Blind people groping at the elephant
Following my posts on the tangming bands and the 1956 Suzhou Daoist project, while I have no field experience of Daoist ritual around Suzhou, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp with the aid of exceptionally abundant secondary sources. So this isn’t so much a review of Suzhou Daoism, as an illustration of the multiple ways of approaching it.
Wu Shirong leading Xiantian bawang zougao ritual, 2011. Photo: Tao Jin.
Research on ritual life throughout the whole of south Jiangsu—Suzhou, Changshu, Wuxi, Shanghai, and so on—ranks close behind that for southeast China and Hunan. Still, ritual activities in these regions are quite different: in the southeast and Hunan, individual household altars (and particularly their ritual manuals) dominate research, whereas in south Jiangsu wider networks of temples and their priests seem more important.
One might suppose that Suzhou Daoism would be a rather easily-defined topic, but it illustrates my comment (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.3–4) that we are all “blind people groping at the elephant” (xiazi moxiang 瞎子摸象)—only able to describe that tiny part of the total picture that we happen to grasp, never managing to see the whole.
Even for scholars equipped with the skills to study modern or imperial China, Daoist ritual is a daunting topic. And it’s hard to integrate within the changing religious practices and life stories of ordinary people in rural China under successive regimes since the early 20th century. Indeed, this is a general issue in religious studies: the tension between approaching religion as social activity and as doctrine—the manifestation of the Word of God (see e.g. Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, and Ritual theory, ritual practice).
For China, we might identify three broad strands of enquiry: social history, ritual (particularly texts), and “music”, that seem to be conducted independently; it seems hard to piece together the multiple pieces of the jigsaw. And whereas change is a major element in studies of social history, ritual and music tend to be treated as eternal; scholars in both the latter fields engage only sporadically with modern society and people’s lives.
Even studies of Daoist ritual and “Daoist music” don’t quite communicate with each other. While sound is invariably a vital element in the performance of ritual, scholars of ritual tend to downplay performance and its soundscape, whereas scholars of “music” may focus too narrowly on it. Both tend to reify, documenting either ritual sequences and liturgical texts or “pieces of music” at the expense of studying social change.
1 Social history: the wider religious context
Here I can only hint at the riches of ritual activity around Suzhou. As throughout China, Daoist ritual is a major theme in ritual activity in the region, but it’s far from the only one. While studies of Daoist ritual tend to favour “salvage” above ethnography, it should be obvious that an understanding of ritual practice depends on the study of local society.
A network of scholars have done impressive research on ritual life around south Jiangsu from the late imperial era, using exceptionally well-documented material on socio-political change since the mid-19th century.
In his book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949, Vincent Goossaert makes a convincing case for studying the lives of “ordinary Daoists”. And further, he spreads the net wider to ordinary ritual practitioners. Around Suzhou (as elsewhere), spirit mediums (xianniang 仙娘 or lingmei 靈媒), devotional groups (xianghui 香會, xuanjuan 宣卷, luantan 亂壇, and so on—often sectarian), temple and household Buddhists, and so on are all active, forming an interrelated complex (for further readings on xuanjuan, see n.1 here).
Xuanjuan scriptural group, Jingjiang 2009.
Source: Berezkin and Goossaert, “The three Mao lords”.
A fine introduction to the wider social background is
- Tao Jin 陶金 and Gao Wansang 高万桑 [Vincent Goossaert], “Daojiao yu Suzhou difang shehui” 道教与苏州地方社会 [Daoism and Suzhou local society], in Wei Lebo 魏乐博 [Robert Weller] (ed.), Jiangnan diqude zongjiao yu gonggong shenghuo 江南地区的宗教与公共社会 [Religion and public life in the Jiangnan region] (2015).
They cite a wealth of historical sources from the late Qing and Republican eras, as well as more recent field reports. Like Yang Yinliu, they note nested hierarchies of ritual practitioners, and indeed within the ranks of hereditary Daoists—with a minority of elite fashi ritual masters maintaining their historical contacts with Longhushan  and Beijing above the ranks of common household Daoists.
Noting changing ritual practices from the late 19th century, the authors provide rich material contrasting the pre-1949 and modern periods, such as the mentu 門圖 or menjuan 門眷 ritual catchment-area system formerly common throughout the region.
One of the recurring themes in Goossaert’s research is the history of state attempts to manage—and control—unlicensed priests operating at the grassroots level, and the whole diversity of the religious scene.
- “A question of control: licensing local ritual specialists in Jiangnan, 1850-1950”, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and Liu Shufen 劉淑芬 eds., Xinyang, shijian yu wenhua tiaoshi 信仰, 實踐與文化調適 (Taipei, 2013).
Even in the early 1950s, the Suzhou Daoist association distinguished temple-based Daoists (daofang 道房) and the others (fuying 赴應) whom they hired on a daily basis. The complex relation between Daoists and state supervision has continued to be a major issue in the reform era. Leading Daoist masters who led the preparatory committee for the Suzhou Daoist Association from 1979 included Zhang Xiaoxuan 张筱轩, Ren Junchen 任俊臣, and Zhou Qiutao 周秋涛. Other municipalities also formed Daoist Associations over these years. But there was a wide age-gap between the younger Daoists and their senior masters who had trained under a very different system.
Today, with the increasing vogue of recycling imperial models of governance, we witness to a certain extent a return of this idea that official Daoists and Buddhists holding positions in their respective associations are entrusted with licensing and controlling the vernacular priests in their locales (and indeed, to a certain extent, spirit-mediums who work with them).
By the 2010s, while rituals were still held at the Xuanmiao guan, the temple was partly museified; core focuses serving the ritual needs of communities are now the nearby Chenghuang miao and Qionglongshan (in the western suburbs near Lake Tai).
Another major centre is the Maoshan temple complex. As usual, studies of Maoshan are dominated by ancient history rather than the maintenance of its temple liturgy in modern times; as ever, such prominent temples are subject to great official pressure. Relevant here are
- Yang Shihua 杨世华 and Pan Yide 潘一德 eds., Maoshan daojiao zhi 茅山道教志 [Monograph on Maoishan Daoism] (2007), and
- Ian Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain: the modern transformation of Maoshan”, Journal of Daoist studies 5 (2012).
But there is a multitude of smaller temples throughout the municipalities under the Suzhou region—Kunshan, Wujiang, Changshu, Zhangjiagang, and Taicang.
The revival was gradual. A variety of rituals were soon in demand, such as exorcistic and blessing rituals, rituals for new dwellings, mortuary (including commemorative) rituals, and even wedding rituals. The authors describe four main types of jiao Offering currently performed: taiping jiao 太平醮 for the well-being of a local community; guoguan jiao 過關醮 for life crises, particularly for children; jiao to protect from fire (huojiao 火醮); and rituals for the Thunder God leishen 雷神. They note that 7th-moon rituals to deliver the soul have become rare, but they don’t discuss funerals.
Beyond studies of particular rituals (see below), two tables (pp.105–106) suggest the variety of rituals routinely performed today (cf. the diaries of Li Bin and Li Manshan in Yanggao):
Rituals performed by Tao Jin’s master Zhou Caiyuan in July 2011, showing locations, personnel, ritual type, and ritual segments. For the seven rituals held at the Heshan daoyuan he was a “guest master” (keshi 客师).
Rituals held at the Chenghuang miao temple in July 2011, including Communal Offerings (gongjiao), Crossing the Passes (guoguan), commemorative daochang, and so on.
As around Shanghai and elsewhere, spirit mediums are crucial organizers. Until the 1950s the xiangtou from the local gentry who invited the elite Daoists to perform rituals, and those attending, were male; nowadays female lingmei (or xianniang 仙娘), and female worshippers, play a leading role. And almost all the rituals (even in the urban temples) are commissioned by rural patrons.
Even some long-discontinued ritual processions resumed—only no longer to the elite temples. For the changing religious scene of festivals, territorial cults, and pilgrimages from the late Qing to the Republican era, see further
- Gao Wansang 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert), “Wan Qing ji Minguo shiqi Jiangnan diqude yingshen saihui” 晚清及民國時期江南地區的迎神賽會, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert) eds., Gaibian Zhongguo zongjiaode wushinian: 1898–1948 改變中國宗教的五十年: 1898–1948 (Taipei, 2015)
- Vincent Goossaert , “Territorial cults and the urbanization of the Chinese world: a case study of Suzhou”, in Peter van der Veer ed., Handbook of religion and the Asian city: aspiration and urbanization in the twenty-first century (2015).
In the latter, a nuanced account of the ever-changing fortunes of urban, suburban, and rural temples, the processes of deterritoralization and reterritoralization, he observes:
Judging by current practice, small-scale rituals by local communities typically involve two main kinds of ritual specialists: spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters. […] Not all territorial communities hire Daoists for their celebrations every year; the scripture-chanting masters provide cheaper, simpler services, complemented by dances and songs formed among the community’s elder women. For the larger celebrations involving Daoists, spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters are also commonly present; these specialists have a clear division of labour and are not in competition.
And the journal Minsu quyi, always core reading for Chinese ritual studies, continues to publish a wealth of material, most recently here.
2 Documenting ritual practice
While such work is exceptionally rich in social detail, it can’t seek to address the nuts and bolts of ritual practice—which for scholars of Daoism is the heart of the matter.
This is the kind of work for which Tao Jin 陶金 is perhaps uniquely qualified, with his detailed historical knowledge of Daoism and its ritual manuals. One of very few scholars of Daoism who have followed the lead of Saso and Schipper in participant observation, Tao Jin apprenticed himself first to Chang Renchun in Beijing and then, since 2008, to the Daoist masters Zhou Caiyuan 周財源 and Wu Shirong 吾世榮 in Suzhou; in 2018 he was himself ordained.
- Tao Jin 陶金, “Suzhou ‘Xiantian bawang zougao keyi’ chutan” 蘇州《先天奏吿科儀》初探, in Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志 and Laogewen 勞格文 [John Lagerwey] eds., Difang daojiao yishi shidi diaocha bijiao yanjiu guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwenji 地方道教儀式實地調查比較研究 (國際學術研討會論文集) (Hong Kong, 2013).
In this article Tao Jin explores the esoteric Xiantian bawang zougao ritual to the Doumu 斗姥 deity. It may be adapted to rituals for both the living and the dead; he documents a mortuary version that he attended at a family home, including randeng 燃燈 and poyu 破獄 segments (see photo above).
Only from the tables can we learn that the group consisted of three liturgists and four instrumentalists; they are not named. Tao Jin’s purpose is not to document normative current practice but to explain aspects of the early evolution of Daoist ritual. He gives only minimal coverage of the soundscape—even basic features like solo chanting, group singing, slow/fast, melisma, the function of percussion and melodic instrumental music.
One may choose to depict a given ritual because it encapsulates the core wisdom of ancient Daoism, or because it is frequently performed today. In my work on the Li family I focus on funerals, because that is their main context, which we can document in detail by observation; I also note their performance of temple rituals and Thanking the Earth, rare or obsolete since the 1950s. Tao Jin comments (in a footnote!) that the Doumu ritual is still performed in the Shanghai region for both the living and the dead, whereas in Suzhou it is now used only for the latter; one wonders about reasons for this difference.
Work of this type is more concerned with tracing medieval antecedents and imperial history than with documenting change within living memory, or indeed performance practice. As with the voluminous material on household Daoist groups in southeast China, documenting the radical social or political changes since the 19th century is left to other scholars.
Another of Tao Jin’s themes is the strong historical link with Daoism in Beijing;  and such rituals should also be studied in conjunction with those of Shanghai. While he, with his rich insider’s experience as a participant, should be well qualified to detail the practicalities of ritual life, his main energy is devoted to doctrinal history. Still, if anyone eventually compiles a more comprehensive account of the whole range of rituals still performed, then Tao Jin is the person to do it.
3 Music scholarship
All this seems to put the perspective of musicology in the shade, but this approach does at least provide an impression of current practice.
Clearly, the soundscape of Daoist ritual is crucial; but looking to scholarship on “Daoist music” to understand ritual also has its limitations. Around Suzhou and Wuxi, a reified image of the Shifan instrumental genres works to distract us from both ritual practice and local society; however complex, Shifan is only one supporting element in the performance of Daoist ritual in the region.
In the 1950s “Daoist music” became a palatable way of discussing Daoist ritual; but it obfuscated the issue. Still, whether I like it or not, “Suzhou Daoist music” is A Thing. Like the studies of ritual, such works tend to be heavily laced with generic citations from ancient history. And by contrast with the broader enquiry of social scholars, based on folk practice, they are dominated by the official Xuanmiao guan group. Still, they suggest some clues.
So the riches of Daoist ritual around south Jiangsu (and everywhere) need to be addressed by scholars of Daoist ritual, not just “Daoist music”. I would like to read works without the word “music” in the title, where it is a given that coverage of the soundscape is intrinsic to the task.
Transcriptions are an important step towards revealing the nuts and bolts of ritual practice, towards suggesting how performers and patrons experience ritual performance. However, scholars of Daoism may be reluctant to take this on board. Learning to read cipher notation requires very little time, but few will take the trouble to do so—perhaps partly because they will struggle to perceive its relevance. Whether for the vocal liturgy or the instrumental music, they might ask: does the manner of performance—notably its sound—matter, as long as the text gets transmitted? (cf. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.256–7). Indeed, transcriptions—like reproductions of ritual manuals—are merely a form of graphic representation, not easily translated into sound. What we need is film (on which more below).
After a very basic introduction, the “religious music” section of the instrumental volumes of the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷) gives extensive transcriptions of items of vocal liturgy (pp.1439–1645), though it only gives brief notes to contextualize them. The Shifan genres which punctuate them are transcribed separately under instrumental ensembles.
From the Anthology: top (left) Daoist tangming group; (right) Mao Zhongqing leads ritual overture on drum at the Chunshenjun miao temple;
mid: (left) Xue Jianfeng accompanies liturgy on shuangqing lute; (right) Maoshan ritual;
below: (left) chuanhua segment of Quangong/Quanfu ritual; (right) Zhou Zufu accompanies vocal liturgy.
Opening of Hymn to Incense from San Mao baochan, Maoshan,
with percussion prelude and accompaniment.
From Maoshan the Anthology provides transcriptions from the following rituals:
- San Mao biao 三茅表
- San Mao baochan 三茅寶懺
- Yuhuang chan 玉皇懺
- Shangqing risong wanke 上清日誦晚課
And from Suzhou:
- Sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 三寶懺悔設[施?]食玄科
- Qingwei gongtian xingdao chaoyuan keyi 清微供天行道朝元科儀
- Quangong/Quanfu 全功全符
- Quangong/Quanbiao 全功全表
- Miscellaneous vocal liturgy
The Anthology continues with transcriptions of Buddhist ritual (pp.1652–1765), mainly of the influential Tianning si temple in Changzhou, as well as Nanjing and Yangzhou, and some items from the xuanjuan scripture groups.
Valuable as the Anthology is, it provides us with clues, starting-points; its material always needs unpacking. Meanwhile, in the substantial series Zhongguo chuantong yishi yinyue yanjiu jihua 中國傳統儀式音樂研究計畫 [Traditional Chinese ritual music research project]
- Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2000)
is a rather slim tome. Their dry list of rituals (pp.39–40), under the basic categories of jiao, fashi, and minor rituals, is less than clear. And instead of clarifying, they go on to discuss the instrumental component. They do then give transcriptions (pp.53–130; texts alone on pp.141–72) of the vocal liturgy from two major rituals (Duiling sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 對霛三寶懺悔設食玄科 and Lingbao xianweng jilian xuanke 靈寶仙翁祭煉玄科), but entirely without context.
The Offering to Heaven ritual
In the same series, a much more detailed account of one of the core rituals, as performed by the Xuanmiao guan group, is
- Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun 蘇州道教科儀音樂研究: 以“天功”科儀為例展開的討論 (1999).
It doesn’t consist merely of musical transcriptions, but belongs with the style of the works of Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 for other traditions (e.g. Beijing, south Hebei, and Baiyunshan), documenting whole rituals in detail.
Liu Hong lists three types of jiao Offering:
- those formerly commissioned by urban dwellers for prosperity;
- Communal Offerings (gongjiao 公醮) commissioned by rural groups assembled by a xiangtou leader (usually a tiangong ritual, as here)
- offerings for individual families.
In a useful section (pp.194–8) discussing flexible elements in the ritual, he notes that whereas before Liberation they used to travel widely in the region to perform lengthy rituals, tailoring them to patrons’ differing demands, since the reforms the patrons come to the Xuanmiao guan temple to have rituals performed, leading to both standardization and abbreviation. This is important, although one now wants similar treatments for all the rituals still performed “among the people”, including those listed in the tables above.
Patrons for tiangong ritual, 1994. Photo: Liu Hong.The tiangong ritual consists of three main sections: Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 發符), Offering to Heaven (gongtian 供天), and Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表)—a sequence also regularly performed by Zhou Caiyuan under the heading of Communal Offering.
From Liu Hong’s description of the gongtian ritual segment.
Liu Hong’s account isn’t limited to melodic items; he includes texts of chanted sections, and describes ritual actions; and like Tao Jin, he provides titles for ritual manuals and diagrams of altars. He also pays rather more attention to social context; for the ritual he attended in July 1994, the “audience” of over one hundred consisted mainly of female peasants from the outlying regions, bringing offerings to be used during the ritual. He lists the performers for a tiangong ritual at the Chunshenjun miao temple in 1995: seven fashi liturgists (led by Xue Guiyuan), two xianghuo helpers and seven instrumentalists (with Mao Liangshan on drum).
Studies of ritual nearby
We might read this material in conjunction with related monographs on Shanghai and Wuxi:
- Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Haishang Baiyun guan shishi keyi yinyue yanjiu 海上白雲觀施食科儀音樂研究 (1997) documents a 1994 performance of the shishi ritual, and contains reproductions of four ritual manuals.
- Qian Tiemin 錢鐵民 and Ma Zhen’ai 馬珍媛, Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (2 vols., 1999) contains transcriptions of the vocal liturgy (pp.165–568), but is dominated by the instrumental repertoire.
For other volumes on Shanghai in the important Minsu quyi congshu series, see n.3 here, including a review by Poul Andersen.
So such studies by musicologists contain considerable material for the scholar of Daoism.
Though the Maoist era was a crucial period for transmission, details remain elusive. Tao Jin and Goossaert give a bare outline (p.99–100). Household Daoist Zhou Caiyuan recalled a large-scale zhutian hui 朱天會 ritual in the late 1950s at the Wulu Caishen miao temple near the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Maoshan temples managed to maintain activity too: in 1963, roughly 20,000 believers attended a kaiguang 開光 inauguration ritual at the Jiuxiao gong temple there.  Even the performance of such rituals under Maoism suggests a nuanced picture, but few details emerge of more routine practice—including funerals, always an important context.
A 1956 list of temples in the city of Suzhou (Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.15–18) gives a stark picture of the decimation of the physical religious landscape there. Suburban and rural temples may have been hit less hard, though ritual activity there too would have been severely limited.
To return to Goossaert’s plea, it’s worth exploring the lives of the ritual performers.
For scholars of Daoism, the fashi ritual specialists properly take priority over the “musical” Daoists. But the 1957 volume Suzhou daojiao yishuji only lists their names, and the Anthology biographies concern not those specializing in liturgical practice but performers noted for their instrumental accomplishments who went on to achieve fame under Maoism as members of secular state troupes. Still, these Daoists are not mere “musicians”: they have long experience performing lengthy rituals. While some of them formally served as temple clerics before Liberation, most were household Daoists. 
Some of the most famed performers are renowned for their drumming (a major component of Daoist ritual around the region), such as Mao Zhongqing and Zhou Zufu, as well as Zhu Qinfu in Wuxi. Scholars pay attention to the complex drum sections that punctuate the instrumental suites, rather than the less virtuosic art of accompanying vocal liturgy (on which, for Yanggao, see here.)
Most of these biographies describe prominent Daosts recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple group in Suzhou:
Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (1915–?)
Mao Zhongqing studied from young with his father Mao Buyun 毛步雲, a priest in the Huoshen dian shrine attached to the Xuanmiao guan. He studied dizi flute with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎 of the Jifang dian shrine, sanxian plucked lute with Hua Yongmei 華詠梅 of the Wenchang dian shrine, and the whole Shifan repertoire with Dai Xiaoxia 戴啸霞, a Daoist attached to the Greater Guandi miao temple. From the age of 12 sui he was working for the Caishen dian temple.
After Liberation he was recruited to a Music Research Group in the Suzhou Daoist community for the “Resist America, Support Korea” Association. In 1953, like Cai Huiquan, he was employed in the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra, along with his fellow Daoists Wu Mingxing 吳明馨, Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, and Hua Lisheng 華麗生. But already in late 1954 he requested leave to return to Suzhou, where he worked for the Suzhou Daoist Study Committee.
In 1956 he took part on drum and tiqin fiddle in the major project to document a complete jiao Offering ritual. Wu Xiaobang, leader of the project, went on to organize the Heavenly Horses Dance Experimental Office (Tianma wudao shiyanshi 天马舞蹈实验室) in Shanghai, with whom Mao Zhongqing toured widely from 1958 to 1960. When the group folded in 1961 he once again returned to Jiangsu, joining the provincial Kunqu troupe. In the early years of the Cultural Revolution he was kept on at the reception office there, but he took early retirement in 1970, returning to Suzhou. In 1979, as tradition restored, he was part of an illustrious group of thirteen Daoists gathered together by cultural officials to record. He was now assigned to the Suzhou Song-and-Dance Ensemble, also taking part in the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe.
Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (1915–97)
From a background of Kunqu, Zhou Zufu was adopted after his mother’s death into the hereditary ritual tradition of the Zhou family in Huajing village of Wuxian county, descended from the Renshi tang 仁世堂 hall, performing along with four brothers. Aged 17 sui he studied Daoist percussion with Xu Yinmei 許吟梅 of the Caishen dian temple of the Xuanmiao guan, and from 21 sui he invited Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, an eminent Daoist attached to the Zongguan tang 總管堂 hall, to Huajing to teach them sanxian. After the Japanese occupation, with travel disrupted, he studied Shifan with Zhu Peiji 朱培基 (aka Zhu Boji 朱柏基). By now he was a respected performer in Daoist ritual and tangming groups around the countryside. He was given a post in the Suzhou Daoist association, expanding his ritual activities to the city. After the Japanese were defeated he was the only rural Daoist to take part in the Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, one of many such official Daoist groups formed since the 1920s.
Zhou Zufu, ritual transmission. Source: Liu Hong, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu.
After Liberation Zhou Zufu was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group. In 1953 he was assigned to the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe (forerunner of the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe), and in 1957 he went on to the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra. Again, he had to return to the Suzhou countryside with the 1962 state cuts.
Following a typical lacuna in the account, he was recalled to the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe in 1977. In 1984 he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple. That year he performed in Venice with a combined group from Suzhou (also including qin master Wu Zhaoji), arranged impressively by Raffaella Gallio, first foreign student at the Shanghai conservatoire from 1980—who incidentally was instrumental in helping me realize that Chinese folk music was reviving (see here).
The account lists official festivals at which he took part through the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1990 Beijing Festival of Religious Music. But by the late 1980s he was also a leading light in rituals at the Xuanmiao guan, teaching the new generation.
Jin Zhongying 金中英 (1925–96)
A hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, Jin Zhongying studied at sishu private school from the age of 6 sui, but had to withdraw after two years since the family could no longer afford the fees. When he was 12 sui his father died, and he gradually began performing in rituals, learning instruments and liturgy from masters like Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (see below), and learning further from 15 sui in the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 Daoist academy. In 1945, as the Japanese were defeated he took part in its successor the Yixuan yanlu, but their activities were soon curtailed by the civil war. In 1948 he studied with Xu Yinzhu 許吟竹 at the Wenchang dian temple.
After Liberation, in 1951 he too was enlisted to the Suzhou Daoists’ propaganda activities for the Korean War, and from 1953 he headed the second Daoist Music Research Group, with a brief interlude in the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe. He had an impressive collection of ritual manuals, and it was he who in 1953 provided the early Juntian miaoyue score by Cao Xisheng. He was one of the organizers of the 1956 project, and the main author of the resulting volume; and like Mao Zhongqing he went on to join the Tianma Troupe in Shanghai. In 1960 he was recalled to oversee the Suzhou Chinese Music Troupe. From 1965 he held successive cultural posts in Suzhou. He was a leading light in the revival from 1979.
As I observed in my post on the tangming bands, few Daoists would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and protected them, mostly, from accusations of “feudal superstition”.
By contrast with other regions, there was more official research activity in Suzhou under Maoism, based to a degree on the lively Daoist institutions of the Republican era. But such biographical sketches are frustrating. They were all versatile instrumentalists, but for details on their ritual and liturgical practice we have to seek elsewhere.
Cao and Zhang give further brief biographies (pp.131–40)—still based more on “musicians” than on liturgists. In addition to the Daoists above, they list:
Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?)
Son of the great Daoist Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, who had over two hundred disciples, Zhao Houfu also studied percussion in the 1930s with the Daoist master Dai Youxia 戴攸霞. From 1951 he was a member of the Suzhou Daoist Music Study Group, and he took part in the 1956 project, going on to the Tianma Troupe.
Xie Jianmei 謝劍梅 (1912–88)
From Suzhou city, from the age of 16 sui he learned with Li Peiyuan 李培元 and Shao Shilin 邵世琳, with further training in liturgy from Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, Wu Dinglan 吳鼎蘭, and Jin Shenzhi 金慎之. He became a priest at the Caishen dian shrine of the Xuanmiao guan after the 1945 victory over Japan. In 1951 he joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, working alongside Jin Zhongying and Hua Lisheng. Later he was recruited to the Kunshan Dasheng Yueju Opera Troupe. During the Cultural Revolution he worked at a primary school. From 1981 he was employed at the Xuanmiao guan.
Cao Yuanxi 曹元希(1913–89)
A hereditary Daoist at the Huoshen miao temple in Suzhou, he was a descendant of Cao Xisheng, compiler of the Juntian miaoyue score. After studying with Shao Shilin 邵士琳 and Xu Yinmei 許吟梅, he became abbot of the Huoshen miao. In 1951 he too joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, and he took part in the 1956 project. From 1957 he was in the Heavenly Horses dance troupe, moving on to the Suzhou Chinese Music Orchestra and the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe, where he worked until retiring.
Hua Lisheng 華麗笙 (1915–89)
Hua Lisheng became a priest in the Jifang dian 機房殿 shrine of the Xuanmiao guan at the age of only 10 sui, learning ritual with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎. In 1946, with Zhang Jingyun 張景雲, Li Youmei 李友梅, and Zhang Yunmou 張雲謀 he formed the Yunji she 雲笈社, a short-lived organization for Daoist research. In 1952 he was recruited to the Central Broadcasting Troupe, but returned home due to ill health. Through the Cultural Revolution he made a living from making paper boxes in Xuanmiao guan Alley. From 1981 he worked for the preparatory group for the Suzhou Daoist Association, becoming secretary when it was established in 1986.
Mao Liangshan 毛良善 (b.1927)
From Weiting in Wuxian county, Mao Liangshan was adopted at the age of 6 sui by Zhao Houfu, learning Daoist ritual with him and Zhao’s father Zhao Ziqin. He became a priest at the Xiuzhen guan temple in Suzhou at the age of 13 sui, under the tutelage of Shen Yisheng 深宜生. On the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he returned to Weiting to work in the communal fields. In 1984 the Suzhou Daoist Association summoned him to perform rituals.
Xue Jianfeng 薛劍峰 (b.1925)
A hereditary Daoist, Xue Jianfeng became a temple priest at 14 sui, studying with his father Xue Songqing 薛松卿 and Shao Shilin. From 18 sui he was abbot of the Liushuixian miao 柳水仙廟 temple. After the disruption of the Cultural Revolution, he returned to the Xuanmiao guan in the early 1980s. While a versatile instrumentalist, he specialized in the shuangqing 雙清 plucked lute. Along with Zhou Zufu and Mao Liangshan he trained the new generation.
Jiang Jierong 蔣介榮 (b.1926)
From Wuxian county, Jiang Jierong began studying Daoist ritual from the age of 8 sui with his father Jiang Nianxuan 蔣念萱. His father died when he was 13 sui, whereupon he studied “shendao” 神道 (the tangming ritual style) for three years under Tao Qinghe 陶慶和 (Tao Dawei 陶大微). At the age of 16 sui he became a priest at the Qingzhou guan temple in Suzhou, furthering his studies with Xu Yinmei. Upon land reform he left the clergy, but continued working as a household Daoist. After a long lacuna in the account, he resumed ritual life upon the reforms, and was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Association in 1990.
Here I may as well include a renowned Daoist drummer from nearby Wuxi, on whose reputation the wider awareness of the art of Daoist drumming in south Jiangsu is largely based—it’s worth recalling that Chinese musicologists were studying ritual in mainland China long before other scholars, and that this began with the great Yang Yinliu‘s immersion in Wuxi Daoism.
Zhu Qinfu 朱勤甫 (1902–81) 
Born to a poor family in Zhucuntou village of Wuxi, Zhu Qinfu was brought up by his Daoist uncle Zhu Xiuting 朱秀亭. He became the fifth generation of Daoists in the family, taking part in rituals from the age of 8 sui, and training formally with Zhu Xiuting from 12 to 16 sui. He was part of the Tianyun she group that performed for Henry Eichheim in 1921.
Around 1940 he formed a band called Shiwuchai 十勿拆, renowned for their rendition of the Shifan gu instrumental repertoire. In October 1947 he was invited by the Yangchun she in Shanghai to combine with the Tianyun she for three days of performances, attended by luminaries like Mei Lanfang and Yu Zhenfei. The recordings were broadcast and issued on six discs, but were apparently destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
After Liberation, Zhu Qinfu was recruited in 1952 to the orchestra of the Central Opera Academy in Beijing, and then the Central Experimental Opera Academy. In 1962 he was sent back home as a result of the state cuts following the famine—whereupon, to their credit, the conservatoires of Shanghai and Beijing employed him (the CD-set Xianguan chuanqi includes a 1962 recording). But with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was again forced home.
In 1978 the Shanghai conservatoire once again sought him out. Their recordings were less than ideal, since he was no longer in good health. In 1979 they made a TV documentary. Zhu also returned to the Central Conservatoire in Beijing before his death in 1981.
Back in Suzhou, Liu Hong also introduces two leading liturgists:
Xue Guiyuan 薛桂元 (b.1919) began learning with his father from the age of 9 sui, training from 15 sui at the Anzhaiwang miao 安齋王廟 and from 19 sui with Shao Shilin 邵世琳. Whereas the most accomplished Daoist instrumentalists might find work in state troupes, this was not an option for ritual masters like Xue Guiyuan, and from 1951 he had to work as a peasant, right until 1988 when he was summoned to the Xuanmiao guan.
Zhang Boxu 張伯旭 (b.1921), from Wuxian county, learned with his father from 9 to 13 sui, going to study with Li Duanchun 李端春 before making a living as a household Daoist. From 21 sui he spent two years in Suzhou under Lu Zifan 陸子範. He seems to have remained active until 1962, when he had to return to peasant life. Resuming ritual activities from 1988, he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan in 1992.
Zhang Boxu, ritual transmission.
All these Daoists came from hereditary backgrounds, learning first in the family and then often with other masters. They had all performed rituals for their local communities before Liberation; though such accounts are unclear about their ritual life under Maoism, they had been largely unable to practice until the 1980s’ revival.
Cao Benye and Zhang Fenglin also introduce three able younger Daoists who became priests at the Xuanmiao guan since 1984, taking part in training sessions (cf. Shanghai) and becoming regular members of the temple’s main ritual group: Lu Jianzhong 陸建中 (b.1966), Xie Jianming 謝建明 (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong 韓曉東 (b.1972). Here we can note a shift: with hereditary training having been disrupted, their studies now took place at a later age, and under the auspices of the temple’s training programmes. Lu Jianzhong and Han Xiaodong went on to pursue their studies further with ritual master Xue Guiyuan.
But again, I wonder about the fates of Daoists struggling to make a living after Liberation: not only the more accomplished fashi ritual masters and instrumentalists, but ordinary Daoists too. Many had to return to the collective fields or take up factory jobs, though doubtless some also performed rituals intermittently. More detailed biographies would yield rich material on the Maoist era.
Xuanmiao guan group led by Zhou Zufu (centre, drum), Beijing 1993. My photo.
Today the Xuanmiao guan group comprises some accomplished Daoists (see also here), but the temple’s “museified” official representation may innoculate us from considering the complex realities of local ritual life (cf. the Zhihua temple in Beijing). We still need to include the lives and activities of both fashi ritual masters and ordinary Daoists in the picture.
I return to my usual refrain: none of this discussion can convey an adequate impression of the actions and sound of rituals in performance—and sound is precisely the means by which the texts are communicated.
So beyond silent immobile texts (and beyond transcriptions, or even audio recordings), what we need is films. After all, fieldworkers do commonly film the rituals they observe; but their footage is rarely admitted to the public domain. Online you can find a few unedited, undocumented clips, like the footage of the Dispatching the Talismans at the end of this post.
Rather, I’m suggesting edited ethnographic films with commentary and subtitles showing liturgical texts—both documentaries showing ritual life in social context, and “salvage” projects aiming to preserve or recreate rarely-performed rituals. For the former, Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven enriches his detailed work on ritual life in Putian in Fujian; for the latter, we might cite the current project of the Shanghai Daoist Association, and Patrice Fava’s films tend towards this style. For further such material, see here.
Of course, the historical dimensions of film may be rather shallow. It by no means supplants textual publications, but it should be a sine qua non. However well such textual descriptions are done, they can’t begin to evoke such complex rituals; it’s an absurdity of academia that they are considered adequate. Film is hardly a new medium. Scholars’ reluctance to use it may be partly to do with the lasting dominance of print media in academia, but it also suggests that they consider the written text, not performance, as primary. They write texts about other written texts. In the Appendix of my Daoist priests of the Li family I made this analogy:
It’s like someone with a fine kitchen and loads of glossy cookbooks, who draws the line at handling food or cooking.
If a copy of the 1956 film of the Suzhou Offering ever miraculously resurfaces, then Tao Jin can add subtitles for the ritual segments and vocal texts…
* * *
So the Xuanmiao guan is just one element in Suzhou Daoist ritual; and the latter is just one component of ritual life around the region.
A certain compartmentalization of all these strands may be inevitable; but it’s hard to bring them into dialogue. I suppose it was this kind of synthesis that I attempted in my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, combining text and film. Within the ethnographic framework of the book I gave material both on the wider history of their ritual texts and on their changing performance practice—my task made easier by the sparser historical material and a smaller ritual repertoire. Often my posts on local ritual in north China concern traditions for which little evidence has emerged in either historical or religious studies—which makes them both valuable and limited. But for regions like Suzhou it may be too much to ask for an accessible synthesis of these various elements.
So again the analogy of “blind people groping at the elephant” seems apposite.
With many thanks to Tao Jin and Vincent Goossaert
 On the Longhushan connection, see e.g. Vincent Goossaert, “Bureaucratic charisma: The Zhang Heavenly Master institution and court Taoists in late-Qing China”.
 “Dagaoxuandiande daoshi yu daochang: guankui Ming–Qing Beijing gongtingde daojiao huodong” 大高玄殿的道士与道场：管窥明清北京宫廷的道教活动, Gugong xuekan 2014.2, and
“Dadong wushang jiuji tianxian chuanjie keyi chutan: yige Qingdai Beijing yu Jiangnan wenhua luantan jiaohu yingxiangde anli” 蘇州無上九極天仙傳戒科儀初探: 一個清代北京與江南文化亂壇交互影響的案例, Daoism: religion, history and society 5 (2013).
 Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain”, pp.95–6.
 My summaries here are based on three sources, not always unanimous in detail: the Anthology, Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (2000), pp.131–40, and Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun苏州道教科仪音乐研究:以“天功”科仪为例展开的讨论 (1999), pp.321–8.
 Cf. my Folk music of China, pp.255–6.
Burning petitions as Daoist ritual concludes, Baiyun guan, Shanghai 1987. My photo.
Revisiting material on Daoism around Shanghai and Suzhou reminded me of two astute articles by Yang Der-ruey 楊德睿, a fine sociologist trained under the great Stephan Feuchtwang at the LSE. Following his PhD, his writings from the standpoint of contemporary ethnography contain lessons for scholars of ritual, suggesting parallels with other metropolitan centres—including Suzhou and Beijing.
In a fascinating article on how Daoists learn to make their way in the real world of the ritual market:
Yang explores the ramifications of the training programme established by the Shanghai Daoist College, founded in 1986 under the Shanghai Daoist Association, and subordinate to state and Party authorities—the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. He shows how the economic behavioural patterns and intellectual concerns shaped by their life in the College are challenged soon after they graduate by the rather traditional local religious economy in which they now have to make their living:
They soon had to learn to discern the structure and change of the local religious economy, to recognize their assets, to envision their niche in the changing economic landscape, and to adjust themselves accordingly, manoeuvring among diverse economic patterns and selectively integrating them into a distinctive, viable niche.
On one hand they learn to accommodate with the secular state apparatus and economic order upon which these young priests’ living depends:
This order can best be named a “socialist public-supply economy” since it is at once “socialist” in terms of the internal redistribution system of the Shanghai Daoist Association and is “public-supply” in terms of the style in which the SDA deals with the clients. The morality it claims to embody is egalitarianism and unselﬁsh devotion for common causes, but in reality this economy encourages hierarchical exploitation, sloth, and apathy.
Temple priests soon began working with the unlicensed freelance household priests. At the same time both learn to collaborate with spirit mediums (daxian 大仙 or xiangtou 香头), the main sponsors of ritual life, and to imitate their approach: 
Their economy is an integrated system of a gift economy in the private/individual domain and a tributary economy in the public/communal domain. In the private domain, they provide individual devotees or families with magical or non-magical healing, spiritual protection, divination, psychological consultation, and so on. In the public domain, they take the initiative to organize communal religious activities.
Temple priests began to provide facilities for patrons to create god statues, spirit tablets, and amulets, and to offer divination services. And to satisfy the taste of clients, temple priests began to expand the range and style of their rituals. He cites the remarkable case of Xiao Wang and the “Maoist shaman” whom he replaced as temple leader; thus temple priests learn to act as both “immortal magistrates” and cadres.
Daoist temples came to be considered as a crucial means for revitalizing the economy of old, run-down neighbourhoods to boost the motivation of the local population for pursuing economic development. And temple priests have gradually developed a distinctive synthesis of all the economic patterns they can learn from bureaucrats, freelance priests, and mediums.
* * *
So what Chinese sources often portray as a seamless transition is actually beset by conflict. I’ve already given instances of the different values of the traditional ethos of folk musicking and the new style of the conservatoires and state troupes, including a wise insight from the great Yang Yinliu. In
Yang Der-ruey shows how modern schooling for training novice Daoist priests has produced a new style of learning and a new type of knowledge among the younger generation of Daoist priests. He argues that the curriculum instituted by the Shanghai Daoist College
is actually an attempt to reset the priority attached to different ways of learning and different kinds of knowledge. In sharp contrast to their predecessors who prioritized rote learning and repetitive bodily exercise, and who attached the highest value to the ability to exert up efficacious power while achieving the highest aesthetic qualities in representing tradition, the College-trained younger Daoist priests are taught to prioritize understanding, explanation, argumentation, and to accord the highest value to the ability to compose awe-inspiring discourse embroidered with references to many books. In short, the College’s curriculum functions, purposefully or inadvertently, to instigate an intellectual revolution among younger Daoist priests by replacing “ritual skills” with “discursive knowledge” as the new ideal model for Daoist knowledge.
This “paradigm shift” of Daoist knowledge/learning style is not directly imposed by state authority or enforced by the official ideology of atheism but derives from an acute sense of a crisis of legitimacy, or even survival, of Daoism that is now widely shared among the Daoist clergy. This sense of crisis was actually cultivated by the State in the first place through forcing Daoism to engage in a peculiar Chinese-styled inter-religious competition that is arguably biased against Daoism as a tradition of “mere” ritual skills. However, the inflictor role of the state tends to be ignored, as it also functions as the enlightening pedagogue that shows Daoist clergy the way toward emancipation: modern priestly schooling modeled after the state-run public schooling system.
The story may sound quite upbeat for preservationists and revivalists of the Daoist tradition in China, but the reality is just the opposite. Many senior priests in Shanghai, who were once the most passionate supporters of the endeavor, became its bitterest critics, and did not hesitate to voice their disillusionment publicly. Although their disaffection towards their pupils may have been caused by many other reasons, including the generation gap, unfair rates of salary and benefits that discriminates the aged priests, and so on, it is nevertheless based on an apparent fact: the training of young priests today is very different from that in their own youth. Many senior priests considered the College to be an appalling failure, putting the blame either on the personal qualities of the students and the leadership of the College, or on the very idea of setting up a modern priest training school.
The disaffection and accusations of those senior priests surely have certain grounds, and it is unquestionably true that the general qualities of the youngsters’ ritual skills are much lower than that of the elders. However, it should also be acknowledged that, while many aged priests are illiterate or barely literate, all the younger priests are literate and some are actually quite well versed in history, philosophy, and even IT skills, as they all have gone through nine to twelve years of public schooling. Therefore, it would be unfair to conclude that the younger generation priests are inferior to their predecessors and that the College is a failure. So, where do all the squabbles come from? The real problem here is a huge gap between the majority of senior priests and the leadership/faculty of the College on what should be taught to novice priests or what they should be learning through the College. Learning and teaching activities are embedded in, and structured by, the surrounding social and/or institutional contexts; to thoroughly explain the above-mentioned gap would require us to examine not just the knowledge to be taught/learnt but also the context in which the transmission of knowledge takes place.
Yang discusses in detail the types of knowledge transmitted through the local apprenticeship tradition and through the College, highlighting the contrast between them.
Before Liberation mastery of ritual practice was central to the local apprenticeship tradition, and was structurally embedded within the kinship network. Daoists commonly have mottos for the various kinds of ritual skills to be learned, like “blowing, beating, writing, reciting, and looking” chui da xie nian kan 吹打寫念看) in Yanggao (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.15). In Shanghai the list comprises eight skills:
- chui qiao xie nian pu pai zha zhuo 吹敲寫念鋪排紮著
wind playing, percussion, writing ritual documents, vocal liturgy, setting up altars (pu and pai), making paper artefacts, decoration.
But further, the more advanced ritual masters are expected to acquire magical power (fali 法力) by mastery of fu 符 (talismans), zhou 咒 (incantations), jue 訣 (mudras), and bu 步 (magical steps). Yang describes the cunxiang 存想 (“indulge in contemplation”) and chushen 出神(“bringing out the gods”) esoteric techniques of such masters.
He contrasts the degree certificates granted by modern educational institutions (merely an abstract confirmation of a past reality—“X has studied X subject for X years and passed the final examination”) with the Daoist lu 籙 registers, which contain much more information. Although both modern degree certificate and lu registers empower the holders, the “efficacy” of the former depends finally upon its being recognized by the secular establishment and/or the general public, whereas the latter is supposed to be efficacious in its own right because it is warranted by the heavenly bureaucracy.
A nice story from a young graduate of the College, about an encounter at an exhibition on the “religious sector”, shows both the delusion of the modern secular mindset and students’ own awareness of the conflict:
The head of the Bureau of Religious Affairs came to our stands accompanied by a load of bigshots. At first, they seemed surprised that Daoism had also founded a college. Then one of them started to tease me: “What have you learned in this Daoist College, then? Drawing talismans? Reciting spells? Being a medium? Dancing as a shaman?” While he was asking, some onlookers burst into laughter. I did my best to suppress my anger and calmly told the bastard what kind of curriculum we have in the Daoist College. In the end, I really felt I was going to blow my top if I couldn’t put up a bit of a counter-attack, because there was always someone sniggering at me when I was talking to the bastard. So I concluded my explanation like this: “If someone wants to learn Daoist magic like drawing talismans or casting spells, they must have a certain talent and then spend many years on strictly disciplined practices and meditation. It’s not a simple job like reading books. So, a “good student” valued by normal standards, even a PhD, is probably not qualified for learning Daoist magic.” Those who had laughed at me shut their mouths immediately. They could sense that there was a sting in my words.
Daoist liturgy, Baiyun guan 2001. My photo.
* * *
Whereas a conservatoire education is broadly in line with later careers in state music troupes, official Daoist training programmes are soon rendered irrelevant when graduates have to make their way in the ritual market.
Of course, conservatoires and state programmes are the tip of the iceberg: most folk musicians, and the majority of household Daoists in rural China, never set foot within the state educational apparatus for either music or ritual. Even in cases where the Intangible Cultural Heritage authorities seek to impose such procedures on household Daoists, the attempt is incongruous and impotent, as with the Li family.
But whereas the ritual market in south Jiangsu continues to thrive along with its population, in rural north China both are dwindling.
 For more on the Shanghai mediums, and their relations with temples and Daoists, see e.g. Long Feijun龙飞俊, “Shanghai Longwangmiaode ‘taitai’ men: dangdai Shanghai Longwang miao daojiao difang jisi tixi diaocha” 上海龙王庙的“太太”们——当代上海龙王庙道教地方祭祀体系调查, Zongjiaoxue yanjiu 2014.3, and her ongoing work.
Shanghai shopfront, 2001.
Further to my post on silk-and-bamboo around Shanghai, I’ve been looking through my old photos.
Of course there are numerous collections of images from old and new Shanghai, but here’s a personal selection from my visits in 1986–87 and 2001—perhaps suggesting some of the clichés immortalized in Monty Python’s Away from it all?! Little did I realize that such trips would become History (for a montage of remarkable photos from the Maoist era, see here).
Longfu si Buddhist temple, 1986.
Street recreation, and a scene at the conservatoire, 1986.
Daoist ritual in Pudong temple, 1987, when Pudong was still a rural backwater.
Photos: Chen Dacan.
Shadow puppets, 1987.
Silk-and-bamboo clubs, 1987.
Burning petitions as Daoist ritual concludes, Baiyun guan 1987.
Cathay Theatre, and Shanghai concert hall.
Old house, and wooden staircase.
Nostalgic recent murals.
Another mural, and karaoke bar.
Qinglian street silk-and-bamboo club, Old Westgate.
Daoist liturgy, Baiyun guan.
Mandala for commemorative wangdou ritual, Baiyun guan.
The Wanhe tang:
Above left: scores; above right (indirectly related): Juntian miaoyue score, 1799.
Middle: remaining performers assembled in 1993. Below: trunks with instruments.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan.
I often sing qualified praises of the monumental Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (starting here). Most of my posts on local ritual derive from my own studies in the field, but I also sometimes give surveys based on the Anthology—as here. The main lesson from this post is to illustrate the pitfalls of trying to interpret its material without more detailed fieldwork.
Having mentioned the illustrious Tianyun she society in Wuxi, I should also introduce the Wanhe tang 萬和堂 (“Hall of Myriad Harmonies”) in Huangdai town in Wuxian county north of Suzhou. This leads me to consider the whole rich culture of tangming ban 堂名班 groups (some sources give the form 堂鳴) before the 1949 Liberation, amongst whom there were many Daoist ritual specialists; their repertoire included both Kunqu vocal music and the Shifan instrumental ensembles that accompanied rituals (cf. my Folk music of China, pp.252–69).
I began by consulting the Anthology volumes for instrumental music in Jiangsu province:
- Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1777–79, and p.102.
The Wanhe tang was founded by Cai Jinxiu 蔡錦綉 in the second half of the 19th century, when he was 20 sui. He was himself the third generation of Kunqu amateurs in his family; and he was an accomplished performer of Shifan. The hall he founded was now occupational. They were active performing for temple fairs and celebratory occasions for the local gentry around Suzhou, Wuxi, Changshu, and Kunshan.
By the 1920s Cai Jinxiu had handed over the leadership to his oldest son Cai Meiqing 蔡梅卿; his second and third sons Cai Zhuqing 蔡竹卿 and Cai Chengqing 蔡成卿 went on to lead the group. In the late 1920s there was such demand that they split into northern and southern halls. The main figures of the latter were the three Cai brothers and Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉, as well as Wang Borong 王伯榮. Leading lights in the northern branch were Xu Jinru 許錦如, Xu Junru 許均如, Gu Yewan 顧葉萬, and Gu Yusheng 顧鈺生. The two groups often combined, but also competed at the same events.
They also absorbed elements from the popular tanhuang vocal style. By the 1930s and 1940s they had a close relationship with temples like the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Other tangming groups formed under their influence included the Xuanhe tang 宣和堂, Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, Wenhe tang 文和堂, Honghe tang 鴻和堂, and the Lesser Wanhe tang 小萬和堂.
These groups had to cease activity on the eve of Liberation, “as a result of warfare, and so on”. But there was no revival in the early 1950s, and the scores, instruments, trunks, and equipment of the Wanhe tang were gradually “lost”.
Many of its members were now recruited to the new regional state opera troupes. Of Cai Meiqing’s sons, the oldest Cai Rongbing 蔡榮炳 had accompanied the great Peking opera singer Zhou Xinfang before Liberation, and went on to take up a post in the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe. The second son Cai Rongbiao 蔡榮標 was chosen for the Yangzhou Peking Opera Troupe. Another member of the Cai family became deputy director of the provincial Daoist Association.
The biographical sketch of Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉 (b.1925) in the Anthology (pp.1775–76) is no more enlightening. Again, it’s a story of two halves. He began studying at private school at the age of 5 sui, and learned Kunqu with his father from 7 sui. By the age of 16 sui he was an accomplished member of the Wanhe tang.
After Liberation, with his traditional livelihood apparently curtailed rather abruptly, Cai Huiquan took part in an official festival at the Xuanmiao guan temple in November 1951, for which tangming performers were assembled to perform. In the audience was Peng Xiuwen, director of the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra in Beijing, who invited him to join them as percussionist in 1954. Cai now became a model member of the state troupe, arranging several pieces of his traditional repertoire to the demands of the new style, and over the next thirty years he created many compositions based on other regional genres. From 1958 he adapted a new paigu set of tuned drums, which was soon widely adopted by state troupes.
This trajectory was not uncommon. Throughout China, outstanding instrumentalists among local ritual groups, including many Daoists, were often recruited to the new state troupes. At least Cai found long-term employment—unlike household Daoist Li Qing in Shanxi, who was among many folk artists whose recruitment to state troupes was curtailed by the cuts of the early 1960s. However, the Anthology account doesn’t begin to describe the fates of those performers who remained in local society amidst campaigns and collectivization.
All this looks like a thriving scene abruptly erased after Liberation. In official accounts the troubled conditions of the 1940s make a convenient scapegoat. But there’s a lot here that isn’t spelled out. How severely did the Japanese occupation and civil war disrupt ceremonial life in the region? When many ritual groups elsewhere in China (both occupational and devotional) remained active in the early 1950s and still later, were these groups really unable to perform? Elements to unpack here include the class status of the performers and their patrons, and the state’s escalating war on traditional contexts.
So in the case of the Wanhe tang, the enticing Anthology photos above are misleading: they merely show the brief reunion of nine senior performers in 1993. Still, it’s clear that not all their scores and instruments had been lost. And while this group was long defunct, as ritual life revived strongly from the 1980s, perhaps the many Daoist groups and chuida bands around the region are the modern heirs to the tradition.
Other tangming groups
The Wanhe tang was just one among a dazzling array of tangming groups throughout the wider region before Liberation. The Anthology introduction to chuida wind-and-percussion bands provides further leads (pp.97–105). Such sources provide considerable material for the Qing dynasty, but here I’ll focus on the transition from the Republican era to Maoism.
Locals distinguished shenjia chuida 神家吹打 and daojia chuida 道家吹打 groups. The shenjia (“holy”) chuida groups performed for life-cycle and calendrical observances, with Kunqu and other vocal music a major part of their repertoire. Before 1949, apart from the Wanhe tang, there were around 150 groups in the Suzhou region alone.
In the city, major groups included the Duofu tang 多福堂, Ronghe tang 榮和堂, Baohe tang 保和堂, Fugui tang 富貴堂, Yonghe tang 永和堂, and Juhe tang 聚和堂. Similar groups around the region included the Hehe tang 合和堂, Hongru tang 鴻如堂, and Shide tang 世德堂 in Wuxian county; in Changshu, the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Zhonghe tang 中和堂, and Hongfu tang 洪福堂; in Taicang, the Qingxiu tang 慶修堂, Yuqing tang 餘慶堂, Duanhe tang 端和堂, Duanai tang 端靄堂, and Yongle tang 永樂堂; in Wujiang, the Jinyu tang 金玉堂, Dayue tang 大樂堂, and Daxi tang 大喜堂; in Tangkou, Wuxi, the Xinji Wanhe tang 新記萬和堂 and Dongting yaji 動亭雅集; and in Kunshan, the Yongni tang 永霓堂.
Daoist ritual specialists were often core members of the tangming groups, and the daojia chuida groups mainly accompanied Daoist ritual (for a major ritual in 1956 Suzhou, see here). The great Yang Yinliu was brought up in the environment of Kunqu and the tangming, studying the Wuxi Daoists and their Shifan repertoires from the 1930s. Here’s a reminder of the distinctions between local Daoists that he astutely observed (Sunan chuidaqu 蘇南吹打曲, with Cao Anhe, 1957 edition, pp.11–13):
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.
For tangming bands around Jiading and Chuansha counties near Shanghai,
- Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Tan Jingde 谈敬德, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生，Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 [Daoism and its music in the Shanghai suburbs] (2001)
provides further material in a useful section (pp.29–48). The authors list bands like the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hexing tang 合興堂, Sanqing tang 三興堂, Xinxi tang 新喜堂, Xianjing tang 仙經堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Minle tang 民樂堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, and Hongqing tang 鴻慶堂. They suggest that activity resumed after the disruption of the Japanese occupation, with over thirty bands active in Jiading alone.
For the period after Liberation, the Anthology morphs disingenuously into an account of research, drawing a veil over what became of this rich culture. While even an official survey from 1953 lists 28 tangming groups with 272 performers around Jiading county, the culture was severely reduced after Liberation. As Qi Kun also suggests, major factors in the decline were the disappearance of former elite patrons, and campaigns against religion. Since the reforms, though the term tangming is no longer used, the tradition continues in various genres such as Daoist and qingyin groups, and shawm bands.
* * *
For “folk artists” Chinese sources always find it easier to list exceptional instances of official fame than to document the complexities of grassroots activities. In the case of many performers like Cai Huiquan, recruitment to state troupes was indeed an abrupt metamorphosis. Still, few would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and seemed to promise them a certain protection from accusations of “feudal superstition”, blunting the stigma of any dubious class background.
But many others “left behind” had to struggle to adapt to the new society. I have refined the official image in my work on north China, and Qi Kun has provided similar nuance for the Shanghai suburbs. Commonly across China in the early 1950s, ordinary people filled the gap in patronage left by the now-discredited—and impoverished—former elite by inviting such bands for their own more more modest rituals. But as collectivization intensified, many folk performers would have had to change trades, eking out a living from the land or taking up factory jobs.
Here I can’t broach the riches of Daoist ritual activity around Suzhou before Liberation or its changing later fortunes; but the Anthology biographies for Jiangsu also feature several of the most eminent “Daoist musicians”—a misnomer with which I often take issue. This reveals a further issue with the Anthology coverage, which I hope to explore soon.
Qinglian street club, Old Westgate, Shanghai 2001. My photo.
The Jiangnan sizhu (“silk-and-bamboo of south Jiangsu”) instrumental ensemble has become a reified image of secular Chinese entertainment music. It’s played not only by polished professionals on stage, but by amateur groups in teahouses and leisure centres around Shanghai and the whole vicinity (for amateur chamber ensembles elsewhere, cf. suite-plucking in old Beijing, the Yulin “little pieces”, nanyin, and so on). Shanghai is a hospitable cosmopolitan urban centre, and these clubs are a popular haunt of foreign music students there.
The title was formalized only in the 1950s—one of many instances of the official renaming of genres at the time, such as Xi’an guyue or Xiansuo shisantao. Yet however one may dispute reification, Jiangnan sizhu is indeed “a thing”. Over a long period since the early 20th century we can observe a continuum from life-cycle and calendrical performances, through the amateur clubs, to professional staged performances.
In Chapter 13 of my book Folk music of China I began to put silk-and-bamboo in the wider context of musicking around south Jiangsu (Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Changshu, Yangzhou, and so on—all large regions each containing several hundred villages!). And I outlined the background of regional opera, narrative-singing, and all kinds of ritual practice, including the Shifan ensembles that accompany Daoist ritual. Indeed, Daoist ritual around Shanghai and south Jiangsu is a vast topic subsidiary only to local traditions in southeast China.
So apart from their use as entertainment in the amateur clubs, the various types of sizhu have a firm basis in life-cycle and calendrical rituals.
Folk-singing in the region is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have a wonderful detailed study by Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, who also saw the wider picture. She refers to ritual styles like xuanjuan 宣卷 performed by devotional sectarian groups, common throughout south Jiangsu. 
As Chinese genres go, compared with many traditions in both north and south China Jiangnan sizhu is rather youthful. As commonly with folk groups, the musicians sit around a table, an inevitable casualty of stage performance. They often take turns on various instruments over the course of an afternoon session. The personnel remains predominantly male.
Chinese studies have favoured “music” over social context, and most publications on Jiangnan sizhu are based on the “eight great pieces” (for a simple introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.275–82). While the repertoire is not so reified as this canonization may lead us to suppose, in the teahouses of central Shanghai it remains rather limited. But local variants of the repertoire abound, as shown by the definitive 1985 collection of transcriptions (770 pages!) by Gan Tao 甘涛. As always, we should regard it not as a reified repertoire, but as a regional form of musicking, a social activity (and since the ambience and sound-world of the amateur clubs may be reminiscent of Irish pub sessions, do enjoy my posts on Cieran Carson!).
By the 1980s the Jiangnan sizhu repertoire was already the subject of analysis from scholars like Ye Dong, Li Minxiong, and Yuan Jingfang. Meanwhile, as China opened up again after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Larry Witzleben spent extended periods based at the Shanghai Conservatoire from 1981 to 1985, resulting in the brilliant early monograph
- J. Lawrence Witzleben, “Silk and bamboo” music in Shanghai: the Jiangnan sizhu instrumental ensemble tradition (1995),
still one of the most accomplished ethnographies of a local Chinese tradition.
With chapters on the historical background and intergenre relationships, instruments, repertory, form, variation, texture, and aesthetics, perhaps the most innovative section is Chapter 2, a nuanced ethnography of the scene from 1981 to 1985, including relations with the professional music world.
Silk-and-bamboo soon earned a significant place in Western scholarship, and images of Chinese music, also thanks to the writings of Alan Thrasher, albeit concerned more with musical structures than with ethnography.
Silk-and-bamboo clubs, Shanghai 1987. My photos.
In 1986 and 1987, based in Beijing, I used to decamp to Shanghai occasionally, taking what was then a very long train ride. According to my own apocryphal story, my main incentive was that the showers of the foreign students’ dorms there had a rather reliable supply of hot water, still rare in my student accommodation in Beijing. Anyway, even though I was already entranced by northern ritual culture, it gave me an opportunity to take part in some of the many amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs on erhu fiddle—and also to hang out with the wonderful qin-player Lin Youren and acquaint myself with the thriving Daoist ritual scene.
For foreign students, participant observation was both instructive and pleasurable. As laowai, we were more keen on visiting the teahouses than our Chinese fellow-students, who naturally focused on the polished versions of their conservatoire teachers.
In 1987 I was roped into a Jiangnan sizhu contest at the conservatoire, joining a mixed group of Chinese and foreign students—the latter including François Picard, Fred Lau, and Tony Wheeler (back row, to my right). In the front row, on the far right is Ma Xiaohui 马晓晖, who went on to a career as erhu virtuoso, and at the centre is Zhou Zhongkang 周仲康, the conservatoire teacher assigned to oversee our efforts—our programme included his luogu sizhu composition Qing 庆:
The competitive format was hardly my favoured method of engaging with silk-and-bamboo, but it was an interesting experience. Alongside the conservatoire-style ensembles taking part, there were also some fine senior amateur groups. As cute foreign pets we inevitably won a prize, but our sound ideal, however flawed in execution, was modelled on folk practice rather than the more polished version of the professionals. Soon after, Helen Rees also became a regular participant at Shanghai teahouse sessions, while embarking on her fine studies of ritual music in southwest China.
Thinking back, guided by mentors at the Music Research Institute and Yuan Jingfang, my Beijing base propelled me towards ritual in the countryside more inevitably than might have been the case if I had been studying in Shanghai. Rural ritual is plentiful throughout south Jiangsu too, but somehow there is more to encourage one to tarry in cosmopolitan Shanghai without venturing out to the villages and townships.
Zhang Zhengming, 2001: left, with Zhou Hao at the Xuhui club;
right, with his wife—their 1952 wedding photo in the background.
On a visit in 2001 I spent a week in Shanghai, with the wonderful Zhang Zhengming 张徵明 (b.1925) guiding me to a different club every afternoon. It was good to see the renowned erhu master Zhou Hao, then 77, taking part keenly in the amateur groups, naturally modifying his polished style to the ambience; later in a one-to-one session he gave me a fine demonstration of the difference between “folk” and “conservatoire” styles.
I was happy to be able to invite a group led by Zhang Zhengming to the 2005 Amsterdam China festival, as I scurried around hosting the Hua family shawm band and the Li family Daoists from Yanggao.
Again, there’s a continuum: official staged presentations are part of the whole fabric of silk-and-bamboo. This playlist from Jan Chmelarčík includes his videos from the amateur clubs in 2006 and 2007, showing a variety of contexts and styles:
The silk-and-bamboo scene plays a major role in Ruard Absaroka’s thesis Hidden musicians and public musicking in Shanghai, very much informed by anthropological theory. 
The wider context: the Anthology
It’s so easy to find activity in central Shanghai that one might not be tempted to explore the suburbs and further afield. But by the 1980s, research was also expanding significantly with the great Anthology:
- Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Shanghai juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 上海卷 (1993),
edited by the knowledgeable Li Minxiong.
Local collectors documented the wider region in the suburbs of Shanghai, with its twelve municipalities and ten counties. Apart from transcriptions, the collectors also described folk activity, with useful textual introductions as well as biographies and introductions to major groups.
Again it’s worth noting the overall Anthology coverage for Shanghai. After an opening section on solo music (pp.19–234) devoted mainly to pipa solos, there are three main rubrics: sizhu (235–930), chuida (932–1268), and “religious music” (1273–1594). There follow brief biographies and accounts of folk groups (1595–1638, illustrated descriptions of instruments (1639–58), and lengthy appendices, mainly gongche scores (1661–2087).
It may seem impressive that even by 2001 over thirty sizhu groups were still meeting amidst the glossy modernity of central Shanghai. But for the whole region, Li Minxiong gives a figure of 428 groups (!) since the early 20th century; as he explains in his introduction (JC pp.241–63), over two hundred were active on the eve of Liberation.
Following the May Fourth movement of 1919, many groups adopted the term “national music” in their titles. Indeed, such groups were the precursors of the whole “conservatoire style” that later came to represent the official image of Chinese music. The Anthology describes celebrated groups from the Republican era.
Top: Xiadiao music ensemble; middle: Qingping gathering, 1934; below: Datong music association (note music stands!). Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanghai juan.
Juntian gathering, 1917, Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu.
After the 1949 Liberation, master musicians from the “old society” lent continuity, such as Jin Zuli, Sun Yude, Li Tingsong, Wei Zhongle, Chen Yonglu, and Lin Shicheng (for more, see Anthology, pp.1595–1722). At the same time they were responsible for certain innovations resulting from adapting the style to the concert platform. Commercial recordings were already quite common, but the carefully prescribed arrangements of Lu Chunling’s quartet with Ma Shenglong, Zhou Hao, and Zhou Hui became influential. Here’s a cassette (remember them?) of them from 1982, after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution:
As collectivization and campaigns escalated, some folk groups had difficulty maintaining activity; but, as everywhere, the liberalizations following the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s brought a revival. In 1980 over seven hundred performers took part in a grand performance at the Shanghai conservatoire, with groups coming from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. But as Shanghai was transformed again, amateur clubs have somehow remained active.
But apart from the public image of sizhu, the Anthology valuably introduces bands in the surrounding suburban regions, often serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals—in Nanhui, Fengxian, Chuansha, Jiading, Shanghai county, Baoshan, Qingpu, Songjiang, Jinshan, and Chongming island.
Undated Anthology photos: above and below: chuida bands, Chongming; middle: the Tianshan national music association.
So this involves expanding our explorations in terms of both geography and genre. While sizhu is the main theme, the plot thickens when we include related instrumental genres hardly broached by foreign scholars based in metropolitan Shanghai: the “pure tones bands” (qingyin ban 清音班) and the former tangming 堂名 groups (see also n.3 below).
Moreover, the latter are also related to the occupational “blowing and beating” bands (chuidaban 吹打班) based on shawms and percussion—another main rubric of the Anthology (see introduction, pp.932–45). Among 184 such bands for which collectors found evidence, Li Minxiong gives sketches of rural groups in Chuansha, Baoshan, Qingpu, and Jiading, all with several generations of transmission. This section also contains material on local ritual, including weddings, funerals, and longevity celebrations (qingshou 庆寿), as well as calendrical and religious rituals.
A fine case-study: Nanhui
Qi Kun 齐琨, with a firm background in music anthropology, has produced some fine ethnographic work, notably her book on the qingyin 清音 groups of Nanhui county in the southeastern suburbs —itself an extensive area, with 26 districts (amalgamated in 2001 into 14 townships) and 347 villages:
- Lishidi chanshi: Shanghai Nanhui sizhuyue qingyinde chuancheng yu bianqian yanjiu 历史地阐释: 上海南汇丝竹乐清音的传承与变迁研究 (2007).
Starting from around 1850 when such groups became common in Nanhui, she uses local gazetteers, interviews with senior performers, and fieldnotes from attendance at rituals and secular performances. She often cites the Nanhui draft for the Anthology, which looks to be among the more detailed local contributions to the Shanghai volumes.
She introduces various related genres in Nanhui, including Daoist groups  and their former “household kin” (menjuan 门眷) catchment-area system, occupational chuida bands, Buddhist groups, opera, and the Pudong style of pipa plucked lute.
Qi Kun musters impressive material on bands and activity in the late Qing and the Republican era (itself a period of significant change), with sections on temple fairs, weddings, and funerals.
After the Communist victory of 1949, state-sanctioned performances of Jiangnan sizhu on stage became more common alongside traditional contexts, but as always I’m keen to learn more about folk activity during the decades of Maoism, the crucial transitional period from the “old society” to the consumer culture of the reform era (cf. Yulin).
The Anthology notes in passing some basic elements in the decline of many groups over the period as a result of the state’s pervasive social remoulding, such as migration, army service, collectivization, and campaigns against superstition. But ever alert to change, Qi Kun has a detailed chapter on the Maoist era in Nanhui. She illustrates the severe reduction of the diverse local social contexts that were the basis for expressive culture before Liberation—the rich network of temple fairs, weddings and funerals. Many qingyin performers were absorbed into a scene now based on entertainment rather than ceremonial; as elsewhere, many fine folk musicians were recruited to the new state-funded opera troupes and amateur “art-work troupes”. Qi Kun notes the place of qingyin in state-sponsored events like political meetings and sending off army recruits.
However, there was a certain continuity, and amateur qingyin activity persisted. Qi Kun gives instances from nine districts. She notes the more-or-less undisturbed observance of life-cycle rituals in the early 1950s, with lengthy processions; some groups even persisted performing for these contexts into the early 1960s.
The fortunes of musicians depended largely on their “class status”, but irrespective of this many were reduced to poverty. But there were ironies—as one performer commented:
People like Wen Zhengxiu who served as Daoist priests weren’t persecuted. Almost all of those Daoists smoked opium, so they had virtually no possessions at home, they could never become wealthy. So after Liberation they were classed as poor peasants. Instead it was honest people like us, who had toiled over several generations to accumulate family property, who were targets of punishment.
Such people now became the core of many qingyin groups.
Amidst the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Qi Kun goes on to describe the maintenance of the qingyin style (if not its former context) in the Mao Zedong Thought propaganda troupes. Some troupes even used the traditional sizhu repertoire, like Xingjie, to accompany political processions.
And even now a certain amount of furtive recreational activity continued (again, cf. Yulin)—behind closed doors, some troupe members even sometimes dared invite former “landlords” and “rich peasants” to play the traditional repertoire along with them. Performers recall both the cruelty and the nuances of the period. Many of the troupe members became core elements in the revival of tradition from the late 1970s—for which, of course, the main factor was the amazing resurgence of ritual practice. Indeed, a modest revival was already under way before the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976.
Qingyin bands in Fengxian, Jiading, and Baoshan. Source: Anthology.
In Chapter 4 Qi Kun takes the story on into the consumer age. After detailing the gradual revival (cf. my own notes on that of the Li family Daoists in Shanxi), she surveys a scene that is still more diverse than that before 1949, with recreational groups (now under semi-official leadership, with some even adopting the title “folk music band” minyuedui 民乐队!) now able to meet regularly, overlapping with occupational bands performing for customary observances. She gives a fine diary of the varied public activities of the Zhuqiao qingyin band from 1994 to 2003, as well as detailed notes on a 2002 wedding and on the grandest of ten funerals that she attended in 2004. Indeed, while such groups traditionally performed for weddings, their participation in funerals is a recent innovation.
Still, even with the revival, fewer performers are active than before 1949. Qi Kun also illustrates changes in ritual practice over the period with graphic tables. Here she compares figures for qingyin bands active around Nanhui in 1937–49 and in 2004, by district:
For all periods, Qi Kun constantly notes the interaction of social, economic, political, and musical change—if only Chinese musicology would learn from such an approach, rather than banging on about heritage and living fossils!
Wall advertisement for the Tongxin qingyin band, Nanhui c2004. Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu (2009).
The advertisement above reads:
Exclusive service for wedding and funerals: destroy superstition and be frugal—stylish and trendy.
I don’t know if this was a disingenuous response to a temporary campaign, but the social mood of the time was not exactly keen on destroying superstition or enacting frugality. Discuss…
And suburban regions like Nanhui are anything but a rural backwater: they are inextricably tied to the global economic market of Shanghai. But exploring the environs always reveals a diverse picture.
That’s quite enough for one sitting—but zooming out still further, the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Jiangsu province give an impression of such bands throughout the province:
- Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 江苏卷 (1998).
Again its main rubrics are chuida, sizhu, and “religious music”.
And just south lies Zhejiang province… Aiyaa.
* * *
Shanghai silk-and-bamboo makes a comfortable repertoire that is too easily reified and detached from the wider society. Much as I have enjoyed visiting the Shanghai teahouses, there’s so much more to study, not only in the suburbs but all around south Jiangsu, where entertainment genres are always subsidiary to ritual! And the cast of ritual performers, here as elsewhere, is still more varied: Daoist ritual specialists, spirit mediums (very important in local society), devotional sectarian groups, and so on.
Like Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, and other municipalities, Shanghai is a vast region, the riches of whose expressive culture can hardly be encapsulated by simple labels. As usual, we have to look beyond the reified canons of idealized, “representative” “genres” (the Zhihua temple, the “eight great suites” of Shanxi, the Uyghur twelve muqam, and so on) and plunge into the complex world of changing local social activities.
 Among considerable research on xuanjuan, see e.g. articles in Dayin 大音 vols. 3, 4 and 5; Zhongguo quyi zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国曲艺志, 江苏卷; Qian Tiemin 钱铁民 (on Wuxi) in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究, 华东卷 (2007) vol.1; Qiu Huiying 丘慧瑩, “Jiangsu Changshu Baimao diqu xuanjuan huodong diaocha baogao” 江蘇常熟白茆地區宣卷活動調查報告, Minsu quyi 169 (2010), pp.183–247; Li Shu-ju 李淑如, “Zhangjiagang diqu jianwang fahui yishi yu xuanjuan diaocha baogao” 張家港地區薦亡法會儀式與宣卷調查報告, Minsu quyi 204 (2019.6), pp.197–250. In English, see Mark Bender, “A description of ‘jiangjing’ (telling scriptures) services in Jingjiang, China”, Asian folklore studies 60 (2001), and ongoing work from Rostislav Berezkin, such as this, and an article with Vincent Goossaert.
 For a flavour [sic] of his recent musings, see “Timbre, taste and epistemic tasks: a cross-cultural perspective on atmosphere and vagueness”, in Friedlind Riedel and Juha Torvinen (eds), Music as atmosphere: collective feelings and affective sounds (2019), which sets forth from timbre and atmosphere in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo. While I like the title, and am happy to add the splendid acronym WEIRD (coined to describe “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” ethnocentrism) to my list, I may not be alone in finding some of his erudite theoretical discussion a tad arcane. That’s academia for you!
 Qi Kun also has related articles in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan (with film footage on the DVD), and the Dayin series (n.1 above).
 For Daoist ritual in Nanhui, see Zhu Jianming 朱建明 and Tan Jingde 谈敬德, Shanghai Nanhui xian Zhengyi pai daotan yu Dongyue miao keyiben huibian 上海南汇县正一派道坛与东岳庙科仪本汇编 (2006), and Zhu Jianming and Tan Jingde, Shanghai Nanhui xian Laogang xiang nongjia duqiao yishi yu qiao wenhua 上海南汇县老港乡农家渡桥仪式与桥文化 (1996); in Jiading and Chuansha counties, Zhu Jianming, Tan Jingde, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生, Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 (2001; for the tangming groups, note pp.29–48); and in Shanghai county, Zhu Jianming, Shanghai xian Shengtang daoyuan jiqi taiping gongjiao kaocha jishi 上海县圣堂道院及其公醮考察纪实 (1993). See also a thoughtful review by Poul Andersen in Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83.
One essential resource for studying—and teaching—Chinese culture is an excellent series from Wind Records 風潮公司 (Taipei), based on archive recordings of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, many made amidst the constant campaigns of the first fifteen years of the PRC before the Cultural Revolution—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc.
Four 2-CD sets (with booklets in Chinese) are devoted in turn to folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music:
- Tudi yu ge 土地與歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs] (1996).
Far from the kitsch arrangements that flood the market, these tracks—many recorded in the 1950s—are mostly unaccompanied, with work songs, songs of boatmen and foresters, love songs, wedding laments, passionate huar from Qinghai, and shan’ge from Shaanbei. Also featured are recordings from Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
- Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
This collection of early recordings of narrative-singing includes drum-singing from Beijing and Tianjin, tanci from Suzhou, and less well-known examples from Henan, Gansu, Qinghai, Hubei, and Guangxi.
- Jinye lai changxi 今夜來唱戲 [The beauty of Chinese opera] (1998).
An overview of regional dramatic traditions, including not only Kunqu and Beijing opera (with Yu Zhenfei, Mei Lanfang, and others), but tracks from Hunan, Sichuan, northern “clapper” operas, as well as yangge opera and searing puppet drama from Shaanxi.
- Xianguan chuanqi 弦管傳奇 [Special collection of contemporary Chinese musicians] (1996).
Complementing my 2-CD set on AIMP (also based on early MRI recordings), this set focuses on solo instruments, with some of the great masters from the 1950s. Apart from qin and zheng zithers (Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng, Luo Jiuxiang), pipa plucked lute, and various fiddles, there are also ensemble tracks led by dizi flute and suona shawm (from southwest Shandong), and guanzi oboe (Yang Yuanheng). The set ends with a drum section from the Shifan gu repertoire played in 1962 by the great Daoist master Zhu Qinfu.
Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.
The series highlights the sterling work of the MRI under the great Yang Yinliu—to whom Wind Records also dedicated a 2-CD set. Of course audio recordings alone can’t encompass the complexities of changing social life, but basic familiarity with soundscape should be an essential aspect of our education in Chinese culture.
For a further CD-set in the series, see here; for more discography, see my article in The Rough Guide to world music; for films on rural and ritual life in China, click here; and for precious recordings from 1901–2, here. In the sidebar, note also my playlist, with commentary here.
To accompany my new post outlining diverse performance genres of Fujian, I’ve added a new track 15 to the playlist in the sidebar: a rousing 1961 recording of “casket winds” (longchui 籠吹) from Quanzhou! Do consult the commentary here—where you will also find a helpful account of how to find the sidebar!
Shiban ensemble, west Fujian 1962.
I’ve already introduced important early fieldwork projects after “Liberation” under the auspices of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, led by the great Yang Yinliu. Such work continued even after the chaos caused by the Great Leap Backward.
In late 1961, soon after the publication of Yang’s major survey for Hunan (and as the Morris dancing revival continued in England!) Li Quanmin 李佺民 (1924–83), who had already taken part in the 1953 survey of folk-song in northwest Shanxi, was dispatched to the far south on a trip to Fujian province, whose vibrant folk cultures were still quite unknown to Beijing scholars. 
- Fujian minjian yinyue: caifang baogao 福建民间音乐采: 访报告 [Folk music of Fujian: field report] (Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1963, mimeograph, 155 pp.)
Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Hunan had utilised both his own team from Beijing and regional cadres, considering a broad range of genres, pervaded by ritual. But Li Quanmin arrived alone in Fujian, and travelled only in the company of the young regional music scholars Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华 (who went on to become leading authorities on the musics of Fujian), so this project was less ambitious. In their survey from 12th November 1961 to 28th January 1962 they conducted both overviews for particular counties and interviews on specific genres. Their fieldnotes are reproduced more or less as they were taken at the time.
Even today, outsiders’ impressions of the musical cultures of Fujian may largely be based on the glorious nanyin chamber ensembles of Hokkien communities around Quanzhou and Xiamen, but the report was the first to provide a window on the huge variety of expressive cultures throughout the province. Indeed, while the history, music, language, and ethnography of nanyin alone are a topic for several lifetimes, the 1986 survey Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun can only spare 22 of its 611 pages for the topic!
The cultures of Fujian may profitably be studied alongside those of the diaspora (notably Taiwan); while these have preserved many traditional features that were under attack on the mainland, the resilience of tradition in the PRC is remarkable.
They began by meeting representatives of official state troupes in cultural offices, noting studies by local scholars, and going on to assemble performers to make recordings. They focused on vocal and instrumental chamber ensembles; while, as everywhere, such groups mainly served life-cycle and calendrical rituals, the social contexts receive limited attention. The team got glimpses of the riches of local opera, but merely noted the researches of regional scholars—who, indeed, had been busy collecting material ever since the 1949 Liberation.
Though ritual connections are constantly apparent, the report gives only brief mentions of temple and household ritual specialists. The activities of household Daoists are only mentioned in passing; only since the 1980s have detailed monographs shown what a major feature of life they are throughout the region—indeed, this was the first region that scholars began to study once they were able to expand their studies from Taiwan to the mainland across the strait.
I’ve already noted the need to oscillate between wider generic surveys for a whole province or region (“gazing at flowers from horseback” 走马观花) and more detailed reports on one county, village, or family (see also under Local ritual).
As yet more political campaigns unfolded after the brief lull following the disasters of the Leap, this was to be among one of the last fieldwork projects until work resumed in earnest from the late 1970s.
Part One of Li Quanmin’s report contains reports from the southeast coastal region of the province. In Xiamen they visited the great nanyin expert Ji Jingmou 纪经畝 (1899–1986, or 1901–87),  recording him leading the Jinfeng group 金風南樂團.
Just west in Zhangzhou, after gaining brief introductions to jin’ge 錦歌 and shiba yin 十八音 (cf. the shiyin bayue 十音八樂 of Putian), they give a rather more detailed account of nanci 南詞 and the related instrumental shiquan qiang 十全腔. The occupational groups performing nanci were known as tangban 堂班, performing items like The Heavenly Officer Bestows Blessings (Tianguan cifu 天官賜福) before a painting of Heavenly Master Zhang; the genre seems to have spread from Jiangxi.
For the wider Longxi region around Zhangzhou, Liu Chunshu gave them an overview of various genres, including Songs to Wash the Gods (xifo ge 洗佛歌), presented as a superstitious genre from “the past”, sung during the first five moons by itinerant duos, one with a god image on his back;  dragon-boat songs in praise of Qu Yuan, noting ritual connections; and musics deriving from Chaozhou just south.
In Quanzhou they gained a further outline of nanyin (on which there was already a substantial amount of local research), as well as briefer impressions of shiyin (for a photo from my 1990 trip see here); they mention the Assault on the Citadel ritual drama (dacheng xi 打城戲)  and itinerant sijin ban 四錦班 bands of blind female singers. They also studied the venerable “casket winds” (longchui) shawm bands (on which more below)—I’ve now added one of Li Quanmin’s 1961 recordings to the playlist in the sidebar (#15), with commentary here.
The longchui casket, Tianhou gong temple, Quanzhou 1990. My photo.
In Quanzhou they also talked with the Buddhist monk Miaolian 妙蓮 (see below), making notes on his master the renowned Hongyi 弘一 (Li Shutong李叔同, 1880–1942), an authority on ritual music, and visiting the Kaiyuan si temple.
In Putian and Xianyou—another highly distinctive cultural sub-region—they learned of shiyin bayue 十音八樂, related to the local opera—itself a rich ancient tradition most worthy of study. Folk-song genres included shan’ge 山歌, itinerant lige 俚歌, and “singing the nine lotuses” (jiulian chang 九蓮唱). Li Quanmin reproduces a local draft for the new Putian county gazetteer, which includes a section on “ritual music” (fashi yinyue), outlining Buddhist and Daoist groups.
A clue now led them to make a detour to the poor Badu region of Ningde, north of Fuzhou, to record the two-part folk-songs of the She 畲 minority there—just one of the regions where they dwell through Fujian and adjoining provinces. Li Quanmin lent his recordings of the songs to the provincial Broadcasting Station in Fuzhou for copying—who promptly lost them.
The whole of Part Two is dedicated to the largely Hakka cultures of southwest Fujian further inland. Even their studies around this region involved lengthy journeys. Incidentally, this is yet another region where household Daoists still have impressive traditions.
Here the team focused on the shiban 十班 (in some areas known as shifan 十番) and jingban 靜班 groups. They soon discovered the complexities of local terminology. Mostly amateur groups, with a core of stringed instruments, they are often based on local drama; but usually there is also a strong link with occupational shawm bands and percussion groups.
In the Longyan region the jingban were related to Raoping chui 饒平吹 shawm bands, named after the region further south in Guangdong. Moving west from the regional seat, in Shanghang they noted the effects of historical migrations. In Liancheng they learned from Luo Xuehong, head of the county song-and-dance opera troupe, an erstwhile accompanist of Buddhist and Daoist ritual specialists and marionette bands—reminding us that state troupes were then full of such experienced “old artists”.
They continued their studies of the jingban in Changting—where they also gain a tantalizing clue to the furen jiao 夫人教 (or “singing Haiqing” 唱海青) exorcistic ritual performed by household Daoists to protect children (cf. guoguan). In north China Haiqing 海青 is a common subject of ritual shengguan wind ensemble pieces, but it has been assumed to be a bird of prey; however, material from Fujian shows that he is a deity there: Thunder Haiqing (Lei Haiqing) is a manifestation of Tiandu yuanshuai 天都元帥.
Still in Changting, they gained further material on shiban groups, visiting Dapu 大浦commune to learn of the temple fair to the Great God of the Five Valleys (Wugu dashen 五谷大神). Returning to Longyan they continued to explore the relation between the jingban and shiban groups. Hearing of the lively scene in Kanshi town in Yongding, based on its temple fairs, they moved on there. Back in Longyan again, they ended their trip with a visit to a jingban group in Dongxiao commune.
Throughout the trip, in addition to occupational performers, they met amateurs— factory and manual workers, traders, and peasants—whose livelihoods had been in flux for several decades. But alas, what we can’t expect from such sources is discussion of the changing society (though see here, and for more revealing official sources, here). Fujian was far from immune from the famine,  with migrants fleeing in all directions—though the report discreetly refrains some such topics. A desultory sentence on the itinerant singers of lige claims:
Before Liberation most people weren’t keen on singing it [?!], but after the Great Leap Forward in 1958 the government esteemed it and [sic] used it for propaganda.
But in contrast to propaganda, this is just the kind of folk activity that was reviving among migrants in the desperation following the disasters of the Leap.
Since the 1980s
While Li Quanmin’s survey is less impressive than Yang Yinliu’s earlier report on Hunan, it laid a groundwork for later studies of Fujian. After the interruption through the Cultural Revolution, the liberalizations of the late 1970s allowed fieldwork to resume on a large scale, largely under the auspices of the national Anthology project.
Even before the publication of the latter, a single-volume survey appeared by two provincial scholars who had accompanied Li Quanmin in 1961–62:
- Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华, Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun 福建民间音乐简论 (1986).
Its 611 pages not only give more informed accounts of the genres introduced in the 1963 survey, but provide more extensive coverage of a wider range of regional genres, including the lesser-known north of the province. The volume adopts the overall classification that had been developed from the 1950s, now enshrined in the Anthology—and as ever, most of them are strongly interconnected:
- folk-song (with a wider coverage of the She minority, pp.199–229)
- narrative-singing (nanyin appears here, alongside genres such as jin’ge, nanci, and beiguan)
- opera, including Minju, Gezai xi, Pu–Xian xi, Liyuan xi, Gaojia xi, marionettes, and shadow puppets
- instrumental music: various shifan and shiban genres, longchui, and so on.
A helpful map of the transmission of shiban.
There is no separate section for “religious music” [sic], but some “religious songs” are briefly introduced (pp.144–63), and ritual genres pervade all the categories.
On a very different note, Wang and Liu end with an introduction to the Fujian tradition of the qin zither, which had also formed part of Zha Fuxi’s national survey in 1956.
Fieldtrips, 1986 and 1990
On my first stay in China in 1986, after exploratory trips to Wutaishan, Xi’an, and Shanghai, I visited Fujian, gaining a preliminary glimpse of nanguan and learning much from Ken Dean, then based in Xiamen. Ken was among the first scholars to cross the strait from Taiwan to the mainland to study local Daoist ritual traditions, and his detailed early field reports are most inspiring (see here):
- “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 2 (1986), pp.191–209
- “Funerals in Fujian”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988), pp.19–78
- “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall, 1985”, in Tsao Ben-yeh and Daniel Law (eds.), Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.
Ken’s fieldwork led to major monographs:
- Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China (1993)
- Ritual alliances of the Putian plain (2 volumes, 2009)
and most illuminating of all, his vivid 2010 film
- Bored in heaven, on ritual activity in Putian (for differences between his approach and more text-based Daoist scholarship, see here).
With Ken I attended a nocturnal ritual in a Quanzhou temple, with marionettes (on which, note Robin Ruizendaal’s wonderful 2006 book Marionette theatre in Quanzhou—with rare coverage of the fortunes of such groups under Maoism):
Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. Photos in this section are all by me.
And I visited the beautiful county of Hui’an on the coast:
Hui’an 1986: left, nuns; right, the distinctively-clothed women of Hui’an.
After my first serious survey of ritual associations on the Hebei plain in 1989 with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, he accompanied me on my return to Fujian in early 1990, moving north from fieldwork around Guangdong on a reccy for what became chapters 14 and 15 of Folk music of China. Xue Yibing’s careful notes were as precious as ever. Like Li Quanmin, we often began by visiting local experts; but we also sought out local ritual practice, such as temple fairs—and by contrast with most regions of north China, such activity was ubiquitous despite all the traumas of the intervening twenty-eight years.
In Quanzhou city we spent wonderful time with nanyin groups, and learned more about longchui, still magnificent, with the versatile ritual accompanist Wang Wenqin 王文钦 (then 66 sui) and shawm master Huang Tiancong 黃天從 (67 sui, son of Huang Qingquan who led the 1961 recording) as our guides. In Puxi village nearby we found shiyin (see photo here), and in Hui’an we visited one of many groups performing beiguan—a major genre in Taiwan.
As always, folk ritual is the engine for expressive culture, and a variety of such groups assemble for a wealth of temple fairs. In many communities around Fujian the extraordinary ritual revival was stimulated by funding from the overseas diaspora.
At the Tianhou gong 天后宮 temple in Quanzhou city we attended a vibrant Dotting the Eyes (dianyan 點眼) inauguration ritual for the goddess Mazu—with pilgrim groups from all around the surrounding area as well as Taiwan (including palanquins holding god statuettes, shiyin bands and a Gezai xi drama group), a Daoist presiding, ritual marionettes inside and outside the temple, along with magnificent nanyin and longchui.
Above: (left) ritual marionettes; (right) a Daoist officiates.
Below: longchui led by Wang Wenqin on foot-drum and Zhuang Yongchang on shawm.
Later the longchui performers invited us to a gongde funeral at which they alternated with three household Daoists performing a Bloody Bowl (xuepen 血盆) ritual, as well as a lively Western brass band. And the distinguished marionette troupe performed moving excerpts from Mulian 目連 ritual drama for us: 
Having recently found the sheng-tuner Qi Youzhi in a town south of Beijing thanks to Yang Yinliu’s precious 1953 clue, we now visited the Buddhist monk Miaolian, whom Li Quanmin had visited in 1961. Now 78 sui, he was still at the Kaiyuan si temple; indeed, he had even remained there throughout the Cultural Revolution, when he was among a staff of over twenty resident monks.
Miaolian with Xue Yibing, 1990.
We ended our visit in Fuzhou, gaining further clues to the chanhe 禪和 (doutang 斗堂) style of folk ritual (see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan, pp.2086–2243).
As for Li Quanmin previously, the trip merely allowed us to gasp at the enormity of the expressive cultures of Fujian. As I began focusing on north China, I was increasingly aware that local ritual activity must be a major topic there too.
Meanwhile the anthropologist Wang Mingming was doing detailed work on the history and ethnography of the culture of the Quanzhou region.
And meanwhile the monumental Anthology was being compiled, with volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance each weighing in at between one and two thousand pages—and as usual, the published material is only a small part of that collected. To be sure, much of this consists of transcriptions (which anyway are of limited use if we can’t hear the recordings), but even the textual introductions (as well as the vocal texts, often orally transmitted) offer valuable leads.
Coverage of nanyin, the subject of a vast wealth of separate research, is distributed through the volumes on narrative-singing, instrumental music, and indeed opera. The Fujian folk-song volumes are among the most impressive in that category; the songs of the She minority are covered at some length (pp.1240–1412).
Shawm bands of Changtai county, and (lower left) of Putian county.
In the instrumental music volumes, besides the string ensembles much of the coverage yet again describes shawm and percussion bands. As ever, we find leads to genres that are still largely unknown outside their vicinity. And of course any single county has several hundred villages, all with their ritual and entertainment performance traditions. In 1986, for instance, at least 139 village nanguan societies were active in the single county of Nan’an.
Beiguan, Hui’an county.
While the coverage of “sacrificial” and “religious” musics (pp.1757–2683) has now been eclipsed by the detailed projects on household Daoists led by scholars based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the Anthology offers some leads. After a very brief introduction, we find transcriptions of items from the rituals of household Daoists in Putian, Xianyou, and Nan’an counties (pp.1757–1836, 2448–2683). Also introduced are xianghua 香花 household Buddhists of Fuzhou and Putian (pp.2086–2423); and the She minority feature again (pp.1836–93).
For all its flaws, the Anthology is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement.
* * *
Although field research since the 1980s has taken the study of the diverse sub-cultures of Fujian to a new level, it’s important to note the energy of the years before the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, apart from the riches of its performance traditions, Fujian has long had a deep tradition of local scholarship.
Of course, in the context of the pre-Cultural Revolution period, brief visits inevitably focused on reified “genres” rather than on documenting social activity. And “hit-and-run” trips by fieldworkers from Beijing or London can never compare to the long-term immersion of local scholars, like Wu Shizhong for nanyin, or Ye Mingsheng for Daoist ritual. Ye’s account of one single ritual performed by one group of Lüshan Daoists (even while hardly addressing their lives or ritual vicissitudes since the 1940s) occupies a hefty 1,418 pages!
As always, expressive culture—based on ritual—makes an important prism on the changing social lives of local communities.
See also Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian.
 See my Folk music of China, ch.14, with extensive refs. up to the mid-1990s; to attempt an update would be a major task. I have fallen back on pinyin, rather than attempting to render terms in local languages.
 See Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成，福建卷, pp.2703–4.
 Cf. Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun, pp.130–36.
 For some refs., see my Folk music of China, p.293 n.17.
 For the Quanzhou region, see e.g. Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan (2011), ch.4.
 Among a wealth of research on Mulian drama, see David Johnson (ed.), Ritual opera, operatic ritual: “Mulian rescues his mother” in Chinese popular culture (1989).
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan.
One subject of Yang Yinliu‘s 1956 ambitious survey of the diverse performing genres in Hunan province was the large-scale Confucian ritual sacrifice of Liuyang, east of Changsha. Appendix 2 of his report,
- Kongfu dingji yinyue 孔府丁祭音乐 (1958, 78 pp.)
was discreetly tucked away in a separate mimeograph; I haven’t yet tracked down the original, but its material is included in the 2011 reprint of Yang’s Hunan volume, and cited in the Anthology section. 
There are all kinds of themes to unpack here. First, a confession: my own reluctance to study the topic is flawed. Cultures routinely exclude certain soundscapes from their concept of “music”, but ethnomusicology counsels a far more inclusive view. Indeed, for China I’m keen to include the songs of spirit mediums, work hollers, and vocal liturgy within our brief. I have no argument with studying elite culture, even if in most societies, including China (both historically and today), it only represents a tiny tip of the iceberg (for imperial culture, see here; and for similar reservations about the qin zither, here).
I keep stressing that our focus shouldn’t be some reified concept of “music”, but expressive culture within society; and the topic of the Confucian rituals may lead all too easily to the glorification of some notional Golden Age of Ancient Sages. So I’m wary of “recreations” claiming to preserve or salvage such glories. Such a mindset may even distract us from other forms of musicking that are far more deeply embedded in social life.
Still, like the performance of modern CCP propaganda, the Confucian sacrifice is a political subject, which of course we have to study. So it may be irrelevant that it seems to exclude most features that I (or the Chinese) can perceive as “musical”, and that (unlike folk ritual) it seems remote from the lives of ordinary people. Ritual often seems austere—we might adduce the hymns or the fast chanted scriptures of household Daoists like the Li family—but expertise, human energy, social interaction, are usually evident in performance.
The origins of the Confucian sacrifices are in the numinous ancient music of Shao, whose wonders made Confucius himself oblivious to the taste of meat, if only for three months. But I’m going to start with the Tang—not because I wish to recreate its glories, but precisely because I don’t.
Now I don’t applaud the xenophobia and moralistic snobbery of the Tang poets Bai Juyi and his friend Yuan Zhen, as society struggled to recover from the cataclysm of the An Lushan rebellion (see here, n.2). Bai’s poems like “The Standing Orchestra” and “Chime-stones from Huayuan” (which I might rename “Just Can’t Get the Staff, Nowadays”) rest on a flawed nostalgic idealization of the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages; but, with ethnographic candour, they also reveal the ineptitude of the yayue Confucian ceremonial performers of his day.
Several studies have been made of these poems, but they were a theme that my teacher the great Tang scholar Denis Twitchett approached with relish (as you may see from our irreverent correspondence on the faqu, here and here; see also my own spoof Tang poems). So below I’ve adapted his (apparently unpublished) translations from a draft that he sent me, retaining the sometimes E.J. Thribb-like character of Bai Juyi’s original, and refraining from adding the Teutonic footnotes that every phrase invites (as parodied by Flann O’Brien’s commentaries on de Selby):
The Standing Orchestra
Drums and fifes of the Standing Orchestra blare out
Dancers perform the two-bladed sword-dance, jugglers toss the seven balls
Slender maidens walk the tightrope, quivering with long pole
Among the orchestras of the Court of Sacrifices is a rigid hierarchy
Those in the upper hall sit, those in the lower hall stand
In the upper hall the mouth-organ songs of the Seated Orchestra are pure
In the lower hall the drum and fife of the Standing Orchestra resound
At the sound of a single note from the mouth-organ songs, everyone inclines their ears
But if drum and fife were to play ten thousand pieces, no-one would listen
The Standing Orchestra is base, the Seated Orchestra noble
Once rejected, a member of the Seated Orchestra joins the Standing Orchestra
Playing drum and mouth-organ to accompany circus acts
But once a member of the Standing Orchestra is rejected, where can he find a job?
First he is sent to the suspended bells and chimes to play the ritual music
The ritual music has fallen so far out of fashion
That incapable dolts like you are ordered to perform the gong and zhi modes
When at the urban sacrifice we pray to the Earth Lord at the circular altar
The claim takes this music to move the spirits of Heaven and Earth!
Hoping to make the Phoenix come and the hundred beasts dance
Is just like driving your carriage north, hoping to arrive in Chu!*
The musicians are all incompetent fools—how can I adequately describe them?
And you, the Three Ministers of the Court of Sacrifice, whatever sort of men are you?
Chime-stones from Huayuan
Chime-stones from Huayuan, chime-stones from Huayuan
Men of old didn’t listen, but men of today listen
Sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river, sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river
Men of today don’t play them, but men of old played them
How is it that men of old and men of today are so different?
Which instruments are used and which rejected depends on the musicians
Although the musicians have ears like a wall, if they’re unable to distinguish Pure from Muddy sounds then they might as well be deaf!
When the pupils of the Pear Garden adjust the temperament
They only know the new sounds, they are ignorant of the old
Of old it was said of the fouqing chime-stones from the banks of the Si
That their sound moved the listener to thoughts of those serving and risking their lives in distant places
But when once the sound of the Huayuan chime-stones had been heard at the palace
The prince’s heart straightaway forgot his subjects guarding the frontiers
And sure enough, when the barbarian brigand rose up from Yan
Few of the generals were willing to die in defence of the borders
If once one understands how music and the state of government are intertwined
How can one simply listen to the clashing and clanging of these instruments?
“Xiang, the player of the stone-chimes, withdrew to his island in the sea”, leaving never to return
And now kids from the Chang’an market-place have become Master Musicians!
Who is there to truly understand the difference between Pure and Muddy sounds
Between the chime-stones from Huayuan and the sonorous stones from the banks of the Si?
So Bai Juyi is contrasting the expertise of the Seated Orchestra with the ineptitude of the ritual musicians, but “It’s Complicated”. The two genres serve entirely separate functions, with different demands. Technical virtuosity doesn’t correlate with efficacity: a lullaby serves its purpose perfectly, whereas the years of discipline that go into mastering a Paganini Caprice hardly go beyond mere technique. And some of the finest musicians in the world come from the “market-place”… Of course, recruiting practices may have changed from Tang to Ming, but I doubt if evidence is available to suggest that later ritual musicians were of a higher standard—they hardly needed to be. Bai Juyi’s argument doesn’t invalidate the performance, but it does rather, um, chime with my own reservations about studying it.
“But that’s enough about me”. Yang Yinliu, with his historical erudition and concern for “literati music”, “palace music”, and indeed “feudal superstition” and the culture of the “exploiting classes”, was doubtless more interested in the Confucian ritual than I am. Whereas I can see the “value” of exploring the topic but prefer to focus elsewhere, for Yang and his colleagues it formed part of the rich topic of archaeology and early historical sources on which they also worked tirelessly.
The wider context
A useful introduction, for the Ming, is
- Joseph Lam, State sacrifices and music in Ming China: orthodoxy, creativity, and expressiveness (1998).
He stresses those features, even if the latter two may seem rather remote from many people’s understanding of the topic. For dance, see also
The stimulating article
- Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, “Lijiao: The return of ceremonies honouring Confucius in mainland China”, China perspectives 2009.4.
mainly concerns Qufu in Shandong (birthplace of Confucius, and site of the most renowned rituals) and the rehabilitation of Confucius since the 1980s.
Confucian sacrifices were performed widely throughout the empire until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911. They are not only documented in the national dynastic histories but also (at the expense of folk traditions!) often occupy an unreasonable amount of space in imperial county gazetteers, compiled according to a template. The topic, burdened by abstruse theory and false nostalgia, may seem largely to belong to the rarefied confines of early sinology. However, as always, it is no timeless “living fossil”, but was constantly remoulded and re-invented throughout the imperial era right down to today.
Through the Republican era the rituals declined. After the 1949 Communist victory they were promoted by the Nationalist regime on Taiwan, but on the mainland they fell silent—apart from a few initiatives from cultural authorities.
In late imperial times the rituals must have been common elsewhere in Hunan too (the Anthology mentions mid-19th-century accounts in the Yongzhou and Jiahe county gazetteers), but it is those of Liuyang that came to achieve national celebrity. So here I’d like to introduce the fortunes of the rituals there over their life-span of a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s.
Confucian sacrifices may have been performed in Liuyang since ancient times, but we only find firm evidence from 1829, when the local jiansheng 監生 official Qiu Zhilu 邱之稑 (1781–1839) was commissioned to begin a lengthy investigation of how to perform the rituals, with funding to establish a Bureau for Rites and Music (Liyue ju 禮樂局). His research was based not only on early compendia (including Han sources and the Qing Lülü zhengyi) but also on a visit to Qufu.
Qiu Zhilu then had to decide on the pitch standard (itself a thorny historical issue); choose the vast instrumentarium and repertoire (indeed, he is credited with incorporating folk elements, revising the system of one note per beat, and expanding the scale); and rehearse the singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. He documented the results of his research in a series of volumes.
Though Qiu Zhilu died in 1839, the rituals he had designed were first performed in the early 1840s. Every three years over sixty youths over the age of 12 sui within the town—“from decent families” shenjia qingbai 身家清白, an assessment that would have been abruptly reversed after the 1949 Liberation!) —were recruited, training for a month before the 2nd- and 8th-moon rituals.
(An aside: I can’t help comparing this to the hereditary training of shawm-band musicians in Hunan and throughout China, who would begin playing percussion in the family band from around 6 sui, moving on to shawm in their early teens, and learning daily through constant participation in life-cycle and calendrical rituals. And that is where real creativity is to be found: for more on elite and folk cultures, with a detailed analysis of a qin piece and a shawm-band suite, see here. But as in the Tang, the efficacity of the Confucian ritual depended not on the performers but on the “arrangers”…)
The Qing statesman Zeng Guofan (1811–72), himself a native of Hunan, sent envoys to Liuyang to attend the ritual, recommending it to the emperor. After the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Bureau was still maintained, though only the 8th-moon sacrifice was now held. Wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) sent envoys, who reported it to be superior to the Qufu ritual; envoys from there and other regions of the country (including Heilongjiang, Yunnan, and Xinjiang) came to study. Apparently the genre even appeared in a feature film made in the early Republican era.
These photos of the Liuyang performers appear quite widely online, but I can’t find dates—can anyone provide them? The first seems to date from before Liberation; I surmise that the second was taken when Yang Yinliu took them to record in Changsha in 1956. 
As ever, I’m struck by both how much has survived and how much has been destroyed, and by the maxim “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”.
The 8th-moon ritual was held in 1937 with an ever-dwindling personnel. After Liuyang was occupied by the Japanese, activity was interrupted in 1944.  After Japan was defeated, the temple grounds were taken over by the Nationalist administration and a local newspaper. By the time of an October 1945 performance in the temporary provincial capital Leiyang, following social upheavals, instruments had been damaged and the (recent) tradition much reduced. In 1946 the senior Liu Puxian 劉蒲仙 led a ritual with over a hundred performers, still only a pale reflection of the previous quorum. The last ritual performance took place on 28th September 1948.
After the Communist victory, in 1951 the Liuyang Bureau of Culture retrieved the entire collection of over 350 instruments as well as the textual material, holding an exhibition; from 1953 they were stored in the Hunan provincial museum in Changsha, and some newly-reproduced instruments were made.
Such was the backdrop to Yang Yinliu’s 1956 visit. He now assembled a dozen of the senior performers to go to Changsha, recording some of the main hymns with a motley assemblage of instruments whose pitches no longer matched (a topic that he explored eruditely in his monograph). The Anthology reprints Yang’s own transcriptions of these recordings.
Zhaohe (Zhaoping) hymn to welcome the gods (opening), documented by Yang Yinliu. Source: Anthology.
Hunan was hit by the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward, but in 1962, in a brief lull between campaigns, the Hunan cultural authorities organized another project on the ritual. The instruments were even briefly returned to Liuyang; new performers were trained, and further recordings made. Ever since then the instruments have been kept at the Changsha museum. Meanwhile similar research was ongoing in Qufu.
From the 1980s, the resumption of research (now for the monumental Anthology) coincided with a progressive rehabilitation of Confucius and Confucianism. Indeed, Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Liuyang formed an important basis for the glitzy 1980s’ recreation of the most renowned Confucian ritual at Qufu, with which it had long-standing links. In recent years—inevitably—the Liuyang cult has been taken up by the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see here), although, as with many such projects, any tradition has long disappeared. The only remaining source was Qiu Shaoqiu 邱少求 (b. 1931), who had spent nearly ten years performing intermittently after training from the age of 9.
Reconstructed diagram showing deployment of instruments. Source: Anthology.
* * *
So once again, we have to unpack the thorny question “What is music?”. As Confucius himself observed,
Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?
Always remote from the lives of ordinary people, and performed only intermittently, the Liuyang ritual was a very minor aspect of musicking in Hunan; but it’s one that may attract sinological historians. To be sure, like folk musicking, it was in a constant process of change; and a certain creativity was involved—though far from the kind universal to most expressive culture in China and elsewhere.
With Chinese and foreign scholars alike still keen to imagine “living fossils”, such as the ritual traditions of Beijing, Xi’an, and south Fujian, reification is a dangerous theme throughout traditional culture.
Irrespective of my own ambivalence about the topic, Yang Yinliu’s work, even amidst pressure to downplay elite culture, shows his dedication to all aspects of performance and the historical background. At the same time, he wasn’t alone in studying the Liuyang ritual: the Hunan cultural authorities made efforts to document it throughout the first fifteen years after Liberation.
* Satnav on the blink again—Ed.
 Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 湖南卷, pp.2049–57, 2137, 2141, 2179–80, transcriptions 2060–85. See also Yang’s 1958 article “Kongmiao dingji yinyuede chubu yanjiu“, reprinted in Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji 杨荫浏音乐论文选集 (1986), pp.276–97.
 For Liuyang, online sources I have consulted include http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_95b86dd70102xhke.html
In the Anthology, note the biography of Qiu Zhilu (p.2137) and the item on the Bureau of Rites and Music (p.2141).
See also Yu Yizhi 喻意志 and Zhang Yu 章瑜, “Liuyang jikong yinyue chutan” 浏阳祭孔音乐初探, Tianjin yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2008.2. As ever, several details remain to be clarified.
In English, an early mention of Yang Yinliu’s work on the Liuyang rituals is Rulan Chao Pian, Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation (1967), pp.94–6.
 Having observed that many of the CCP leaders came from Hunan, I note that Liuyang was the birthplace of Hu Yaobang (1915–89), who would not have made a suitable recruit…
 This site, with 52 pages, contains a rich archive of visual images from Hunan, and leads to further sources showing the depth of both literati and popular culture there.
 An instance of my problems interpreting the material: I surmise that it continued until then even under Japanese occupation. One would like more detail on the whole period from 1937 to 1949—but please, if you go to Hunan, do look beyond the Confucian ritual!
Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation
Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.
The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.
Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.
Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. 
Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi were all natives of Hunan. On 11th May 1959 Liu wrote to Chairman Mao after spending a month investigating the region of his birth:
According to comrades from the provincial Party committee, 40% of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes, and brigades.
On a visit to Mao’s home village in Shaoshan before the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959, the Chairman himself had hinted at a partial retreat from the more radical policies of the Leap. Peng Dehuai went on to confront him at the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959:
When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practice close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.
Becker notes that in the anti-Peng hysteria that followed the conference, Hua Guofeng personally supervised the brutal persecution of Peng’s family who lived in the Xiangtan region. Provincial leader Zhou Xiaozhou, who had tried to blunt the impact of extreme leftist policies, was purged, and the madness only escalated.
The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe—despite the space created by the loss of several million to starvation.
Ambitious yet misguided irrigation and land reclamation projects further depleted the environment. People were beaten to death in 82 out of 86 counties and cities. As investigating teams dispatched to the countryside reported:
In Daoxian county many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90% of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. […] Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10% had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by Party members or militia. In Shimen county, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12% were “beaten or driven to their deaths”.
Dikötter cites reports from 1961:
In Yuanling county, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded, and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall. In the Liuyang region, iron wires were used to chain farmers.
Liu Shaoqi returned to Hunan in 1961 in a widely-reported trip (online, see e.g. here):
Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2nd April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a Spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his assistants combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the human excrement piled up for fertilizer consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.
Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shicheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.
In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages. “Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.” In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologized to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.” That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.
A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution, and starvation to the people he was meant to serve.
Becker also describes Liu Shaoqi’s visit to Hunan:
In the Hengyang district “nearly an entire production team had died of hunger, and there was no one left with the strength to bury the bodies. These were still lying scattered about in the fields from which they had been trying to pull enough to stay alive.” Yet when Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, visited Hunan to see for themselves, local leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and deceive them. Along the road leading to Liu’s home town of Ningxiang, starving peasants had torn the bark off the trees to eat, so officials plastered the tree trunks with mud and straw to conceal the scars. […] Liu only managed to discover the truth in the village where he had been born, Ku Mu Chong, when some villagers dared to tell him that twenty of their number had starved to death, including a nephew of Liu’s, and that a dozen more had fled.
With all this in mind, it may seem almost perverse to turn our attention to expressive culture. Doubtless in some areas upon the 1949 Liberation, traditional culture was virtually stamped out, quite abruptly, only reviving after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s. Even where traditional genres survived relatively unscathed in the early 1950s (in 1956 Yang Yinliu’s team found rich material on his fine fieldtrip to Hunan, and his report contains no hint of the impending disaster), one might suppose that they would have declined further as collectivization intensified. We might doubt the ability of performance genres to survive through the famine following the 1958 Leap. Indeed, in many regions, irrespective of any official prohibitions, it may seem inconceivable that people could even have the strength to observe traditional cultural practices (see e.g. here, under “Religion and culture”).
On the contrary, it seems that it was precisely the desperation of the times that prompted (on the economic front) a revival of folk performing groups and (in the sphere of belief) a renewed emphasis on traditional ritual. With no food or shelter in their home villages, people resorted to extreme measures. Migration was a traditional response to adversity; Hunan peasants often crossed the border into Hubei (cf. the flight of Yanggao dwellers to Inner Mongolia: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.120–21).
For the condition of folk performance activity in the early 1960s, apart from talking with people who recall the period, official documents in the Appendices of several of the provincial volumes of the monographs on opera and narrative-singing in the Anthology make an unlikely but revealing source, containing documents from imperial, Republican, and Maoist times, often relating to prohibitions (for all three periods!).  Often they inadvertently reveal “negative material” in discussing the desperate revival of folk and ritual groups from the late 1950s, reminding us that even through all the traumas of campaigns and collectivization, traditional genres “obstinately“, however tenuously, kept active.
A series of detailed documents from the Hunan Bureau of Culture between 1957 and 1965 gives a remarkably frank impression of a far-from-stable socialist society. 
A document from September 1961 innocuously prescribes a systematic project on the province’s rich heritage of local opera, specifically calling for impartial documentation irrespective of “feudal” and “superstitious” elements. Doubtless they benefitted from the model established by Yang Yinliu on his 1956 fieldwork. A lengthier document from March 1962 explicitly includes the diverse genres of narrative-singing in the project.
By October the Bureau of Culture was discussing the registration of “folk professional scattered artists” (minjian zhiye lingsan yiren 民间职业零散艺人) that they had initiated in 1957. They note the recent growth of such performers along with state cutbacks and the arrival of migrant groups; some belonged to the “five black categories”, performing “unhealthy” items.
With new campaigns for Socialist Education, the tide was turning: by April 1963, prompted by a central decree from Beijing, the Bureau of Culture issued a ban on the performance of “ghost operas”, which had grown “in the last couple of years”. For rural and urban Hunan they describe an increase of funeral elegies and rituals, offering incense and worshipping the Buddha, constructing temples, and inviting opera groups for rituals to invite the gods and redeem vows,  all encouraging the spread of anti-revolutionary elements and reactionary sects (fandong huidaomen).
A draft discussion from 1964 elaborates further on how to register folk performers, mentioning over 12,000 rural scattered semi-professional artists (performing opera, shadow-puppetry, marionettes, and narrative-singing), some of whose groups “have become hiding places for class enemies, their programmes mostly spreading feudal superstition and capitalism.”
Despite (or because of) the rising tide of political campaigns, a lengthy supplement from August 1965 reveals continuing issues:
Under “Severe situation” (pp.622–3), problems are listed under five headings, all with detailed examples:
- Performing bad [feudalistic, superstitious, capitalistic] programmes, long prohibited but still rife, “poisoning people’s thinking”. This was a problem among the state troupes as well as folk groups: from the founding in November 1963 of the No.2 Marionette Troupe in Xinshao county to September 1964, 84 of their 103 performances were deemed “superstitious”.
- People abandoning production to take up itinerant performance. Of 96 shadow-puppet artists in one district, 21 took it up before Liberation, 17 from Liberation to 1958, but 58 since 1958—and those taking it up since Liberation were mostly strong young men, badly needed to help agriculture recover from the disasters of the years of hardship. In Lixian county,  the senior yugu performer Cheng Dengyun’s oldest son (33) was a production-team chief, his second son (28) team accountant, his third son a strong worker, but from 1961 they all took up yugu and abandoned production.
Left: daoqing/yugu performers in Hengyang municipality, 1956.
Right: yugu, undated photo from Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan.
Yugu 渔鼓, related to daoqing 道情 and shadow-puppetry, is one of the most widespread genres of narrative-singing around Hunan and nearby provinces, using a distinctive drum made from a bamboo tube. The separate Anthology item on the genre introduces the early and later history of yugu, giving useful leads for the various regional styles.  But the 1964 document valuably supplements the largely official picture of yugu modernizing under the avuncular guidance of the Party. Online, besides more glossy official versions, you can find some excerpts from recent funerary performances, like this from Qidong county.
- Exorbitant charges. In a case from 1963, two shadow-puppeteers from a commune in Hengnan county performed an opera to redeem a vow; apart from a ticket price [??] of 6 yuan, they also demanded a dou of “holy rice” and 2 jin of oil; at the end they gave a commune cadre a statue of the deity Guanyin and demanded a further 2 yuan as a donation.
- Taking disciples, exploitative hiring practices—again showing the persistence of pre-revolutionary traditions.
- Harbouring bad elements and carrying out anti-revolutionary activities; examples are given of puppeteers performing anti-Communist propaganda.
For local religious life over the Maoist era I haven’t yet sought documents from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, or indeed the archives of the Public Security Bureau, but one might expect revealing results there too.
* * *
Having endured yet more traumas in the Cultural Revolution, such genres, mostly based on ritual practice, revived spectacularly after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s. But we can now see that the revival was not some miraculous atavistic re-imagining after three decades of silence: it took up a thread that had never been erased. Indeed, there was even a certain very limited activity through the Cultural Revolution decade. Equally, the wealth of research since the 1980s didn’t spring from a vacuum: it built on the brave work of scholars under Maoism.
Studies of expressive culture under Maoism are often narrowly based on central policy towards “the arts”. Candid documents like those discussed here reveal not only regional policy but—more interestingly—the real situation on the ground, even if they were seeking to “correct” it. Thus the Party refutes its own simplistic narrative that “feudal superstition” was abruptly suppressed after Liberation—a claim that is rarely challenged even by scholars outside China .
So the study of Maoism, expressive culture, and people’s lives should go hand in hand.
For more recent social issues in rural Hunan, see here.
 The material here is based on Jasper Becker, Hungry ghosts and Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, consulting the indexes under Hunan. The famine in some provinces, notably Henan, was considerably worse: I won’t attempt to summarize the abundant material here, but again it is described by Becker, Dikötter, et al. For refs. to Henan folk opera troupes begging during the famine, see Zhongguo quyi zhi, Henan juan, pp.735–40. For the great famines of Ukraine and China, see here.
 Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).
 For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.
 Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.
 Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!
 Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.
The great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984) (whose work is essential for an understanding of Chinese culture!) was brought up in the city of Wuxi amidst an environment of Kunqu, qin, and Daoist ritual.
In August 1921, the composer and violinist Henry Eichheim (爱希汉, 1870–1942), with his wife and daughter, made a journey to Wuxi to visit the great Wu Wanqing 吴畹卿 (1847–1927), leader of the prestigious Tianyun she 天韻社 Kunqu society, which dated back to the late Ming. Wu now arranged a series of seven private evening concerts for Eichheim. 
Apart from the main programme of unstaged Kunqu, the hosts performed solos for qin and pipa, “silk-and-bamboo” ensemble pieces—and Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, staple instrumental components of the local Daoists’ ritual repertoire, which Yang Yinliu was later to document in two definitive monographs. (Note how I avoided the dangerous term “Daoist music” there!) 
Shifan gu and Shifan luogu under the more monitored conditions of Maoism.
The concerts ended with Eichheim himself playing a selection of WAM violin pieces accompanied by his wife on piano—I can’t find a list of items, but I like to imagine that they included Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois (1910).
Yang Yinliu, undated early photo. Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.
Among the musicians that Wu Wanqing assembled was his pupil Yang Yinliu, still only 22. Already a pupil of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he now served as translator for Eichheim.
After trips to Japan, Korea, and India, Eichheim returned alone to a snowy Wuxi in December that year to hear more Shifan luogu. As Yang recalled,
I asked why he wanted to hear shi-fan-luo-gu again. He said that in the intervening months he had travelled to many countries, but this is the music that impressed him the most.
They played from 2 to 7.30pm, before Yang took Eichheim to the train station to rejoin his wife and daughter in India.
Later he also made trips to Indonesia. He was among many composers inspired by the soundscape of the Mystic East, including Ravel and Colin McPhee (but not Berlioz…)—though the influence of gamelan in his works, such as his symphonic variations Bali (1931), is not always audible.
Eichheim’s instrument collection is now housed at USCB. I wonder if any further records, such as photographs, survive of his visits to Wuxi. If only there were recordings! Perhaps it would be too much to expect Yang Yinliu to have taken him to film the rituals of the Daoists…
For Eichheim in Japan, click here.
 See my Folk music of China, p.248 (amidst an introduction to the Shifan genres, pp.252–69), and Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, p.96, both based on Yang Yinliu, Shifan luogu (1980), pp.233–4. In my post on Yang I cited his earlier volume with Cao Anhe on Shifan gu. For the Tianyun she, see also Zhongguo xiqu zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国戏曲志, 江苏卷 p.726. Note also my lengthy review “Images of Abing”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6 (1997). For more on Eichheim, see Anthony Sheppard, Extreme exoticism: Japan in the American musical imagination (2019), ch.3.
 Despite my aversion to the term “Daoist music”, two volumes by Qian Tieming 錢鐵明 et al., Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 1999) are substantial. Still, there is a wealth of research on Daoist ritual around the Jiangnan region that doesn’t pluck soundscape out of its ritual context—notably in recent years from Tao Jin 陶金 in Suzhou, Shanghai, and so on: note Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu.
Wedding laments “seated in the song hall”, Jiahe county, Hunan 1956.
Over seventy-four days in the summer of 1956, less than three years after the fieldtrip to Hequ in Shanxi, the great Yang Yinliu led a team of eighteen colleagues from the Chinese Music Research Institute to south China on an ambitious survey of the diverse performance genres throughout the Hunan countryside, aided by members of the provincial Bureau of Culture and its local branches. This resulted in the remarkable book
- Hunan yinyue pucha baogao 湖南音乐普查报告 [Report on a survey of the musics of Hunan] (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1960, 618 pp.).
The original is none too easy to find—my own precious copy was presented by my splendid mentor Tian Qing. A 2011 reprint appears to be substantially re-edited, with some more recent material from the 1980s’ Anthology.
Meanwhile the Music Research Institute was working on the Minzu yinyue gailun [Survey of Chinese music, published in 1964], establishing a classification of genres and sub-genres that has endured since, with minor variants. But despite some studies on individual topics, never before in Chinese history had the sheer variety of folk genres in a given region been documented; such projects laid the groundwork for the Anthology.
If it’s impressive that the team undertook such fieldwork in 1956—even as collectivization was becoming ever more coercive, and on the eve of the 1957 rectification campaign—it’s just as remarkable that the volume was published in the desperate times of 1960, just as tens of million Chinese were starving to death.
The chapters are each subdivided by Han Chinese and “brotherly” [sic] ethnic minorities (Miao, Yao, Dong, Tujia, and so on), somewhat diluting the coverage of the latter.
Of course the volume bears the mark of its time; but “reading between the lines”, the material is precious. The collectors sometime mentions institutional changes since Liberation, but despite occasional outbursts of PC language, it’s abundantly clear that what they were seeking was traditional—and ritual—practice, and they always seek historical clues.
Though they didn’t often coincide with folk performance events, they visited a wide range of groups, making audio recordings and providing a wealth of vocal texts and transcriptions. Indeed, the published volume is only a selection from the material collected. Yang Yinliu introduced the project and its methods in a 1957 article, reprinted in Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji 杨荫浏音乐论文选集, pp.262–75.
Even the texture of the paper evokes the character of the times!
The chapter on song opens unpromisingly with revolutionary songs—an inevitable nod to the political context (for more, see Hequ 1953). More accurately, the theme here is not just the Communist revolution but earlier social disturbances, notably the Taiping rebellion which had devastated the whole region. As to the revolutionary songs, of course they were, and are, part of the soundscape, and need to be documented—sadly, it is now hard to do the same for the anti-revolutionary songs that were also part of the “heritage”.
Having paid lip-service to PC, the collectors go on to document “work songs“, “mountain songs”, “little ditties”, and the songs of women and children. Some of their precious recordings of work songs are included in the 2-CD set 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).
Singing the god of the soil, Han Chinese performer in Dong minority region of Xinhuang, west Hunan.
Customary (fengsu) musics are classified under calendrical and non-calendrical subheads. Many have ritual components: the former include songs to the god of the soil, pilgrimage songs, rain rituals, and 7th-moon rituals to the orphan souls. The non-calendrical items were mainly performed for weddings and funerals; texts of laments for both are provided—among the rich material here is extensive coverage of female ritual specialists “seated in the song hall” (zuo getang, see photo above), with dancing.
Bamboo-horse, Yizhang county, south Hunan.
The seemingly unpromising rubric of song-and-dance is again based in ritual, with local variants of “flower-drum” (huagu), “flower lantern” (huadeng), and “bamboo horse” (zhuma) groups. A brief item on the zanggu 藏鼓 of Cili county, already rare by the 1940s, opens a window on the redemption of vows in conjunction with spirit mediums.
sixian, Wugang county, 1956 and 1980s.
For narrative-singing, apart from various regional types of yugu, daoqing, tanci, pingshu, lianhualao, and sixian, the team also unearthed interesting genres like the widely-distributed public declamations of the Sacred Edict (sheng yu 聖諭: cf. here, under Gegezhuang; cf. Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, p.101).
The team could only provide a brief overview of the riches of regional opera, such as huagu xi (brief excerpts on CD2 of Jinye lai changxi [The beauty of Chinese opera], Taipei: Wind Records), marionettes and shadow-puppets, and nuoxi masked ritual drama.
Under instrumental music, after an introduction to individual instruments, the main topics (as in most regions of China) are shawm bands (xiangfang 響房, gufang 鼓房) and percussion groups—again serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals.
Though ritual pervades all the sections, in view of the political climate separate coverage of more explicitly religious and ritual music is relegated to appendices—with an obligatory defence on the “significance” of studying the topic.
Here Yang Yinliu outlines Buddhist and Daoist temple and household groups (the latter under the heading of yingjiao 應教); the songs of spirit mediums (shijiao 師教, wujiao 巫教)—who, he notes, were ubiquitous; and folk Confucian practices.
Zhou incantations sung by Yinlian.
Under Buddhist temple music Yang considers the daily services and the major Flaming Mouth (yankou) and Water and Land (shuilu) rituals. For the latter, he already mimeographed a separate report after his return to Beijing in 1956. It’s based on the style of the Tianning si temple in Changzhou as learned by Yinlian 隱蓮 (then 52 sui)—a northern monk who after widespread “cloud roaming” was then working as a Chinese doctor in a lay Buddhist community in Shuangfeng county of Hunan.
A second Appendix, on the Confucian sacrifice at Liuyang, was mimeographed separately, and I discuss it in another post.
The whole volume attests to Yang Yinliu’s awareness of the importance of all kinds of ritual practice. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve updated my tribute to him, to reflect his studies of the ritual soundscape in a bit more detail.
The 1980s: ambitious new projects
Once political conditions allowed, a huge revival of traditional culture took place across Hunan, as throughout China, and fieldwork resumed uner the auspices of the monumental Anthology. Some of the genres uncovered by the 1956 fieldwork may have been unable to revive, but (as with all the provincial volumes) the editors could now elaborate on the genres that Yang and his colleagues had only been able to outline, with each broad genre (folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, dance) covering a couple of thousand pages. Apart from all the coverage of ritual genres under other volumes, in the instrumental music volumes the sections on “religious music” alone cover over 400 pages.
Folk ritual groups, Hunan.
In another post I’ve discussed the complementary tasks of making regional surveys and in-depth studies of a particular locale (for which, apart from my work on Gaoluo village and the Li family Daoists, see e.g. my reports under local ritual). Of course, all of the individual genres under these broad headings merit detailed studies—indeed, some of them have been the subject of monographs since the 1990s.
Despite Yang Yinliu’s background studying with the Daoists of his home city Wuxi, at the time he could only devote very limited attention to Daoist ritual in Hunan. Only after the 1980s’ liberalizations did it become possible to initiate major projects on local household “altars” of Daoist ritual in Hunan and elsewhere in south China. Though they mainly stress “salvage” rather than the changing fortunes of local ritual life since the 1930s, they provide a level of detail that most Chinese musicologists can hardly imagine.
Whereas the 1956 survey was partly documenting the riches of local culture on the eve of Liberation, the Anthology was seeking to record both the 1980s’ revival and earlier history, without quite spelling out the diachronic story. More recently, reification has only become more severe with the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.
* * *
Traditional local cultures may have begun a long decline soon after Liberation—indeed, even before, in wartorn regions under CCP control. But even after collectivization intensified from 1956, ritual and other genres somehow kept active—I take the story onto the mid-60s here. It’s yet another reminder that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”, to cite The dream of the red chamber.
I can’t help thinking that under the CCP, for all that local traditions were attenuated and scholarship circumscribed, both somehow persisted more “obstinately” than in the Soviet bloc. Of course, surveys like the Hunan volume are far from the cultural ethnography of a changing society; still, the point is not to reify tradition but to read scholarship, of any period, within the context of its own time.
Meanwhile Yang’s colleague Zha Fuxi was making a survey of qin zither players around the country—a tiny but much-studied elite. And in the winter of 1961–62 Li Quanmin led a similar trip to Fujian province. Beijing scholars embarked on many such trips in the fifteen years between Liberation and the Four Cleanups, laying the groundwork for more ambitious projects after the 1980s’ liberalizations.
So to repeat my reminder: Chinese culture doesn’t reside merely in silent immobile old books in libraries… See also Social issues in rural Hunan.
Yang Yinliu, 1950.
I just remembered a wise quote from the great Yang Yinliu. First, some useful background (“Typical!”).
Further to my post on Different values, the gap that has opened up between the sound ideals of traditional and conservatoire musicians is a regular theme of this blog (see e.g. many posts under heritage). Indeed, I already discussed it in chapter 3 of my first book Folk music of China (1995/1998). It may be a spectrum, but it often seems like a chasm.
In the Republican era, in the face of the apparently wholesale victory of Western civilisation and technology over the “backward” Chinese heritage, along with the influx of a range of Western genres patriotic Chinese sought with modernizing zeal to create an “improved” “national music”, learning from the West while searching for valuable elements in their own tradition. This, of course, was a common reaction in many cultures around the world, as explored by Bruno Nettl.
Some rejected the old “feudal” culture completely; another response was a self-conscious musical antiquarianism, with educated Chinese establishing patriotic groups for the preservation of the “classical” heritage. This not only perpetuated the abstractions of early Confucian music theorists, but also left a legacy that has now been enshrined in the romantic staged reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.
Indeed, in the Chinese and foreign media this has come to stand for traditional music, despite the continuing vigour of a vast wealth of rural genres.
Early uses of the term “national music” (guoyue) were found among the literati of what were still regional groups, as in Chaozhou and Hakka groups and around Shanghai. What became a “conservatoire style” was based to a large extent on the Shanghai style.
Meanwhile inland in Shaanbei at the CCP base of wartime Yan’an, a debate was also waged between “foreign” and “indigenous” (yang 洋 and tu 土) approaches; the latter was always going to dominate, but Communist cadres often found the raw folk material that confronted them “feudal and superstitious”. I noted the dilemma of cultural cadres in “managing” poor blind bards there under Maoism; and for gender perspectives on “superstition”, see here.
The ambiguity, not to say confusion, of the Party line on traditional culture was expressed by Wang Chun, mentor of the author Zhao Shuli. He criticized both opera and narrative-singing, lamenting the close links between folk music and “superstition”. This established a tendency to treat music as autonomous, divorced from context.
Of course, all this was based on social conditions. At local level, despite the assaults on former patrons, the expressive culture of many rural societies remained based in ritual, whose values were little influenced by the secularizing trends of the cities. As you can see from my post on Festivals, what developed was a range of performance along a continuum.
The new state-funded institutions (opera troupes, arts-work troupes, conservatoires, and so on) didn’t replace the traditional groups (like ritual associations, shawm bands, amateur clubs), but supplemented them. Musicians from folk backgrounds recruited to the official troupes found themselves having to compromise (see e.g. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18). Some adapted more than others. Regional characteristics were gradually diluted in an attempt to forge a “national” synthesis (see e.g. The zheng zither in Shandong).
Daoist Shifan gu, c1962.
Right, here’s what I was going to offer you:
The great Yang Yinliu, whose encyclopedic erudition on Chinese music history was enriched by being brought up among traditional musicians (Kunqu, Daoist ritual, the qin zither), was well aware of the stylistic conflict. In an article on instrumental music, first published in Renmin yinyue in 1953—not long after Liberation, and just as he was studying the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple—he touched on several sensitive topics including “temple music” and “palace music”, already under criticism from rigid ideologues on simplistic class grounds—carefully couching his defence in the new politicized language. He went on to observe tellingly (cited in my Folk music of China, p.51):
Once in Wuxi there was a technically brilliant and enthusiastic comrade directing a group of twelve folk artists who were thoroughly versed in performing the local wind-and-percussion music. He announced his opinions to them about the “improvement” [of the music] considering the peasants’ music too long (around half an hour), and that it would only be right if the pieces were abbreviated so that the whole suite lasted about five minutes; further, the peasants’ percussion music was too complex, with too many decorations; the workers only liked simple pieces, and they should eliminate all the decorations on the drum and other percussion instruments. The result was that the folk musicians began to feel doubtful, and their interest dwindled. They felt that after abbreviating the pieces, not only would it be difficult for them to make the transitions, but the transmission of the pieces would be endangered if the greater part of them were cut; and completely to eliminate all the decorations was simply to make them regress to the stage of beginners.
In such official contexts at least, uncomprehending apparatchiks wielded power over helpless folk musicians. I went on to comment:
As Yang wisely points out, “these opinions of the folk musicians cannot be neglected”, but the same patronizing attitude towards folk musicians and audiences alike remains endemic today.
Again, this relates partly to context: the apparatchiks were seeking to adapt folk music for short breezy staged performances, whereas in ritual life, musicking unfolds gradually over events lasting a couple of days.
Still, irrespective of the new institutions and the platitudes of Party pundits, folk activity persisted, resistant to Party ideology. And Yang, with his able colleagues at the Music Research Institute, just kept on researching living genres (both folk and elite), and their imperial history, right until the Four Cleanups campaign of 1964. But the sound ideals of folk and conservatoire musicians continued to diverge starkly, as we found with the 1980s’ recreations of the “suite plucking” of old Beijing.
More than Bartók, Yang Yinliu was also concerned with documenting the changing society in which music functions. As suggested in my post on him (such as his account of Daoism in Wuxi and his 1956 report from Hunan), he was attuned to issues that were soon to become basic to ethnomusicology—even if such study was still limited under Maoism, and (with honourable exceptions) remains so today under stultifying heritage propaganda.
On the folk–art continuum in culture
“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.
Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).
First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985; see also the succinct introduction in Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, pp.1005–1009). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.
Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.
After Liberation, cultural cadres gave misleading names to many folk genres (cf. here, and for the “songs-for-winds”, here). The recreational chamber repertoire known since the 1950s as the “thirteen suites for strings” (xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套) was simply known as “suite plucking” (tantao 彈套). 
Often valorised by a narrow association with the Manchu court elite, it turns out to belong to a wider circle of folk activity (and here we may detect echoes of the hype surrounding the Zhihua temple). Indeed, it’s not useful to draw a clear line between folk and elite musical cultures in China—for a detailed instance, see this comparison of a qin piece and a shawm suite.
The social and cultural life of the late Qing is a rich topic, little explored in relation to these suites. I learn much from a 2013 article by Zhang Weidong 张卫东, stalwart of the amateur narrative-singing clubs around Beijing. Among many sources, he cites Jin Shoushen 金受申, Lao Beijingde shenghuo 老北京的生活—just the fascinating kind of social detail also found in the work of Chang Renchun on the customary and ritual life of old Beijing.
As part of his broad cultural education Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 爱新觉罗毓峘 (1930–2003), descendant of the Qing imperial family, learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 in Japanese-occupied Beijing with the former palace eunuch Luo Defu 羅德福, and later with blind musicians Wang Xianchen 王宪臣 and Zhang Songshan 张松山. He expanded on this background in several interviews, including articles in Renmin yinyue 1988.9 and 1990.6. For my visit to him, see here.
Like most musicking in China and worldwide, the genre wasn’t dependent on notation: indeed, it was largely an oral tradition. And again it illustrates the continuum between folk and art musics: it now tends to be associated with the Manchu–Mongolian nobility, but they learned this repertoire as patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers (menxianr 門先 or gumu 瞽目) whom they invited to their mansions. Blind musicians are important in local social life, such as shawm players and bards (and, further afield, in Ukraine—formerly), and the menxianr were major players in the Beijing narrative-singing scene.
In the mid-19th century  a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.
Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.
In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.
By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:
- Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.
This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:
- Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.
Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai 溥雪齋 (1893–1966, another scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. 
In 1963 Aisin Gioro Yuhuan was invited to teach at the Beijing conservatoires, but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (cf. Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu: my Folk music of China, pp.255–6). By 1985 he had hardly played sanxian for over thirty years, but he now worked closely with Tan Longjian to recreate the style of the Xiansuo beikao suites. She went on to publish separately the results of their work on the sanxian parts:
- Tan Longjian 谈龙建, Qing gu gongwangfu yinyue: Aisin Gioro Yuhuan sanxian chuanpu 清故恭王府音乐: 爱新觉罗·毓峘三弦传谱 (1988), with a useful introduction by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.
Rong Zhai had given individual parts for each instrument, spelling out their heterophony. By contrast, when melodies of instrumental ensembles were notated, it was invariably in a single gongche skeletal outline, with the realizations on particular instruments left to the taste and experience of the musicians. This was evidently so for these suites too: the score was an isolated instance of documentation in what remained an oral tradition.
In one case Rong Zhai even gave a “full score” with all the parts aligned—perhaps a unique instance in traditional notation:
Still, as in all traditions of musicking around the world, performance requires practical experience of learning with a master; and this applies even when notation is available.
The suites consist of sequences of melodies, though titles within the suites are not always given. The repertoire overlaps with that of shengguan ritual wind ensembles such as Haiqing 海青 and Pu’an zhou 普安咒, widely performed both in the temples of old Beijing and among amateur ritual associations in the countryside nearby and further afield. It was on these rural groups, still active, that I came to focus; and here too, I learned that one’s field of study must be far broader than “instrumental music“.
As I often note for ritual studies too, scholars tend to favour reified documents, at the expense of changing social context.
Well before the Communist revolution of 1949, the social system had been changing along with the demise of the imperial system in 1911. But when musicologists began transnotating the suites in the early 1950s, there were still some musicians who recalled playing them—like Aisin Gioro Yuhuan, indeed. How I wish Yang Yinliu and his colleagues had managed to record them then, like their 1953 Zhihua temple recordings (sidebar playlist #14, with commentary here). According to Cao Anhe (1981) the MRI did indeed record four or five suites played by the great blind sanxian player Wang Xianchen (for whom, see again Zhang Weidong’s article). By 1950 Wang must have been at least 80 years old, but alas these recordings appear to have been lost. I’ll save another surviving recording for further below.
What did persist in Beijing, both before and since the Cultural Revolution, was the amateur narrative-singing scene—a must for any aficionados of The dream of the red chamber, by the way. Some instrumental pieces are still played there as preludes or interludes, but the suite repertoire didn’t survive. Anyway, it’s another of the pleasures of Beijing musical life, less well publicized than the indie/punk scene there.
In the 1990s, between fieldtrips in Hebei, I enjoyed visits to a little hutong in Xinjiekou for the weekly gatherings at the house of the late great Qian Yadong 钱亚东 (right, in 1995—then aged 85!).
Sihu, pipa and sanxian players (the latter blind—long rare at such gatherings) at Qian Yadong’s house, 1995.
For the narrative-singing scene in early 1950s’ Beijing, the vicissitudes of Czech and Chinese scholars and artists, and the 1980s’ Anthology, see here.
With the renewed vigour of the 1980s, the Central Conservatoire in Beijing organized students to perform the suites on the basis of the 1950s’ transnotations, consulting Aisin Gioro Yuhuan and Cao Anhe.
I’ve given some instances of the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire, and here’s another. While well-intentioned, these reified conservatoire recordings can hardly capture the more traditional mood of the earlier masters. Of course, young conservatoire students were not only learning from prescriptive modern notation, but belonged to another aesthetic world to that of the itinerant blind performers and the Qing nobility—and even to that of their own conservatoire teachers, many of whom (including masters like Yang Yinliu, Cao Anhe, Yang Dajun, Cao Zheng) had been brought up in a traditional aesthetic. Even the instruments, and their strings, would have been different.
You can find the conservatoire recordings in a YouTube playlist from David Badagnani (note also the Chinese documentary to which he refers):
So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,
After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that… it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:
* * *
Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.
These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8, and also recently the object of heritagification).
In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. See also my post on the “little pieces” of Yulin city—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.
The question remains, why amateur folk activity in those chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the Maoist and reform eras, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, whereas in the north most amateur string ensembles seem to have become musical casualties of the revolution.
* * *
So while a narrow musicological approach tends to encourage reification, the study of “suite plucking” should lead us to the cultures of late imperial Beijing, both folk and elite; and to the voluminous sources on the whole history of vocal music.
What such research doesn’t spell out is that entertainment has moved on: the social milieu in which the plucking suites were performed before 1911 has long ceased to exist. The current Beijing elites no longer play along with itinerant blind musicians! Of course, the 1980s’ project on the suites was not seeking to reinvigorate them as a form of social life; they came to form part of the nostalgic re-imagining of the imperial past, quite removed from society. So this yet again confirms my reservations about recreating early music for genres whose performing traditions have been lost. As with any musicking worldwide (including WAM, such as Bach or Haydn), we need to study changing performance practice in social context, and reception history.
Ritual activity, however, persists in China. The rosy reification of imperial culture may distract us from the ethnography of groups that have remained active through the tribulations of the 20th century, and from the enduring importance of living soundscapes as part of changing social activity.
Lastly, even where we can distinguish between folk and elite cultures, there is nothing “superior” about the latter, either in China or elsewhere!
 Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12. For rich material on vocal and instrumental groups in the late imperial period, note Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, vol.2.
 Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.
 Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. For his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music” in Shenyang, see here.
Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.
I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.
Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).
To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.
I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including
Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.
Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).