Second Dragon” (Erlong), from Yaozhuang village just east.

Duan Guanming accompanying Hua Yinshan in trick repertoire, 1991:
note Yinshan’s cloistered daughter.

Hua Yinshan claimed he became the “main beam” of the family band on large shawm from the age of 17 sui (c1964). He had heard the classic suites in the family band for many years, but had apparently only just begun playing them on large shawm.

Hua Yinshan was also working with several other bands in this period, with his father’s blessing, as the family needed all the work they could find. He spent some time in the bands of blindmen Erhur and Yin San, both based in the county-town, playing the lower part on shawm, as well as the sheng mouth-organ and the drum. As we saw, Erhur was a disciple of Yu Fucai’s band in Xiejiatun; the Yu band had a long-standing feud with the Hua band, but there was always some interplay.

Apart from the county-town and the villages of Yangjiabu and Xiejiatun, nearby Guanjiabu was the base of another fine gujiang band. The senior gujiang Shi Youtang (d. c1998) had a blind disciple called Shi Zhenfu, a distant relative of his (though their surnames were different Shi characters); he was known as Errenr “Two people”! Both led bands into the 1980s. Another blindman from Guanjiabu, called Yinhur (surname Li), became a disciple of Hua Fa.

Hua Yinshan told me the story of his father’s no.1 large shawms. In the 1940s a blindman called Chanxi in Guanjiabu wanted to buy a pair of shawms. An itinerant shawm maker called Wang Lianguo had moved from Yuxian in Hebei to Chenjiabu, near Yangjiabu. He went to Chanxi’s house to sell him a pair of shawms—this would have been around 1945, when Hua Fa was in his early 30s, between the births of Jinshan and Yinshan. But Chanxi didn’t know how to choose them, so he asked Hua Fa to help him. After Chanxi died, he left the wooden bodies of his shawms to his daughter, who later sold them to Yinshan.

Over twenty-six days in 1989, as part of their work for the Anthology, the Yanggao Bureau of Culture used their limited equipment to make a whole series of precious cassette recordings of the most distinguished shawm bands, including those of the Hua family, Shi Ming in Wangguantun, and Yang Deshan (father of Yang Ying) in Gucheng, as well as the bands of Xiejiatun, Guanjiabu, Luowenzao township, Qingshunbu, and Greater Antan (see my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.49).

Li Zhonghe
South of the county-town in Shizitun township, yet another celebrated blind gujiang was based in Yaozhuang village. Li Zhonghe (1908–88), known as Second Kid (Erwa 二娃), went blind at the age of 5 or 6 after an itinerant doctor tried to cure his ailing eyes by putting eggshell over them. Li Zhonghe learnt sheng and shawm from 15 sui, sometimes making up a band with an outstanding gujiang called Wantai (surnamed Cui) from Zhouguantun village nearby. Li had two younger colleagues (shidi) in his village, the brothers Fan Liang and Fan Gao.

Around 1952, after the death of Li Zhonghe’s first wife, he married a widow who already had a son and daughter. The son Li Bin (b.1945, not the same as his namesake, Li Manshan’s son!) played percussion in his stepfather’s band from around 1955, and began learning sheng and shawm, as well as gongche solfeggio, with him about four years later. Li Bin claimed his stepfather’s band didn’t stop playing through the Great Leap Forward or the ensuing famine.

Since the reforms
The collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s allowed an impressive revival of tradition (for the Daoists, see e.g. here). But by 2003 the scene was changing further. Erhur was still leading a band, having readily taken pop on board. He and his wife made a handsome couple, and had a lovely clean household in town—though their son, who managed to enter the police force despite (or by dint of?) a dubious reputation, was a worry. Erhur claimed to be able to perform the three suites that we couldn’t track down; but he was later reluctant to recite or perform them for us, perhaps worrying about my relationship with his rival Hua Yinshan.

Yin San, also married, was getting 90 kuai a month from the government disability benefit, and still led a band, usually playing cymbals. Of his two pupils, the younger had been with him for eight years. They could play the few traditional pieces still required for rituals, and Yin San felt no need to transmit the ones that weren’t. After his fine drummer Ling Dawenr (b. c1924) retired, Hua Jinshan had no competition.

Liuru hadn’t played since around 1988. Now he reckoned that only sighted people could do business (chixiang 吃香, a common term for popularity)—no-one wanted blind people any more. Erhur and Yin San were still doing well by adapting; they were a bit younger, more enterprising, and had more of a reputation as musicians. But he was right that in a cut-throat pop market, blindmen were no longer able to hold their own as gujiang without a solid support network.

The decrepit little shack where we found Liuru living in 2003 had been his “base area” for over thirty years; he bought it with the little money that remained when his parents died. His registration was at Xibei village commune, from whom he got 60 kuai a month benefit; as an urban resident his wife (also blind) got 90 kuai. Since giving up the shawm in 1990 Liuru had survived by begging the left-overs from restaurants, but led a pitiful life. He had no contact with his brothers and sisters, and just before we met him his wife had “gone crazy” and he had seen fit to lock her in an outhouse.

Such is the disturbing fate of a lovely senior musician who could still recite the gongche solfeggio of the eight suites more fluently than any other gujiang in the area. Listening to him as he sat cross-legged on the kang brick-bed which takes up most of the space in his pathetic little room, his eyes vacant yet placid as he spoke with dignity and insight of his days as gujiang, would be an upsetting experience for the most hardened fieldworker.

Li Zhonghe’s stepson Li Bin is an exceptional case. Unusually for a gujiang family, Li Bin did quite well in school. Though intermittently active as gujiang through the early years of the Cultural Revolution, around 1970 he went off to work in the coal mines of Datong city, becoming a cadre there, only resuming gujiang business again when he retired in 1996.

Li Zhonghe had taken up as a gujiang again after the reforms, and was still playing right until his death in 1988. He had a blind disciple (younger brother of talented young yinyang Wu Mei) who showed great promise as a gujiang, but he had only been learning for a few months when Li Zhonghe died. Li Bin now wanted to complete his stepfather’s mission in helping him learn, but the disciple soon decided against becoming a gujiang. However, Li Bin soon found another promising disciple.

By 2003 Li Bin had handed over the leadership of the band to Yu He (Quanmin, b. c1960) who played drum and yangqin; he only took up the business after being demobbed from the army in 1984. So the band was now based at Yu He’s home of Fanjiatun village nearby in Tianzhen county. Yu He’s son Chunbo (known as Bobo, like Hua Yinshan’s grandson; b. c1987) became Li Bin’s only pupil, learning since 2001. Li Bin could afford to be choosy; his criterion for accepting a pupil was that they have to be “of good character” (renpin)—an unlikely demand for a gujiang. After leaving primary school, Bobo “wasn’t interested in anything”, so his dad took him along with the band to show him how tough it was making a living; but Bobo fell in love with the life and became a brilliant musician. Though he mainly played pop, Li Bin also taught him pieces from the traditional repertory.

Da Li Bin 2003

Li Bin (left) with Wu Fan, 2003.

Li Bin is at a certain remove from the tradition, far more educated than most gujiang, and quite articulate. Living in Yanggao county-town, his house is comfortable, and the family is quite well-off. His wife became a Protestant around 1993; Li Bin was still at the mines, and she had a tough time having to look after their three children all alone, with no-one to talk to. Li Bin (not himself a believer) sometimes set Protestant lyrics to pop songs for her to use in church. Sincere and curious to study local traditions, he made a rather ideal co-fieldworker.

We saw how gujiang, outcasts in the “old society”, have gradually become rather more assimilated into society, first by being forced into a sedentary agricultural life under the communes, and then by the equality brought by earning power since the reforms. Along with their outcast status before Maoism came a lack of education or upward mobility. Among gujiang families, Li Bin was exceptional in doing relatively well at school, and even more so in finding a job as a cadre. Still more surprising is that having apparently escaped from the lowly life, he then chose to return to it after retirement. In his case, apart from supplementing his pension and giving him something to do, he feels a genuine enthusiasm for the music he learnt from his stepfather in his youth, only tempered now by its rapid loss under the assault of pop music.

Meanwhile Li Bin has been painstakingly making emic transcriptions of his father’s repertoire (both the suites and the many “little pieces” also formerly required for particular ritual segments), writing a 126-page score with parallel gongche solfeggio and cipher notation. While scholars (myself included) have transcribed the Yanggao shawm suites, this is a unique labour of love from a performer.

Very few gujiang could graduate to the world of urban troupes (for Shi Ming’s brief sojourn in Datong, see here), and while most sons of gujiang were now inclined to seek a more respectable profession, other poor village boys might still see it as a better option than tilling the fields—all the more now that learning pop music is less demanding than the traditional training. Today gujiang bands are often in the age-range of 15 to 45. Their main repertory is pop, besides Jinju and Errentai opera pieces and a dwindling repertory of traditional shawm pieces still required to maintain a façade of ceremonial propriety.

Li Sheng

Li Sheng, 2018.

The two Li families (those of Li Zhonghe and the Li family Daoists) have long been on good terms. The great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s, when Daoist ritual was on hold. Li Bin’s younger stepbrother Li Sheng (b.1954) learnt suona and sheng from his early 20s upon the revival, spending some years as disciple of Hua Yinshan. He did some petty trade in Datong, as well as doing, returning around 2000. Gradually he gravitated to playing sheng with the Li family Daoists; he has long been a regular member of Li Manshan’s band.

I introduced Zhang Quan, a rather younger semi-blind gujiang in Pansi village whom I’m always happy to see, in these vignettes of the diverse personalities from whom we learned in Yanggao.

* * *

In some other parts of north China (like the Northeast, or Shandong) shawm bands have long and prestigious hereditary traditions, but here, as in Shaanbei, few bands can trace their history back more than three generations—though their classic suite repertoire is more ancient. Note that rather few gujiang live to old age; until the 1950s many were blind, smoked opium, and died young, and it is still quite unusual to find gujiang still playing in their 60s; anyway, opium-smoking blindmen from a despised caste found it hard to set up a family. By the early 21st century senior gujiang were still happy to take disciples, but as it is a low-status occupation they didn’t necessarily encourage their own sons to learn, hoping they would get an education and a proper job instead. If this is true today, there was less choice in the past, with education even rarer and job opportunities fewer.

While sighted players also deserve recognition as gujiang, and suffered from similar discrimination, blindmen formed the core of many Yanggao bands right until the 1990s. Since then they have become less common, along with the whole rich culture of shawm bands in north Shanxi.

But I still cherish the memory of these blind shawm players—outcasts who embodied the wealth of traditional folk culture that somehow survived down to the eve of the 21st century, dovetailing with the rituals of the household Daoists. With their deep experience of the “old rules” of ceremonial, far from the abstruse erudition of the literati who dominate sinology, they were among the main transmitters of imperial Chinese culture, who should be esteemed.

 

 

 

 

A secret language in north Shanxi

6 LR,YS

Blind shawm players Liuru (left) and Yinsan, Yanggao town 2003.

The use of Verlan backslang in Engrenages/Spiral reminded me of a fascinating secret oral language in north Shanxi. I’ve mentioned it en passant in my writings, but since I can’t seriously expect readers to follow up such links, it deserves a post to itself.

Known as “black talk” (heihua), it belongs to the wider family of insiders’ languages used by marginal social groups and tradespeople. [1] In north Shanxi it was spoken mainly by the members of outcast shawm bands (here called gujiang 鼓匠 rather than the common chuigushou), illiterate and often blind—mainly, but not entirely, for secrecy. Here I cite the section in

  • Wu Fan 吴凡, Yinyang, gujiang 阴阳鼓匠 (2007),
    Yuebande heihua” 乐班的黑话, pp.119–25.

During her fieldwork in Yanggao county Wu Fan—a native of Wuhan in Hubei—latched onto this arcane vocabulary with amazing alacrity (for her own skills in punning with Daoists, see here). Meanwhile, local scholar Chen Kexiu (to whom we may credit the “discovery” of the Yanggao Daoists and shawm bands), brought up in Yanggao, published an article incorporating the wider region of north Shanxi:

  • Chen Kexiu 陈克秀, “Yanbei guchuiyue yirende heihua” 雁北鼓吹乐艺人的黑话, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2007.4.

The terms for numbers (used mainly to discuss money and fees: Table 2–5 below) were still common until recently. They describe verbally the components of a character, just as Chinese people do routinely when explaining in conversation which character to use, like koutian wu 口天吴 for the surname Wu 吴, or wenwu bin 文武斌 for the given name Bin 斌.

heihua

Above: numbers; below: instruments.

To explain a few instances:

  •  1:  yi 一 becomes dinggai 丁盖, “the cover of the character ding 丁”
  •  2:  er 二 becomes konggong 空工, “the character gong 工 emptied”
  •  3: san 三 becomes chuan 川, rotating the character 90 degrees
  •  7:  qi 七 becomes zaodi 皂底, “the base of the character zao 皂”
  •  8:  ba 八 becomes fengai 分盖 “the cover of the character fen 分”
  • 10: shi 十 becomes tianxin 田心, “the heart of the character tian 田”.

What is remarkable here is that this style is used by illiterate, often blind, shawm players. The theory is that blind men, unable to see who might be listening to their conversation, needed a language where they needn’t fear saying something indiscreet, such as offending their patrons. Yet it’s a highly visual language; I wondered how it came into being. After all, even illiterate blindmen could be told how some characters were written; but you don’t have to know the etymology of words in order to use them!

One might suppose that these terms would be more widespread, but I haven’t found other instances yet. At the same time, another vocabulary for numbers (in various written forms) was in common use here—as around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
刘 (流) 王 (汪) 挠 (神) 斜 (心) 内 (爱)

Throughout China, folk musicians commonly use local terms for their instruments (Table 2–6 above); such names are still used in Yanggao and elsewhere (cf. other areas such as Shaanbei). The derivation of the insiders’ terms for repertoire (Table 2–7 below) is obscure; again, the stimulus was perhaps secrecy—to avoid their choices being understood by their patrons. But these terms seem to have become largely obsolete, along with the repertoire itself (for the searing complexity of which, see here).

heihua 2

Above: titles of shawm suites; below: terms in daily life.

Expressions for daily life (Table 2–8 above) include huoyin 火因 for yan 烟 “smoke” (again splitting up left and right elements of the character); tiaoma 条码 “hottie”; dianyou 点油 (“lighting oil”) for hejiu 喝酒 “drinking liquor”; and kou 口 (prounounced kio) for chi 吃 “eat”. Some of these are dialectal, heard in more general parlance. Chen Kexiu gives an extensive list—and his examples of conversations are daunting:

convo

As you can see there, even the local term gujiang for the members of shawm bands becomes pijia 皮家 (“skins”) in their own parlance.

Thickening the plot, Chen Kexiu goes on to introduce a separate style of black talk used by shawm bands, one that incorporates the ancient fanqie 反切 phonetic system into speech (qiekou 切口) (cf. the blind bards of Zuoquan county). For instance, while the term xunmenshi (or xingmenshi 行门事, yingmenshi 应门事, with shi pronounced si!) is standard local parlance for performing a ritual, one shawm player might ask another (cf. the simpler but no more intelligible 去哪儿贬皮呀? above):

呆劳乃拉许论没人是哩? (到哪儿寻门事?)—“Where are you going to do the ritual?”

Unlike the specialized secret vocabulary that we noted above, once you grasp the principle you can apply it to any words—and it doesn’t require literacy. But the shawm bands among whom Chen Kexiu collected this qiekou style of speech don’t seem to use the specialized vocabulary like the numerical terms; he attributes the qiekou style in particular to the lowly hereditary families of ritual specialists known as “music households” (yuehu), who were descended from banished imperial officials. While there is plenty of evidence for the yuehu further south in Shanxi [1] and elsewhere, I’ve never been very convinced by the piecemeal clues to their presence in north Shanxi. All this is tenuous, but perhaps the supposed yuehu connection for this particular style might just go towards explaining the literate, visual basis of the numerical terms, which otherwise seems so mysterious.

* * *

Much of this vocabulary of the shawm bands was adopted by folk opera groups, also lowly in status; and through constant interaction at rituals household Daoists like the Li family, while somewhat more esteemed, used it to some extent. Of course, all these expressions are pronounced in Yanggao dialect, itself none too easy for the outsider to understand; heihua (“black talk”) itself is pronounced hehua!

The language was still commonly used in the 1990s, but senior blind shawm players were giving way to younger players who no longer suffered such social stigma, and their traditional repertoire was largely replaced by pop. Still, it reminds us what a daunting task it can be for fieldworkers to enter into the aesthetic world of folk performers.

Let’s recite the numbers 1 to 10—altogether now:

dinggai–konggong–chuan–hui–chou–duanda–zaodi–fengai–quwan–tianxin

For some erudite literary wordplay from household Daoists in Yanggao, see here.

 

[1] Note Qu Yanbin 曲彦斌, Zhongguo miyu hanghua cidian 中国秘语行话词典 (1994). 

[2] For links to the major studies of Xiang Yang and Qiao Jian on the yuehu in the Shangdang region, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.86–7.

Buddhism under Mao: Wutaishan

YX

After an interlude on ritual around south Jiangsu (notably the great Daoist ritual held in Suzhou in 1956), here I return to my home base of north China, focusing on the Maoist era as a kind of prequel to my post on the Wutaishan Buddhists.

As always, I note the tension between studies of ritual and “music”. Whereas scholars of religion tend to focus on early doctrine and silent texts, Chinese music scholars set forth from the living soundscapes of ritual. At the same time, they have tended to collect reified “pieces of music”, only paying attention to ethnography quite recently. However, at least they do the fieldwork, stressing the actual performance of ritual, and we can glean clues to the changing life of religion in society.

Wutaishan
Wutaishan is one of the foremost sites for Buddhism in north China. Since the 1980s, the history of its temples has become a major research topic, [1] and Chinese music scholars have documented their rituals (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.213–25). But already in 1947, amidst civil war and land reform, Ya Xin spent three months on Wutaishan documenting the ritual soundscape (whose features in north China I introduce here).

Following the national Communist victory in 1949, major projects to document a wide range of folk musical genres were initiated right across China. In March 1954 Ya Xin took part in a conference in Chengdu to discuss the enterprise, prompting him and five others to spend August doing fieldwork in the temples of Emeishan in Sichuan. In 1955 he edited a 508-page volume of transcriptions, including both that material and his 1947 work on Wutaishan:

  • Ya Xin 亞欣, Siyuan yinyue 寺院音樂 [Temple music], Zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui Chengdu fenhui, 1955.

By the 1950s, scholars like Yang Yinliu studying “religious music” found it obligatory to defend the “value” of the topic, and Ya Xin prefaced his introduction (pp.1–15) with such a defence. The following transcriptions for Emeishan (pp.16–297) include the major Yuqie yankou ritual, daily services, and other vocal liturgy. [2]

But back in 1947 (just as Bill Hinton was embedded with the land reform teams in a village further south in Shanxi), Ya Xin had carried out fieldwork on Wutaishan while serving as a cultural cadre for the Jin–Sui Liberated Area. The conditions were most taxing: amidst ongoing battles with Nationalist troops, the Communists were implementing land reform. So Ya Xin notes that his work was imperfect. But it was a bold initiative: while collecting folk music had been a major project in the Shaanbei Base Area, temple ritual was not on their agenda.

For Wutaishan (pp.299–454), Ya Xin transcribed the main items from the Yuqie yankou ritual, shengguan wind ensemble melodies for both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles, and the Three Days and Nights (san zhouye) mortuary ritual. With the book’s many transcriptions of hymns (zan 讚), gathas (ji 偈), mantras (zhenyan 真言), and so on, it provided an early framework for understanding the mechanics of vocal liturgy.

YX score

From Ya Xin’s transcriptions of the Wutaishan yankou: Daochang chengjiu hymn,
and opening of Huayan hui, showing melisma with padding characters.

Finally, visiting Du Wanzhongshan’s gufang 鼓房 folk wind band in Dongye town at the foot of the mountain Ya Xin notated their “eight great suites” (pp.455–508), derived from the shengguan of the temple monks (Folk music of China, pp.218–19)—although unlike groups of household ritual specialists, they don’t perform vocal liturgy.

Since Ya Xin wasn’t equipped with a recording machine, one both admires his diligence in transcription and wonders at its accuracy. I surmise that much of his work on the vocal liturgy was done with individual monks singing items for him repeatedly, rather than in the course of rituals—not least because the Buddhist texts themselves are highly complex, so he clearly had access to ritual manuals; and he seems to have consulted gongche scores of the shengguan music too. But he didn’t list the temples where he made his transcriptions, or provide names of monks.

Background
We should bear in mind the wider history of Wutaishan around the time. Here I seek clues in the 1988 Wutai county gazetteer. [3] Though such sources are “history of the victors”, they contain some useful material.

Warlord conflict from the 1920s, with Yan Xishan’s troops active, already made the region unstable. But in 1936 Wutaishan had 130 active temples with 2,200 registered clerics (including 800 lamas)—many of whom were doubtless fleeing from warfare. John Blofeld spent time there in 1936–37.

The early architecture of the Wutaishan temples had attracted historians for some time. Japanese scholars found some important temples early in the 20th century, though the Danish Johannes Prip-Møller was unable to visit during his 1929–33 temple survey. In 1937, on the eve of the invasion, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin rediscovered the Tang-dynasty Foguang si temple. The search for “living fossils” would later become a major industry in Chinese musicology.

Japanese troops invaded the area in October 1938, carrying out several massacres. This was an early base area for the Communists in the resistance against Japan. Both patriotic and quisling Buddhist associations were formed in the temples. Many of the monks assisting the resistance were Tibeto-Mongolian lamas, such as those of the Zhenhai si temple, who in 1938 handed over to the 8th Route Army an entire arsenal of weapons that had been given by Chiang Kai-shek to the bodyguard of the Zhangjiafo lama. Monks handed over another cache of weapons in 1942.

The Nationalists fled in 1943, and the Japanese were in retreat from 1944. By July 1946 the Communists were in complete control, and began carrying out land reform. The monks now lost much of their land and income, and some temples were destroyed. By 1947, with little patronage, tilling the monks’ remaining land constituted 89% of their income.

Yan Xishan’s forces returned in October 1946, but retreated again in November. Even in February 1949 they committed a massacre in Dongye town.

During this whole period from 1937 a succession of Communist leaders had passed through. After Chairman Mao’s 1947 visit to the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, on a trip to Wutaishan in 1948 he expressed appreciation of the cultural heritage of Buddhism (for many such comments see e.g. here). Such utterances might have offered a certain intermittent validation for research, though they are utterly paltry alongside the Party’s long-term onslaught on religion.

Upon Liberation and over the following years, most temple clerics were laicized, with their traditional patronage severely reduced. The remaining monks on Wutaishan (a 1956 survey lists 445) [4] received a monthly income of 20–40 yuan from the county government. During the Maoist era ritual life was doubtless much impoverished, though the authorities sanctioned occasional visits from overseas Buddhist delegations.

Meanwhile, away from the temples, household ritual specialists, their numbers now boosted by clerics returning to the laity, maintained a certain activity. And although the influence of Wutaishan made Buddhism dominant around the region, Daoist ritual specialists were also active, such as in nearby Xinzhou.

Sects
Sectarian groups are another major theme in religious life throughout China. The sectarian connections of the amateur ritual associations in central Hebei, whose liturgy was transmitted from temples, are a separate case. But all these sects should interest us, since while not all of them performed complex liturgy, they show a link between temple and lay practice.

It is not that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests were usually sectarian; often, as in Yanggao, occupational ritual specialists are clearly distinct from the sects. But I have a growing list of temples where clerics belonged to such groups (Tianzhen, Xinzhou, Baiyunshan).

The recent county gazetteers, however partial, are often a useful source on the sects. Major campaigns were held from 1950 to 1951, and continued through into the Cultural Revolution. Of course, campaigns against “heterodox teachings” were nothing new, having been frequent under both imperial and republican governments, but the new campaigns were far more ruthless. Still, the sects went underground as usual, and have revived since the 1980s. However partial such recent accounts may be, it is important to bear in mind this perspective on local religious organizations when we consider the practice of folk ritual over the last century; this background still colours local society, and our discussions, today.

In the Wutai region, despite campaigns since 1945, intensifying in 1949 and 1950, a variety of sectarian groups were still active through the 1950s, including the Jiugong dao, Huanxiang dao, and Houtian dao. [5] They had a firm base in the temples as well as throughout the countryside. A brief biography of Zhang San Baotai 张三保泰 (1890–1958), [6] leader of the Houtian dao sect, is so rare as to be worth summarizing.

After joining the sect in 1924, Zhang became a monk at the Yuanzhao si temple on Wutaishan in 1938. The following year he declared himself a living Buddha, but his plot with Yan Xishan’s troops to organize an underground arsenal was exposed. In 1941 he travelled through Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, recruiting over ten thousand followers. His activities continued under the PRC, despite the campaigns of 1950–51. After returning to Wutai from Yuxian in Hebei in 1955, he prepared a major armed uprising for 1960, planning to establish a capital at Dingxian in Hebei, and mobilizing in Shandong; but he was captured and executed in 1958.

Apart from the general persecution of “orthodox” religious practices, the sectarian connection would have further darkened the cloud hanging over the temples.

Research in the 1950s
I know of no fieldwork on the rituals of the Wutaishan temples after Liberation. Still, eighteen monks from Wutaishan took part in a provincial festival of folk music at Taiyuan in 1958, winning a prize. Provincial scholars were hoping to do fieldwork from the mid-1950s, but were unable to do so. [7]

The “eight great suites”
The folk shengguan instrumental bands made a more palatable topic than the vocal liturgy of the temples, and this style did go on to achieve wider fame. In 1953 the Shanxi Radio Station revisited Du Wanzhongshan’s band in Dongye to record, which were widely broadcast, and Liu Shiying 刘士英 published transcriptions.

tupian

Bapaizi melody for shengguan, in Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian.

Indeed, early in the War against Japan a friend of Bo Yibo, then a major Communist resistance leader in Shanxi, had lent a 1926 gongche score of this repertoire to Lü Ji, who would become the pre-eminent official pundit of Chinese music. After Liberation Lü Ji lent the score to Yang Yinliu; [8] a page was reproduced in vol.4 of the 1957 Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片, spreading awareness of the genre in music circles.

Even as the enforcement of the commune system was leading to desperation, further recordings of the suites, along with transcriptions, were made from 1959, with Du’s son Du San now leading the band.

When I first visited Wutaishan in 1986 it was still far from a bustling national and international tourist attraction. Indeed, I needed a special permit to travel there. Even the town of Taihuai was still a tranquil retreat. But my attention soon turned from the temples to folk ritual practice, and on my later trips I explored household groups in the surrounding region, including a fine shengguan band in Dongye town, led by Xu Yousheng. In 1992, having followed them round on funerals, we held a recording session (#5 on CD1 of my China: folk instrumental traditions; or a shorter version as #5 of the CD with the 1998 paperback of Folk music of China).

Since the reforms
The provincial scholars who had planned fieldwork on Wutaishan in the mid-1950s were only able to realize the project after the end of the Cultural Revolution, leaping into action as early as 1978. A group of senior monks was invited to the Shanxi Music and Dance Research Institute that year, and the precious recordings (as well as some further tracks from 1988) were issued on the five-cassette series

  • Wutaishan foyue 五台山佛乐, with notes by Liu Jianchang, in The Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China series, ed. Tian Qing (Shanghai yinxiang gongsi, 1989; reissued on CD since 1998). [9]

The set includes both vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble music, with excerpts from the yankou ritual and examples of both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles. Like the group that came to England in 1992, most of the performers had been ordained on Wutaishan but had spent much of the Maoist era elsewhere in Shanxi, doing rituals sporadically among the folk. And meanwhile the “southern” style of vocal liturgy was replacing the distinctive regional styles of northern temples (such as Beijing and Shenyang).

1978 mim

From 1978 to 1980, Chen Jiabin and Liu Jianchang published transcriptions in mimeograph, and by the 1980s, along with the Anthology fieldwork, several provincial scholars were undertaking studies. The most extensive research is

  • Han Jun 韩军, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun 五台山佛教音乐总论 (2012).

The Anthology coverage is also substantial:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 山西卷 (2000), introduction pp.1543–53, transcriptions 1554–1768.

The yankou: opening of Huayan hui hymn, from Anthology. For variant renditions, see Han Jun, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun, pp.152–5.

Such studies suffer from the usual flaws of Chinese research, consisting mainly of reified transcriptions rather than ethnography, but they contain some clues to the changing fortunes of religious life.

Meanwhile, as with groups such as the Zhihua temple, media coverage steered clear of the ritual basis of the tradition by highlighting the shengguan instrumental ensemble, with glossy performances on stage.

  • Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012)

also mainly focuses on the shengguan ensemble, but she takes a more ethnographic approach, with useful sections on the vocal liturgy; notes on actual rituals observed, including a funeral; and astute comments on the ideological baggage of Chinese studies and the recent commodified market.

* * *

In the West the study of Chinese ritual is often considered to date from the work of Kristofer Schipper in Taiwan in the 1960s; and in the PRC much of the vast energy in researching local ritual traditions has taken place since the 1980s.

However, long before scholars of religion, fieldworkers in mainland China, in the Republican era and under Maoism, were hard at work documenting ritual practice—their studies conducted under the discreet guise of “music”. [10] It was the intrepid fieldwork of such scholars before 1965, despite all the ideological obstacles then placed in their way, that formed the background to the monumental Anthology project of the 1980s. While most Chinese music scholars working on northern ritual traditions stress the shengguan ensemble, they don’t neglect the vocal liturgy.

Most scholars of Buddhism, and indeed Daoism, are more concerned with early doctrinal issues and the material heritage than with ritual performance. But as I constantly stress, if we wish to study religion in China, we must get to grips with its soundscape. And even this barely addresses my main concern—the changing ritual life of local communities.

 

[1] Note e.g. the journal Wutaishan yanjiu 五台山研究, and the recent volume Yishan er wuding: duoxueke, kuafangyu, chaowenhua shiyexiade Wutai xinyang yanjiu 一山而五頂:多學科,跨方域,超文化視野下的五台信仰研究 [One mountain of five plateaus: studies of the Wutai cult in multidisciplinary, crossborder and transcultural approaches], ed. Miaojiang 妙江, Chen Jinhua 陳金華, Kuan Guang 寬廣 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2017).

[2] Yang Yinliu had visited Qingchengshan in the summer of 1942, but his attempts to transcribe vocal liturgy there were frustrated by an unhelpful abbot (see his 1961 essay “How to treat religious music”). BTW, folk and temple ritual in the vast province of Sichuan is also a major topic that I can’t begin to address—as ever, the Anthology is one starting-point, and Volker Olles can provide leads.

[3] Besides other essays in the Wutai xianzhi, for “major events” of the Republican and Maoist eras, see pp.696–714. See also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012), pp.10–21. For more background, see Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (1972).

[4] Wutai xianzhi, p.581.

[5] Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.

[6] Wutai xianzhi, p.643.

[7] Liu Jianchang 刘建昌, Chen Jiabin 陈家滨, and Ren Deze 任德泽, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告, Yinyue wudao 1990.1.

[8] Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji (1986), prelude by Lü Ji, p.3.

[9] Cf. Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries, pp.128–9. Of course, rituals such as the yankou, with its complex Tantric mudras, cry out to be documented on film. For a brief 2003 excerpt from a yankou in a minor temple in Yanggao, led by a monk trained at Wutaishan, see my film Doing Things.

[10] Cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.20–26.

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 李佺民 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.

Recopying ritual manuals

21 manuals of LMS

Ritual manuals of Li Manshan, handed down by Li Qing.

In 2013, as we survey a growing haul of over forty ritual manuals in Li Manshan’s collection, I exclaim: “Wow—I never realized you still had so many scriptures!” He chuckles whimsically: “Ha, neither did I!”

Following the collapse of the commune system, the religious revival of the 1980s revolved around the performance of rituals for local communities keen to restore the “old rules”. At the same time, scholars of Daoism tend to be more concerned with silent texts. But performance is primary—as I often remark on this blog, e.g. the Invitation and Presenting Offerings. As I observed here, giving primacy to ritual manuals is akin to having a fine kitchen and loads of glossy cookbooks, but drawing the line at handling food or cooking.

Further, ritual manuals were widely recopied, but we don’t always unpack the process, or the relation of the manuals to actual changing practice.

I described all this in detail in ch.8 and Part Four of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, which I summarize and adapt here (cf. my film, from 39.33).

From the late 1970s, as ritual was gradually coming back to life—families again able to observe funeral propriety, Daoists reuniting to recite their beloved scriptures—Li Peisen and his nephew Li Qing were also busy at home, painstakingly recopying the family’s old ritual manuals that had been lost or hidden away for fifteen years. This was part of a process then going on all over China, with Daoists piecing together as much as they could of local traditions that had long been under threat. [1]

You might suppose that for a group like the Li family, re-assembling a set of ritual manuals would be an essential condition for reviving their ritual practice in the 1980s. But it wasn’t. It was an important aspect of the personal striving of Li Peisen and Li Qing to reconfirm the tradition, but once they and their colleagues began doing funerals again, they had little need for manuals. Most of the texts they needed—for Delivering the Scriptures, Hoisting the Pennant, Transferring Offerings, and so on—were firmly engraved in their hearts after decades of practice, and there were no manuals for those rituals anyway. One might surmise that under ideal circumstances before the 1950s (itself a dubious concept) when the Daoists were performing ritual frequently without interruption, most of the manuals would be largely superfluous, as today.

As it happens, most of the manuals that Li Peisen and Li Qing copied (notably the fast chanted jing scriptures) were either for temple fairs, which were only to resume a few years later in a modest way, or for Thanking the Earth rituals, which hardly revived at all. So very few of these manuals were to be performed again. Can we even assume that they had once performed all the manuals that they now copied?

Li Manshan’s collection
Our discovery of the manuals has been a gradual process. [2] Over several centuries in medieval times, there were successive miraculous “revelations” of Daoist scriptures—from grottoes, or dictated by immortals. But our revelations of the Li family manuals were more prosaic. At the first funeral I attended in Yanggao back in 1991, I found Li Qing in the scripture hall consulting the old manual of funeral rituals copied by his uncle Li Peisen, and I photographed some pages—hastily and somewhat randomly. By the time of my visit in April 2011 I had still only seen two of Li Qing’s manuals. Over the course of successive stays with Li Manshan he rummaged around in cupboards and outhouses and discovered more and more volumes (for a complete list of titles in the collections of Li Manshan and Li Hua, see Daoist priests of the Li family, Appendix 2).

Pardon manual, Li Peisen

Pardon manual, Li Peisen, pre-Liberation. My photo, 1991.

The reason why so few manuals surfaced until I began enquiring in detail was not any conservatism on Li Manshan’s part. They are simply not used in current ritual practice, so he really never needed them, and they were just casually stashed away and forgotten. Now that I show interest, he too takes considerable pleasure in delving into them, but they are of no direct relevance to his current practice.

Each time that Li Manshan discovers more manuals, I busy myself taking complete photographs. This not only serves as valuable study material for me, but once we have copied them onto Li Bin’s computer it helps the family preserve them against any future mishaps.

Apart from their content and the historical significance of the undertaking, the manuals that Li Qing now copied move me because his personality leaps off the page in the assured elegance of his calligraphy. I have pored over hundreds of manuals copied by peasant ritual specialists since the 1980s, but few of them can compare to Li Qing’s hand. From the inscription that he wrote on the final page of the bulky Bestowing Food manual we can sense his pride and growing confidence:

Recorded by Li Qing, disciple resident in Upper Liangyuan village, the Complete Numinous Treasure Comprehensive Ritual for Bestowing Food manual in 69 pages, completed on the 3rd day of the 5th moon, 1982 CE.

Left: last page, shishi manual, 1982; right, Li Qing writing, 1991.

Li Hua’s Collection
In 2013 I learned that Li Hua has a collection of his father Li Peisen’s manuals, largely overlapping with that of Li Manshan.

Li Hua takes me and Li Bin to his son’s funeral shop, where they keep their scriptures and paintings. They bring them out and seem happy for me to take photos; but it’s getting late, so, reluctant to try their patience, I don’t ask to photo any complete manuals—most are identical to Li Qing’s copies anyway.

22 manuals of Li Hua

Ritual manuals of Li Hua, handed down by his father Li Peisen.

We go off together for lunch, all very friendly. I feel as if I am making a bridge between them; Li Bin agrees this has been a useful experience, and thanks me. But over the following days we visit Li Hua’s shop in vain; it has been locked ever since our first visit, and he isn’t answering his mobile. He seems to regret having shown us so much the first time. Later, after digesting my photos, we find there are at least four manuals in Li Hua’s collection that Li Manshan hasn’t yet found in his own.

Shelf-life of manuals
So the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists that I have seen come from the collections of Li Peisen and Li Qing, handed down to Li Hua and Li Manshan respectively.

LXR

The earliest surviving manuals are by Li Peisen’s grandfather Li Xianrong (c1851–1920s) (left: his Presenting the Memorial manual). If manuals from the 19th century can survive all the destructions of the 20th century, then Li Xianrong and his colleagues in turn might have had a collection going back right to the lineage’s early acquisition of Daoist skills in the 18th century. And those manuals must in turn have been copied over successive generations of the lineage in Jinjiazhuang from whom Li Fu first learned. And so on.

Throughout the two centuries of the Li family tradition, ritual manuals had occasionally needed recopying. There are at least two reasons for copying a manual: when the old one becomes too decrepit, or if there are several Daoist sons. Daoists needed to recopy individual manuals occasionally as the older ones became dog-eared through use.

In south China scholars have found a few manuals from the 18th century, and even the Ming dynasty, but for the north even 19th-century ones are quite rare. Whether, or how long, Daoists kept the old manuals after copying them must have depended on their condition and on the taste of the custodian. Li Manshan observes that a Daoist may also copy manuals when he has more than one Daoist son. This seems simple, but presumably refers to a situation where the sons are likely to work separately—not necessarily long-term, but when there is simultaneous demand for more than one band.

So we can read the attempt by Li Peisen and Li Qing to recreate the complete textual repertoire in the early 1980s as a unique labour of love after an unprecedented threat of extinction, a reaffirmation of the family’s identity as Daoist masters. For over three decades during the Maoist era no-one had copied any manuals; “No-one was in the mood,” as Li Manshan reflected—another hint at the depression of the times. [3] As ritual practice slowly revived, Li Peisen and Li Qing now decided to do so because they realized the new freedoms brought hope. Their purpose was not to reflect current practice, which was still embryonic; thankfully, they sought to document as much of the heritage as they could, irrespective of which manuals had been used in their lifetimes or might now be needed.

So what was going through Li Qing’s mind as he put brush to paper? One surmises that for him, copying the manuals was partly a kind of atonement for having had to sacrifice so many old scriptures in 1966. But one also feels a great sense of optimism. The manuals he set about copying included many that even he had hardly performed. After all the false starts since 1949, was he so sanguine as to assume all these rituals would now become common again? Or was his instinct as archivist dominant?

Once again I kick myself to think that I could have gone through the manuals with Li Qing himself. When I met him in 1991 and 1992 I had no idea that he had copied so many—anyway I wasn’t yet expecting to study the family tradition in such detail. So now the main interest of going through the manuals with Li Manshan is to assess what has been lost. But that isn’t so simple either: it’s unclear how many of the manuals that Li Qing copied he himself could, or did, perform by the 1980s. I can’t even be sure he could perform all the texts in the lengthy hymn volume. When I casually comment to Li Manshan, “Shame you didn’t sit with Li Qing as he copied the manuals!” he replies, “I’m not a good son.” He is being neither ironic nor maudlin.

Of course, there may yet be some missing manuals that would further augment our picture of their former ritual repertoire. But impressively (given the usual stories of the decimation of ritual artifacts in the Cultural Revolution), Li Manshan now reckons that the surviving titles represent the bulk of those handed down in the family before 1966.

I can glean few clues about how this ritual corpus, and the texts within individual manuals, might have been modified over time. In the exceptional circumstances of the 1980s, Li Qing must have copied some manuals that he had never performed; and even for those rituals that he did perform, the version in the manual may differ substantially. Of course that was a special time, but a ritual manual from a given period doesn’t necessarily prove that the ritual was performed then, or in that form—not that the manuals actually tell us how to perform them anyway!

Moreover, early Daoists must have known a lot of texts from memory, as their descendants do today. Sure, they had a much larger ritual repertoire, and some lengthy texts required them to follow the manual. As it happens, the rituals that have fallen out of use are precisely those for which they needed to consult the manuals.

The process of copying
Li Qing may have inherited even more scriptures than Li Peisen, but he could retrieve only a few of them after the Cultural Revolution. With political conditions in Yang Pagoda more relaxed, Li Peisen had managed to hang on to his scriptures (and indeed his ritual paintings); so after he returned to Upper Liangyuan around 1977 it was these manuals that formed the basis for him and Li Qing to copy.

Li Peisen now lived not in his old home near Li Qing, but in another house just west of the site of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones. Li Peisen would copy a manual first, then lend it to Li Qing for him to copy too. Li Qing wrote alone, without help from anyone; no-one recalls them consulting.

On the covers, after his name Li Qing mostly used the word “recorded” (ji 記); only at the end of a couple of manuals did he write the word “copied” (chao 抄). The choice of term isn’t significant. The only manual in which Li Qing specifically wrote “copied from Li Peisen” is the Qiangao, dated the 21st of the 4th moon in 1982.

gongshe

From collection of ritual documents, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s: template for funeral placard, including “China, Shanxi province, outside the walls of XX county,
X district, XX commune, at the land named XX village”.

When they began putting brush to paper, Li Peisen was 70 sui, Li Qing in his mid-50s. Having been taking part in rituals since the age of 6 or 7 sui, Li Qing would have been even more experienced had it not been for the interruptions since 1954; and by 1980 he had not performed rituals since 1964. Remember he had lost his father in 1947; since then he still had plenty of uncles and other senior Daoists to work with, but through the early years of Maoism he was beginning to rely more on his own knowledge.

Writing was unknown to the great majority of the population, but despite ongoing material shortages there was no problem buying white “hemp paper” (mazhi). One summer day in 1980, with the sun pouring through the latticed windows of his main room, Li Qing took a low wooden table and placed it on the kang brick-bed. Removing his cloth shoes, he climbed onto the kang and sat cross-legged at the table. Putting on his thick black-rimmed glasses, he took out his brushes, inks, and inkstones, with the old manuals to hand, as well as a thermos of hot water. After folding some paper to make guidelines as he wrote the characters, he opened it out again; carefully dipping his brush in the ink he began to write, pausing as he went over the texts in his head, phrase by phrase. First he completed the whole text in black ink, laying each page on the kang to dry. Then, changing his brush and mixing some red ink in a separate receptacle, he drew circles showing the head of each new segment, and added punctuation.

25-lq-zouma

Zouma score, written for me by Li Qing, 1992.

They do the same when writing a score of the gongche instrumental melodies—first writing the solfeggio notes in black, then later adding red dots that show the basic metrical pattern, rather like punctuating a text. I treasure a page of gongche notation of the exquisite shengguan melody Zouma (over opening titles of my film: playlist, #4, discussed here) that he wrote before my eyes in the summer of 1992, inscribing it for me at the end. When Li Qing finished writing a manual, he carefully folded each page in half, and then stitched them all together. Li Manshan tells me that it takes around three days to write a typical manual of around 15 to 20 double pages.

 

Incidentally, while the shengguan wind ensemble is a vital aspect of ritual performance, it was only later in the 1980s, after he had achieved the main task of salvaging the ritual texts, that Li Qing set to work recopying the gongche scores.

Formats
I don’t know if there was a standard size of paper in the late imperial period, or if folk copyists followed temple practice. The paper that Li Peisen and Li Qing used was mostly around 23 x 12 cm, but varied somewhat in both height and width. For the Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) manual Li Qing used a larger format (29.5 x 14.5 cm), since this was one manual that they all consulted while reciting it together, so the larger characters would make it more convenient—and for the same reason, multiple copies were written. Other minor differences in size just depended on the availability of paper.

Since they were mostly copying existing old manuals, they followed the layout of text on the page of their models, beginning a new line for each couplet in regular verse and leaving spaces where suitable. Older manuals such as those of Li Xianrong are similar in size, with similar numbers of lines and characters. So old and new manuals alike have 6, 7, or 8 lines per (half) page, each full line allowing for 16 or 17 characters. [4]

They used the same paper for the cover pages, writing a title on the front cover, generally only an abbreviated one; the full title often appears within the volume, usually at the end. Some volumes contain several scriptures, and the title thus summarizes the contents, like Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing), which contains four scriptures. Li Qing didn’t write a title at all for what they call the hymn volume (zantan ben 讚嘆本)—Li Manshan only wrote the two characters zantan (“hymns of mourning”) on the cover when I wanted to take a photo of the manuals complete in 2011. We may never know its proper title.

The older manuals of Li Xianrong and Li Tang were in this same format, although in a few earlier volumes the title and the name of the copyist are written in two red strips pasted onto the cover page. One Thanking the Earth manual by Li Peisen from before Liberation has slips of red paper for the title and his name, followed by the characters yuxi 玉玺 “by jade seal,” suggesting some rather exalted ancestry.

But even these older manuals had no sturdier protection like wooden or cardboard covers. Nor do they use the concertina form that one sometimes finds on older scriptures elsewhere; this system is used not only in elite temples—I found it in use by amateur folk ritual associations in Hebei. The opening pages of such more elite early manuals also often show a series of drawings of gods. I found a substantial collection of such manuals—printed—in Shuozhou not far south, in the hands of Daoists whose forebears had spent time as temple priests. The concertina format is convenient to use if one is following the text while performing, turning the pages with a slip of bamboo between them. Another advantage of the format is that the pages don’t get so worn—the paper is so flimsy that with constant fingering it can soon get torn. But most of Li Qing’s manuals are in pristine condition, showing that they have hardly been used. Even Li Xianrong’s manuals, dating from around 1900, are remarkably well preserved.

Li Xianrong numbered the pages of his Presenting the Memorial manual, but the only time that Li Qing used pagination was for the melodic score in modern cipher notation that he wrote later. Li Qing wrote the date of completion at the end of a manual more often than Li Peisen. He usually wrote the CE (gongyuan) year, though sometimes he signed off with the two characters of the traditional sexagenary cycle; he always used the lunar calendar for the moon and day, as villagers still do today.

The manuals and ritual practice
The very first manual that Li Qing completed was apparently the hymn volume, whose date in the traditional calendar is equivalent to the 16th day of the 6th moon, 1980. Over the next few years he would sit down and copy a manual whenever he had a couple of free days at home.

That first manual was not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts. At 60 double pages, it is the second longest of all the manuals that he was to copy. Though giving a few texts for individual ritual segments, it is mainly a collection of shorter texts whose ritual use is not specified. Later Li Qing copied a similar compendium of texts for Thanking the Earth. These two compendiums suggest the practical basis of what the Daoists do: not long abstract texts, but individual lyrics to be adopted as required.

Similar collections of hymn texts, not specific to particular rituals, are found in early ritual collections within the Daoist Canon, and elsewhere among household groups in north and south China. Such volumes are often the most practical manuals for Daoists today. Li Qing’s hymn volume includes most of the texts that the Daoists need for the rituals they now perform. Many of the hymns, performed for both Delivering the Scriptures and the fashi public rituals, are not in any of the other ritual manuals, only in this separate volume.

However, looking more closely at the hymn volume, it is not merely a succinct practical list of texts for use in rituals, like those in the little notebooks that Daoists carry around with them. While it may be significant that this was the first volume that Li Qing wrote, he was apparently not compiling a new volume consisting of random texts recalled off the cuff, but copying out an existing one.

We need to exercise similar caution in studying the funeral compendium that Li Peisen copied, apparently before 1948. This manual is snappily entitled Numinous Treasure Manual for Opening the Quarters, Summons, Reporting, Offering Viands, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells, Dispatching the Pardon, Crossing the Bridges, Precautions against Hailstones, and Averting Plagues of Locusts
靈寶開方攝召預報獻饌游蓮破獄放赦渡橋祝白玉禳蝗瘟[科].

Here is another salient lesson in the importance of fieldwork and observation of practice. When Li Qing made his own copy in the 1980s, he divided it up into two volumes of 17 and 25 double pages. Perhaps he found the old manual too bulky (even the title is quite a mouthful)—he did copy more lengthy manuals, but this collection of rituals divided conveniently. Now imagine if we only had this manual, preserved in a library somewhere. If we were lucky enough to know that there was a Li family of whose collection it formed a part since the 1980s, we might suppose it was a faithful and rather complete description of the segments in their funeral practice, if not in the 1980s then perhaps in the 1930s. But we can’t use ritual manuals as a guide to performance. Until I began working more closely with Li Manshan, this single manual was almost my only clue to funeral practice as preserved in texts, and I found it bewilderingly irrelevant to their current practice.

Of the ten segments in the manual, only Opening the Quarters, the Pardon, and Crossing the Bridges were very occasionally performed in the 1980s; the others may well have been obsolete by the 1940s. The two rituals at the end (against hailstones and locusts) may have been not for funerals but for temple fairs. Moreover, the volume contains none of the standard segments of a funeral; some of those have their own separate manuals, but most have (and need) no manuals at all. And the texts of the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures can be found only in the hymn volume—if you know where to look.

So one might suppose, “OK then, so Li Peisen’s manual shows the very different, more rigorous structure of funerals before the impoverishment since the 1950s.” That would be quite wrong! I now deduce that Li Peisen (or his forebears) put those ten rituals in a volume together precisely because they were rarely needed even before Liberation; it reveals not the then norm but the then exception. It doesn’t even quite match the “inner and outer five rituals”. Li Peisen’s generation may have been more able to perform these rarer rituals than either Li Qing or Li Manshan, but we mustn’t assume that the manual represents the standard practice of some ideal earlier age.

Apart from manuals for particular ritual segments (Invitation, Pardon, and so on), around half of the forty or so volumes handed down in the Li family are jing 經 “scriptures” or chan 懺 “litanies”. These have not been performed since the early 1960s, since they are not used for funerals or (at least in the current sequence) temple fairs, and Thanking the Earth is obsolete. They were mostly to be chanted fast rather than sung slowly.

The role of memory
Before we saw Li Peisen’s collection, Li Manshan claimed that Li Qing wrote many of the manuals on the basis of his memory. Blinkered by my background in Western art music, I was sceptical; and now that we have seen Li Peisen’s manuals, it does indeed begin to look as if they were mostly copying, not recalling. But a doubt nags. Li Peisen’s collection did include several old manuals, but I haven’t seen older originals for most of those that he and Li Qing wrote. So is it possible that memory did play a considerable role after all?

We may easily neglect the depth of folk memory—further afield, for instance (Tibet, the Balkans), epic singers might have huge unwritten repertoires. Chinese elites memorized vast passages of classical texts, as did the scions of the Li family both in private school and when learning the ritual manuals at home. Li Manshan, not easily impressed, is amazed to recall the knowledge, energy, and memory of the elders with whom he did rituals until the 1990s.

I can believe that Li Qing could recall the texts of rituals that he hadn’t performed much for a couple of decades; frequent practice since youth would have engraved them indelibly in his heart, and there are innumerable instances of this in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Li Qing’s perceptive granddaughter Li Min points out that he loved the scriptures so much, he would always have been reciting them silently in his heart, even in periods of forced silence like his sojourn in the troupe or the Cultural Revolution. He performed them almost daily from 1932 to 1953, less from 1954 to 1957, not from 1958 to 1961, then from 1962 to 1964, but not from 1964 to 1979. Was that enough? In many cases I now tend to think it was, but it would depend on the scripture; some of them he would hardly have performed since 1953. Li Peisen, sixteen years Li Qing’s senior, had even longer experience. Also, the degree of serial repetition in Daoist texts is such that one could recreate a lot just by filling in the titles of a series of gods and offerings, much of the remaining content being identical for whole long series of invocations. Where phrases are of regular length, that would give further clues.

I supposed that the lengthy scriptures chanted fast to the regular beat of the muyu woodblock might be hardest to recall, especially since these were the only ones that they recited with the manuals on the table in front of them. But even these, Li Manshan observes, they largely knew by heart—Kang Ren whipped through them so fast that he couldn’t keep up; he hardly referred to the manual at all, just turning the pages as a backup.

And how about a lengthy and complex manual like the Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu? I would be amazed if Li Qing could have rewritten it from memory having hardly performed it since at least 1957, but Li Manshan points out that by then his father would have taken part in the ritual often enough for over twenty years. I still demur: how often would that have been, actually? It was only performed for three-day funerals, and even there it was an alternative to Hoisting the Pennant and Judgment and Alms.

And surely it is one thing to recite such scriptures from memory, another to commit them to paper without frequent miswritings. Li Qing’s manuals contain few corrections—only occasionally do we find an extra character or line in black or red added between the columns where he had accidentally omitted it, or slips of paper pasted over a short passage that he later realized was inaccurate. And characters are rarely miswritten. Folk transmission over a long period often produced minor variants, but in general the texts are written meticulously, and where we can collate them with the manuals of the great temples they are basically identical.

Sharing manuals
One sweet vignette offers a glimpse of the energy for copying scriptures in the 1980s. Li Peisen’s disciple Kang Ren evidently copied many of his manuals too, perhaps after Li Peisen’s death in 1985. He borrowed the Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu manual from Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, but when he took it back Li Hua was out, so on its back cover he wrote him a message to ask for four more manuals:

Younger brother Li Hua, can you bring me the Xianwu ke, the Shenwen ke, the Dongxuan jing, and the Shiyi yao? Please please!

As it turned out, none of those scriptures would be performed again; like Li Peisen and Li Qing, Kang Ren was just being enthusiastic, excited at the potential for restoring the scriptures that they had all recited constantly throughout his youth, after a long silence.

Kang Ren’s access to the manuals was exceptional. They were generally transmitted only within the family, not widely shared among disciples, even within Li Qing’s group. Daoist families are always in competition, and while they may often collaborate for rituals, there is an innate conservatism about revealing the core of a family heritage. Apart from the few manuals that they needed to consult while performing rituals, some of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from other lineages might never see them. When Golden Noble and Wu Mei were learning in the 1990s they hardly got to see the manuals; Li Qing wrote them individual hymns on slips of paper one at a time, just as Li Manshan did more recently for his pupil Wang Ding. Li Qing lent his manuals to the Daoists of West Shuangzhai in the 1980s so they could copy them, but in general there was little borrowing between rival Daoist families, even those on good terms. But the ritual tradition is remarkably oral.

However, Kang Ren, as well as Li Yuanmao (whose father was a Daoist anyway), copied manuals too. If any of their scriptures survive, they would be copied from Li Peisen. But since Kang Ren’s death in 2010 his son has sold them, and Li Yuanmao’s son is cagey.

The identity of the copyists
As we saw, the bulk of the two surviving collections was copied in the early 1980s by Li Peisen and Li Qing, as well as some earlier manuals written by their forebears. Manuals are almost always signed, usually on the cover, sometimes also at the end.

The earliest manuals we have now were written by Li Xianrong around 1900. We have clues to manuals by his younger brother Li Zengrong. And we have one manual said to be in the hand of their cousin Li Derong, as well as his precious early score of the “holy pieces” of the shengguan music. For a genealogy, see Daoist priests of the Li family, p.5; for the family’s own genalogies, see photos here; note the alternation by generation of single- and double-character given names.

Li Xianrong’s second and third sons Li Shi and Li Tang both copied manuals. Li Shi’s manuals were among those that his grandson Li Qing sacrificed in 1966, but Li Peisen preserved those of his father Li Tang, two of which are still in Li Hua’s collection. Li Peisen himself wrote many manuals. So did his cousin Li Peiye (1891–1980)—but his son Li Xiang took them off when he migrated to Inner Mongolia in 1959.

Authorship may not be quite so simple. Li Qing wrote his own name on the cover page, almost always adding the character ji 記, “recorded by.” But in some cases a father would write a manual for his son, writing the son’s name on the cover—again, almost always with the character ji, in this case meaning “recorded for.” For instance, most of Li Peisen’s manuals from the early 1980s bear the name of his son Li Hua; Li Qing only wrote Li Manshan’s name on one manual, the Treasury Document and Diverse Texts for Rituals, written in 1983 or soon after; and on the cover of Li Manshan’s only manual he wrote the name of his son Li Bin. When there is a name at the end of the manual, it is that of the copyist himself. Most earlier manuals (Li Xianrong, Li Tang, and so on) were signed by the copyists themselves.

Why did Li Peisen often write his son’s name, whereas Li Qing almost always wrote his own name? It wasn’t so much that Li Qing still saw Li Manshan’s future mainly in determining the date, but that he had two other sons who were potential Daoists, so perhaps he was avoiding favoritism. Of Li Peisen’s two sons, the older, Li Huan, was only going to specialize in determining the date; but Li Peisen must by now have earmarked his second son Li Hua (30 sui in 1980) as a Daoist. Perhaps a more pressing reason was that Li Peisen was getting on in years, and wanted to feel he was leaving his manuals for posterity, whereas Li Qing was still only in his mid-50s.

Anyway, it’s worth bearing in mind that a manual bearing someone’s name may have been copied by his father. Expertise in calligraphy may help, but it takes me time even to distinguish the calligraphy of Li Peisen and Li Qing—Li Peisen’s brush ever so slightly more cursive, Li Qing’s more bold. The styles of Li Qing and Kang Ren were virtually identical.

The manuals of Li Xianrong
I have only seen four manuals by Li Xianrong, most written in the early 20th century, when he was around 50: in Li Hua’s collection, Lingbao shiwang guandeng ke (1901), Lingbao shanggong ke, and probably Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu (1912); and in Li Manshan’s collection, the Lingbao jinbiao kefan (see above). Li Hua claims to recall two whole trunks of scriptures by Li Xianrong, but says that only a quarter now survive. If so, then he hasn’t shown us all of them—and if Li Peisen didn’t have to sacrifice them, then why have so many been lost since?

Li Xianrong’s “style” (zi) or literary name was Shengchun, only used in one manual that I have seen, the Lingbao shiwang guandeng ke. The very fact that he had a literary name suggests his superior social status. He wrote in a more elegant hand than either Li Peisen or Li Qing; Kang Ren liked to consult his scriptures.

Li Peisen’s own manuals
The manuals that Li Peisen inscribed for his son Li Hua (b.1951) are evidently the new copies he made from around 1980 after returning to Upper Liangyuan. He wrote some manuals earlier, but it is hard to guess when; even if Yang Pagoda was quite undisturbed under Maoism, it seems unlikely that he wrote any over that period. He was only 39 sui in 1948, perhaps a bit young to write manuals before then, but he evidently did so. He was also known as Li Peisheng, the name he wrote at the end of the Yushu chan.

The Lingbao shiwang bawang dengke is one of the earlier manuals bearing Li Peisen’s name on the cover. It is dated on the last page with the inscription

23rd year of the Republic [1944], 6th moon, 3rd and 4th days,
Bingshan picked up the pen to finish copying.

Indeed, this page doesn’t look like Li Peisen’s hand. No-one can be sure who Bingshan was—there was one in Xingyuan village, but he was only born in the 1920s; was there another one? And why did Li Peisen hand it over to Bingshan to complete? Perhaps he got busy with his work as village chief—but why ask someone from another family (presumably a disciple) to complete it, rather than shelve it until he had time? Did they need it in a hurry for a funeral? This was one manual that they did need to follow from at least two copies while performing it.

The couplet volume
Among the volumes that Li Qing copied in the early 1980s is a collection of 21 double pages listing around 300 matching couplets (duilian, see Daoist priests of the Li family, Ritual 7) to be pasted at either side of a doorway or god image. Such volumes are often part of both temple and household collections. Again, this one is evidently copied (or edited) from an earlier volume. Perhaps it originates from a temple, since many of the contexts listed seem unlikely to have been part of the Li family tradition even before the 1950s.

Temple collections often list couplets for particular types of temples, and Li Qing’s volume has some for particular deities—though not for those of the Upper Liangyuan temples, nor for any local gods like Elder Hu. Most are single couplets, but there are over thirty for the Dragon Kings (Longwang). There are eight for the God Palace (Fodian)—not necessarily for the village’s own Temple of the God Palace.

A couplet for the “meditation hall” (chantang) further suggests the temple connection, as do couplets for bell tower (zhonglou) and several for the opera stage (xitai). But I can’t be sure if this implies an earlier derivation from temple priests, or simply that couplets were required for the unstaffed temples of the area when they held temple fairs. There are twenty-two couplets for the scripture hall, and fourteen for the kitchen. There are couplets for each of the Palaces of the Ten Kings, perhaps to adorn existing paintings or murals, and fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth. There are verses for each of the “seven sevens” after a death, the hundredth day, and for all three anniversaries, and over fifty couplets for the burial itself.

duiben

Couplets for the scripture hall, including series for the Ten Kings.

There is a couplet for seeking rain, and fourteen for raising the roofbeam. There are many for more general social life, such as those for archways, cattle sheds, and carts; for carpenters and metal workers, and for the “wine bureau” and pharmacy. Six further verses marked “treasury couplets” are for the funerary treasuries. The volume opens with a series of over twenty couplets for weddings, the only instance of any Daoist component for this context.

Near the end of the volume there is a series of four-character mottos—the diaolian large paper squares to be hung on the lintel where the coffin is lodged. Li Manshan has to write these regularly for funerals, but again he never needs to consult the volume: he’s been writing them from memory for over thirty years.

In all, the couplet volume suggests how pervasive Daoism was in the daily life of a previous era, but we can’t deduce how many of these couplets Li Qing or even Li Xianrong commonly used.

The fate of the new manuals
Despite all this energy in recopying, once Li Qing and his colleagues began performing ritual again, few of the segments that require the use of the manuals were to be restored in practice.

Most rituals in common use for funerals consisted of relatively short texts that could be memorized. When the manuals are needed, it is mainly for rituals that are rarely performed; and until the early 1960s, they would also have been used for the lengthy fast recited chanted scriptures that were part of temple and earth rituals, like Bafang zhou and Laojun jing. Li Peisen and Li Qing devoted considerable energy to recopying these chanted scriptures, but their optimism that they would be restored in performance under the new more liberal conditions turned out to be misplaced. So while we may treasure the manuals that they copied in the early 1980s (not least since they provide clues to former practice), we must observe that after they had been copied they were hardly consulted.

Notebooks
More prosaically, Daoists now often transcribe the texts they need into little exercise books, copying them horizontally in biro. For the sinologist they may seem unpromising: small, with plastic covers (a welcome innovation with regard to preservation), sometimes bearing cheesy pinup-type photos. Through the 1990s I myself had something of a fetish for using such kitsch notebooks for my fieldnotes, but eventually I resigned myself to the posher ones that had replaced them in the shops. But such notebooks copied since the 1980s are an important resource. They are probably the most useful guide to their current practice, even if their older manuals, elegantly copied with brush and ink, look more elegant and archaic. Household Daoists in Shuozhou county nearby have copied some long complete ritual manuals into such notebooks. Apart from convenience, after the traumas of recent times, perhaps Daoists also took instinctively to small easily-stashed notebooks, rather than more bulky old tomes.

Like all men who determine the date, Li Manshan has several small notebooks that serve as almanacs for all his complex calendrical calculations. But sometime in the 1990s he copied a little blue notebook in the traditional vertical style, with a set of ritual texts densely written over twenty-five pages. Later he wrote a black notebook with a mere fifteen texts in 21 pages, this time copied horizontally. This briefer volume may now meet most of his needs for funerals, such as Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings, but it by no means shows the full extent of his recent practice; he still performs many texts not copied there. And some of them don’t even appear in Li Qing’s lengthy hymn volume. Li Manshan may have written his blue notebook to remind him of the texts, but the black one served a different purpose (as he says, “I don’t need them, they’re in my belly”)—“Because if someone tells me I’m making it up as I go along, I can take it out and show him it’s the real deal!” So it wasn’t an aid to memory so much as a kind of certificate, almost like a license.

Li Manshan recalls that Li Qing had a similar notebook for various such texts, which we haven’t found. Did Daoists always use something similar? Of course, the beauty of the Mao jacket is that it can store such a notebook. When did notebooks become available in Yanggao? Going back through imperial history, what kind of equivalents might Daoists have used? And, if you’ll allow me a further sartorial query, what kind of pockets would they have put them in?

Perhaps the Dunhuang religious manuscripts from around the 10th century offer a clue. They include some small booklets, “the size of a pack of Lucky Strikes”, as Teiser describes them, going on to speculate nicely: “Easily transported? Hidden in a sleeve? Used surreptitiously? Studied in private?” As he remarks, “a booklet this size would serve as a perfect study guide for an officiating priest.” But with our experience now, we would wish to unpack a term like “study guide”.

* * *

In my book I go on to explore the ancestry of the texts contained in the ritual manuals. This bears on the complex issue of the relation between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection (for an outline, see here).

Some scholars have traced rituals still practiced in Jiangnan or south China to early, whole, ritual manuals in the Daoist Canon. At least in north China, this is unlikely to be at all common. Few of the texts sung there by modern household and temple Daoists appear in such early sources; many can only be documented since the late imperial period. Such a conclusion may help us modify an antiquarian tendency in Daoist studies.

All this suggests merely that these texts are part of a broad tradition related to modern temple practice. And since many of them are common to household groups over a wide area of north China, we have to take the temple link seriously. Even poor household Daoists, quite remote from urban elite traditions, with no clues in their oral history to any temple connection, turn out to have a substantial link to the nationally promulgated texts of the major temples. We can only guess at the ritual repertoires of smaller regional temples that were the links between the major temples and rural household groups.

Still, having traced a few isolated texts, it is frustrating that parallels with most of the ritual manuals remain elusive, like Communicating the Lanterns or Dispatching the Pardon (see my book, ch.13). Such repertoires look like a patchwork assembled from various sources, few of which may ever emerge. We have a few pieces of a few jigsaws, and none at all for others.

So in a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ŸRitual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part.
  • Individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and yankou—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions.
  • Scriptures: no longer performed; nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

The contrast between ritual manuals and scriptures is absolute. The scriptures, “in general circulation,” can easily be found in the Daoist Canon, their titles and contents identical. But the ritual manuals can’t be found—neither their titles nor the great bulk of individual texts within them. However, many of the individual hymns, as well as scriptures, are common with the current practice of temple priests, who happen to be Complete Perfection—notably those found in the Xuanmen risong and yankou. This doesn’t mean that the Li family tradition is or was mainly based on them, since the great bulk of the other texts in the ritual manuals cannot be traced; but the fact that “standard” temple Complete Perfection texts are the single most fruitful match with the Li family’s current repertoire should remind us that the superficial dichotomy of “folk Orthodox Unity versus temple Complete Perfection” is a mere academic fantasy.

* * *

So we do indeed need to document ritual manuals, but it is performance that is primary. Daoists aren’t dependent on the manuals, relying on much knowledge that can’t be reflected in them; so rather than being the main object of study, they should be an adjunct to our study of changing performance practice.

While it is with the Li family that I collected most ritual manuals, see the many posts under Local ritual for other manuals around north Shanxi and Hebei.

 

[1] For fine accounts of the whole process in south Fujian, see Kenneth Dean, “Funerals in Fujian” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988) and his Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China (1993).

[2] With the study of ritual manuals dominated by south China, the general term keyiben 科儀本 has become standard in scholarship. I don’t know if this term is commonly used by southern Daoists, but it isn’t heard in the north. In Hebei they often refer to ritual manuals as jingjuan, but in north Shanxi the more prosaic term is jingshu or jingben, or even the innocent-sounding shu “books.” Since manual titles often end with the term keyi, they could notionally call those manuals “keyiben”—but they don’t. For such vocabulary, see here.

[3] Cf. amateur ritual associations in Hebei, where many manuals were copied in the short-lived restoration of the early 1960s: see Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.67–396, and many posts under Local ritual.

[4] For the production of early Ten Kings scrolls from Dunhuang, see Stephen Teiser, The Scripture of the Ten Kings and the making of purgatory in medieval Buddhism (1994), pp.88–90, 94–101. 16 or 17 characters per line seems common down the ages, but the number of lines per page is variable—some modern printed scriptures produced by the Baiyunguan in Beijing have only 5 lines per page (half of a folded page of 10 lines).

Shanxi sect performs in Beijing

cof

Last week, through the auspices of the dynamic Professor Cao Xinyu of People’s University, the Department of Religious Studies at Peking University managed to invite a ritual group from north Shanxi to perform for a symposium.

Mingzong 2

Cao Xinyu explains the sect’s background.

Moreover, this is no orthodox troupe of temple monks, but a pious amateur sectarian group of ordinary villagers. They belong to the extensive network of the Mingzong sect, whose history and texts Cao Xinyu has ably documented. With a membership of both men and women, they perform a cappella vocal liturgy as part of long complex ritual sequences for their local devotees—notably the sect’s distinctive “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷), with their complex performing structures (see e.g. here, and here, under “The scrolls in performance”).

The sect maintained activity even after Liberation, and with their virtuous reputation they have long been tolerated by the local authorities. Alas, their venerable leader Wang Ji (1950–2017), who steered the group through the reform era, didn’t live to take part in this trip; but Cao Xinyu has now been able to realize Wang’s wish for the group to visit Beijing, with his disciples including his widow and sister.

Wang Ji 2003

Wang Ji (right) explains the structure of a “precious scroll” to Shanxi scholar Jing Weigang, My photo, Yanggao 2003.

All over China, devotional sects are a major aspect of folk religious life (cf. this recent film on a Hakka sect). While their vicissitudes since 1949 remain a sensitive topic, such groups offer important material to document local histories and regional transmissions since the Ming dynasty—for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of “music”.

It’s also good to see the culture of this unassuming corner of north Shanxi recognized further, following visits of the Li family Daoists to Beijing in 1990 and 2013 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.175, 340–41) and their foreign tours—as well as those of the Hua family shawm band.

Of course, the event wasn’t a religious ritual but a low-profile symposium, in a literary historical context. While it’s no substitute for attending their observances in local context, it’s impressive not only that ritual life continues but that scholars of folk religion, alongside all their fine academic studies, can still “get things done” and bring life to silent immobile textual research.

功德無量!

Gushan sect 2003.2

Between ritual segments, 2003. My photo.

 

King Kong: temple Chinglish

The intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes continue to bear fruit.

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

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

indemnity tuo

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

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

King Kong

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

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

Wenshu tang

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

* * *

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

kaiguang

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

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

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

 

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

 

With thanks to Hannibal

 

 

Daoist ritual in southwest Shanxi

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Shanxi pics

This article introduces household Complete Perfection Daoist groups in the counties south of Linfen city.

Since southwest Shanxi is another region that I haven’t visited, my account is based on limited secondary sources, so this is more of an invitation than a report. So this is a modest if more colourful update of the material in ch.4 of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. Even if many details need clarifying, we gain a tantalizing glimpse into grass-roots Daoism since imperial times.

And following my articles on the worship of the goddess Houtu on the Hebei plain, I also give a note on Houtu temples in south Shanxi.

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.

Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

2005: Guo Yuhua chats with the last man in Jicun village still wearing the traditional headscarf of the north Chinese peasant, iconic image of the revolution. Photo courtesy Guo Yuhua.

During my recent sojourn in Beijing, as well as my lecture series at Beishida and film screenings at People’s University and Peking University, it was a great inspiration to meet up again with the fine anthropologist Guo Yuhua 郭于华 (b.1956).

She’s done an interview for Ian Johnson (latest in a fine series for the NYRB; this interview is also instructive, as well as this earlier one in Chinese, as well as recent posts by David Ownby and Jonathan Chatwin), so here I’d just like to add my own personal reflections on her extensive oeuvre, with further material on fieldwork. [1]

1 Introduction
Introduced in London by the great Stephan Feuchtwang in the 1990s, we later met up in Beijing. In 1999 she took me to the Shaanbei village that was already a major focus of her research. In March 2018, not having seen her for ages, I was keen to catch up.

Professor of sociology at Tsinghua university in Beijing since 2000, Guo Yuhua is widely admired by scholars in China and abroad, maintaining high academic repute in the innovative sociology department alongside Shen Yuan 沈原 and Sun Liping 孙立平[2] What distinguishes them from other China anthropologists—both in China and abroad—is their rigorous critique of “Communist civilisation”.

I meet Guo Yuhua on the vast Tsinghua campus one afternoon and we go to a quiet café. I sip a bucket-sized strawberry frappé for hours as she delivers a passionate tirade/lecture, talking non-stop.

After gaining her PhD at Beishida and doing a post-doc at Harvard, by the 1990s Guo Yuhua was involved in a major project on oral history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), documenting villagers’ personal experiences of the Maoist era—a project very far from the traditional oral history of folklorists.

Her early fieldwork focused on folk culture (as was the vogue at the time), but as she began delving deeper she moved onto the wider, and deeper, social and political systems of modern life. In 1999 she edited the influential book

  • Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs),

with contributions from leading scholars like Wang Mingming and Luo Hongguang. Most articles explore the complex relation between local society and the state. Apart from her introduction, her own article there expounds many of the issues in her 2013 book (see below):

  • “Minjian shehui yu yishi guojia: yizhong quanli shijiande jieshi” 民间社会于仪式国家:一种权利实践的解释 (陕北骥村的仪式于社会变迁研究) [Folk society and the ritual state: an interpretation of the practice of power (Ritual and social change in Jicun, Shaanbei)].

Guo Yuhua was an early blogger, later moving onto Weibo, Wechat and Twitter, where she is indefatigable in exposing injustice and defending rights.

Surveying her activist online activity, it might seem as if she’s changed paths since her early fieldwork on rural society and ritual, towards a deeper political engagement. But far from it, it’s all a continuum (“the whole dragon” again)—the social concern was always there. Amidst the current threat to our own values in the USA and Europe, many Western scholars may now be appreciating her wisdom.

But in China, such a principled stance requires more determination. Guo Yuhua’s blog and social media accounts have long been regularly blocked or censored. As she observes, in the face of constant scrutiny, it’s never clear where the line is—you just have to keep probing. The Party can’t control thought totally—the genie is out of the bottle, and China has to stay open for business; social media stills brings information and can be astutely deployed. Still, plain speaking is easier for established scholars than for younger scholars starting out.

I’m scribbling notes as she talks, but after a while my pen runs out. I suggest, “Is this one of Theirs, trying to stop me writing down your Thoughts?!

Apart from her Tsinghua colleagues, scholars she admires include historians Qin Hui 秦晖 and Zhang Ming 张鸣; and in legal studies, Xu Zhangrun 许章润 (for the latest in a series of critiques, see here; and for Guo’s defence after his 2019 suspension, here), He Weifang 贺卫方, and Zhang Qianfan 张千帆 (individual articles also on aisixiang.com—gosh, what an important resource this site is!). Guo Yuhua is part of a chorus of scholars criticizing the “New Rural Construction” campaign, with its coercive programmes of expulsion.

Complementing her through background in Western sociology, her work builds on Chinese tradition—like Fei Xiaotong’s candid account of villages evading state collective policy (Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution, p.280).

Though she is closely surveilled even when she does rural fieldwork, she never loses her sense of humour—she has lots of funny stories about her fieldwork, and being surveilled. She seems cool and open, knowing she’s doing the moral thing, saying what needs to be said, on the basis of her rich practical and theoretical experience, with careful detailed scholarly research. She speaks for truth, that of the common people among whom the CCP once gained support by espousing. She does all this not out of “bravery” but more as a duty, like the patriotic intellectuals of yore. As she comments in the NYRB interview,

Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

And she still manages to take teaching very seriously. Her courses, with impressive reading lists, include rural sociology, research methods, and the sociology of politics. Taking students on village fieldwork, she even does livestreams.

Such Chinese scholarship doesn’t tally neatly with Western concepts of left and right.  Over here, last time I looked, those who strive for social justice and speak truth to entrenched conservative power are considered on the left. But When Guo Yuhua visited the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle in 2016, making a critique of Karl Polanyi’s views on the market economy, their views were at odds.

While she understands my lament that some foreign media coverage seems to suggest that Chinese people are brainwashed automatons, she still worries that many are indoctrinated. Like in the USA, I ask? I may sometimes feel uncomfortable with foreign China-watchers’ monolithic portrayal of an evil surveillance state, but Guo Yuhua, in the thick of it, commands great authority.

* * *

Fieldwork may stimulate a social conscience (cf. journalistic reports like those of Liao Yiwu), and anthropology has a long history of activism—if less so for China. The task is to understand different lives, and speak out on people’s behalf—obvious topical instances including Syrian refugees and Beijing migrants.

I’m tempted to wonder, isn’t this a natural career path for any anthropologist (or indeed priest) working among the poor? What may seem more curious is that many, whether Chinese or foreign, don’t follow such a path. Exposure to the lives, and cultures, of rural dwellers should inevitably prompt us to ponder their situation—but that rarely surfaces clearly in the literature on China. And it does seem to lead naturally to a principled involvement with issues of social justice. So perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary of anthropology, and “experts” in general.

The anthropology of ritual and expressive culture in China may seem somewhat separate from such social and political enquiry, but it needs to absorb such lessons (as I often suggest. e.g, here). So with much research on Chinese music and Daoist studies still blinkered and stuck in reification and myths of an earlier idealized past, I’ve long looked to anthropology for inspiration. Still, compared to the 1990s when one could do meaningful work, Guo Yuhua finds the current anthropological scene in China backward, with funding ever more politically controlled.

Of course, anthropologists don’t only study exotic tribes and peasants. They may also explore the lives of the legions of those who make “our” own pampered lifestyles possible—cleaners, migrants, construction workers, often from poor villages whose conditions the anthropologists may also experience.

The fabled Chinese Masses may have been thoroughly exploited under Maoism, but since the reforms they have been serially demoted from the empty epithet of laobaixing to flagrant “low quality” (suzhi di) to “low-end population” (diduan renkou). Guo Yuhua is always on their side.

2 Narratives of the sufferers
There’s already a substantial literature in Chinese and foreign languages not only on Shaanbei-ology (see also Shaanbei tag) but on the village of Yangjiagou (Guo Yuhua uses its old name, Jicun). It features prominently in my own book

Adapted from pp.xxvi–xxvii there:

In the hills east of Mizhi county-town, Yangjiagou has been the object of study for a steady stream of Chinese and foreign scholars. It is not necessarily typical, in that it was home to a dominant local landlord clan in the Republican period, and has been visited by sociologists since the 1930s; since Chairman Mao stayed there in 1947 it has become a minor revolutionary pilgrimage site. Sociologists with new agendas have made thorough restudies since the 1990s, and recently a Japanese team has published a book on its architecture, soundscape, and society. Today villagers have become all too accustomed to outsiders. However, the revolutionary connection hasn’t protected it from poverty. Though only 18 kilometres from the main road, it was a difficult journey until 1999. The village gained electricity only in the early 1980s, and its first telephone only in 2000. Though Yangjiagou’s musical traditions have been declining since the 1930s, they were maintained into the reform era. My modest contribution to Yangjiagou studies is to attempt to put the lives of its bards and its shawm-band musicians since the 1930s in the wider Shaanbei context.

By the time Guo Yuhua took me on my first fieldtrip to Shaanbei in 1999 she was already engaged in an important oral history project there. I suppose my tagging along with her confirmed my gradual shift towards the more social approach that had already been emerging in my work with Chinese colleagues in Hebei—an approach more embedded in the changing lives of people than was, or is, the fashion in either musicology or Daoist studies.

It was a great trip, instructive and fun—even if she was doubtless underwhelmed by my limited ability to behave suitably with either peasants or cadres. But I learned a lot from her, from the warmth and honesty of her rapport with villagers, right down to little practical details like buying a modest amount of incense paper as a suitable gift on attending funerals.

We spent some time around the Black Dragon Temple—another site which she and Luo Hongguang were studying, later covered in Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response—before going to stay in Yangjiagou.

Guo Yuhua’s principled stance is shown in a nice story from our fieldwork together. In my Shaanbei book (p.147) I describe how I found some obscure tapes of shawm bands there:

I sweated blood to get hold of some of these cassettes. Few shops stock more than a couple of them, and I finally tracked down a selection on an expedition by foot to a dingy general store in the sleepy township near Yangjiagou. As I eyed the cassettes up over the counter, the dour assistant—who apparently hadn’t ever sold any of them, and certainly not to a foreigner—spotted a business opportunity. She ingenuously asked 5 yuan each for them—I had enough experience to realize they sold at around 2 yuan. My companion Guo Yuhua was indignant, and we launched into some increasingly impolite haggling. But the assistant wouldn’t budge. I generally get angry when people try to overcharge me in China, but having been searching for these tapes for years, in this case I was inclined to allow myself to be ripped off—the three tapes I had set my heart on would still cost less than a half-pint of London beer. But for Guo Yuhua the principle was clear, and she dragged me out of the shop, refusing to let me part with my money.

After some spirited exchanges as we set off back to Yangjiagou along the filthy main track, debating the balance between adhering to principle and yielding to corruption, I dashed back to the shop and bought them at the inflated price, flinging the money at the assistant with a vain display of sarcasm that went clear over her head.

Guo Yuhua reminds me how my visits to the latrine always prompted the “patriotic” family dog, chained worryingly nearby, to bark fiercely—but a visit from a district cadre also aroused its ire, so it had a certain taste. Another vignette:

One day in 1999 we visit a former village cadre—who also happens to be a spirit medium—to chat with him while his wife prepares lunch for us (“Typical!“), when in walks a young policeman from the township nearby, in search of a signature from our host for some bureaucratic trifle. I’m a bit alarmed, not so much as we’re kinda talking about some sensitive stuff here, but because as the climate relaxed through the 1990s we had reckoned we could probably economize on the laborious rounds of local permits that my forays once invited. Sure enough, the cop eyes me somewhat ferociously and goes, “What’s this wog [oh yes, there’s another story!] doing here?”

When our host explains that I’m from England, even before I can launch into some spiel about collecting the fine local folk music heritage, blah-blah, international cultural exchange, blah blah, he is open-mouthed. “Do you like Manchester United?” he asks, spellbound. Relieved, I launch into my Beckham routine, we exchange cigarettes as we discuss the prospects for the World Cup, and he leaves contented.

On my second stay there in 2001, this time accompanied by Zhang Zhentao, I spent more time with the village’s lowly shawm players (see below), and appreciated them a lot.

An important book
Propaganda is pervasive—and not just in China, as this recent attempt at debating the British legacy shows. The romantic patriotic image of Shaanbei (cf. my post One belt, one road), deriving first from Mao’s base there on the eve of “Liberation”, is now further entrenched by the bland legends of Xi Jinping’s seven years there as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua’s article on Jicun in Ritual and social change already broached many of the issues expounded in her 2013 book

  • Shoukurende jiangshu: Jicun lishi yu yizhong wenming de luoji [Narratives of the sufferers: The history of Jicun and the logic of civilization] (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2013)
    (for Chinese reviews, see e.g. this by Sun Peidong, herself hounded out of her post at Fudan in 2020).

封面

If I were King of China (an unlikely scenario), it would be required reading for all. But I’m not, it’s not, and even to find a copy in the PRC may take a certain ingenuity.

As Guo Yuhua writes [Harriet Evans’s translation],

We discovered that ordinary peasants are both able and willing to narrate their own history, as long as the researcher is a sincere, respectful, serious and understanding listener.

Notwithstanding my comment that ethnography is about description, not prescription,

Bourdieu and his collaborators’ work in listening to these people’s stories and entering their lives can be seen as a fulfillment of the sociologist’s political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of the social suffering of ordinary people.

The peasants of Ji village where we have been carrying out fieldwork for many years refer to themselves as “sufferers”. This is not a term that we as researchers have imposed on the subjects of our research; rather it is the definition that villagers give to themselves. In the region surrounding Ji village, “sufferer” is a traditional term that peasants continue to use today to refer to those who farm the land present. In local language, the “sufferers” are those who “make a living” on the land; it is a local term that is popularly accepted and conveys no sense of discrimination. When you ask a local person what he is doing the common response is “zaijia shouku” (lit. “suffering at home”), in other words, making a living farming the land.
[from Harriet Evans’s translation].

In the Hong Kong interview Guo Yuhua explains,

Of course, in doing oral history we would never expect people to “tell about your suffering”—we’d never ask like that. Rather, we ask them to tell us their stories: how their life was when they were young, when they grew up, married and became parents. We don’t go in search of suffering, and their accounts aren’t entirely about pain. Sometimes their stories sound really painful, but they will talk very ironically. Often we find women laughing and crying at the same time—one moment crying as they talk of heartache, the next finding it funny how foolish they must have been at the time.
[…]
Scholars aren’t some Arts Propaganda Troupe [!!!]—we don’t have to extol how happy and contented we are nowadays, that’s not our job [cf. “WTF” article in n.1 below]. Our job is to view the issues in this society, to understand the painful experiences of ordinary people, and where they come from.

Citing Xu Ben 徐贲 (For what do human beings remember? 人以什么理由来记忆) and Wu Wenguang’s project on the famine, she goes on to discuss the significance of memory.

Apart from the villagers’ own accounts, the subtlety and perception of Guo Yuhua’s enquiries are a model for fieldworkers (e.g. 211–12).

As we will always find, the village’s history is utterly remote from its model revolutionary image. You might think it would take more effort to ignore what happens than to document it, but people have been effectively groomed in public amnesia. The case of Yangjiagou is all the more revealing since it is a common rosy theme online, including videos, based on the image of Mao’s sojourn there and the whole CCP myth-making. It also makes a good case because there were no excess deaths there in the “famine”; unlike the labour camp stories, it’s a story not so much of extreme degradation but rather the routine degradation of daily life—the constant hunger, duplicity, and brutality.

Breaking free of the simplistic class narrative of Maoism, Guo Yuhua’s thorough theoretical Introduction [3] is inspired notably by Bourdieu, as well as authors like James Scott, Philip Huang, and Guha and Spivak; for the stories of women, she cites Marjorie Shostak.

Clearly written and structured, the book highlights the vivid voices of the local “sufferers” (including former “landlords”, cadres, women, and so on), linked by her trenchant commentaries.

GYH 2006

Chat with village women, 2006.

The memories of women form a major component of the story, on which she reflects thoughtfully—not least issues in eliciting their more domestic world-view (e.g. 127–37; cf. this article).

Women do recognize the social “conviviality” (honghuo) of being forced out of the house to work in the collective fields. [4] But the true impact of hunger hits home in their accounts of childcare, with the constant anguish of being unable to feed their children.

In the Hong Kong interview she expands on the changing status of women, as ever disputing the Party line:

Some scholars consider that after rural women had experienced the female liberation (elevating their status), they regressed after the reforms. But after you have done fieldwork among rural women and listened to them describing their life experiences, you will realize that it simply couldn’t be called “liberation”. However is liberation passive? To be called liberation it has to be autonomous, personal. Their status was merely changed: previously dependent on family and lineage, they were now dependent on the state and the collective. They remained tools, objects, being organized and mobilized into collective labour against their will. What they seem to be telling is how they fell sick, exhausted by labouring, looking after children, sewing, enduring famine amidst a lack of material goods. Such accounts may sound like trivial matters, but the whole background it is quite clear what it really meant to be a rural woman, and what it was that created their plight. With no room for choice, women had to do what they were told; they had to take on the most exhausting, physically demanding tasks, not even able to recuperate properly after giving birth, thus subjecting them to disease. Their condition was one of enslavement.

After the reforms, they could leave the village to work, and there were plenty of active young women able to use their determination and aptitude to change their fate to some extent. This was definitely progress, but it wasn’t an automatic process: there were still many constraints, with injustices at many institutional levels. Still, although many girls don’t appear independent, and may choose to find a good husband, at least they have this choice; or they can choose to go and study, become female enterpreneurs and independent women. All this gives them more choices than under the collective era.

Adroitly adopting the recent CCP buzzword hexie 和谐, Guo Yuhua pointedly details how—both under Maoism and since the reforms (121, 240–41)—the “harmonious” social relations of the old society were polarized and moral values poisoned.

The revolution brought to the fore the less reputable elements in local society, like the local bully who used his new power as an activist under the CCP to torture a “landlord” into giving him his young daughter in marriage (60–61). And the villagers remained disgusted despite his political power. As she notes, facing such problems in mobilizing the masses, “the use of bad people became the only choice” (112–14).

As throughout Shaanbei, infant mortality rates were high, both before Liberation and under Maoism. Apologists like Mobo Gao point out certain advances (in healthcare, education, and so on) under the commune system; the Mizhi county gazetteer (p.630) [5] claims an increase in life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 60 by 1989. Indeed, the villagers concede that some of the economic advances since the reform era were based on the desperate projects under Maoism.

But for Guo Yuhua such defences are derisory. On my interminable bus journey back to Beijing in 2001 I chatted with a modest young guy from poor Jiaxian county who was studying for an economics PhD at People’s University in Beijing; he was one of fifteen children, of whom only three had survived.

In numerous villages like this where there was no resentment towards the landlords (they were widely considered “benevolent”), and the concept of “exploitation” was alien, the CCP had to manufacture “class hatred” by the indocrination of constant campaigns. Landlords and their children, educated and able, joined both sides of the conflict, working away from the village until they were dragged back to be punished as “sacrificial victims”, notably with the layoffs from state work-units around 1962 (another universal theme in my own studies, e.g. Li Qing in Yanggao: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18).

She concludes: “Overall, before 1946 Jicun was a relatively tranquil and serene traditional village.” (Discuss…)

The new rulers now had to foster class consciousness. With both oral accounts and substantial official sources Guo Yuhua documents the stages of land reform, with its inevitable corruption and theft. [6] Conscription, brutally enforced (108–10), added to their woes. Citing Zhang Ming (see above), she shows how the goal of land reform was not economic but political (113).

She refutes the CCP myths of “temporary problems” like the Cultural Revolution, or the “three years of difficulty”: just as I found in north Shanxi, villagers were starving for over two decades, from collectivization right until privatization.

After a brief interlude when the peasants at least nominally had their own land, a long succession of political rituals now cowed the villagers into obedience, condemning them to long-term hunger, exhaustion, and sickness. Having already suffered famine in winter 1947–8, their hunger became ever more severe as collectivization was enforced; one villager recalls that from 1958 to 1979 it got worse year by year (154). Scavenging was the only hope of survival. We may note certain parallels in the fate of a First Nation community in Canada.

Coercion was an intrinsic component of the whole system, and excessive violence was rewarded (236­–8). As the objects of attack soon expanded from the landlord class to the whole rural population (114), campaigns became a life-or-death struggle.

In describing the stages of collectivization, Guo Yuhua reminds us of the traditional voluntary methods of mutual help, and the whole ethical system, that were demolished (117–21).

Stressing the militarization of society, she details the whole succession of what the villagers call “a fucked-up flim-flam” (luanqibazaode mingtang 乱七八糟的名堂)—like short-lived care enterprises for children and the childless elderly, largely unsuccessful literacy campaigns, the failure to teach revolutionary songs. After the sheer desperation following the Great Leap and the short-lived communal canteens, the interlude when private plots were tolerated from 1961, giving peasants a slender lifeline, was all too brief before the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns led into the Cultural Revolution, as hunger became endemic again. Cadres were just as clueless as ordinary villagers about the details and goals of these “rotten” campaigns; and the aims of factional fighting (180–82) were no clearer, apart from the constant cycle of petty revenge that the whole system had long fostered.

Apart from the persecution of cadres, the landlords again made inevitable scapegoats. Only two villagers met violent deaths in the Cultural Revolution (and that after the main violence of 1966–8)—but their story still haunts villagers today (182–6).

With its landlord history, the village had a wealth of fine old architecture. Nearly forty years after a stone mason was recruited to detonate “the finest archway in Shaanbei”, Guo Yuhua finds him to tell the story.

Fufengzhai

The former landlord stronghold, 1999.

As in Europe, even today the older buildings that somehow survived look picturesque—as long as you don’t dwell too much on the indignities that they have witnessed.

By the 1960s villagers’ disillusion was complete. Still, Guo Yuhua notes their own later conflicted memories (cf. the Soviet nostalgia for Stalinism):

  • the sense of conviviality (honghuo) enforced by collective labour (including singing haozi work hollers), which she compares with the “collective effervescence” of ritual;
  • the sense that they were all in the same boat—scant consolation when people were all destitute and starving together, but contrasting with their later atomization since the reforms:

Out we went, voices all round, chattering away merrily, convivial all of a sudden. As soon as we got back home, there was nothing to eat, the kids were crying, clothes all tattered, nothing to mend them with—just that moment of conviviality.
[…]

Commenting on their more recent memories, she notes

Material amelioration and the deterioration of social life, as well as nostalgia for the collective life produced by their escalating marginalization, to some extent transforms and even conflicts with their memories of suffering.

  • and their startling ironic “logic” that with the collapse of the commune system the CCP slogan “first bitter, then sweet” (coined to contrast the old feudal society with the Communist Utopia) had indeed finally come to pass with the present material sufficiency—albeit several decades too late, and only after the collapse of the very system that had touted the boast (156–65). For some, the transition

from collective to privatization wasn’t a retrogressive transformation of correcting the mistakes of the system, but like a natural “first bitter, then sweet” cause-and-effect.

She notes the villagers’ sullen passive resistance in showing up for collective labour without working, citing the dictum of Qin Hui (see above) that communes from which people can’t withdraw are no different from concentration camps.

Since the reforms
As the stultifying commune system collapsed (“rotted” as they say, lan nongyeshe 烂农业社; another common expression for the privatizing reforms is dan’gan 单干, “going it alone”), the book describes the long complex process of adjustment.

With villagers clamouring to overthrow the commune system, at first some cadres hesitated to stick their necks out, anxious that the political winds might change yet again.

A vivid exchange in an interview with a former cadre:

Later it became the norm, the whole county was dividing up…
[Woman interjects:] It was spring. I remember dividing up the donkeys, don’t I.
Cattle, you mean cattle.
[They argue over whether it was donkeys or cattle…]

As for villagers in north Shanxi, this was the real “Liberation”:

Going it alone was great, just great. If we’d have gone on in the collective, in a few more years there’d be no-one alive, we’d all have fucking starved to death [laughs]—really! (212)

Guo Yuhua goes on to reflect on the mechanism that had enabled such coercion, and the villagers’ own assessment of the changing times, including their reservations about the way society had gone on to evolve (213–21).

In the final chapter she draws conclusions, exploring the “logic” of both sufferers and the system that they endured, and warning that the campaign style is still active.

In an Appendix (also online) entitled “Doves occupying the magpie’s nest” she updates the story, reflecting on later visits in 2005 and 2006. The dwelling where Mao stayed from 1947–8 had been revamped as “Commemorative hall to the revolution”, and the former ancestral hall of the Ma landlords was being converted to an “Commemorative hall to the battle relocation in Shaanbei”, an “educational base on the revolution”. No room for the villagers’ own voices here.

Taking a tour of Mao’s old dwelling she suddenly realizes that two of the cave-dwellings—former residence of Peng Dehuai, no less—had become the home of the eccentric villager Liudan, whose father had made such a deep impression on Guo Yuhua that she had published an article about him in 1998:

Though from a landlord background, he was considered “enlightened gentry”, and was on the advisory team for land reform. Becoming a teacher away from the village, he was yet another victim of the state cuts in 1962, having to return home. He now became “maladjusted”, cut off from village life.

Now, amazingly, his son Liudan was still occupying the two caves in the revolutionary site, adamantly refusing the state’s handsome offer of money to move out. Never able to find a wife, he too was unable to work; most villagers understood his seeming mental deficiency as a highly astute form of passive resistance. Even recently he was still something of a down-and-out. As Guo Yuhua observes, his refusal to move out was reminiscent of both the indignant protests of evicted urban dwellers and the struggle over whose version of history will prevail; but given his mental frailty, his resistance was rather complex.

Anyway, we needn’t hold our breaths for a memorial to the victims of Maoism, to match the commemoration sites in Germany for those of Nazism and the GDR.

And Guo Yuhua still manages to go back regularly to Yangjiagou—even as year by year, fewer people remain who can recall the period before “Liberation”; before long, who will remember the Great Leap Backward?

GYH 2011

Village chat. 2011.

As in Europe, we all visit sites where people were tortured and murdered within living memory, yet we may merely see them as picturesque—an image avidly promoted by Chinese propaganda.

* * *

Language
One feature that enriches the authenticity of the book is its direct citations of villagers’ accounts in their own words. Thus it also serves as a kind of practical handbook for Shaanbei dialect. Use of language, of course, lends insights into people’s conceptual world. [7]

Apart from having to latch on to regional pronunciations, like de (duo), hou (hao), he (hei), bie (bei), ha (xia), ka (qu), and so on, Guo Yuhua soon helped me pick up some basic expressions, like haikai 解开 “understand” and chuanka 串去 “go for a stroll”. Now I can finally savour the language of her meticulous documenting of peasants’ reflections, albeit twenty years too late—basic expressions like nazhen 那阵 “then” (jiuqian 旧前 “in the old days”); zhezhen 这阵 or erke 尔刻 “now”; laoha 老下 “dead”; yiman 一漫 “totally”; ele 恶了 “very” (not the standard feichang). The whole commune system is known as nongyeshe 农业社 or daheying 大合营; for collective labour they say dongdan 动弹.

Among the many pleasures of peasant language is its liberal use of expletives, a revealing contrast with the standard Chinese of propaganda—polished, polite, and so flagrantly false as to insult the intelligence.

Religion and ritual
Guo Yuhua’s PhD, which became the book

  • Side kunrao yu shengde zhizhuo 生的困扰与死的执着:中国民间丧葬仪式与传统生死观 [The puzzle of death and the obstinacy of life: Chinese folk mortuary ritual and traditional concepts of life and death] (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin daxue cbs, 1992),

largely concerned traditional rural mortuary rituals, and remains stimulating (note her fieldnotes from Shanxi and Shaanxi, pp.198–217). Indeed, her 2000 article on Jicun in Ritual and social change contains more material on changing temple life there than does her 2013 book.

While she has moved on from ritual to broader social issues, she recognizes the importance of both religion and religious studies in China. I think of de Martino‘s fieldwork on taranta in south Italy, also engaging with the plight of the sufferers.

Guo Yuhua sees religion and myth as behaviour with long historical roots to explain the world, a kind of survival technique. (cf. Ju Xi). In an email she notes similarities with the CCP’s enforced belief system:

If the latter is as “scientific” as they claim, then it too should be subject to corroborating or refuting; it should be explored, debated, doubted, critiqued. But the current reality is that it demands unconditional veneration as an item of faith, even written into the constitution—a totally illogical position.

Religious studies should take account of such [sociological] approaches, rather than mere descriptive documentation or “salvage”—viable cultures will endure and evolve without such measures. Given the importance of religion in society, as long as studies takes account of its social basis, then it’s a worthy discipline.

As she observed in interview, alluding to the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft debate,

If you say, Chinese tradition is such a society of rites and customs (lisu 礼俗), not of legal rationality (fali 法理), then its distinctive feature is human governance. To be satisfied with this explanation is to shirk responsibility, because if everything goes back to the ancestors, then what is there for us to do? If one wants true reform, I think we have to start from the institutional level, so naturally we have to transfer our attentions towards institutions, or more precisely, the interactive configuration of culture and human nature. 

Expressive culture
My taste of fieldwork with Guo Yuhua only increased my own quest to relate local expressive cultures to politics and society—a common goal of ethnomusicologists, but much less commonly achieved for China.

On one hand, the study of imperial China is eminently necessary, but for many Chinese scholars it has had the added attraction of being relatively safe (cf. former Yugoslavia). Studies of culture and ritual, too, tend to be an autonomous zone into which social change since 1900 rarely intrudes.

As the state has receded somewhat since the 1980s, it may seem slightly less risky to document the current fortunes of folk genres, though this too often descends into a simplistic lament about the lack of a new generation; and as the overall society certainly becomes more affluent, those stark social problems that do remain continue to be taboo. So we accumulate dry lists of ritual manuals and sequences, vocal and instrumental items, and birthdates of performers.

Meanwhile, social and political change is often seen only through the lens of “revolutionary” culture, while living (or at least only semi-moribund) traditional vocal and instrumental genres are imprisoned in museums and libraries, and their performances sanitized for the concert platform. Their history under Maoism is blandly encapsulated by listing a few isolated performances at secular regional festivals, along with a standard clichéd sentence on the “mistakes” of the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua tellingly describes the replacement of traditional ritual culture by that of political campaigns—although in my Shaanbei book I note the enduring strands of tradition even through the years of Maoism. While the lives of blind bards and shawm players feature in her account, I think my own focus on them in my book still makes a useful supplement.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang, 1999.

In my survey of itinerant storytellers in Shaanbei, my accounts of the changing fortunes of the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known as “Immortal Li”, Li xian) also derive from Guo Yuhua’s close relationship with him (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei). As this article grows, I’ve written about him and other bards in a separate post.

Another major theme of my Shaanbei book, and the accompanying DVD (§B, cf. my comments on the funeral clip from Wang Bing‘s recent film), is the village’s shawm band. Such bands belong to the traditional litany of social outcasts. One of Guo Yuhua’s main informants is Older Brother, the sweet semi-blind shawm player who features in my own book and DVD (cf. blind shawm players in Yanggao, north Shanxi).

Yangjiagou funeral 1999

Yangjiagou funeral, 1999. Older Brother second from left.

While I was filming the procession to the hilltop grave, setting off before dawn, Guo Yuhua was taking photos:

funeral climb 1

funeral climb 2

grave

In a society where no matter how desperate people were, even vagrancy offered no hope (p.162), Older Brother tells Guo Yuhua how, with his family starving, he reluctantly went on the road begging in the second half of 1968 (pp.133–4, 193–6), led by a sighted old man from a martyred revolutionary family. In a moving account, he tells how they went on a long march throughout Shaanbei, sleeping rough; they were treated kindly on the road, learning to beg for scraps. When conditions allowed simple funerals, he even played his shawm, his companion accompanying on cymbals. He would find people to write letters home to his father to reassure him he was still alive. By the winter he had found a rather secure village base where he was hopeful of eking a living, but this enabled his father to track him down and summon him home.

It may seem ironic to cite Mao here, but as he observed,

There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.

So did the socialist arts Serve the People, meeting their needs? Whose needs do state propaganda units like the Intangible Cultural Heritage serve now? Of course, while the state has its own agenda for the latter, local actors can utilize it to achieve their own requirements, as several scholars have observed (and that is perhaps the only thing that can be said for it).

As I suggested in my post on the recent film of Wang Bing, this is the context in which we blithely analyse the scales, melodies, and structures of Chinese music. Primed with Guo Yuhua’s book, you’ll never again want to read the bland reified propaganda from the ICH.

* * *

In her book, as in her whole scholarly output, Guo Yuhua makes a rational and forceful indictment based on detailed evidence, a passionate plea for heeding the voices of ordinary people and rewriting history.

All this may be a rather familiar story abroad (from individual studies like those of Chan, Madsen and Unger (Chen village), Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes on Wugong, Jing Jun’s The temple of memories, my own Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family, or the broader brush of Frank Dikötter—I hardly dare mention the few apologists like William Hinton and Mobo Gao, to whom Guo Yuhua gives short shrift). But it feels yet more incisive coming from PRC scholars, and her research is both detailed and amply theorized. The only aspect where the stories of Chen village and Wugong may make more impact is that they follow individual lives, whereas most of Guo Yuhua’s citations are anonymized.

While her work such as that on Jicun exposes the tragic failures and outrages of the Maoist decades, she is also relentless in denouncing current abuses—always upholding the values of social justice and the liberation of the sufferers, inspired by the same concern for the welfare of Chinese people that once made the CCP popular. (For my own nugatory contribution to Xi Jinping studies, see here, and even here.)

I seem to be suggesting a rebalancing from the newly-revived Guoxue 国学 (“national studies”: traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism) towards Guoxue 郭学 (Guo Yuhua studies). She bridges the gap between politics, anthropology, and cultural studies. Whether you’re interested in society, civil rights, history, music, or ritual, let’s all read her numerous publications—and do follow her on social media.

 

[1] Many of her important articles are collected here, including several related to her work in Shaanbei. For another major recent article, see here (or here). For a brief yet penetrating and indignant essay, try “OMG, not that stupid ‘happiness’ again?!” My thanks to Guo Yuhua, Stephan Feuchtwang, Harriet Evans, and Ian Johnson for further background.

[2] For a translation of Sun’s recent article, soon blocked from WeChat, see here. For a useful English account of the Tsinghua group, see here; and yet another fine anthropologist there is Jing Jun 景军. For Wang Mingming at Peking University just up the road, see here.

[3] §4 of which was translated by Harriet Evans as “Narratives of the ‘sufferer’ as historical testimony”, in Arif Dirlik et al. (eds.). Sociology and anthropology in twentieth-century China: between universalism and indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2012), pp.333–57.

[4] Guo Yuhua notes that traditionally women’s main opportunity for public interaction was at the 3rd-moon temple fair for Our Lady, but I wonder if their exclusion from the ritual sphere was so severe: female spirit mediums had been, and still are, a major element in ritual life.

[5] The silence of the 1993 Mizhi county gazetteer on the privations and indignities of the Maoist decades makes the frank accounts in the Yanggao gazetteer (also 1993) all the more impressive: see my Daoist priests of the Li family, e.g. pp.100–101, 123.

[6] Hinton, in his classic Fanshen, also documents complexities, but within an overall positive tone.

[7] I’m not sure how rare this is in academia, but it has been adopted by novelists such as Li Rui and Liu Zhenyun. In Sun Peidong’s review she cites Han Shaogong’s novel A dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao zidian 马桥词典), set in Hunan, for its unpacking of local language. For Shaanbei dialect, cf. the 2007 book Tingjian gudai 听见古代 by Wang Keming 王克明. For film documentaries, see here.

 

Notes from Beijing, 2

Further to my post on the Beishida ethnographers, and my seemingly underwhelming maxim that

If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

in between my lectures at Beishida in March I sallied forth (cf. Cheeseshop sketch) to show my film at People’s University and Peking University for two fine scholars from whom I also have much to learn: Cao Xinyu (left) and Wang Mingming.

Cao Xinyu
I’ve already mentioned Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (b.1973) in a previous post (just updated). Professor of the Qing History Research Institute in the History department of People’s University (Renda), he’s a most supportive teacher—and for me he has the added cachet of being a scion of Yanggao, home of my Daoist master Li Manshan! Talking of Renda, I was happy to tell Cao Xinyu of Li Manshan’s ingenuous repunctuation of 中国人大代表 (here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Sectarian activity is an important aspect of the picture of religious life in China, both in imperial and modern times—indeed right now. Cao Xinyu combines detailed textual research on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups and fieldwork on their modern fortunes. In addition to his series of books on sectarian history, notably the Way of Yellow Heaven, you can also read astute articles such as this survey.

1958 fanguan

In a salient reminder of Maoist history, we had lunch at the Russian restaurant “1958” on the People’s University campus, opened in 2013 (with how much irony, I can’t fathom) to commemorate the Russian experts then at the university—shortly before they were all expelled.

For a fine recent initiative of Cao Xinyu, see here.

Wang Mingming
Just up the road at Peking University is the eminent anthropologist Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (b.1962). [1] He’s a native of Quanzhou in Minnan (south Fujian), whose ever-vibrant ritual culture (temple fairs, Daoist ritualnanyin, and so on) has always informed his research.

From 1981 he studied archaeology in Xiamen University, going on to embrace anthropology as it was incorporated into the department there. He came to London in 1987 to study for a PhD in anthropology at SOAS; this was also the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with the great Stephan Feuchtwang. He returned to China in 1994 to make his base at Peking University, becoming a full professor there in 1997.

With Stephan he wrote the fine book Grassroots charisma: four local leaders in China (2002) on the linking of religion and politics in two villages in Quanzhou and north Taiwan. Wang’s historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou, Empire and Local Worlds, was published in English in 2009.

His article on the Fazhugong festival makes an introduction to the tenor of his work:

  • “Lingyande ‘yichan’ ” 灵验的“遗产” [Efficacious “heritage”], in Guo Yuhua (ed.) Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs, 1999).

Like Guo Yuhua (his fellow anthropologist at Tsinghua next door), he combines detailed ethnography with a thorough grasp of theory. As Stephan writes:

Through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology.

His theoretical mission to re-historicize anthropology over a long time-frame, and in a global context, may be seen in

  • “To learn from the ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners: China’s self-identity as a modern civilisation”, Critique of anthropology 34.4 (2014).

as well as

  • “Minzuzhi: yizhong guangyi renwen guanxixuede jieding” 民族志:一种广义人文关系学的界定 [Ethnography: a redefinition from the perspective of extended human relations], Xueshu yuekan 47.3 (2015).

Among his recent projects, he has directed analytical fieldwork on the ritual life of Hui’an county in Minnan:

  • Wang Mingming et al., “Dili yu shehui shiyezhongde minjian wenhua: Huidong Xiaozuo kaocha” 地理与社会视野中的民间文化——惠东小岞考察 [Folk culture from the viewpoint of geography and society: survey of Xiaozuo, east Hui’an], Minsu yanjiu 2017.2,

Wang’s diachronic approach has much to teach us (including scholars of ritual and music) about changing local societies through imperial, Maoist, and reform eras, not least on their relations with the state and “cultural” authorities. In utter contrast with the reified salvage-based “living fossil” flapdoodle of the “heritage” authorities, such study is based both on thorough fieldwork and on detailed research into sources since the late imperial era.

I can’t help noticing that Peking University has changed somewhat since my last sojourn there thirty-two years ago. In Wang Mingming’s interaction with his students he has a wonderful informal style; he clearly makes a fine fieldworker. Both he and Cao Xinyu encourage their students to think; at both events—and in the pub afterwards—I relished their lively exchanges.

[1] Many of Wang Mingming’s articles are collected on the aisixiang site here. For an English introduction, watch this 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane, transcribed here; and Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, “Some Chinese directions in anthropology”, Anthropological quarterly 83.4 (2010).

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia and Giovanni (aka Joe Varney) didn’t win:

Or indeed Alexandra in 2017… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].

And now the brilliant Stacey Dooley—who did win, YAY!!! (See also Moon river.) Here’s another Charleston. Now let’s all watch her fine documentaries.

The thing about Strictly is, as with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. The dancers don’t want to go home, but for some reason they do want to go to Blackpool, which is unlikely to feature even on the itinerary of perfectly innocent Russian tourists. Li Manshan hadn’t even heard of the Carnegie Hall, let alone Blackpool, but it’s clearly more appealing than doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe.

Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine reviewStrictly proved yet again

that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…

But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive format (see also Alexei Sayle‘s pertinent critique), Strictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there.

Still, my question is this:

However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?

This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music… And since, as Heidi Stephens notes in her drôle Guardian commentaries, what viewers really need is a Journey, what better than Pacing the Void?

Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the InvitationBeholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.

Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!

I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to

THE JUDGES…,

the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York and Maidstone] is always welcome. How can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English? Her only tiny flaw seems to be that she can’t get the hang of clapping (watch her as she applauds couples just voted off). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.

Some quotes from the panel:

Darcey [purring]: “Oh MY! I have to say, just make sure you grade that accelerando in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body just a tiny bit more carefully.”

Bruno [does pirouette]: “Bellissimo! But you still need to work on your posture, dahlingg.”

Li Manshan [dragging on fag], in unison with Craig: “That was chaotic!”

And the scores are in

I look forward eagerly to discussions with the BBC. [1]

See also Fantasy Daoist ritual.

* * *

Another Daoist-ritual spin-off might be to adapt the brilliant “One song to the tune of another” from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. One recent fave was Jan Ravens singing the words of I can’t get no satisfaction to the tune of Wouldn’t it be loverly, and here’s Barry Cryer:

The Daoist version might go something like this:

 [Jack Dee, or indeed Li Manshan, lugubriously:] “Now I’d like you to sing words of The Song of the Skeleton to the tune of Diverse and Nameless are the Bitter Roots…”*

*Tedious footnote: at least in Yanggao vocal liturgy, these two items are in fact quite closely related (my book, pp.267–8, 274–5)—so less than suitable here. Scope for exploration, though.

Such impertinent fantasies, if not for purists, are at least more frankly ironic than the kitsch commodifications from the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see under “The reform era” here).

 

[1] Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC  to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments (cf. Alan Partridge). But following the public verdict on the moral morass of the Strictly dance/snog of shame—a quandary that will be mercifully obviated by Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual—there’s (allegedly) a letter in the post from the Beeb about my new concept:

letter

For another money-spinner of mine, see here.

The Buddhists of Ekou, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

In my post on our 1992 trip through north Shanxi I mentioned our brief visit to the household Buddhist ritual specialists of Ekou township in Daixian, near Wutaishan. The new page provides some further notes, which though sketchy may augment our understanding of ritual and society in the region.

Following the 1992 UK tour of the so-called “Wutaishan Buddhist music troupe”, I gained clues to the rituals of household Buddhist groups in central Shanxi, supplementing the list under the heading of Local ritual.

RL and CD.

Daoists of Xinzhou, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Continuing my series on local ritual traditions in north Shanxi, this new page is about the Daoists of Xinzhou. While this region is further south from the counties that I have introduced so far, and perhaps part of a somewhat different ritual zone, it seems worth including in my surveys the Complete Perfection household Daoists, from a former temple background, active near Xinzhou county-town. Differences (in ritual segments and vocabulary) between both Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity Daoists elsewhere in Shanxi are largely based on geography.

Xinzhou 1992.1

 

Daoists of Hunyuan, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

The connection of our Li family Daoists with the temple Daoism of Hengshan may be spurious, but household Daoists in Hunyuan county-town at the foot of the mountain have their own traditions. Our visits in 1992 and 2011 showed a considerable change over the intervening years.

For some time I have been finding the distinction between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection somewhat academic with regard to ritual practice. For what it’s worth, so far in north Shanxi I have found the distribution of the two branches roughly following county boundaries, with household Orthodox Unity Daoists in Yanggao and Datong counties, and Complete Perfection Daoists (also household, but more clearly derived from temple traditions) in Tianzhen, Guangling, and Shuozhou.

But the case of Hunyuan town is particular, and that of its most distinguished ritual specialist Jiao Lizhong even more so. It seems to be a case of recent conversion from a local household Orthodox Unity tradition to a national temple Complete Perfection one, but there is more to it than meets the eye (and ear).

Hunyuan yankou 1

Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Our material on ritual groups in north Shanxi relates mainly to the area east and south of Datong city. But Zuoyun county, just west, has potential—indeed, the whole area west of Datong would be worth exploring.

What little material we have so far suggests a Buddhist temple tradition, but it is too early to assess the scene around Zuoyun. Typically, the material focuses on a single temple, the Lengyan si, conveniently packaging its rituals merely as “temple music”. So my brief article becomes another critique of the cultural heritage flummery.

Where there are temple groups, I expect there to be household groups too; and where there are Buddhist bands, there are likely to be Daoist ones too.

Lengyan si

 

More Daoists of Yanggao

** Link to this page!**

Following my pages on local Daoist traditions scattered around north Shanxi (ShuozhouTianzhen,Guangling, and Datong county!), I return to my base of Yanggao.

From my film and book on the Li family Daoists of Upper Liangyuan (and indeed throughout this site) you can already see that Yanggao is a hive of Daoist activity. Until the 1950s over twenty Daoist groups performed ritual around Yanggao; this page gives brief sketches of three more lineages with a long Daoist history, who are also still active today.

The Pardon, 1991

Daoists of Datong county, Shanxi

**Link to this page!**

This is a new page in the sub-menu  “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu, on the Daoists of Datong county.

In my work on Daoist ritual specialists in north China, I often stress that the notional dichotomy between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection branches is largely academic at the village level. Still, so far it looks as if the received portrayal of household Daoism in north Shanxi as being dominated by Orthodox Unity is mistaken. With household Complete Perfection groups active in Tianzhen, Guangling, Shuozhou, and Yingxian counties, the Orthodox Unity Daoists of Yanggao (such as our Li family in Upper Liangyuan) are beginning to seem an exception.

But in Datong county, the Daoist groups are also Orthodox Unity—and what’s more, here we have a clear connection with former temple priests!

Beijiazao

Daoists of Tianzhen, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Click above for the latest in my surveys of household Daoist groups in north Shanxi, including Shuozhou and Guangling (not to mention Yanggao, main subject of this blog), as well as Changwu in Shaanxi. They’re now grouped in a sub-menu “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu.

Here I outline the history and ritual practices of three families of Complete Perfection Daoists in Tianzhen county—a tradition derived from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an just northeast.

Ning statuette

 

Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign

In my post on the brief of ethnography in response to a jaded urban Chinese worker, I mentioned the tribulations under Maoism of many urbanites on being sent down to the countryside.

The memories of my splendid Chinese fieldworker friends are just as painful. Among various Beijing colleagues who have accompanied me over the years, one recalls his family starving as a young boy in Shandong around 1960; another, witnessing colleagues being crushed to death in dangerous mines in Gansu in the Cultural Revolution; yet another, being exiled to a rural “May 7th Cadre School”.

For our local assistants, the countryside may have even more direct associations: I sometimes found myself taking them back to the very villages where they had taken part in “tempering through manual labour” during the Four Cleanups campaigns of the early 1960s.

From bitter personal experience, they have no reason to idealise rural life. Thankfully, the bright new generation of Chinese fieldworkers have been spared such sufferings—though this also makes it harder for them to empathise with the life stories of our peasant masters.

So as our fieldwork in Hebei and Shanxi took off in the 1990s, my friends must have felt as if they were being dragged back into “going down to the countryside to join in the brigade” (xiaxiang chadui 下乡插队). But it wasn’t me who was dragging them—I was following them—and they too were following in the footsteps of intrepid previous generations of Chinese fieldworkers.

XYB Huaiyin 1992

Xue Yibing (centre) with villagers in Huaiyin, Shanxi, summer 1992.

We were all aware of the phrase attributed to Confucius, no less:

“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”
   li shi qiu zhuye 禮失求諸野

Indeed, the thoughtful and prolific Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 called an early collection of his articles “Records of seeking music in the countryside” (Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录).

ZZT Houshan 1995

Zhang Zhentao with members of the Xiaoniu village ritual association, Houshan temple fair, Yixian 1995.

Still, occasional forays were all very well, but I began to feel the need for longer stays. For me—safely armed with my passport and return air-ticket—sleeping on the kang brick-bed of my wonderful host Cai An in Gaoluo, fetching water from the well, slurping noodles with doufu and cabbage from chipped bowls at funerals, and even visiting the latrine by the pigsty, still had a certain exotic frisson.

While my Chinese friends shared my excitement at discovering such a wealth of material on ritual life in society, their other consolation was that this new rural exile was (semi-?!) voluntary—and that there was a clear time-limit on it. In those days their living conditions in the dilapidated Music Research Institute in Beijing were far less comfortable than they were later to become, with the huge improvement in living standards and their own growing reputation. But apart from the demands on their time in Beijing, extended stays might be somewhat beyond the call of duty. Still, they entered the fray with spirit, and the fruits of their labours are outstanding.

Zhuanlou 1992 caifang

Learning about shawm fingerings with the Hua family shawm band during a break at Zhuanlou village funeral, 1992. Holding shawms: Xue Yibing (left) and Jing Weigang (right).

See also my Plucking the winds, pp.234–5.

By the way, Zhang Zhentao keeps writing about how much I inspired him, but it was entirely mutual. Along with my other trusty fieldwork companion Xue Yibing, we forged our approaches in the 1990s on the anvil of the major project on Hebei ritual associations (qv). And both Zhang and I ended up writing three books on “northern” musical cultures—on Hebei:

  • Yinyuehui: Jizhong xiangcun lisuzhongde guchuiyueshe 音乐会: 冀中乡村礼俗中的鼓吹乐社 (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi chubanshe, 2002),

Shaanbei:

  • Shengman shanmen: Shaanbei minzu yinyuezhi ‪声漫山门:陕北民族音乐志 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu cbs, 2014),

and Jinbei:

  • Chuipo pingjing: Jinbei guyuede chuantong yu bianqian 吹破平靜: 晋北鼓乐的传统与变迁 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2010).

He has also written a plethora of fine articles.

For more on our respective blind spots, see this post on Morris dancing.

Temple murals of north China

Temple ritual, Yuxian 2014. Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

Further–waay further—to my page on the Guangling DaoistsHannibal Taubes has a fine, ever-growing, website documenting his ongoing research project (worthy of further funding!) on the iconography of rural temples in north China, with wonderful photos of murals taken by him and his assistants.

One of his main sites is the Yuxian–Guangling–Yangyuan region on the border of Hebei and Shanxi. The project—reminiscent of that of Willem Grootaers in the 1940s—is another illustration of the hidden depths of ritual culture in north China, so long a poor cousin of the south.

Such work can be a valuable adjunct to fieldwork on ritual practice. I hesitate to look forward to Hannibal expanding his already vast project to ritual paintings, and incorporating temple steles too…

Material like this may be more fruitful for the study of deities than for actual ritual life. But just a couple of examples from the website that do suggest the latter, from village temples in Yuxian just southeast of Yanggao. This is from a Dragon King temple in Yuxian, perhaps dating from the late Qing:

full mural lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Here’s are two details of the procession at the foot. Leading the way, as ever, is a shawm band—in uniform, which by the 20th century was discarded:

chuishou lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Bringing up the rear, on the left (after the temple helper bearing the ritual umbrella) it shows a Daoist band—with chief vocal liturgist, a drum master, and players of the sheng mouth-organ, yunluo frame of ten gongs (now quite rare in the area), and guanzi oboe. The outsider might easily fail to notice that the latter figure (far right) is playing the guanzi—but locals, experiencing the shengguan ensemble at their village rituals all their lives, will recognize it at once.

yinyang lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

I won’t quibble with the marching order—the drummer always leads the way, but hey.

Below we see a similar quorum from another nearby Dragon King temple, dating from 1709. Here they wear the same red costumes as household Daoists today—as do the two trumpet players leading the way, though they should be from a separate shawm band…

Daoist procession

Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

As with any such iconography (one thinks of Renaissance depictions of angel musicians), we are confronted with the issue of how “realistic”, or how generic and idealized, such depictions may be as a portrayal of local ritual life at the time. This detail from my photo of a ritual painting by Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen undoubtedly shows an authentic view of a 1940s’ ritual band (standing) such as the one that he himself led, with a group of seven—two guanzi, two sheng, yunluo (only three gongs?!), drum, and small cymbals:

painting-detail-cropped

The dizi flute, usually a member of the full shengguan ensemble, was perhaps less often used on procession—indeed, it’s largely fallen from use in this area since the 1990s. For the public ritual in the painting, the Daoists wear their red fayi costumes over their black dashan costumes, just as today. Interpreting such details is naturally informed by knowledge of the current scene.

Apart from another ambitious collaborative project on Shanxi temple murals, Hannibal is now further presenting his vast archive in a separate website, which I introduce here.

Of course art is a valuable adjunct to our studies of ritual and religious life, but with my own stress on performance I find myself frustrated that it’s static, two-dimensional, and silent. But whatever your angle on Chinese religion, Hannibal’s sites are fantastic new material, with rich potential. For his recent article on the use of perpectival painting, click here.

Diary of a household Daoist

LMS 1992

August 1992: In a brief break between ritual segments of a funeral led by Li Qing, his son Li Manshan consults with another family to determine the date for a future burial.

In my book (pp.18–21) I gave instances of the daily ritual schedules of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin. They’re always so busy that Li Bin has only just found time to report back to me on what they’ve been up to recently. Apart from all the necessary research into the ancestry of ancient ritual texts, and so on, such diaries are an illuminating aspect of the ethnography of Daoist ritual practice. Apart from my film and book, Li Bin is also one of the protagonists of Ian Johnson’s The souls of China.

Li Manshan, now 72 sui, has recently been scaling down his activities a bit—mainly doing funerals in the immediate vicinity, and determinining the date. But since the band’s “triumphant return” (Kaixuan guilai 凯旋归来, on which more anon) from our mini-tour of France in May—and indeed throughout the previous months—Li Bin has hardly had a moment of free time. As he tells me,

The thing that’s the most hassle is when I get two or three concurrent funerals, having to arrange personnel and all the equipment. Each band needs suitable liturgists, wind players, percussionists, and someone to write the documents. And I have to make sure all the various sets of costumes and equipment are complete.

Until the 1950s their ritual work consisted of three types of “scriptures”: funerals, temple fairs, and (through the winter) Thanking the Earth rituals for individual families. The latter two types are now rare, so since the 1980s’ revival the vast majority of their business consists of funeral rituals and all the associated proprieties surrounding a death. But for reputable Daoists like Li Manshan and Li Bin, this alone can be a full-time occupation. In this area south of the county-town they are the most popular group performing such tasks, but there are others.

Before we look at Li Bin’s diary day by day, some more background. Funerals commonly last one and a half days. It’s very tiring work, performing from 7am to nearly midnight on the first day, with a whole series of long processions. As I say in my book,

Excuse the facile analogy with Western art music, but just the seven visits to the soul hall are like doing two motets and five cantatas over the course of the day—plus a few oratorios, and (previously, for temple fairs) six long symphonies.

For the wind players (like Li Bin) especially, accompanying the liturgy is tough physical work.

And on the following morning they make the lengthy burial procession from 8am to midday—as well as all the solo work of Li Manshan or Li Bin in exorcizing the house and checking the precise alignment of the coffin in the grave. Apart from singing the vocal liturgy, they have to double on the wind instruments and ritual percussion.

As I have also described (my book, ch.17), in addition to the two other core members Golden Noble and Wu Mei, Li Bin and Li Manshan need a pool of deps—some regular, others occasional—from the ranks of other local Daoist families and shawm bands. Using his smartphone, Li Bin has to keep a careful note of the fees he owes them; and he’s constantly driving round from village to village with his car packed with ritual equipment—ritual instruments and costumes, paper artefacts, mourning weeds for the kin, duilian and diaolian mottos to paste up at the soul hall and scripture hall, and so on.

Li Manshan prepares most of the mottos at home; he, Li Bin, or Golden Noble will also have to find moments during the funeral to write other ritual documents to be burned for particular ritual segments. At least recently they have deputed to the junior Daoists the lengthy and fiddly task of decorating (and later dismantling) the soul hall.

Usually the first day’s rituals come to a close around 11pm with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (magnificent percussion coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual) and the Escorting Away the Orphan Souls segment (see my film, from 1.11.07), but sometimes the host asks them to do a lengthy Sitting through the Night sequence into the small hours (playlist, track 3—see my notes). Until quite recently the six Daoists routinely dossed down for the night in a row on the kang brick-bed of the “scripture hall” (making room for me too, a fond memory), but now with the improved road network, given the rather basic conditions of most scripture-hall hosts, they sometimes zoom off back home on their motor-bikes. If the funeral isn’t too far away, Li Bin often drives back to his home in town—not least in case he needs to bring more equipment for the burial next morning or his next stop thereafter. But each night on reaching home after a seventeen-hour day, he always remembers to light incense before the statuette of Zhang Daoling in his funeral shop.

Apart from determining the date for funerals, siting the grave and decorating coffins (also both lengthy processes), booking the band, and then performing the rituals—not to mention the daily business of running his funeral shop and making paper artefacts with his wife—Li Bin is always busy doing consultations to determine the date for weddings, construction work, journeys, and so on.

I have to field constant phone-calls every day. Sometimes I determine the date over the phone for “moving the earth” (dongtu 动土) for building work. Over the phone people can go on for ages about weddings or opening a new business—often when I’m right in the middle of some really busy arrangements. It’s a real hassle, but I can’t refuse…

Free-lance musos in London would be only too happy to have such a full diary, but it comes at a cost. As a freelancer myself, I’m glad he’s in work; he has bills to pay, but I hope he gets a bit of time off occasionally. We can well understand why Daoists don’t want their sons to continue in the family tradition.

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin (Li Manshan’s son, 9th generation) on sheng, 2011.

These notes cover the period from their flight home from Paris on 22nd May through to 8th August.

From the map below we can also see the rather typical radius of their ritual activity. Apart from the occasional funeral in Yanggao town, and a rare visit to Datong city, they work mostly in a small area in east-central Yanggao, around the Li family’s old home of Upper Liangyuan and Gucheng district just south. You can click on the place-names in the sidebar to see dates. For another map of the area (also indicating location of other Daoists groups now and before the 1950s) see here.

The Li band may cater to the mortuary needs of many of these individual villages a dozen or so times each year. And they have done so for several generations, with many trusted friends in places like Yangguantun, Pansi, Luotun, and so on.

May
22: we take 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing;
23: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station.

  • 24: our train from Beijing arrives at Yanggao at 3.44am. At 4am [!] I drive down to Upper Liangyuan (dropping off Li Manshan at home) to help the Sun family prepare for funeral, then I drive back to town again to fetch equipment for them. I determine the date of the burial for 3rd June. 8am: to Shangzhuang to determine the date for a burial there (1st June).
  • 25: I decorate the coffin for Shangzhuang.
  • 26: I decorate the coffin for Upper Liangyuan, and site the grave.
  • 27–28: funeral at Upper Liangyuan for Zhao Xilin (date already determined before French tour).
  • 29: making paper artefacts, preparing for the Shangzhuang and Upper Liangyuan funerals.
  • 30–31: two concurrent funerals at South Luoyao and Pansi
  • 31–June 1: funeral at Shangzhuang.
    June
  • 1: after the Shangzhuang burial, to Houguantun to determine date for burial (12th June, a simple solo “smashing the bowl” ritual—see my book, pp.193–4).
  • 2–3: Upper Liangyuan funeral. After burial, back home to make more paper artefacts.
  • 4–5: funeral at Anzao.
  • 6: making paper artefacts.
  • 7–8: funeral at Zhaoshizhuang.
  • 9–11: three days free to make paper artefacts. Hardly any rest since we came back from France.
  • 12–13: two funerals, at Huiquanzi (in Yangyuan, Hebei) and Houguantun.
  • 15–16: funeral for Sun family in Upper Liangyuan (Li Manshan’s home village).
  • 20–21: two funerals, in Wangguantun and Yanggao county-town.
  • 22–23: funeral at Shizitun; 23 pm I determine the date in Luotun, for burial on 4th July.
  • 25–26: funeral in Lower Liangyuan.
  • 28–29: funeral at Shizitun; 29 pm I determine the date in Yangguantun, for another burial on 4th July.
    July
  • 1–2: funeral at Yousuoyao; I also determine the date in Houguantun, for burial on 8th July.
  • 3–4: funeral at Luotun. [4: burial at Yangguantun]
  • 7–8: two funerals, at Yangguantun and Houguantun. 8: after the burial at Yangguantun, another old person has died, so I go to determine the date—for 5th August.
  • 9: three families come to determine the date for their weddings.
  • 11–12: funeral in Datong
  • 14–15: concurrent funerals in Anzao and Zhanjiayao.
  • 16: coming-of-age party (yuansuo 圆锁) in town for friend’s son (cf. the scene of the party for Li Bin’s own son in my film, from 5.25).
  • 18: massive downpour in the northern hills; two killed as floods carry off a tractor [Li Manshan summoned to determine the date for a burial there].
  • 20–21: funeral at Upper Liangyuan.
  • 22–23: funeral in the county-town.
  • 27–28: funeral at Fantun (just east in Tianzhen).
    August
  • 2–3: funeral at Lower Niangcheng.
  • 4–5: funeral at Yangguantun.
  • 7–8: funeral at Sibaihu. On the afternoon of the 8th, after the burial, just northeast all around Jijiazhuang, Lanyubu, and South Xutun, extreme windstorm and hailstones destroyed cornfields; one family in Jijiazhuang lost 40 mu of peppers.

For Li Manshan’s ritual schedule for 2019, see here; and during the Coronovirus scare, here.

 

With thanks as ever to Li Bin and his son Li Bingchang
(also an Ariana Grande fan, I learn).

Housekeeping

  • I’ve just added a few more photos to the gallery in the sidebar, as is my wont. And now I’ve linked them to particular posts/pages so you can follow them up. Like so:
  • There are many more photos of the Li family Daoists here, and throughout my posts.
  • And DO listen to the ear-scouring audio playlist too, consulting my comments here.

Ritual life around Xi’an

Xi'an miaohui lowres

A new page (under Themes in Menu) introduces changing ritual life around Xi’an, setting forth from my visits since 1986 and the work of the late great Li Shigen.

It accompanies the new track 11 on the audio playlist, with comments here.

As so often for north China, all the musicological studies are very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.

Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

Hongtong 1
Further fodder for my distaste of the heritage shtick—thanks again to Helen Rees, my Word on the Street, I’ve been reading an interesting article by Ziying You,

  • “Shifting actors and power relations: contentious local responses to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in contemporary China”,
    Journal of folklore research 52.2/3 (2015).

And now she has published a book on the topic, which I look forward to reading:

Hongtong cover

Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. [1]

It’s a long time since we’ve featured The China Daily, so I’m delighted to cite a 2012 article here:

A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.

YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:

The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.

Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.

Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily“typical!”

Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions. [2] For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” [3] — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again.
Hongtong procession
Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.

BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles (which are also widespread in Shanxi).

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse.
[…]
Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.

Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.

The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.

Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.

My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.

As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!

 

[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from http://photo.xinzhou.org/2010/0717/picture_1826.html

Dissolving boundaries

I’ve just added a page (under “Themes” in Menu) on

Folk and art music in China: qin and shawm music

Hua band 2001 edited

Far away from the pop music and cutesy erhu solos that dominate the Chinese media, I’d like to compare two melodies with the common theme of “Geese landing”: the intimate meditative solo Pingsha luoyan 平沙落雁 for the elite qin zither, and the searing folk suite Da Yanluo 大雁落 for two shawms and percussion.

Such utterly contrasting styles may seem to make an absurd comparison, and we shouldn’t suppose that any two pieces with a similar title will have anything in common. In this case it’s more of a convenient pretext to reflect on disparate genres.

One tradition is highly literate, the other non-literate. Yet the incongruous juxtaposition, however polemical, turns out to be illuminating—querying the widely-held myth that qin music, as “art music”, will be more sophisticated and complex than “folk” shawm pieces.

*** Both pieces are illustrated by recordings of master musicians!***

Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen: an update

I’ve just added to my page on Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen, but it’s worth highlighting my new reflections here.

I began exploring the false dichotomy between Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi)  and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) branches in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (note especially pp.17–18). Now that we have more instances, let’s revisit the scene.

In areas of north China for which I have information (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China), household Daoists may nominally belong to either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection branches. But such simplistic pigeonholing may distract us from the details of their ritual practice.

In their rituals and ritual manuals I can discern no significant distinction. When the Complete Perfection branch evolved in the 12th century, its priests (both temple and household) took over Orthodox Unity ritual practice: as John Lagerwey once observed to me, “that was the only show in town”. And while a distinct Complete Perfection literature did evolve (see my book, pp.203–207), their ritual practice never developed into a separate corpus of Complete Perfection ritual texts.

That explains why such an august Complete Perfection temple priest as Min Zhiting (see above) was constantly citing Orthodox Unity ritual manuals from the Daoist Canon; and why the best mainstream source for the manuals of the Orthodox Unity Li family household priests in Yanggao is the repertoire of modern “Complete Perfection” temple practice like the Xuanmen risong.

On the evidence to hand, household Complete Perfection Daoists seem rather more likely to recall their place in their particular lineage poem. They may have a clearer family tradition of earlier ancestors having spent time as temple priests. But household Orthodox Unity priests may also possess both these features. Of course the histories of such groups need documenting, but when we come to performance (which, after all, is the heart of ritual) it may be less germane.

And in some places now—since around 2000—the picture is further confused by a certain “centripetal” tendency. With wider access (such as the internet), some groups that have always been Orthodox Unity may be exploring ways of “legitimizing” themselves by seeking manuals from prestigious central sites like the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, and having costumes and hats made which make them appear to be Complete Perfection Daoists. They may even reform their “local” ritual practice by adopting elements from the “national” White Cloud Temple.

The scene is further obfuscated by a tendency among some scholars (both local and central) to assume that if a group is household-based, then they must be Orthodox Unity—a problem I have already queried. We really must debunk this assumption. In my recent posts, the Changwu Daoists turn out to belong to the Huashan branch of Complete Perfection, and the Guangling Daoists appear to come from a Longmen tradition. Actually, this is not so clear-cut—even non-Quanzhen priests might adopt Longmen titles (note sources by Vincent Goossaert cited in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.18 n.34).

So while the ritual texts and ritual sequences of the two notional branches are rather similar, what always makes local traditions distinctive is the way in which the texts are performed.

vocal trio 2001

Vocal trio, 2001: Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Li Bin.

Even here there’s another erroneous cliché that needs debunking. Generations of scholars of Daoist music have parroted the notion that in style the “music” of Orthodox Unity (conceived narrowly as “household” or folk) Daoists is more popular and lively, whereas that of Complete Perfection (again, conceived narrowly as austere monastic) Daoists is solemn, slow and restrained. It derives entirely from an unfounded theory about household and temple practice. We only need to watch my film about the Li family band to realize this simply won’t do. Orthodox Unity Daoists, their basic style (exemplified by the zantan hymns that permeate all their rituals) is extremely slow and solemn—but as you can hear, it is indeed punctuated by exhilarating moments. The style of (household!) Complete Perfection Daoists is certainly no more “solemn”. Both branches may use melodic shengguan instrumental ensemble—and if anything, that of the Orthodox Unity groups tends to be more slow and solemn.

Indeed, when I showed Li Manshan my videos of funeral segments by the Complete Perfection Daoists in Shuozhou, he found their performance “chaotic” (luan). Orthodox Unity groups in Yanggao like that of Li Manshan pride themselves on the “order” (guiju) of their performance.

My only ongoing note on this is that several household Complete Perfection groups (such as in Shuozhou and Guangling) may have preserved the element of fast tutti a cappella recitation of the jing scriptures better than in some Orthodox Unity traditions like those of Yanggao. But that doesn’t bear on the false stylistic dichotomy. Like Life, It’s Complicated… We always need to expand our database and use our critical faculties.

Daoists of Guangling, Shanxi

*For main page, click here*

Following my articles on the household Daoists of Shuozhou and Changwu, I’ve now added another page to the “Themes” menu, on a group in Guangling, north Shanxi.

Guangling kaiguang

Apart from my work on the Li family Daoists of Yanggao, Chen Yu 陈瑜 led me towards other Daoist ritual groups in north Shanxi. We had leads to most other counties in the region, but Guangling was a blank area on our map of Daoist ritual activity. So Chen Yu’s visit there in May 2015 made a valuable addition to our surveys.

Three paperbacks out!

After an interlude when my three Ashgate volumes (the first two being part of the fine SOAS Musicology series) suffered a prohibitive price-hike, they are now reissued by Taylor & Francis/Routledge in affordable paperback editions. You can order them here (under “Books”!).

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The two Ritual and music books are all the more worth snapping up for their accompanying DVDs—the first making useful background for my film on Li Manshan.

While I’m about it, details of my 2016 book Daoist priests of the Li family are here.

And you can order Plucking the winds, my riveting account of the South Gaoluo village ritual association and its history, here!

Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums

The male domination of rural performance genres appears stark. [1] I’ll outline the overall context in my third article, but for now let’s focus on ritual.

As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.

Ritual and religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.

Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. [2]

Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. [3]

Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.

Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.

But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion; [4] and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role (for more, see here).

Houshan medium

Medium praying to the female deity Empress Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Houshan disciples

Medium’s disciples, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Yanggao
In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙 or “masters” xiansheng 先生, irrespective of gender) are as common as everywhere else (cf. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, pp.238–43).

XLY mediums

Worshippers cluster round mediums in a sideroom at the new temple at Lower Liangyuan, 2011.

In 2003 we met Chang Xiuyun (b. c1956) in a village north of Yanggao county-town. Here I adapt Wu Fan’s original notes—which she made quite unprompted by her male teachers. As she observed, the account contains some contradictions; but it’s still a revealing story.

Now living in Yaozhuang nearby, she originally came from Ningxia. Illiterate, she has three children. People generally come to her when orthodox medicine has failed. She mainly helps people in her home village, seeing them on the hour, two each hour.

The position of medium and patient is determined individually by the immortal (xianjia 仙家) inhabiting the former, but generally she sits on the south side of the low table on the kang brick-bed, by the window, with the patient to the east. At her own home she has an altar to her immortal, who instructed her to use the room to the east for healing there, facing west onto the alley.

A glass of water is placed before the medium. Her immortal occupies her after “three sticks of incense”. Closing her eyes, she feels the pulse of her patient to determine the illness; then (the length of time is determined by seven or eight immortals conferring, usually for five minutes or so) she opens her eyes and begins to speak in a hoarse male voice.

In trance her voice is that of the immortal. In her regular life she neither speaks standard Chinese nor smokes. But through her, the immortal may speak in standard Chinese, and she smokes when her immortal occupies her. At first she would sweat and turn red, but after a year or so she got used to it.

She uses incense ash to heal them, a weekly course. She has to choose the ash herself—it won’t work if others do it. If the immortal can cure the illness, it only takes three days; the ash is just a further precaution. After the end of the session the patient has to return home to offer incense to the ghosts.

While in trance (so her older sister tells her) she sings pop songs and Shanxi bangzi opera melodies. Her own immortal, Li Huaming 李华明, came from Shijiazhuang, where there is a temple for him.

Her immortal once told her in a dream to write a placard (“god place” paiwei) for “Great General Peng Dehuai, Daoist immortal” (Daojia xianjia Peng Dehuai da jiangjun 道家仙家彭德怀大将军, Communist leader who became a thorn in the side of Chairman Mao following the Great Leap Backward) and to put a picture on the wall of him riding a horse. Being illiterate, she had to ask a literate villager (and a Buddhist) to write it for her. In that case she found herself singing songs from Hunan or Hubei, because Peng Dehuai came from the south.

She works on her own, and doesn’t take money, just telling her patients which temple to give money to if their illness is cured—if they don’t do so, they’ll be punished by illness again.

If the immortal can’t cure the patient, he will speak through Chang to tell the patient which hospital to go to—in Datong, Zhangjiakou, or even Beijing. If the illness is incurable, the immortal tells the patient’s companion to summon the children back to take care of them, accurately predicting the death date.

* * *

Some of the mediums also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.

Shanxi sect

Sectarian ritual, north Shanxi 2003.

Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).

They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.

The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently. See also here; and for an update, here.

My third article on Women of Yanggao is here. And for recent work by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi, click here.

 

[1] This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40. See also Kang Xiaofei, “Women and the religious question in modern China“, in Goossaert, Kiely, and Lagerwey (eds), Modern Chinese religion II, albeit largely based on rather more literate sources.
[2] Note Xiao Mei 萧梅, “Huwu yujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” 呼舞吁嗟祈甘霖: 西北 (陕北)地区祈雨仪式与音乐调查综述, in Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·西北卷, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD).
[3] See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.
[4] See ibid., n.40, and Xiao Mei’s chapter in the same volume, based on her lengthy article “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in  Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷 [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, with DVD), vol.2, pp.328–494.

 

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Daoists of Shuozhou, Shanxi

I’ve just added a substantial “page” (here) on the Shuozhou Daoists.

If you recall, it was my film and book on the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao who were my original inspiration for this whole blog. Just in case anyone supposes that they are an isolated case, I keep meaning to write a lengthy, detailed article about Daoist ritual activity elsewhere in north Shanxi—but for now, here’s a little introduction to the Shuozhou scene, to whet your appetite (or not). While provisional, it will serve mainly to hint at the riches of Daoist lineages, ritual life, and manuals in this region.

Wang band

Introduction: Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity.
1 Shuozhou: 1.1 The Zhou lineage of Gengzhuang; 1.2 The Wang lineage of Muzhai; 1.3 Wang Huarong; 1.4 The Zhang lineage of Shentou.
2 The Pinglu region: 2.1 The Li lineage of Front Anjialing; 2.2 The Yang lineage of Hancun.
3 Yingxian: the Qinglongshan Daoists.
4 Rituals and ritual segments: 4.1 A village funeral; 4.2 Another funerary Hoisting the Pennant; 4.3 Other funerary rituals; 4.4 Rituals for the living.
5 Ritual soundscape.
6 Ritual manuals.
7 Preliminary hypotheses.

New paperback out!

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Just received the new paperback edition of my 2010 In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and very handsome it looks too. Which is the main thing…

Apart from addressing a vast area of ritual practice that has hitherto been neglected, I haven’t yet noticed scholars taking on board a basic point, that besides our usual image of household Orthodox Unity Daoists, household (not just temple-dwelling) Complete Perfection Daoists are also common.

Do rush online and buy it! LOL

Casing the joint: funeral shops

Arriving in a county-town in China in search of leads to ritual activity in the area, far more promising than becoming ensnared at the Bureau of Culture is to visit the funeral shops (shouyidian, zhizhapu, and so on).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Some are actually run by yinyang household Daoists. In Yanggao town, Li Bin’s shop is just one of around half a dozen funeral shops, of which several others are also run by yinyang. Daoists also have many such shops in Tianzhen and Shuozhou county-towns.

Tianzhen funeral shop

Funeral shop in Tianzhen county-town.

Those run by shawm bands tend rather to provide a complete service for weddings—still in Yanggao, Yang Ying and his relatives have a thriving business in Gucheng south of the county-town.

Yang Ying shopfront

The most remarkable concentration of funeral shops I have seen in the region is in Yingxian county-town. All along East Street, just east of the famous Liao-dynasty pagoda and all the tourist tat, over fifty such shops line both sides of the long road.

Yingxian funeral shops

For more photos from north Shanxi, see Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.93–4.

Whoever runs such shops, they all have close contacts with both ritual specialists and shawm bands, as well as geomancers, cooks, grave-diggers, and so on. They can soon tell you the best bands, and when funerals are coming up.

All this makes platitudinous banquets with local cultural officials pleasantly superfluous.

Catholics of north China

christians-1992

Village Catholics in Xinzhou region, Shanxi 1992. My photo.

One theme of Ian Johnson’s new book The souls of China, also shown in his youtube clips, is the resurgence of Christianity.

For an introduction to Catholicism in north China, see

  • Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: tragedy and hope in an emerging civil society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

For Shanxi, I already mentioned a Catholic village in Xinzhou. Villages just south in central Shanxi are the subject of

  • Henrietta Harrison, The missionary’s curse and other tales from a Chinese Catholic village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

See also her article

  • “Global modernity, local community, and spiritual power in the Shanxi Catholic church”, in Adam Yuet Chau (ed.), Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2011).

Talking of Catholicism in Shanxi, after William Hinton’s remarkable Fanshen, on the land reform in Longbow village in Changzhi municipality, southeast Shanxi, it comes as a surprise to learn in his sequel Shenfan that around 20% of the village’s 2,000 population is Catholic; in nearby Machang the figure is over 80%.

Hinton’s daughter Carma continued his work with some fine films.

As ever, we should bear the whole religious context in mind. South Shanxi is also a focus for studies of the “music households” (yuehu), mainly shawm bands with strong ritual connections. [1] And again, household Daoists are common (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp. 85–7).

Hebei province is also a hotbed for Catholicism. I discuss the Gaoluo Catholics in a separate page. And for missionaries at the Qing court, see here.

 

[1] Xiang Yang (2001) Shanxi yuehu yanjiu, Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2001; Qiao Jian, Liu Guanwen, and Li Tiansheng, Yuehu: tianye diaocha yu lishi zhuizong, Nanchang: Jiangxi renmin chubanshe, 2002.

Daoist ritual in north Shanxi

CY

For Daoist ritual in north Shanxi, in addition to my works, and those of Wu Fan, the recent book of Chen Yu 陈瑜 is useful:

  • Jinbei Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 晋北道教科仪音乐研究 [Daoist ritual music of north Shanxi] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2015).

It provides details of groups in the counties of Yanggao, Datong xian, Guangling, Hunyuan, Tianzhen, Shuozhou, Yingxian, Shanyin, and Xinzhou, going beyond Part One of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. I’ve introduced many of these groups in articles listed under Local ritual.

While written in the dry format of Yuan Jingfang’s “music-genre” system (see my book, p. 365), it gives details of ritual sequences, beyond the narrow pigeonhole of “music”.

Notably, for scholars of ritual texts, Appendix 5 (pp.282–377) contains a useful collection of manuals from various groups.

One little caveat: the title of the opening manual in the Li family collection is a fiction. Lacking a title on the cover (or any memory of one), they call it “hymn volume” (zantan ben), as I explain in my book (pp.208–9, 375); while it does indeed contain many texts related to the yankou, Chen’s title is made up.

There is still plenty more to explore in the region—even the Shuozhou Daoists deserve a multi-volume study of their own.

Sacred and secular

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Here I further explore my post on the shawm bands. This is going to be not so much a review of a review, but rather continuing reflections on taxonomy and the sacred—secular continuum.

In his 2012 review of my 2007 (!) book Ritual and Music in North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi (BSOAS 75, pp.208–9), David Johnson (author of several fine works on north Chinese ritual) gives a good description of the book, but seems to think I shouldn’t have bothered writing it. I’ve done this kind of thing myself—wishing a book had been on another topic appealing to my own personal taste. But revealing his sinological agenda, he seems to suggest that only religious texts are important in social life—not even religious or ceremonial activity.

Some ethnographic projects attempt a rather broad overview of cultural life for their chosen fieldsite, as I went on to do in my 2009 book on Shaanbei. More common is to case the joint roughly in an introduction before focusing on one particular genre, like folk-song, or Daoists—or (as I said in my most recent book, p.363) hairdressing in Barnsley, street gangs in Chicago, shamans in Brazil, and so on.

Johnson observes that I am “deeply attached” to such rural music. Fair enough, but it’s not quite the point; “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, ethnographers are likely to find value in their chosen research topics, while seeking to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Johnson makes some interesting points about the role of shawm music in local cultures, but his deduction

That Jones devotes an entire book to music that the villagers regard as little more than noise shows that it is really the music he is interested in, not its ritual or communal meaning

is amply disproved throughout the book, and all my publications! Indeed, a closer reading of my pp.59 and 114 (that he cites) would show the necessity of understanding the shawm music in both its social context and musical detail. In general my work is far more focused on social change than on musical analysis, although I did go on to write a detailed analysis of the repertoire of the Hua family shawm band:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills (ed.), Analysing East Asian Music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), 25–112 (with a sequel here),

My book that he reviewed did precisely what it said on the tin: I was describing ritual and music in Yanggao (funerals and temple fairs), with a focus on the shawm bands. Wu Fan later did this more thoroughly in Chinese. We were both aware that Yanggao people associate their ritual/ceremonial life with yinyang gujiang, Daoists and shawm bands: one needs both.

So whilst I quite agree that “the Daoists are clearly the central actors in the rituals of Yanggao county”, it’s unfair to comment that I have “little to say about them”. Given that the focus of my book was the shawm bands, it already contained considerable material on the Daoists, on the basis of what I knew then, before I was able to devote a detailed study to them in turn—perhaps, again, not to Johnson’s sinological satisfaction.

It’s also a bit rich to accuse me of neglecting the Daoists when he never mentions them at all in his field sites of south Shanxi or south Hebei, which happen to be some of the richest for Daoist ritual life. But I won’t (quite) take him to task for ignoring it, since the focus of his research there was on other genres. And he reveals the paleographical blinkers of the sinologist by complaining that I hadn’t read any ritual manuals. Indeed, it’s true that, in Yanggao at least, I hadn’t—then. But nor have most of the practising Daoists there; like them, I focused on actual ritual practice. But all that’s neither here nor there; to repeat, my book wasn’t primarily about the Daoists: it was about the shawm bands!

You might as well criticize an ethnography of the Manchester Hacienda for not discussing Beethoven manuscripts and the history of the Hallé.

Otherwise, he almost had a point. Like all the Daoists in his fieldsites about whom he is silent, the Yanggao Daoists did indeed richly deserve a detailed study, and Johnson wasn’t to know that by the time his review came out (belatedly, in 2012) I was deeply engaged in precisely that work.

My two books on Shanxi (2007) and Shaanbei (2009), focusing on the shawm bands but also adducing other major genres, were indeed quite a lengthy interlude between my detailed studies of one village (2004) and then one household (2016).

And once I was able to devote my attentions to the Li family Daoists again, I made a point of first unearthing their manuals (since they had no practical use for them, this meant cajoling Li Manshan into finding them, a long process over several visits); and then reading and exploring with him their relation with changing practice— their mismatch with rituals as performed. You (and Johnson) can read all about it in my recent book, and still more vividly, film.

For mature and generous pensées on recent works about religion in north China, including Johnson’s and mine, see the review essay by Vincent Goossaert,

Is there a North China religion?”.

As field reports on Daoist ritual in southeast China continue to amass, I’m all agog (a complete gog) to read studies of the innumerable local Daoist traditions of north China. These are the theme of my 2010 book In search of the folk Daoists of north China and many posts on this blog (notably those collected under Local ritual), but there is still much to explore.

The iceberg

For Chinese culture (ritual, music) I always use the image of the iceberg—

to contrast the tiny little chunk that protrudes above the water (the conservatoire concert solos, and so on) with the vast unseen mass of popular culture below the surface—like temple fairs, shawm bands, household Daoists, spirit mediums

Of course it applies widely to world cultures (cf. Italy). Even under the umbrella of WAM, there’s a fluid canon changing over time, with many outer rings; socially too, it’s not just the professional symphony orchestras. And Indian music is far more than sitar solos.

As to Daoism, it’s far more than the Daoist Canon and the White Cloud Temple; and far more than wise southeastern Daoists doing their mystical sublimation in the course of a jiao Offering. And Daoist ritual—over China, north China, Shanxi, north Shanxi, and even in the north-eastern central area of Yanggao county, is far more than the Li band!

Walking shrill: shawm bands in China

Walking Shrill CD

In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…

Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).

Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.

Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe. To give you an idea of just how common, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:

  • the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
  • shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
  • yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
  • “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.

But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.

That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.

Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the longchui of south Fujian (#15 on playlist in sidebar, with commentary here). But it’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly.

While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realized I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.

My two books Ritual and music of north China are largely about such bands, in north Shanxi and Shaanbei respectively; both include DVDs. [1]

Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.

At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. In north Shanxi, in Yanggao town alone, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Erhur (b.1946), and Yin San (b.c1947), were all fine players and delightful people (for more on blind shawm players in Yanggao, see here; for posts on blind musicians, here).

6 LR,YS

Liuru (left) and Yin San, 2003.

In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players (see also here)!

7 Erhur

Erhur, 2003.

Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.

9 shack

Liuru’s shack in Yanggao county-town, 2003.

I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.

Blind boys also often become itinerant bards. For Shaanbei, see here; for a harrowing tale of blind bards in Zuoquan, Shanxi, here; and for blind bards in Gansu, and great songs on the Coronavirus by stammering folk-singer Zhang Gasong, here.

North Shanxi
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.

8 Shi Ming band

Shi Ming’s band, Wangguantun 2001.

The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.

We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off.

While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.

Only slightly less complex is this intriguing excursion—and there are two tracks (#5 and 11) on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.

Shaanbei

CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band at village funeral, Mizhi 2001.

Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands (chuishou). We met many bands there.

1981 photoShawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.

Scholar Huo Xianggui, who began collecting Shaanbei shawm music as early as 1971 (!), had regular contacts with some of the great players, including Jin Wenhua, Hao Yongfa, and Chang Wenzhou. In another a revealing story about status, revealing the chuishous’ own sense of inferiority, he tells of an incident with the great shawm player Li Daniu—a poor illiterate opium-addicted bachelor. The Party hoped to cultivate Li’s talent by recruiting him for a state troupe, but he found it hard to adapt. One morning Huo invited Li Daniu to his room, and wanted to take him out for breakfast, but Li wouldn’t go. As Huo was about to go off to get food to bring back, Li insisted on squatting outside to wait for him, with the room locked; only half-joking, he said, “How am I supposed to explain if something in your room goes missing?”

By the 1990s, most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.

By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.

YJG band

The Yangjiagou band playing for a village funeral there, 1999.

The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earththat comes with my 2009 book.

The northeast
As a kind of footnote, both to this post and to my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.

Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic bands with large shawms. [2] The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Jilin province, Li Laizhang 李来璋.

Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.

Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.

This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.

A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realized someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.

Liaoning

Liu Yongqing (b.1922) at funeral, Liaoyang city, 1992.

Here are two pages of images from the Anthology volume on Jilin province:Jilin 1

Jilin 2Technique
Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.

Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:

Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.

13 me and band

I accompany Hua band for funeral, Wangzhuang village 2001. Photo: Chen Kexiu.

At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.

FXP 2001

With Feng Xiaoping’s band, Yulin 2001.

In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.

In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!

In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.

We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.

Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.

SOAS shawms

Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.

Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”

Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.

Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of  hosting the Hua band there in 2005.

Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.

My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here; see also this). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.

None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.

The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.

So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.

Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized since the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.

My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.

So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.

Shawm bands
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban )
suona soloists
By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.
Weddings and funerals. Concerts on stage; film sessions.
(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
Upwardly mobile!
(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.

The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.

Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.

If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.

I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…

Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.

The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.

In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.

In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.

In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.

So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.

On shawm bands elsewhere around the world, see e.g. south Asia, Iran, and Xinjiang.

 

[1] See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. See also my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
[2] See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and mazar, and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, the Mediterranean (Andalucian fiestas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” and “red-hot sociality” (Chau!)…

Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, Stephan FeuchtwangAdam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well known than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Xushui
Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] At the height of the Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao visited communes there. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang brigade in Xushui, which performed for this visit.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaozhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaozhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaozhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe. For more on Xushui, see here.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context. I haven’t heard stories as distressing as the fate that befell kobzari blind minstrels in Ukraine when summoned for an official festival in the early 1930s; but folk ritual specialists were still anxious about performing for officials around 1980.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. In 1990 the Li family Daoists took part in a festival of religious music in Beijing.

By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3). Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing (for the resulting volume, see here).

It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show, WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of vignettes from May 2017), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour. The ambience and acoustic of churches makes a fine setting,  the Daoists’ sheng mouth-organs filling the Peterskirche in Heidelberg (cf. Buildings and music):

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

Still, their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out—is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.

Hey-ho.

[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, dance and the art of seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

Shanxi, summer 1992

Partly to remind myself that I don’t only do jokes, here are some more fieldnotes.

I’ve already noted the differences between our early fieldwork in the 1990s and conditions more recently. So I thought I’d give you a flavour of one of those earlier fieldtrips.

Over the hot summer of 1992, following hot on the heels of the Wutaishan Buddhist group’s visit to England, Xue Yibing and I made a three-week trek from Taiyuan northwards through Wutai, Xinzhou, Daixian, and Hunyuan, finding ritual activity all along the way, en route for another rendezvous with the great Li Qing in Yanggao. Our last stop was nearby Yangyuan county, just in Hebei.

Since our fruitful initial survey of ritual associations in Hebei over New Year in 1989, this was my fourth fieldtrip with Xue Yibing. Before we could return to the Hebei plain, and before I began to focus on particular villages and families, this was still only a partial survey of central and north Shanxi—for what became Chapter 12 of my book Folk music of China.

We had a van and a driver from the MRI at our disposal, and for parts of the trip we were accompanied by Shanxi scholars Jing Weigang and Wang Bin, whose local knowledge was valuable. We were mostly unencumbered by the need to “kowtow to the Gods of the Soil”, except when we knew there was a knowledgeable scholar—like the senior Liu Jianchang in Taiyuan, who was studying the Buddhist ritual music of the Wutaishan mountains through the 1950s whenever political conditions allowed. All along the way we found local traditions, differing significantly from each other. [1] Power cuts were frequent. And before motorways, our progress was often far from smooth; even on the main roads we generally found ourselves crawling along behind long lines of coal lorries.

stuck-in-mud

Dongye township
In central Shanxi, I had already visited the central area of Wutaishan, so I was interested to explore the outlying areas. While we found many shawm bands (here called gufang 鼓房), our main interest was in ritual shengguan bands (here called xiangda 响打). Though they were rarely ritual specialists with vocal liturgy, some bands performed a fine repertoire of long suites related to the temples of Wutaishan and Beijing—the kind of groups found by the great Yang Yinliu in 1953, in whose steps we were now following.

dongye-chubin

Funeral procession, South Daxing, Dongye.

We spent time with one such band, led by Xu Yousheng in Dongye.

It soon became clear that this whole area was also a hotbed for female spirit mediums, including Xu Yousheng’s wife. These mediums did exorcistic rituals as a group, singing ritual songs a cappella. In this photo, at Xu Yousheng’s house near Dongye, his wife and her fellow medium pose before ritual paintings commissioned by him.

mediums

This page from Xue Yibing’s precious notebook lists the gods on the pantheon to the right in the photo.

xu-pantheon-xyb

In this detail, the “young soldier god” features because a medium had divined that he once saved the life of Xu’s son while he was in the army:

painting-detail

For more on such pantheons, see the remarkable website of Hannibal Taubes.

The Xinzhou region
In this large and mountainous region we found more household Daoists (this time of the Complete Perfection branch!), as well as a thriving community of Catholics who also used shengguan music to accompany their rituals.

christians-1992

The Ekou Buddhists
After digging our van out of the mud yet again, we reached Ekou township in Daixian county, in the northern foothills of Wutaishan. I was hoping to see Chengde, lovely former Buddhist monk whom I had hosted in England a few weeks earlier. But he was doing a temple fair some distance away—so we had a chat with his older brother, who provided us with useful detail on local ritual life there. This was one of rather few occupational household Buddhist groups that we found.

ekou-painting-1

Old pantheon at Chengde’s house.

Hunyuan
Arriving hot and sweaty in the (then) cosy little hill town of Hunyuan (at the foot of Hengshan, the northern marchmont of Daoism), we checked into a hostel. On the guest registration form, under “Level of Culture” (wenhua chengdu 文化程度) I wrote “None” (wu 无), as is my wont.

After a long drive and many days in scorching temperatures without running water, we were delighted to find that not only did our room have a bath, but that hot water was promised (typically “after 8pm”, which often means either “never” or “from 3.30 to 3.35 am”).

The bathroom wasn’t exactly hygienic, but hey, we weren’t fussy—ruxiang suisu, “when in Rome…”. Xue Yibing rashly took the plunge first, and he was just sinking into the water in ecstasy when the ceiling (exhausted by unprecedented strains on the plumbing above) promptly caved in, covering him in rusty debris (or is that the name of a Country singer?). Adopting what Nigel Barley calls “fieldwork mode”, we both burst out laughing. He came out a lot dirtier than he went in.

Next day we found no ritual activity at the Hengshan mountain temples, but in town we found yet another great family of household Daoists.

hunyuan-ritual

hunyuan-manual

Page from ritual manual: end of Fetching Water ritual and opening of Dispensing Food.

This group belonged to a lengthy Orthodox Unity lineage. By the time I went back to see them in 2011 with the wonderful Li Jin, significant changes had taken place in their practice.

The north
After a brief visit to more Orthodox Unity household Daoists in Datong county, we reached Yanggao, where I was delighted to find Li Qing again, performing a funeral with his ritual band. He also managed a long session with us, providing detailed accounts of ritual sequences, augmenting my notes from the previous year.

After a brief and rather unedifying stop-off in Yangyuan county, we made our way back to Beijing. Upon my return, I once again (as usual) sought out former monks, before we set off once more for Liaoning in the northeast, finding majestic shawm bands there too…

***

Such early fieldtrips with Xue Yibing were an important training for us both, before we launched into more in-depth study of the Hebei ritual associations. I always treasure his notes, but however brief our visits on that Shanxi trip, the three hand-written volumes he copied out for me are full of wonderful ethnographic detail on folk religion.

Since 2011, having profited from collaborative fieldwork for twenty-five years, I have largely engaged with the Li family Daoists on my own, regaining a certain self-esteem—except for the occasional mishap

 

[1] For more detail on most of these sites, see my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.65–81; Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.65–90 and passim. For a richly-illustrated overview of folk customs throughout Shanxi, see Wen Xing 文幸 and Xue Maixi 薛麦喜 (eds.), Shanxi minsu 山西民俗 (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin cbs, 1991).

A tribute to Yang Yinliu

yyl-on-xiao

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Since I mentioned Yang Yinliu’s groundbreaking work on the Zhihua temple, he too richly deserves a tribute. Indeed, since soundscape is such a basic aspect of Chinese culture, his work should form a basic training for us all.

Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 / 杨荫浏 (1899–1984) is often described in mediaspeak as “the Chinese Bartók”, but Bartók should rather be described as “the Hungarian Yang Yinliu”. A fine musician and fieldworker, erudite historian, and incidentally a Protestant, Yang’s whole oeuvre was remarkable.

Brought up in the final years of the Qing dynasty in the milieu of the Daoist instrumental music and the refined Kunqu vocal dramas of the Wuxi area near Shanghai, Yang was a fine exponent of qin zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and the ethereal falsetto singing of Kunqu (I haven’t yet found my copy of the precious recording from the 1920s found recently in Berlin). He learned instruments from Daoist priests (including Abing) from the age of six, joining the elite Tianyun she society.

YYLIn Wuxi, under the tuition of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he studied English and Western music theory. He also became an active Christian. He went on to gain a cosmopolitan education in Shanghai, attending St John’s University from 1923. After returning to Wuxi in 1926, he was married in 1928, becoming a professor at Yenching University in Beijing in 1936. Offered a job in the USA heading a Chinese music institute there, he commented, “I can do nothing if I leave Chinese soil, where Chinese music lives.”

After the Japanese occupation in 1937, and through the troubled 1940s, not inclined to join the Communist base area in Yan’an, Yang moved from Nanjing to posts in Kunming and Chongqing, always continuing his research.

The Wuxi Daoists
Yang and his cousin Cao Anhe returned regularly to Wuxi, where they were engaged in a long-term project studying the music of the local Daoists. Of their two major books on the theme, their work on Shifan gu was first published in 1957, Yang’s on Shifan luogu not until 1980.

In some respects Yang seems like a traditional historical musicologist rather than an ethnographer; but he was well aware of complex social issues. This passage on the position of Daoists in Wuxi society illustrates his sophisticated interest in ethnography and ritual practice, besides his more traditional “musicological” concerns: [1]

In the past [?!], Buddhists in south Jiangsu divided into two types, Chan school (chanmen) and Auxiliary school (fumen).

Those of the Chan school were completely vegetarian, and didn’t have families. They only used percussion like woodblock, bowl, nao and bo cymbals, and tonggu drum to punctuate their vocal liturgy; they didn’t play any melodic instrumental pieces. They never took part in production, living in their temples, some of which had large estates.

The Auxiliary school ate meat and had families. Few in number, they lived scattered in the villages, taking part in agriculture and only reciting the scriptures and litanies as an auxiliary occupation. Among the Buddhists, they are the only ones who play the fanyin [melodic instrumental repertoire] and [separate] percussion items.

Among the Daoists, the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) school (belonging to the Qingchengshan style of Sichuan) were similar to the Buddhist Chan school, not using separate percussion items or silk-and-bamboo instruments. Those who played the fanyin and separate percussion items mostly belonged to the Zhang Heavenly Masters school of Longhushan in Jiangxi.

Among the latter group, there was a further clear class distinction. A minority of abbots possessed ritual titles of the Zhang Heavenly Masters, like “Master who Guard the Way” (daoweishi) or “Ritual Master” (fashi), and mostly owned land. They didn’t take part in production. They interacted with landlords and the bourgeoisie in the cities and villages, taking ritual work and contacting and hiring the common village Daoists to take part in major rituals (daochang fashi).

These common Daoists mostly took part in agricultural production, being hired ad hoc: performing for rituals was an auxiliary occupation for them. In both agriculture and Daoism, they were an exploited class. These common Daoists—even the indispensable drummers and flute players, with their excellent musical technique—only got a tiny wage for a whole day’s work.

Conversely, the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters”, having only taken responsibility for quite brief ritual segments of a few hours like Issuing the Talismans (fafu), Reporting the Memorial (zoubiao), and Flaming Mouth (yankou), claimed a reward many times higher than that of the others. Those who played music were mostly the common semi-peasant Daoists; very few of the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters” could do so. This shows that in the past it was agricultural life that produced and developed music.

Never mind the diplomatic PC spin (for “reading between the lines”, see my article cited under Hunan below), Yang had already observed the important distinctions common to local ritual cultures all over China, long before the major projects on local Daoist ritual since the 1980s. [2]

sfg-50s

sflg-1950s

Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, c1962.

Nearby, the Daoist rituals of Suzhou were also thoroughly documented in an amazing 1956 project. Following such early work, major studies of the Daoist rituals of Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai have been made since the 1990s. [3]

The Music Research Institute
After the 1949 “Liberation” Yang’s erudition was much needed. Managing to adapt to the new Communist regime, he arrived in Beijing to become director of the newly-formed National Music Research Institute of the Central Conservatory of Music (predecessor of the Music Research Institute [MRI] of the Chinese Academy of Arts), beginning a golden age for research there. Under his committed guidance they accumulated a large archive of field recordings and traditional notations.

A qin player himself, he was closely involved with all his eminent colleagues’ research on qin.

The golden age of the MRI, 1954;
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Zha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.
.

The MRI was given a new building (typically, soon dilapidated) in Dongzhimenwai in the northeast of the city. Even in the 1980s, when it became my home base between field trips, its bare dingy corridors were animated by the spirits of the old masters. The new compound, further out in Huixinxijie, is less characterful.

yang-and-cao-best

Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

Both before and after Liberation, until the early 1960s, in collaboration with other fine scholars—notably his cousin and lifelong companion Cao Anhe (1905-2004)—Yang managed both to perform remarkable research on a range of living traditions and to compile major collections and transcriptions of traditional notation. Just as important was his monumental history, first in draft from 1944, covering with unique erudition the whole of Chinese music history, and elite as well as folk genres, albeit couched in the language of its time.

His most renowned recording—on another trip home to Wuxi in summer 1950—of pipa and erhu solos by the blind beggar Abing, is perhaps his least interesting. Abing was once among the Daoists whose company Yang kept in his youth, but the 1950 recording was a casual event, on a day off from working with the Daoists who were his main focus.

His work on the Zhihua temple followed on from his 1952 monograph (with Cao Anhe) of the “Songs for Winds” band from Ziwei village in Hebei during their 1950 visit to Tianjin—a band still active when Xue Yibing and I visited them from 1989. In summer 1953 Yang made an important visit to Xi’an to investigate the music (and scores) of local ritual groups; and he drew attention to the ritual music of Shanxi, notably the Buddhist mountains of Wutaishan—also later to become major scholarly themes in China. [4] With Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua he also took part in a project to transnotate a rare score of the “suite plucking” repertoire of old Beijing. For more evidence of his good taste, see here.

Hunan, 1956
Along with his historical research, Yang Yinliu did all kinds of fieldwork. Just as remarkable as his studies with the Wuxi Daoists was a major fieldwork trip he led to Hunan province in 1956, amidst escalating collectivisation. There Yang Yinliu headed a team documenting all kinds of ceremonial music-making, notably ritual and customary musics. Despite the politically correct language of the published volume, they seem to have taken what they found. The resulting “Report on a survey of the musics of Hunan” (Hunan yinyue pucha baogao, 1960) has 618 pages, besides separate mimeographs on Confucian and Buddhist ritual. I’ve written about it at greater length here.

This, the first general survey of all the genres of a given area, was an influential blueprint for later regional surveys from the 1980s, notably the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, on which see my

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

The energy of those times at the MRI, in the midst of increasing political control, was remarkable. Also wide-ranging was an early fieldtrip to Fujian for two and a half months in the winter of 1961–62, led by Li Quanmin, and published in 1963. [5]

In 1962 Yang Yinliu published a masterly overview of Chinese notation in his Gongchepu qianshuo 工尺谱浅说.

All this extraordinary work was carried out under the most taxing conditions. Worse was to come: academics and peasants alike, as representatives of the “Four Olds”, suffered grievously after the Four Cleanups campaigns began in 1963. In May 1965—after the end of the campaigns, when over thirty MRI employees had undergone Socialist Education in Chang’an county, Shaanxi—they celebrated their temporary freedom with a visit to Huashan:

Huashan 1965

In the row behind, fifth from left is the trusty Li Wenru (for whom, see here). Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

As the Cultural Revolution broke out, even in the Hebei village camp where Yang and others were sent for “re-education” he furtively continued research, including studies (along with Huang Xiangpeng, another distinguished colleague) of the 1972 excavation of the Han tombs at Mawangdui (see e.g. Micic, p.104). During this period Yang’s colleagues members of the elite qin fraternity were also given permission to continue their studies.

“How to assess religious music”
Within the confines of the day, Yang Yinliu paid just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular genres (pace Joseph Lam). Indeed, Yang was perhaps predisposed to studying early music history; and it wasn’t so much post-Liberation ideology that drew him to popular living genres, but his own training in performance (Kunqu, Daoists and so on).

In the useful article

he discusses Yang’s own article “Ruhe duidai woguode zongjiao yinyue” 如何对待我国的宗教音乐 [How to treat religious music], Wenhui bao 1961.3 (also reproduced in the 2013 Yang Yinliu jinian wenji), written just as a very brief lull in extreme leftist policies followed the climb-down after the terrible famine.

Meanwhile scholars had been discussing the classification of genres; their framework was enshrined in the 1964 Minzu yinyue gailun [Survey of Chinese music]. Despite the separate and subsidiary place of “religious music”, they were aware that ritual practice pervaded all genres of rural performance. Indeed, Yang seems to have been the first to use the term “ritual music” (yishi yinyue ) in China. [1] From 1959 he also spent many years revising his masterwork Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of Chinese music], which was finally published in 1981. Covering literati, palace, folk, and religious traditions required him to take great care over how to couch his language.

So in his 1961 article he was subtly, and boldly, justifying the very need to study ritual traditions, using the language of class struggle while attempting to refine it. It will hardly satisfy modern anthropologists of religion; indeed, it makes a rather severe test of our ability to interpret writings of the time. Of course, in the 1950s the tenets of ethnomusicology were still far from common even in the West. Yang’s use of language shows the hoops that scholars had to jump through in order to get on with documenting the diverse genres.

After the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the demise of the commune system, Yang Yinliu finally saw his great history formally published, and cultural and academic life restored. Though he lived long enough to witness the revival of tradition, he could hardly have imagined how widespread it would become, and how important the study of ritual and its soundscape was to be. How he would have delighted in the renewed energy of the Anthology and later fieldwork projects! His interests may have been more directed towards the “salvage” of genres common in his own youth and throughout imperial history, but I think he would have understood the value of documenting their fortunes since Liberation, even if that was still to remain a sensitive subject.

YYL CDs

The Protestant hymns of Yang Yinliu
Unlike Bartók, Yang wasn’t also a composer. Except

As a coda to this little tribute, the 2-CD set from Wind Records ends with a touching hymn that Yang wrote in 1934, a simple harmonization of the qin piece Yangguan sandie:

I was most moved to hear the Beijing Protestant Church Choir sing it at a memorial concert for Yang in November 1999. His Christian background has long been recognized, but only with the liberalizations since his death did it become possible in China to admit, sotto voce, that he remained a Christian all his life. This makes his hymns all the more moving, especially bearing in mind all the silent tribulations since the 1940s of Chinese Christians, along with artists, intellectuals, and peasants.

* * *

Along with my Chinese friends, some of whom were his pupils, I can’t help feeling a deep nostalgia for the golden days of the MRI. Yang Yinliu’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge and musicianship are likely to remain unmatched. If only my other great mentor, Laurence Picken, had been able to confer with him!

Like many ethnomusicologists, I no longer want to be limited by the narrow association with “music”, but while Yang Yinliu’s writings are wide-ranging as well as profound, his focus on “music” was also admirable.

Finally, two suitable quotes from a junior colleague of Yang (see Peter Micic’s second comment below), and a pupil, [6] who were also to become my mentors:

Yang Yinliu was a large tree full of lush leaves and branches reaching high into the sky. I can only caress each branch and leaf with my hands.Yang was a bridge between the ancient and the modern, Chinese and foreign. I’m still walking along that bridge that Yang built.   —Huang Xiangpeng (for whom, see Peter Micic’s comment below)

Through him, Chinese music history was freed from the shackles of the text, allowing the music and the musicians to take centre stage.   —Qiao Jianzhong

hxp-qjz

With two distinguished successors of Yang Yinliu at the MRI, 1989: Huang Xiangpeng (left) and Qiao Jianzhong.

Alas, I arrived in Beijing in 1986 a couple of years too late to pay homage to Yang Yinliu in person. But his spirit animates us all.

Selected resources

  • Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of ancient Chinese music] (Beijing, 1981)
  • Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji [Selected articles by Yang Yinliu on music] (Shanghai, 1986)
  • Qiao Jianzhong and Mao Jizeng, eds.: Zhongguo yinyuexue yidai zongshi Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) [Yang Yinliu, master of Chinese musicology, commemorative collection] (Taipei, 1992)
  • Chuancheng: Yang Yinliu bainian danchen jinian zhuanji/Heritage: in memory of a Chinese music master Yang Yinliu (2-CD set, Wind Records, 2000) [with detailed booklet]
  • Yang Yinliu quanji [Complete works of Yang Yinliu] (13 vols, Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 2009)
  • Yang Yinliu jinian wenji [Collected articles commemorating Yang Yinliu] (Beijing, 2013)
  • Han Kuo-huang, “Three Chinese musicologists: Yang Yinliu, Yin Falu, Li Chunyi”, Ethnomusicology 24.3 (1980), pp.483–529
  • Stephen Jones, “Yang Yinliu”, in The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians (2001)
  • Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music: a life of Yang Yinliu”, in Lives in Chinese music, ed. Helen Rees (University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp.91–116. Note also references.

 

[1] Sunan chuidaqu, 1957 edition, pp.11–12. This passage was cut from the 1982 edition. There may be a story to tell here: perhaps such material was still more sensitive when they revised the text around 1980 than it had been even in 1957.

[2] See also Meng Fanyu 孟凡玉, “Lun Yang Yinliude yishi yinyue yanjiu” 论杨荫浏的仪式音乐研究, Yinyue yishu 2017.6.

[3] For a simple introduction to the musical and ritual culture of south Jiangsu, see my Folk music of China, pp.246–8.

[4] Ibid., pp.195–202 and 213–45.

[5] Cf. ibid. pp.286–321.

[6] Cited in Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, pp.105–106.

Platform

Platform

In connection with my film, I already recommended the verismo fictional films of Jia Zhangke 樟柯 about changes in small-town Shanxi in the reform era. Of many appreciations, this is good.

One of many moving scenes in his brilliant Platform (Zhantai 站台, 2000) comes when the illiterate Sanming, desperate for a job, turns up to work at a coal mine for a daily wage of 10 kuai. His friend reads out for him the brief, shocking, contract he has to sign, opening:

Contract of life and death: 1) Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven. I am willing to work in Gaojiazhuang mine. Management accepts no blame for accidents.
生死合同。第一,生死由命,富贵在天。本人自愿在高家庄煤矿采煤,如遇万一,与煤矿无任何关系。

Just that opening phrase Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven resounds with the peasant mindset, if less so with modern law. The contract, and Sanming’s uncomprehending acceptance of it, are at once convincing and tragicomic.

Shanxi province, apart from its fine household Daoists, is also notable for its mining accidents. From my book on neighbouring Shaanbei:

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the 5th suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.

Brum

Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim, or the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad!