Ritual procession entering the outskirts of Zhangzhou, 1985. This, and photos below, from Ken Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.
In mainland China from the late 1970s, as the commune system crumbled, a vast revival of traditional culture got under way (for the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see Testing the waters and Recopying ritual manuals). This energy was reflected in the excited discoveries of fieldworkers in the 1980s, as shown in the early reports of Kenneth Dean from Fujian province:
“Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall 1985”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.
Along with C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Patrice Fava, Ken Dean built on experience of Daoist ritual in Taiwan and the classic portrayals by Kristofer Schipper and others; by the early 1980s, as mainland China became accessible at last, they began pursuing the Hokkien traditions back to their homeland across the strait to south Fujian—an eye-opening revelation.
Ken’s stay in Fujian from 1985 to 1987 led to the publication of his 1993 book Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China. And among the results of his later focus on the Putian region was the fine documentary Bored in heaven.
Wang and Lagerwey soon expanded their regional studies, recruiting local scholars as they initiated major projects; a vast series of monographs soon proliferated, and later fieldworkers became accustomed to finding vibrant ritual traditions throughout south China. But in the first flush of discovery, the early reports by Lagerwey and Dean on ritual cultures of Fujian are especially vivid.
Our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society.
And Ken’s work is a fine example of the latter: by contrast with most salvage-based accounts of southern Daoist ritual traditions, he not only followed the classical bent of Daoist studies, but integrated thoughtful social ethnography on this period of rapid change.
“Funerals in Fujian” opens thus:
Unknown to most outside observers of modern China who believe it to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its traditions, an enormous resurgence of traditional rituals, local cults, and popular culture has been gathering force since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed its controls on the practice of religion.
Visiting scores of temples, Ken attended over fifty rituals—
week-long god processions involving tens of thousands of villagers, five-day community festivals centering around Taoist jiao Offering rituals, five-day funerals complete with theatrical rituals such as the “Smashing of Hell”, and several exorcisms featuring mediums in trance.
As he observes,
Economic activity boomed, and the first thing that people who had made money did was not to buy televisions and refrigerators but to rebuild temples to their local cult god that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
In Tong’an county alone, cultural authorities estimated there were 3,000 temples.
Manuscripts that had miraculously survived were copied back and forth. Paintings were taken out of their hiding places in pigsties and latrines. Gods were unearthed and returned to their temples.
Lineage organisations revived, and folk theatrical groups struggled to meet demand in performing for god birthdays and temple consecrations, weddings and funerals. The boom in house-building required inviting ritual specialists to perform house-settling exorcisms. Community jiao Offering rituals were held for the first time in several decades. Donations from overseas Chinese, encouraged by local cadres, played a major role in this restoration. While some cadres, angered by their loss of power in the economic sector, still resisted the observing of religious celebrations, most identified with the revival. Ken also notes ritual inflation.
In “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”. he describes three-day Pure Offerings (santian qingjiao 三天清醮). Ken notes how the local communities organised and funded the rituals.
The first Offering was held in a rather small temple in an outlying neighbourhood of Zhangzhou city (see photo above), with Daoists officiating who were still not fully equipped to perform the rituals, such as the Division of the Lamps (fendeng 分燈). As Ken comments most pertinently,
possession of a liturgical manuscript does not necessarily imply the ability to perform the corresponding ritual. The actual performance depends in large measure on oral transmission.
Building on his experience in Taiwan, he describes the ritual segments in some detail.
Community procession bearing King boat, rural Zhangzhou 1985.
Two days later Ken attended the second half of another three-day Offering in a nearby village. What distinguished it from the previous ritual was the inclusion of a Pestilence King Offering (Wangye jiao 王爺醮). Traditionally held here every seven years, it had still been performed under Maoism, the last time being 1961. The article ends with an Appendix detailing altar hangings and documents, lu 籙 registers, and total listed costs.
* * *
Whereas much of the ritual activity that I find in north China consists of funerals, scholars in the south tend to focus on community rituals for the living. So Ken’s detailed fieldnotes in “Funerals in Fujian” are all the more valuable.
He discusses mortuary rituals in the natural sequence, from encoffinment to burial, the first brief funeral service, and the more elaborate third-anniversary rituals. He notes regional variation, whereby some areas call for Buddhist rather than Daoist ritual specialists to perform funerals; in Nan’an and Jinjiang counties, “either group may do them, but most people agree the Taoists do a better show”.
Encoffining In Dongshan a Daoist officiated in a set of procedures (cf. my Li Manshan film, from 14.58), including the maishui 買水 procession to fetch water to wash the corpse, and a series of recitations. Ken compares the more elaborate rituals described in a local manuscript.
Burial Near Anhai, he follows a long and elaborate procession to the grave (again, cf. my film, from 1.18.59).
A Western brass band played several incongruous tunes rather poorly. A traditional band played excellent nanyin.
Initial funeral service Back in Dongshan, Ken attended a brief funeral ritual, its simplicity perhaps related to the fact that the deceased was only around 50 years old. Still, altars with paintings were on display (cf. Ritual paintings of north China). The ritual sequence (here and below I’ve slightly modified some of these translations) was
Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) and Opening Drumroll (qigu 起鼓)
Announcement of the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
Inviting the Gods (qingfo 請佛, fo referring generally to gods)
Ken describes all these segments in detail. Like John Lagerwey, he pays attention to the “heat and noise” of ritual performance, including the varied soundscape.
A three-day funeral This gongde 功德 ritual in Shishan, Nan’an county, with fifteen Daoists presiding, was held for the third anniversary of the death of an overseas Chinese relative.
In general, the ritual tradition is very similar to that of southern Taiwan, but one can find elements in Nan’an that have disappeared in Taiwan or perhaps were never completely transmitted there.
The older Taoists now complain that since the Cultural Revolution and the massive destruction of Taoist manuscripts, many people have taken up work as Taoist priests despite a lack of training or materials. Thus, instead of one Taoist to a county, you can now find twenty. Or so they say.
Here, while Daoists do perform Pure Offerings (see above) for god birthdays, most of their work is for mortuary rituals. The overall effect of the elaborate altars and paintings displayed for this funeral was “beautiful and staggering in complexity”. He documents the ritual sequence in detail with a 20-page account (cf. my composite list for an area south of Beijing).
Day 1, evening
Rousing the Hall (naoting 鬧廳) and Purifying the Altar (jingtan 淨壇)
Day 2 morning:
Announcing the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神)
Reciting the Scripture of Universal Salvation (nian Duren jing 念度人經)
Summoning the Soul (zhaoling 召靈)
Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光)
Untying the Knots (jiejie 解結)
Opening the Litanies (kaichan 開懺)
Giving Offerings (zuogong 作供)
Paying Tribute to the Ten Kings (gong Shiwang 貢十王)
Requesting the Writ of Pardon (qingshe 請赦)
Destroying the Fortress (pocheng 破城)
Day 3 morning:
Rites for the Masters (lishi 禮師)
Visiting the Soul (jianling 見靈)
Noon Offering (zuo wugong 作午供)
Juggling Gongs and Cymbals (nong luobo 弄鑼鈸)
Joining the Tallies (hefu 合符)
Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表)
Universal Distribution (pushi 普施)
Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫)
Dismantling the Soul Palace (chuling 除靈)
Sending Off the Gods (xiefo 謝佛)
Again, supporting musicians played nanyin melodies. Ken gives evocative detail on the theatrical, sometimes comic, Pardon ritual (cf. the Li family in Shanxi: my film from 48.35, and Daoist priests pp.246–50)—followed by the even more dramatic Destroying the Fortress. He translates the cloth displaying the list of rituals to be performed.
A simultaneous Buddhist and Daoist five-day funeral Again in Shishan, again a gongde ritual for an overseas Chinese family.
The Buddhists’ rituals for the most part matched the Taoists’, but they had some special effects of their own. The music, dancing, patterns, spells, and deities invoked differed, but the structure of the rituals was identical.
Ken notes the fierce competition between the two groups.
Lake of Blood rites The ritual also included a Lake of Blood (xuehu 血湖) segment. Ken also witnessed a Lüshan version in nearby Nan’an, also serving to save the souls of two women who had hung themselves from the same beam.
Putian: the Smashing of Hell Having already described the Smashing of Hell for Shishan, Ken now discusses a version in Putian county further north, a rather different cultural area. Nine household Buddhists presided, and spirit mediums played an active role (for the self-mortifying mediums of southeast and northwest China, see n.1 here).
Mediums in front of the Baosheng dadi temple running with a sedan chair carrying a visiting god statue, Baijiao 1987.
Zhao’an: a Hakka funeral To the south, in the Hakka area of Zhao’an, Daoists had a rich tradition of jiao Offerings; but
funerals [there] are performed exclusively by Buddhists—unlike the situation in Quanzhou or Putian, but similar to the tradition in north/central Taiwan.
For the funeral that Ken attended he lists sixteen ritual segments. He focuses on the climactic Smashing of the Sand (dasha 打沙) ritual; and again he notes variations in ritual traditions even within this area.
In conclusion, citing de Groot’s major work in the region in the 1880s, Ken observes:
In general, extraordinary as it may seem, one may say that anything in de Groot is still happening in southeast China, but no longer all in any one place. The immediate qualification of course is that the role of civil mandarins and Confucians is no more.
In a fine formulation he notes:
Any one community brings its own desires to bear on the selection of elements from the regional cultural and ritual repertoire. At the simplest level, these forces select between competing groups of ritual specialists. The relative popularity of Buddhist,, Taoist, and sectarian ritual specialists for the performance of funerals and other rites varies regionally. Factors include the relative strength and historical depth of the various religious traditions in the locale, the range of fees demanded by the different groups, and the closely connected prestige value of the performances. At a deeper level of analysis, every ritual is a unique performance, inevitably opening up new connections and new expressions within the community. The growing force of these reviving traditions will change China.
The same volume of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie also includes a catalogue of 290 ritual manuscripts that Ken copied during his stay in Fujian.
I note differences and similarities with my experience of mortuary rituals in north China. We should beware taking the ritual practices of southeast China as a national template (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Conclusion); indeed, as Ken stresses, considerable variation is evident even within a single region of south Fujian.
* * *
As to local folk musicking, those of us undertaking fieldwork in the heady days of the early reform era felt a similar excitement at discovering traditions hitherto unknown outside their locale. Such early energy is clear in the pages of the CHIME journal, particularly in the fieldwork of Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven in south Jiangsu.
Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. My photo.
Incorporating ethnographic perspectives on a fast-changing society alongside the nuts and bolts of ritual sequences and manuals, Ken Dean’s work in Fujian makes a notable exception to the largely salvage-based template of most such research. While later monographs (notably in the Daojiao yishi congshu series) studied individual Daoist “altars” in great historical depth, the early reports of Dean and Lagerwey laid a foundation for such studies, showing the excitement and energy of the time.
For remarkable film clips from 1930s’ Fujian, see here.
Li family Daoists sing Taishang song at central pole to open Hoisting the Pennant ritual,
Following the recent commemorations of the great Kristofer Schipper, I’ve been re-reading his article
“A study of Buxu: Taoist liturgical hymn and dance”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989).
The volume was the result of a conference held in Hong Kong, just as the revival of ritual traditions was getting under way, with further contributions by such scholars as Michael Saso, Chen Yaoting, John Lagerwey, Ken Dean, Issei Tanaka, Qing Xitai, John Blacking, and Alan Kagan.
It’s impressive that “Daoist music” was considered to belong with Daoist ritual so early; later, scholars of ritual and those studying ritual soundscapes (a more suitable term) would work separately, to the detriment of both.
Many of the articles in the volume are historical; and most of those discussing “rituals and musics of today” concern southeast China and Taiwan. Indeed, even now, this focus of time and place still dominates the field.
Schipper’s article opens with modern practice in south Taiwan, noting that Buxu 步虛 Pacing the Void hymns are sung there in unison at the opening of jiao Offering rituals, as well as within chao Audience rituals. But the bulk of his article concerns early textual history. He notes that while Buxu hymns already opened jiao Offerings in the Southern Song dynasty, their texts date back as early as the 4th century, soon becoming enshrined in Lingbao liturgy. He also seeks clues about how such hymns were performed in medieval times, noting Buddhist influence. And he finds early associations with meditation, citing the 5th-century Daoist Lu Xiujing:
In the practice of the Lingbao Retreat, when reciting the stanzas of the Empty Cavern Buxu: grind the teeth three times, swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the sun and the moon, in front of one’s face. The rays enter through the nose in the Palace of the Golden Flower. There, after a moment, they change into a nine-coloured halo… Again, grind the teeth three times and swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the Primordial Lord of the Three Simple (pneumata) in the Palace of the Golden Flower, in the likeness of an infant…
Schipper also notes the link with the bugang 步綱 Pacing the Constellation (Yubu 禹步) liturgical dance steps, as well as the Buxu genre in secular literature. He ends by stressing the link between music and meditation in the simultaneous execution of an “interior” and external” ritual:
The way of achieving this, and this is borne out in a way no literary source can provide by today’s rituals, is through music. Only music can integrate the different levels of execution during a ritual, make the meditation and breathing of the Master follow step by step the performance of the outward ritual by the acolytes. Only music can bridge the separation between the two worlds and ensure the harmony of man and his environment and beyond that, of all the spheres of the universe.
I much admire Schipper’s stress here on soundscape; and the high bar that he sets for the “internal” aspects of Daoist ritual was indeed evident in the practices of his own Daoist masters in Taiwan. Yet the fundamental importance of soundscape in ritual practice (hardly pursued by later scholars of Daoism) is far wider than the abstruse arts of cosmic visualisation.
* * *
Schipper set the tone for Daoist ritual studies, which relate modern liturgy firmly to the medieval era. Yet the basis of modern practice is the formation of liturgical traditions since the late imperial period. Throughout China, at the opening of the rituals of both temple clerics and household ritual specialists (Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection alike), Pacing the Void hymns turn out to be widely performed today. Thus modern collections of vocal liturgy and the provincial volumes of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, compiled through the 1980s and early 90s (see e.g. under Suzhou Daoist ritual), contain numerous transcriptions of Pacing the Void hymns from all over China.
For temple practice, Buxu hymns such as Dadao dongxuan xu 大道洞玄虛 are part of the Xuanmen risong 玄們日誦 daily rituals (Min Zhiting 閔智亭 ed., Quanzhen zhengyun puji 全真正韵譜輯, pp.31–2):
And such hymns, sung very slowly with melisma, are just as common among household Daoists. In my chapter on vocal liturgy in Daoist priests of the Li family I gave an example:
Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦) is the main hymn that the Li family sings in the Pacing the Void (Buxu) genre. Its incipit is Taiji fen gaohou (“As the Great Ultimate divided high and broad”); this ancient text, sometimes attributed to the Daoist master Du Guangting (850–933), is often found both in the Daoist Canon and in current temple practice.
It consists of eight five-word lines, plus a final fast seven-word invocation to the Great Heavenly Worthy of Five Dragons who Expels Filth (Wulong danghui da tianzun). As ever, my translation stays rather close to a literal interpretation, though the text (such as the obscure third couplet) has been subjected to highly arcane commentary.
Only performed with shengguan wind ensemble, never a cappella, the hymn is mainly used in three rituals: Fetching Water (qushui 取水); Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡), at the central pole; and at the soul hall before the coffin is taken out (film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38). Until the 1950s it was also sung for Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), and in the Announcing Text (shenwen 申文) ritual for earth and temple scriptures. Buxu is also the title of a percussion item, which they now rarely play—the longest interlude between sections of certain a cappella hymns, a slightly expanded version of Jiuqu (Daoist priests, p.286).
So while the hymn texts are “in general circulation” (Schipper’s term again), the melodies to which they sung vary widely by locality.
Anyway, Schipper did well to point out the significance of Pacing the Void, even if he could hardly have imagined at the time how very widespread the genre was throughout the PRC. As he wrote, “an entire book could, and perhaps should, be written about Buxu.”
So our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society—further discussed here.
Coda of Taishang song before the burial procession:
Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Wu Mei, Li Bin.
For a sequel on the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy, see here.
Portrait of Kristofer Schipper, commissioned for commemorative ritual in Suzhou, 2021 (see below).
Not only in the West but in Taiwan and China, the great influence of the great Daoist scholar Kristofer Schipper (Chinese name Shi Zhouren 施舟人, 1934–2021) is clear from the many tributes to him that have been appearing. Here’s a selection from the various extensive lists going round.
The SSCR and CSCR sites include tributes by John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Franciscus Verellen, Brigitte Baptandier, Lee Fong-mao, Lü Pengzhi, Lü Chuikuan, Ye Mingsheng, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and David Palmer. See also e.g. Ken Dean (live), Patrice Fava (forthcoming), Richard Wang, and an online discussion held by the Global Daoist Studies Forum. Doubtless the bibliography will continue to grow.
Several of these sites also give extensive lists of Schipper’s writings—this one looks comprehensive. Just a few of the seminal works that we keep consulting:
Le fen-deng (1975)
“Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”, Journal of Asian studies 45.1 (1986)
Le Corps taoïste (1982; English version The Daoist body 1994).
Schipper was brought up in Holland, where during the war his parents sheltered Jewish children from the Nazis. As Vincent Goossaert commented, “This really shaped his worldview, both his hatred of nationalism and his deeply humanistic preference for local democracy instead of great national narratives”.
Schipper with Chen Rongsheng, 1960s.
After training with Max Kaltenmark in Paris, in 1962 Schipper went to study in Taiwan; based at the Academia Sinica, he became a disciple of the great household Daoist priest Chen Rongsheng 陳榮盛 (1927–2014) in Tainan (see video tribute in n.1 here), who ordained him in 1968. He returned to Paris in 1970, taking up a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.
Schipper went on to create a massive project on the Daoist canon; the result, co-edited with Franciscus Verellen, was The Taoist canon: a historical companion to the Daozang (3 vols., 2004), an essential companion to texts found both in libraries and in the manual collections of local ritual specialists. His distinction between texts “in general circulation” and those distinctive to local traditions has been most useful to me in trying to classify collections of ritual manuals among northern household Daoists (see e.g. under Recopying ritual manuals, and Daoists of Hunyuan).
We might almost regard Schipper as a Daoist equivalent of Nadia Boulanger. Paris has been an île sacrée for Daoist studies, with Schipper bridging the lineage from Henri Maspero and Max Kaltenmark to John Lagerwey and Vincent Goossaert; his vast influence is clear from the list of his pupils, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.
If his main contribution was in sinology and textual research, his influence extended to anthropology. As Ian Johnson writes:
His ideas contributed to an understanding of how Chinese society has been organized through its history—by local autonomous groups often centred on temples rather than the emperor and his vaunted bureaucracy, as historians have traditionally tended to depict it.
Ken Dean observed:
He was able to show that there was a religion of the people of China that was deeply connected to local forms of self-organization and self-government. It was part of a change in how people described Chinese society.
While Taiwan had hitherto been the most fruitful fieldsite to study Daoist ritual, by the late 1970s, as a huge revival of tradition got under way in mainland China, it was becoming clear that there too there was now a vast field to explore—and Schipper was among the first to build bridges. Recruiting regional fieldworkers, scholars like C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean now initiated fieldwork projects on local ritual traditions throughout south China, which still continue to yield major results (see e.g. Lü Pengzhi’s massive Daojiao yishi congshu series). Such projects have tended to focus on the “salvage” of early history rather than documenting modern social change (among exceptions, see e.g. Yang Der-ruey on Shanghai, Qi Kun for Hunan); the historiography and ethnography of Daoism remain rather separate fields (see Debunking “living fossils”).
By the 1990s, Schipper’s concern for the history of religious life within local society resulted in another major collaborative project between the EFEO and Chinese scholars on the temples of old Beijing, still ongoing. Despite his focus on south China, he was most supportive of research on northern ritual practice (even my own, such as In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and related articles under Local ritual). After retiring in 2003, he and his wife made their home in Fuzhou, further inspiring Chinese scholars.
While Schipper’s early training as a Daoist priest was to form the inspiration for his career, one method where later scholars have roundly ignored his example is participant observation—a route very rarely taken in Daoist studies, though de rigueur in ethnomusicology. Even more remarkable was Schipper’s apprenticeship to Chen Rongsheng, which opened up the path for studying the ritual practice of household Daoists. Of course, “becoming a Daoist priest” can only refer to one particular tradition—the ritual practices that Schipper acquired (including its language, melodies, chants, and style of percussion) were particular to one region of Taiwan.
Analysing an ancient ritual manual, or even a modern ritual, in silent, immobile text is not the same as performing it. Sure, few scholars will find the time—though they are happy to devote years to poring over Song-dynasty ritual compendiums in libraries, to collect silent immobile texts in the field, and then to create more such texts themselves. Of course, performing as an occupational Daoist priest, as part of a ritual group, can only be done by living in China or Taiwan; it’s an unlikely career path for academics, yet it has hardly appealed to them even as an interlude. Still, the insights to be gained from even a basic training are most valuable (see e.g. Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual).
Schipper doesn’t seem to have discussed any tensions between textual research and living performance. Though uniquely placed to write a detailed ethnography of Daoists’ lives, that wasn’t his main concern; for him, the lessons gained from learning to perform look to have been more about texts than practice. It was John Lagerwey, in his Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), who provided the most detailed account of Chen Rongsheng’s ritual practice. See also my remarks on documenting ritual in film, and Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.
So Schipper’s training as a Daoist priest, while most thorough, was part of his studies within the bounds of academic sinology, rather than a vocational conversion. It can work the other way round too: some practising temple priests, such as Min Zhiting, have undertaken research on historical texts.
Around the same period in Taiwan, Michael Saso learned to perform Daoist ritual, also going on to become a scholar before eventually returning to the Catholic priesthood. More recently, another remarkable exception is Tao Jin 陶金 (an accomplished young architect who writes many profound articles on Daoism), who studied with masters in Beijing and Suzhou and was ordained in Suzhou in 2018 (see under Ritual life around Suzhou). Meanwhile in Taiwan, Stephen Flanigan 馮思明 has learned to perform Daoist ritual to inform his academic studies in Hawaii. While the pull of an academic career is strong, the path that Schipper opened up has brought added depth to the field.
Outside academia, many in the West have espoused individual versions of Daoist meditation (often with a New-Age tinge—see David Palmer, Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality, 2017); but for them, as for scholars, the idea of learning to performritual has largely remained alien.
Schipper also had suitable esteem for nanguan, the exquisite chamber ballads so popular in Hokkien communities of south Fujian and Taiwan (see the tribute from Lü Chuikuan), whose melodies were incorporated into Daoist ritual there—even if I’ve suggested that he may have overestimated the importance of a concert in Paris in 1986 for the revival in south Fujian.
* * *
Commemorative ritual for Schipper at the Chenghuang miao, Shanghai.
Notably, several Daoist temples have held commemorative rituals for Schipper (listed here, and here). For the sixth “sevens”, temple priests performed shengdu gonggde daochang 升度功德到場 rituals: at the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou, with some of the most distinctive ritual segments that are performed there, and at Huotongshan, Fujian. For the seventh “sevens”, rituals were held in Shanghai, Fuzhou, Longhushan, and Beijing.
Kristofer Schipper’s work is a benchmark within a range of disciplines, firmly establishing the study of Daoism—in particular its rituals—as a core element in our understanding of traditional Chinese culture.
Another recent conference volume offers perspectives on local religious practice in China:
Philip Clart, Vincent Goossaert, and Hsieh Shu-wei 謝世維 (eds), Daojiao yu difang zongjiao: dianfan de chongsi (guoji yantaohui lunwenji) 道教與地方宗教─ 典範的重思國際研討會論文集 [Daoism and local cults: rethinking the paradigms] (2020).
Most of the ten chapters are in Chinese; among many other articles on this useful database, they can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant pdf icon, with abstracts in both Chinese and English shown by clicking on the title.
With the scope largely limited to south China, still the dominant trend in Daoist studies, a common theme of the chapters is the interaction between different kinds of ritual specialists.
Hsieh Shu-wei on the Dipper Mother ritual
Matsumoto Kōichi 松本浩一 with a historical chapter on the Taiji jilian neifa 太極祭鍊內法 mortuary ritual and the religious thought of Zheng Sixiao.
Xie Conghui on Lüshan ordination rituals in central Fujian
Lee Fong-mao on pestilence rituals in Taiwan
Zhang Xun on the popular theme of Mazu worship in Fujian and Taiwan
Pan Junliang on ritual healing in Cangnan county, Zhejiang
Paul Katz on rituals of the Miao of west Hunan (cf. next link below).
Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).
The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).
While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).
Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.
Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.
The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.
The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).
Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.
Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.
Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.
The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).
Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan).
Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.
A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.
Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.
Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.
So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.
It’s masterminded by the dynamic Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志, integrating Chinese research with the international academic milieu, with input from his long-term collaborator John Lagerwey.
Focusing on Daoism, the site also covers Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism; while it reflects the historical, textual bias of scholarship, its remit also includes recent ethnography. With news of publications and academic activities, here we can find updates on the vast Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 series (for the most recent volume, see here).
In the immense Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 [Anthology of Daoist ritual] series, the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan feature prominently (more on Hunan here). While studies of Fujian culture often focus on the south of the province, the Hakka western region is also rich in ritual traditions.
The distribution of Daoist groups in Shanghang county.
This latest magnum opus in the series is a detailed study of the Lingying tang 靈應堂, one of fifteen groups (“altars” tan 壇 or “halls” tang 堂) of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanghang county, west Fujian:
The main text of this new publication has 336 pages; the following 1,392 pages comprises reproductions of ritual manuals.
In his English introduction to the series, the masterly John Lagerwey highlights some main points, with his unmatched experience of Daoist ritual in south China. He sees Daoist, Buddhist, and exorcistic rituals as a single system. This classification is widely applicable in south China, though not necessarily elsewhere—spirit mediums are important in the north too, but they are not integrated with the liturgical system there. Lagerwey also gives a fine English summary of this volume, again identifying salient themes.
Although the Lingying tang was only founded a century ago, the study is rich in historical evidence. The Lingying Tang inherited the ritual traditions of two older Daoist altars, specializing respectively in Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) liturgies performed by “Daoist priests” (daoshi 道士) and the exorcistic rituals of “ritual masters” (fashi 法師).
While this volume, like the whole series, stresses early history and ritual texts, Wu provides a useful outline of the Lingying tang Daoists under successive periods in the modern era (pp.69–91). As I did for Yanggao in north Shanxi, Wu surveyed all fifteen of the Daoist altars in Shanghang county before focusing on this group. There his main consultant was Guanbao (Daoist name Dingling, 1929–2013), older son of the founder Chen Lintang (Hongxing, 1894–1959).
Left, Guanbao (Dingling) in 1944; right, his father Chen Lintang (Hongxing).
After giving fine detail on the Republican period, Wu explores transmission under Maoism. This may play a very minor role in the series, but here I’d like to summarise this section of the chapter, as it illustrates common themes (cf. my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists, particularly this); indeed, it’s a fundamental context for the liturgical material presented.
Following Land reform, Hongxing’s family were classified as poor peasants. He was given posts in new state troupes for local opera. His son Guanbao at first retrained as a photographer, but then resumed Daoist activity on a small scale until 1956, eventually desisting after twice being criticised by work teams while performing rituals.
When Hongxing died in the winter of 1959, his sons Guanbao and Xibao, with other Daoist colleagues, surreptitiously “did the lanterns” (zuodeng 做燈) for his funeral. That same year they adapted scenes from the zuoxi 做覡 exorcistic ritual for a “cultural programme” at county and district levels.
When the Socialist Education campaign began in 1963 Guanbao buried the altar’s ritual paintings, instruments, and manuals for safekeeping. Though 1965 the work teams found some such artefacts on a raid of his house in 1965, the team chief, declining to consider them as belonging to the tainted “Four olds”, didn’t have them destroyed. However, as the situation became ever more serious, Guanbao fearfully burned ritual images himself.
In 1963 Guanbao had been appointed head of the new Nanyang amateur opera troupe, and worked away from the town after the violent opening of the Cultural Revolution. Recalled in 1976, he won county awards in 1979 for educative cultural items. As tradition, and ritual, were restoring, that year he was put in charge of the revival of the Nanyang puppet troupe, which was soon in considerable demand over a wide area. Jiao offering rituals were now being gingerly revived too.
Around 1983 Guanbao met the son of another renowned Daoist, who showed him some crucial ritual manuals which he copied, making notes on how to perform them. By this time the restoration of Daoist ritual was in full swing (cf. the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).
The group’s sporadic activities under Maoism make the extensive ritual repertoires, texts, and images presented in the book even more remarkable.
And then Wu takes the story on further into the reform era, with detailed descriptions. Guanbao soon found he could make a much better living from performing rituals than from his photography and puppetry—and fees continued to increase. He trained a new generation of young disciples to perform jiao Offering rituals. The two brothers often met demand by leading separate bands.
Guanbao’s band: annual ritual income from 2003 to 2011.
Again interspersing black-and-white photos, Wu then moves onto his main theme, the ritual repertoire, describing in turn the segments of xi 覡 (read sang in dialect) exorcistic liturgies, Orthodox Unity rituals for jiao Offerings and funerals, and “rites of confinement”.
Arena for zanghun and other ritual segments.
Always noting wider regional and historical connections, he explores the history of the whole pantheon, including the Three Immortal Masters, earth gods, and female deities such as Queen Mother (Wangmu 王母), the Ladies (Furen 夫人), and Chen Jinggu.
Ritual paintings by Dingling.
The extensive second part, preceded by detailed catalogues, is an anthology of ritual texts (mainly manuscripts) of the Lingying Tang. Whereas other volumes in the series often contain manuals from the Qing dynasty, most of those presented here look to have been copied by Dingling since the 1980s’ reforms—discussed in more detail in his article “Zhizao keyiben: yi Minxi daotan Lingying tangde duwang keben weili” 制造科仪本:以闽西道坛灵应堂的度亡科本为例, Daojiao xuekan 道教学刊 2018.2, cf. his French thesis, pp.90–107 (for my take on the process for the Li family in Shanxi, see here).
The study concludes with an enticing series of colour photos from Wu’s fieldwork.
From the yingxian ritual.
* * *
My comments on Daoist ritual studies in Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family relate to the dominance of south China in the project, and its salvage-based nature, based on texts rather than performance and social change. I mention these points again here because I would dearly like the monographs in this series to reach a wider audience; yet they are at some remove from the kind of ethnographic fieldwork on local society (including religious behaviour) that has simultaneously become popular (for a sample of coverage for Hunan, see here).
Thus, throughout the series, I’d be interested to learn how ritual practice has changed since the 1940s, along with the changing socio-economic context, such as migration and education. With the Li family in north Shanxi, the basic performing style seems quite constant, but the repertoire has diminished; I also noted changes in the material artefacts deployed, and in the perceptions of their clients.
In line with the brief of the series, the emphasis is on silent text, rather than performance and soundscape; yet these are precisely the means by which such texts are rendered efficacious. A core part of the Daoists’ training, not reflected in ritual manuals, is learning to sing, chant, and recite all the hymns, mantras, and memorials, and how to accompany them on the ritual percussion. Another compelling reason to highlight this soundscape is that it’s the main marker differentiating similar rituals regionally.
So if we can’t experience the sounds and movements of Daoist ritual live, then at least we should be offered edited videos of these traditions; this should be an indispensable part of any funding. If we had access to such films, then all this meticulous textual research would make a valuable complement. That said, the riches of this volume are astounding.
For the rich local traditions of Chinese ritual—as I never tire of observing—we have ample silent, immobile textual documentation, but much less material in the public domain on film (see this list).
Ritual drama has been a substantial component of this field ever since the projects initiated by C.K. Wang soon after the 1980s’ revival of tradition. But again we rarely have access to the drama itself, with all its actions and soundscape, all the “red and fiery” sensuous pleasures that are an indispensable part of the experience.
And besides documenting textual and material aspects, he avidly recorded local Chinese ritual drama on film—mainly in the early 1990s, before migration, pop music, the lures of material enrichment, and heritagification were too rampant.
The playlist of films (mostly around half an hour, with French voiceovers) on his YouTube channel includes exorcistic drama from south China, such as the nuoxi masked dramas of Jiangxi, Hunan (including Mulian drama; see also here), and Anhui; as well as Nantong near Shanghai, and, again in Hunan, New Year rituals of Hengshan and among the Miao.
Here’s the English version of L’expulsion du petit demon, filmed in Pingxiang on the Jiangxi–Hunan border:
Of two excerpts from shadow-puppetry in Shaanxi (cf. Chinese shadows), the second also including marionettes from Chaozhou and again Shaanxi:
The playlist also ventures to Tibet—a grand monastic festival near Lhasa, and lhamo opera—as well as south and southeast Asia: Kerala, Java and Bali—as well as itinerant story-tellers of Bengal illustrating their religious paintings, part of a rich Asian tradition documented by Victor Mair in Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).
I’ve praised the fine CD sets of archive recordings from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, in collaboration with Wind Records, Taiwan. For songs of the ethnic minorities in China, the same team also produced
Qiao Jianzhong 喬建中 and Wu Guodong 伍國棟 (eds), Zheshan chang nashan這山唱那山 [English title Polyphonic folksongs in China] (2-CD set, 2002), with booklet in Chinese.
It makes an important addition to our roster of folk polyphony around the world—best known on the world-music scene through the recordings of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. For guidance on multi-part singing we may also consult the CD-set Voices of the world and its instructive booklet.
The cultures of China’s ethnic minorities are a popular topic—  more so, indeed, than those of the Han Chinese, thanks largely to the reductive image of ethnic groups being “good at singing and dancing”, and their exotic costumes.
All this is well beyond my expertise, but since the 1980s, along with research, there’s a substantial repository of audio and video recordings, and minority groups are commonly invited to give staged performances in urban festivals. The vocal repertoires of many such peoples include a substantial component of polyphonic songs. 
The two CDs contain 56 tracks—mostly a cappella—from 16 ethnic groups in provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, including Buyi [Bouyei], Miao [Hmong], Jingpo, Yi, Naxi [Nakhi], Lisu, Dong [Kam], Zhuang (16 tracks!), Yao, Molao, Maonan, Bai, and Qiang, as well as Tibetans and Mongols, and the She minority of Fujian in the southeast.
Most of the recordings were made (in concert, rather than in situ) at a major gathering of singing groups for a 1982 symposium in Nanning—just as the liberalisations that followed the collapse of the commune system were allowing traditional culture to revive, but rather before migration, tourism, commodification, and heritagification further thickened the plot.
* * *
Many other recordings of the musics of ethnic minorities are the result of “hit-and-run” missions. But for the poor mountainous province of Yunnan, the long-term studies of local fieldworkers Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei, often in collaboration with British ethnomusicologist Helen Rees, are most diligent. Their numerous CDs include both ritual and instrumental genres and vocal music. For the latter, most relevant here are
Alili: multi-part folksongs of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities (2 CDs, Pan, 2004) and the sequel Nanwoka (2 CDs, Pan, 2005),
with field and studio recordings (again mostly a cappella, with only occasional instrumental accompaniment) of the Yi, Hani, Nakhi, Lisu, Nu, Lahu, Jinuo, Jingpo, Tibetans (9 tracks), Bai, Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Wa, De’ang, Bulang, Achang, and Dulong peoples—both sets containing most instructive liner notes. Here’s the playlist of the former (click on “YouTube”):
Particularly remarkable are the multi-part songs of the Hani (only “discovered” in 1995)— such as the densely-textured clusters of this rice-transplanting song (well documented in the liner notes):
the CD Baishibai: songs of the minority nationalities of Yunnan (Pan, 1995, playlist here)
and, covering all the diverse expressive genres, the compendium Zhang Xingrong 张兴荣 (ed.), Sanjiang bingliu quyu yinyue wenhua daguan三江并流区域音乐文化大观 [English title Musical cultures of the Three Parallel Rivers region of Yunnan] (2012), comprising a richly-illustrated 574-page book, 4 DVDs, and 2 CDs! 
Simply as pure sound (whatever that is), all these CDs are ear-opening, often mesmerising—remote from the commodified versions of “folk-song” common in the media. Of course, as I never tire of saying, audio recordings tend to reify; there’s no substitute for observing musicking in all its messy social context—including migration, tourism, and so on. Though online videos tend to be highly idealised, under the guidance of Xiao Mei at the Centre for Ritual Music Studies at the Shanghai Conservatoire, some more thoughtful ethnographic documentaries are being made.
While one can hardly expect the long history of the accommodation of these groups with state power to intrude into such accounts, for the interplay of ritual and politics among the Yi people in Yunnan under Maoism and since, do read Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts.
All this just to remind myself why I don’t dare venture into the field of the ethnic minorities…
 In Chinese, a standard textbook on multi-part singing is Fan Zuyin, Zhongguo duoshengbu min’ge gailun 中国多声部民歌概论 (1994).
 For the whole project (quite separate from the Anthology for Yunnan), note Helen Rees, “From field recordings to ethnographically informed CDs: curating the sounds of Yunnan for a niche foreign market”, in Levi S. Gibbs (ed.), Faces of tradition in Chinese performing arts (2020). An evocative introduction to the work of Zhang Xingrong is the interview in CHIME 8 (1995) by Jack Body—another avid fieldworker in the region during the period. For further detail on the Hani songs, with transcription, see Zhang Xingrong, “A new discovery: traditional 8-part polyphonic singing of the Hani of Yunnan”, CHIME 10/11 (1997). For the Kam/Dong people in Guizhou (another highly popular topic), the publications of Catherine Ingram are detailed and nuanced. An ambitious ongoing series of CDs of China’s ethnic minority songs is reviewed here.
In my second post on Women of Yanggao I gave a brief introduction to studies of gender in Chinese religious life. Within this ever-growing scholarly field, here I’d like to introduce two substantial recent discussions, by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi.
Focusing on prescriptive tracts by educated commentators, both authors highlight the “double blindness” between women’s studies and religious studies, revisiting the elite dichotomy between religious reformists and “superstition” in the first half of the 20th century, the influence of Christianity, the May Fourth movement, and Communist rhetoric. Kang further pursues the story into the Maoist and reform eras.
Throughout Chinese history until the 1950s, the vast majority of women were illiterate; the reliance of our portrayals on elite perspectives is an unfortunate limitation in historical scholarship generally, all the more so when we consider gender. While much research focuses on the discursive aspect of religion (canonical texts, and so on), among the fruits of fieldwork since the 1980s is that it reveals the importance of women’s religious activities—a view that appears only dimly for earlier periods.
Until quite recently, histories of the May Fourth movement (1919) and of the Republican period (1912–1949) generally did not include women/gender issues. More recent histories which include a gender perspective do not discuss religion. There has been substantial research on the birth of feminism in China, on the rise of a female collective consciousness and of the “new woman” and discussion of the methodological hurdles in integrating a gender perspective into the study of the Republican period. However, scholarship about women and modernity does not generally include the powerful connection between women and religion, and certainly not the connection between women and superstition.
Religion in 20th-century China was reorganised according to new, modern, and scientific paradigms; in this novel definition, which excluded many communal experiences deemed superstitious, religion came to be identified more with personal practice and individual beliefs, understood as self-strengthening and self-improvement, and was to be one of the responses against Western Imperialism and Japanese occupation. Women had always been seen as closely involved with religious practices, but at this time they were identified as intrinsically and powerfully superstitious, and their religiosity was used as a necessary site of symbolic transformation for the nation. Numerous examples of the deleterious effect of superstition on women, their children, the family, and society were described, and modern and scientific education was seen as the antidote to this seemingly intractable problem.
The noble, elusive goal of reformists was to eliminate male Confucian power over women as part of a general attack on religion. Valussi introduces The Woman’s Bell (Nüjie zhong 女界鐘, 1903), an early “feminist manifesto” by the male author Jin Tianhe 金天翮advocating the liberation of women by eliminating “the four great obstructions” for women: foot-binding, decorative clothing, superstition, and restrictions on movement.
But such pundits often gendered “religion” as male and “superstition” as female. As Jin Tianhe commented:
Superstition is an inauspicious thing. Nuns, witches, geomancers, and astrologers are inauspicious people.
Valussi goes on to cite newspapers, magazines, gazetteers, and novels from the Republican era—such as Hu Ruilan 胡瑞蘭, a writer from the Gansu female teachers’ academy:
Gentlemen have refined their bodies and corrected their minds, they are intelligent and honest, and cannot be deluded by ghosts and spirits [Yeah, right—SJ]. My female compatriots are ignorant folk. They should strive to be like gentlemen, respect morals, be upright in character and diligent in self-cultivation, establish their hearts on behalf of heaven and earth, set their destiny in service of people and things. (In this way) they would not be deluded by evil talk that would make them lose their true nature.
As Valussi observes:
Younger and more educated women, seeing themselves as part of a modern collective identity, are urging older, rural, and uneducated women to also join this “imagined sisterhood.” Narratives imply or state clearly that peasant/uneducated women are more likely to be superstitious and in need of rescuing. […] However, we do not often hear the voices of the older and rural women, we only see their actions described.
So such lofty exhortations effectively penalised women’s behaviour.
Canons, liturgy, and hierarchical structures, described by Katz as acceptable and non-superstitious elements of religion, as well as Confucian philosophy, also acceptable if not linked to oppressive and restrictive practices, were typically the purview of males. […]
What is progress, modernity, and a secular religiosity is often attached to male behaviours, and what is excluded from it, superstition, often is more directly and strongly attached to women’s own nature, beliefs, spaces, and practices.
But as Chau suggests, this speaks to the dominance of elite perspectives in the discourse, not to the situation on the ground.
Valussi discusses women’s activities in temples (including burning incense, and the harmful economic costs of women’s religious practices), in the family, and in urban and rural religious organisations. Female spirit mediums, often described as tricksters swindling other women, are particular objects of criticism from the reformists. Now, since male and female mediums coexist in some regions (cf. the self-mortifying male mediums of south Fujian and Amdo), while one gender predominates in others, I’d like to learn more about how they are treated differently, then and now—in the literature, by the authorities, and by their local clientele.
In her Conclusion Valussi comments astutely:
But is there an actual shift in the position and role of women? A question that arose in the context of critically engaging with these sources was: are we actually talking about women here? Or rather, are women’s religious practices used, in popular newspapers, as a foil that stands in for the inability of the government and of intellectuals to eradicate practices deemed backwards? Are women, perceived as particularly superstitious because of their lack of education and access to the outside world, only a symbol of the inability of China to rid itself of these practices? A symbol of China’s backwardness and inability to move forward? There is a remarkable continuity in the period that goes from the early to mid-twentieth century in terms of the calls against female superstition. However, nothing much seems to change, except a certain heightened force and violence in the message, inspired by the increase in the forcefulness of the anti-superstition campaigns in general. […]
The calls for change, often from young educated women, could be seen as a genuine attempt at changing women’s lives. On a more metaphorical level, however, we see both male and female educated intellectuals inveighing against practices that mar China’s very essence and its ability to move forward.
While Valussi only takes the story as far as the eve of the Communist revolution, even during the Maoist era the manifestations of “superstition” (both male and female) that had so concerned intellectuals became muted, but were not erased. And from the perspective of women since the 1980s’ reforms, modern education and “superstition” don’t entirely seem mutually exclusive. For both men and women, opportunities are always greater in urban areas; for both, religious (and superstitious) activities remain popular in the countryside. Of course such discourses are never gender-neutral; but while we should detail all the kinds of religious behaviour of both men and women, and refrain from belittling female activity, the rhetoric of idealistic pundits, as Valussi observes, doesn’t tally with grass-roots practice.
* * *
Among the extensive literature that Valussi cites is
which further pursues the story after 1949. Kang’s nine sections examine the challenges and changes brought by the arrival of Christianity the May Fourth movement; rural and urban women, and the early role of left-wing feminists; political uses of religion, women, and gender in the Communist revolution; women and religion in the religious revival since the collapse of Maoism; and thoughts on further integrating women, gender, and religion in a globalizing era.
Like Valussi, Kang notes that
intrinsic elements of Chinese religious practices and rituals, such as incense burning, paper offerings, communal worship, ghost pacification, demon exorcism, fortune-telling and spirit possession, were all denounced as “superstition” and hence a hindrance to modernity.
But as she explains, rejection and suppression don’t tell the whole story.
The century-long mass mobilisation for gender equality and women’s liberation has also brought women out of domestic confinement and empowered women in various realms, including that of religion. Since Republican times, women have participated in public religious life and have assumed leadership in different religious organisations. At times they have also used religion to defy officially-prescribed gender roles, to negotiate with state authorities, and to create social spaces of their own.
Still, the participation of women that we can now find through fieldwork can’t be attributed solely to such official “mobilisation”; rather, it may seem like a belated revelation of a longer-term involvement that was previously hidden to us.
Kang pays attention to women’s role in both institutional and folk religious activity, including the ubiquitous spirit mediums—on whom, apart from the sources that Kang cites (notably, for the Hakka, Xu Xiaoying 徐霄鹰, Gechang yu jingshen 歌唱与敬神, 2006), I’d also mention fine ethnographers such as Xiao Mei and Mayfair Yang.
Indeed, the very informality of the status of such women may have helped them to keep practising under Maoism, as Kang suggests:
First, compared to the male dominated textual and institutional traditions of religion, women’s religious practices are more personal, oral, and informal. This lack of institutional and doctrinal attachment has been a main reason that women’s religious activities have often been condemned as superstition, but it has also made them less threatening targets and more resilient in the Maoist campaigns against religion. “A few old women” here and there kept religions and ritual traditions alive in one way or another during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution. Second, the revolution’s advocacy of economic contribution to society has had the effect of bringing women out of domestic confinement. As women’s employment outside the home in both urban and rural settings has become widely accepted, women face much less constraint and prejudice than their late imperial counterparts did when venturing into the public space of religion. […]Third, the revolution has also effectively destroyed the traditional power structure in local society and eliminated the Confucian gentry elite who once collaborated with state officials and monopolised the ritual life of local communities.
Discussing the age-range of religious women, she observes:
Either as lay believers or spirit mediums, the middle aged and elder women are neither victims of superstition nor obstacles to modernity. For many, religious practices are not simply to revive the pre-revolutionary past. They ingeniously construct female religiosity with the traditional and modern resources—including Maoist teachings—at their disposal. They are well aware of the social and political stigma [risks, I might say] of conducting “superstitious” activities, and they adopt different strategies to legitimise their activities.
Their religious authority is defined by “social skills, marketing strategies, moral qualities, and in certain cases female charisma”.
* * *
Plunging into rural fieldwork as I did in the 1980s without being conditioned by elite discourses, I found the simple public–private dichotomy in religious activity revealed in the male domination among public performers such as ritual specialists and shawm bands; yet I came to realise that while women rarely occupy such formal roles, they do play a major part in religious life—notably as mediums and sectarians. The background provided by Valussi and Kang makes valuable preparation for fieldworkers.
Lastly, a bold, nay revolutionary, idea: I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?! Notwithstanding the role of women in the latter manifestations, such a reversal would also entail a far greater recognition of their fundamental importance in Chinese religious life. One can but dream…
For an important book on mediums in Henan, see here.
The new collection of articles (most of which already published elsewhere) is based both on textual studies and fieldwork (ndeed, many sectarian scriptures continue to be discovered in the course of fieldwork), and also considers performance practice. While it includes reports from south China—south Jiangsu ( cf. here, n.1) south Jiangxi, and chapters on the Luo sect—the earlier sectarian precious scrolls are mainly found in north China. Hence we find chapters on Hebei (Yin Hubin 尹虎彬), Jiexiu in Shanxi (Sun Hongliang 孙鸿亮), Gansu (Li Guisheng 李贵生 and Wang Mingbo 王明博; Cheng Guojun 程国君; Liu Yonghong 刘永红)—and more.
Shanxi sect reciting baojuan, 2003. My photo.
I’m glad to learn of the research of Liang Jingzhi 梁景之, furthering studies of the Way of Yellow Heaven (Huangtian dao 黃天道) sect in Hebei and Shanxi, which began with Li Shiyu in the 1940s and have continued with Cao Xinyu (for my own brief encounters, see under Tianzhen, Yanggao, and Xinzhou in Shanxi). Here’s another article by Liang, and his discovery of related temple murals is also fascinating (several links here; cf. the sites of Hannibal Taubes).
The new volume also includes useful overviews of the history of baojuan studies.
The documentary was filmed from 2010 to 2018 in the mountains of Hunan, where Jiang’s own family suffered from the dangers of the privately-run illegal mining industry. Under conditions that are anyway destructive to health, with lung disease rife, unauthorised explosives and mining disasters are routine. Despite local government attempts to control such mines, official corruption is chronic; and for all the general progress since the 1980s, such rural dwellers take a cynical view of the state poverty-alleviation project.
The film ends movingly with the funeral of former miner Zhao Pinfeng (1968–2018), with a band of blowers and drummers (and a brass band for the burial procession) but no Daoists. It makes a stark reminder of the human cost at stake in what ethnographers and sinologists do as they affirm the ancient grandeur of tradition—cf. my comments on a similar scene from Gansu in Wang Bing’s Dead souls, with the wailing shawm band reflecting the anguish of the kin.
* * *
Jiang Nengjie had already made a series of documentaries on the left-behind children in his native region—including The road, Children at a village school, The ninth grade, Jiayi, and Junior Three, mostly available on Vimeo. For broader approaches to documenting the left-behind children, see e.g. here, and wiki.
It’s hard to reconcile harsh social realities like mining and migration with research on the continuing “vibrancy” of Daoist ritual in Hunan (cf. my query here about young people being keen to become household Daoists). As I’ve noted, the study of Daoist ritual may seem like an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry.
Since the 1980s the great majority of adult villagers in Hunan have left for migrant labour in Guangdong, and those that remain are vulnerable—surely all this should feature prominently in our discussions? The defence of sinologists might be that they focus on the culture of the pre-modern period; yet in addition to library work on ancient texts, it is precisely their own fieldwork in this changing society that has enriched the topic so greatly. Hence the shift of ethnographers like the great Guo Yuhua towards the plight of the “sufferers”. This is not to suggest that we should all become social activists: rather, as I suggested in Epidemics in a Chinese county, that cultural studies should bear social issues in mind.
 Mining is a theme in the feature films of Jia Zhangke set in central Shanxi, such as Platform—from a contract: “Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven. I am willing to work in Gaojiazhuang mine. Management accepts no blame for accidents.” Even nearer to my base in north Shanxi are the mines around Shuozhou—and Datong, subject of a recent article, with links including this documentary. See also Blind shaft (Mangjing 盲井, Li Yang 2003).
Just west of Beijing, ritual groups in the Mentougou district, within the ambit of the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, have traditionally served mining communities, which have suffered from recent closures. Meanwhile, with typical neglect of the gritty realities of changing society, village ritual groups there (such as Qianjuntai 千军台) have been conscripted into the Intangible Cultural Heritage shtick. Further to studies by Bao Shixuan 包世轩, Han Tongchun 韩同春 and others, I look forward to a detailed forthcoming book by the splendid Ju Xi 鞠熙, fully addressing the mining context—meanwhile, see this brief notice.
It made an impression on me while singing it in my school choir in the 1960s, but somehow all these decades later, hardly having heard it since, I still remember every note.
Locus iste a Deo factus est,
Here’s Harry Christophers with the Sixteen, a century after the first recording in 1907:
John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi choir is slower and more ponderous:
* * *
Short and simple as Locus iste is (cf. The art of the miniature), even the wiki page gives a substantial analysis. Discursive analysis is so basic to the whole fabric of WAM, enshrined in academies, programme notes, and so on (see e.g. Heartland excursions); but it’s tangential to world and pop music—where it is no less (and no more) valid, but audiences in general feel less need, if any, to use it to valorise their direct experience (for world music, see Analysing world music, and Dream songs; for pop, see e.g. Abbey road; and for the schism between discursive and experiential approaches to Chinese religion, see Chau on “doing religion” in China).
So we can take or leave analysis of the hymns of the Li family Daoists (such as my Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.14—see e.g. here; or you may prefer just to watch my film), or I say a little prayer.
A cappella, harmonic, choral singing can be exquisite (e.g. Barber and Bach here). By contrast, choral singing in other cultures is usually monophonic, or heterophonic; and in his Cantometrics project Alan Lomax suggests cultural features of societies that may lead to a mellifluous or harsh timbre (among instances of the latter, see e.g. flamenco).
While Western culture also has its ceremonial fanfares, in Chinese ritual the consecration of temples and their statues is an exuberant and noisy affair. As Daoists perform the Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) ritual, the soundscape is filled with shawms and percussion “rousing the hall” (naoting 鬧廳). Here’s an instance from Malaysia, performed by emigrants from Yongchun in Fujian (cf. Fujian, 1961 and onwards) before an elaborate altar:
Blind singer Dou Wun (right) with Bell Yung, c1975.
I rarely presume to cover south China, but further to my series on blind performers such as bards, a counterpart to the fine work of Bell Yung 榮鴻曾 on the elite qin zither is his study of folk narrative-singing from the Hong Kong region—notably naamyam 南音,  as well as the related styles of baan’ngaan 板眼, lungzau 龍舟, and yue’ou 粵謳.
Bell Yung has produced eight CD sets of naamyam songs, mainly his 1975 recordings of the blind singer Dou Wun 杜煥 (1910-1979) accompanying himself on zheng zither. Each set includes a booklet of essays and the complete song texts.
Here’s the first CD set, recording live in 1975 at the Fu Long teahouse in Hong Kong:
The second set, Blind Dou Wun remembers his past: 50 years of singing naamyam in Hong Kong, is remarkable for consisting of a six-hour autobiographical song created at Bell Yung’s request. As he comments, it is both ordinary in its story of “displacement, alienation, trials, and triumphs” and extraordinary in that he was the last surviving professional singer of an important genre; and it gives a folk perspective on a turbulent period of Hong Kong’s history.
CD 5 The Blind Musician Dou Wun Offers Auspicious Songs for Festive Occasions contains songs from old Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou, sung for calendrical festivals, opening of a business, and private family celebrations such as birthdays and weddings—including The Eight Immortals’ Birthday Greeting and The Heavenly Official Bestows Blessings.
CD-set 6 The Birth of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, with three discs, contains songs that Dou Wun sang for Guanyin’s birthday celebrations on 3rd moon 19th.
has thoughtful reflections on the history and cultural identity of Hong Kong, as well as Bell’s own early background growing up there after the family fled from the Communists in 1948, still largely estranged from Cantonese culture. As Dou Wun’s stories seemed increasingly out of step with the glossy skyscrapers, pop music, and the modern educational system, he was discovered by intellectuals who realised his art was precious but did not quite understand it, and his performing venues moved from opium dens, brothels, and teahouses to concert stages and colleges.
In 2004 Bell also issued a fine documentary, A blind singer’s story: 50 years of life and work in Hong Kong.
For the Cantonese diaspora, note
Bell Yung, Uncle Ng Comes to America: Chinese narrative songs of immigration and love (2013),
a translation of six Toisan (Taishan) muk’yu 木魚 songs sung by Uncle Ng (Ng Sheung Chi, 1910–2002), with four introductory essays, audio recordings, and a documentary. (For fine recordings of Italian immigrants in 1960s’ America, including zampogna and ciaramella in New York, click here! Cf. Accordion crimes).
Bell introduces the folk music and local culture of Hong Kong in this lecture:
In Chinese, for the sheer variety of local narrative-singing traditions all around China, a good starting point is the vast Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples 中国民族民间音乐集成, province by province, under the separate headings of Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志 and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成.
 Not to be confused with the Hokkien nanyin in south Fujian, or other genres around south China that use the term!
Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.
Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan.  As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).
As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary
Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).
It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.
It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.
Here’s the film—notat allfor the faint-hearted:
A restudy would be interesting.
This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:
The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.
As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.
 For trance mediums in Amdo, see here. For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013), perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). And now she has published The battle for fortune: state-led development, personhood, and power among Tibetans in China (2018).
Among several other articles, see e.g. Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD).
For more, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10.
The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the
Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]
on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.
Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).
Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui神仙會), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,
China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.
Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:
1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi歲 時)
2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan農諺)
3) Birth (shengzi生子)
4) Marriage (hunjia婚嫁)
5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou生日、祝十和祝壽)
6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang喪葬)
7) Prayers (qidao祈禱)
8) Miscellany (zazu雜俎),
with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.
But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county  Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.
As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes.  Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.
* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.
To follow my first two posts featuring songs commenting on the Coronavirus outbreak (here and here), I now consider how local ritual life has been adapting to the crisis at the grassroots.
* * *
Reflecting the age-old adaptability of ritual practice, much activity has moved to a virtual life on WeChat. I’m grateful to Volker Olles, based at Chengdu in Sichuan for his project on Daoist ritual traditions there, for this vignette. As he wrote on 17th February:
All temples are still locked down, but Daoist clerics in the sanctuaries will occasionally perform rituals or offer incense and candles in the name of adherents (thanks to WeChat!). So the temples are still working—behind closed doors. Through Wechat, people can even participate in rituals by having their names added in ritual documents. In this regard, WeChat is a real blessing, allowing communication, payment of liturgical fees (fajin 法金), and feedback by means of video sequences of the rituals posted by the clerics.
I spent the Spring Festival in a remote Quanzhen Daoist temple in Chongzhou, west of Chengdu, just when the lockdown started. The liturgies at Chinese New Year’s Eve and the welcoming of the God of Wealth were properly performed by the Daoists, burning masses of ritual documents (shuwen 疏文), with the help of lay adherents—who were partly stuck at the temple and unable to return home on time.
All religious institutions are closed and closely monitored by the authorities. I also had to register with the local government and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. However, I’m back in Chengdu now, and we all hope that spring (in the best sense) finally will arrive.
Public notice [my translation—SJ]
Owing to the severity of the current Coronavirus outbreak, for the health and safety of everyone to pass a secure, auspicious, and blessed New Year, the temple Management Committee has decided after investigation:
From 8am on 24th January 2020 the temple is temporarily closed to outsiders. All activities seeking blessing to greet the New Year will be managed according to the law by the temple priests. Please do your best not to visit the temple, in order not to come into mutual contact, and to prevent the contagion of the virus. All prayers for blessing and the elimination of calamity are to be liased via WeChat. We request the great masses and the faithful to share [this information].
During the current initiative to restore traditional Chinese rites, when you meet, please clasp your hands in greeting and avoid shaking hands!*
Xizhu Daoist Temple Management Committee, Chongzhou
24th January 2020
Note also Ian Johnson’s article on the response to the outbreak from temples, mosques, and churches, covering charitable donations and rituals from all over China—including a Purifying the Land ritual at the Changchun Daoist temple in Wuhan; as well as a new Daoist song Huolei jiangmo lu火雷降魔錄 by Sichuan dramatist Zhang Shuzhi.
For a Daoist priest’s memorial tablet for victims of the virus, see here.
In my next post on Coronavirus I report on the busy schedule of the household Daoists of the Li family in Shanxi, even through the crisis, as they continue to meet the needs of their rural clients for routine burials.
* I now also see that as the virus spreads around the world, churches in Italy are issuing directives on ritual hygiene and online worship.
Harry Caldwell (1876–1970), a Methodist missionary from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, first travelled to China in 1900, inspired by his brother’s missionary work there, making a base in Fujian with his family until 1944. An avid hunter and naturalist, in his book Blue tiger(1924) he showed how hunting with the locals for man-killing tigers paved the way for effective missionary work [file under fieldwork techniques—SJ], and he discussed the delicate diplomacy required to negotiate peace between soldiers and bandits in his attempts to spare villagers caught amidst the fighting (cf. the Italian Catholic mission in Gaoluo).
Apart from filming agricultural, military, and daily scenes in Fujian, he also paid extensive attention to local religious life there—and now, in an enterprising project (click here) by the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) under the direction of Megan Bryson, ten clips on religious ritual that Caldwell filmed in the 1930s have been restored and made available online, with extensive annotations by UTK students.
The evocative clips (alas silent!) comprise:
an opulent deity procession
a divination session, with a Buddhist monk presiding
a fertility ritual, with Daoist masters wielding ritual swords and horns at an elaborate altar
a Daoist healing ritual to protect children (cf. Crossing the Passes, e.g. Gansu and Shaanxi), with exuberant ritual dancing and the burning of a paper boat
an apotropaic ritual: pasting a talisman, a fishing net, and cacti at the family lintel
a Bathing the Buddha procession, and women offering at small shrines
Methodist church activities—including the distribution of baby chicks to the congregation
plague-dispelling rituals, with paper boats sent off
a grand Buddhist funeral at the Yongquan si temple in Gushan.
Watching such footage, one always wonders what became of all these people over the turbulent decades to come. While the project offers precious glimpses of ritual life in Fujian before the 1949 revolution, all such practices still thrive in the region; with the addition of colour and sound, one might almost suppose many of these clips to come from Ken Dean’s wonderful 2010 film Bored in heaven (among many films listed here). I hope to see comments on Caldwell’s footage from scholars working on ritual life in Fujian—perhaps providing some more precise locations.
For Daoist ritual in Fujian and elsewhere in south China, see here; for early and recent films from distant Amdo, here.
Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Jibian rujiao: jinshi Zhongguode zongjiao rentong 激辩儒教：近世中国的宗教认同 [Provocations to Confucianism: identifying religion in modern China] (2019).
In a recent volume in a series on “New Historiography”, the ever-industrious Cao Xinyu assembles substantial articles by international scholars on a variety of topics on Chinese religion, illuminating broad, long-term trends with detailed studies. In the tradition of Chinese scholarship, it’s based on “salvage” studies of the late imperial and Republican eras, and on texts rather than performance.
《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图
Cao Xinyu sets the tone with a substantial introduction, setting forth from a Song-dynasty rain ritual to explore the Catholic encounter with Chinese religion through the Qing rites controversy.
The chapters are grouped under four main headings. Philip Clart and Cao Xinyu explore grassroots Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China. Articles by Vincent Goossaert, Masaru Yamada 山田贤, and Wang Jianchuan discuss spirit-writing and charitable associations, and Zhang Chaoran contributes a substantial essay on Daoist ritual in history. For Shanxi, Yao Chunmin writes on changing village boundaries, and Henrietta Harrison on Catholic and local healing practices. Further afield, Takeuchi Fusaji 武内房司 discusses folk religion among communities of Chinese origin in South Vietnam. Finally Prasenjit Duara outlines the histories of religion and secularism in Europe, China, and Japan.
And here I introduce the fine work of Yang Der-ruey on the conflict in Shanghai of the state programme for training Daoists with the traditional values of their masters and the real world of the ritual economy:
Hot on the heels of hosting UK visits by Buddhist groups from Wutaishan (1992) and Tianjin (1993), in March 1994 I was delighted to invite the great Zhou Zufu to lead a group of Daoists from the Xuanmiao guan temple in Suzhou to perform on a tour of south England.
At the advanced age of 80, Zhou Zufu was wonderful. Adopted into a hereditary Daoist tradition, he had taken part in the numinous 1956 Offering project, and performed in Venice as early as 1984 as part of a mixed group showcasing various genres from Suzhou, invited by Raffella Gallio (see here, under “Lives”).
Having met them at a festival in Beijing in 1993, I worked on a project with the Asian Music Circuit, assisted by Rowan Pease (later my partner-in-crime in our Chinese Bach recording!). We liaised with the Suzhou Daoist Association, who chose a fine group to come to England. They were already experienced in presenting “Suzhou Daoist music” on the concert platform.
Nishang yayun cassette (n.d., late 1980s)
And do enjoy the fine collection of Chinese music clichés in the sleeve notes, with “takes the shape of the exotic flower of the unique of national culture” taking first prize:
Besides Zhou Zufu (b.1915), the Daoists that we met at Heathrow included the distinguished Mao Liangshan (b.1927), Xue Jianfeng (b.1925), and Jiang Jierong (b.1926); as well as the (then-) junior Daoists Lu Jianzhong (b.1966), Xie Jianming (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong (b.1972), who were also already becoming fine liturgists—I introduced them in my post on Suzhou Daoism. They performed at tasteful venues in Oxford, Taunton, Hastings, London, Kingsbridge, and Farnham. Alongside my duties as roadie and stage manager I spent some educative time with them.
One free evening in London I took the younger Daoists to a session in an Irish pub, which after all has features in common with their own “silk and-bamboo” style (see several posts under the “Carson” tag), though they were somewhat nonplussed—another hint that music may not be such a universal language.
At the wonderful Pitt Rivers museum.
I was working within the flawed modern Chinese tradition of “religious music”, so while these Daoists regularly perform complex liturgical rituals, I wasn’t so ambitious (or naïve) as to suggest they perform a jiao Offering—which, after all, would take a whole day. Indeed, it might be hard to promote a tour of Daoist ritual, whereas “Daoist music” has a certain cachet.
So the touring programme chosen from their rituals was based on theinstrumental ensemble repertoire—which indeed was now being showcased within China by the temple itself. Apart from suites from both Shifan gu and Shifan luogu styles, with their sequences of melodies punctuated by drum interludes, we included some shawm-and-percussion items, and a couple of items of vocal liturgy. For me, having studied the work of the great Yang Yinliu on the Shifan suites in nearby Wuxi, along with early recordings, it was a delight to hear this music live. So even this made a remarkable feast for English audiences, otherwise mainly exposed to the romantic modern solos of the conservatoires.
Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu.
As instrumentalists, Daoists are versatile. Apart from leading the group on drum, Zhou Zufu also played tiqin and banhu fiddles; Mao Liangshan also led a suite on drum, as well as playing sanxian plucked lute and shawm.
Mao Liangshan on drum and sanxian. We may consider the fire extinguisher as a subtle allusion to the huojiao 火醮 Offering ritual for protection against fire.
Jiang Jierong and Mao Liangshan on shawms.
So “Suzhou Daoist music” may have become A Thing, but it’s not The Thing.
On tours since 2005 in the USA and throughout Europe with the Li family Daoists from Shanxi, I’ve made a certain progress in presenting “ritual music” on stage—especially when we can preface the concert with a screening of my film. But of course such events are always a compromise: nothing can supplant the experience of attending Daoist ritual in situ.
Opening of Lingbao xianweng jilian fake ritual manual,
which Zhou Zufu brought to England.
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
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).
The Anthology 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
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.
4 Maoism 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.
5 Lives 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.
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.
6 Film 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.
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”.
 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.
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:
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.
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 ChinaI 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 Shifanensembles 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!).
Interlude: laowai 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.
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.
Related genres 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:
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!
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 nanyinchamber 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):
“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:
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 troupeperformed 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.
The Anthology 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 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.
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. 
Perspectives 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
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. 
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,
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.
 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!
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 windsch.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.
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.
Expressive culture 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 xiquzhi 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).
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 notBerlioz…)—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…
 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.
Ritual 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.
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.
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 honorable exceptions) remains so today under stultifying heritage propaganda.
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.
Suite plucking 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 lutetiqin 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.
Scores 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“.
Changing society 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.
Belated recordings 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):
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:
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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; Henanbantou 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.
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
I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as
As I observed there, alongside the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China, mediums also play an important role in local society. The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life.  For them in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable.
Their abilities often stem from traumatic domestic and psychosocial crises—which the Maoist era provided in plenty.  Mediums we met came from a wide age-range: some began their careers under the commune system, others since the 1980s’ reforms.
Me-mot spirit mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.
Perhaps the most detailed research on spirit mediums in China comes from Xiao Mei 萧梅, with her study of me-mot mediums of the Zhuang people in Guangxi in southwest China—including a diary of one medium’s busy healing schedule over a month (a fruitful way of studying the lives of local ritual performers—cf. the diaries of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin).
Whether mediums are biologically male or female, when performing as mediums they adopt the role of female. But they all have experience of having encountered intractable calamity, either personal (such as incurable illness or mental disorder) or domestic (such as frequent illness or death in the family) [SJ: here Xiao Mei doesn’t consider socio-political aspects], and it is only through becoming a medium that they can be released from such calamities.
In Jingxi county the me-mot have a close relationship with household Daoist priests. The latter not only play a major role during the process of someone becoming a medium, but also need to collaborate with the medium in practising rituals for averting calamity and seeking blessing.
Re-enchanting modernity: ritual economy and society in Wenzhou, China (2020)
* * *
But mediums are also very common among the Han Chinese in north China.
For Yanggao in north Shanxi, I’ve just added Wu Fan’s interesting notes from 2003 to my post on mediums there. That post also includes some material (including photos) from the Hebei plain—which is now even nearer Beijing than it was when we were doing fieldwork on ritual groups through the 1990s. In the course of our studies we met many mediums; on and around Houshan they often channeled the goddess Houtu (see also here).
Zhang Zhentao (Yinyuehui, pp.302–4) introduces some of them in his notes from 1995, offering rare glimpses into their activities during the Maoist era:
Liu Derong (b. c1941), from a village near Houshan, used the ritual name (faming 法名) Longding 隆定. As she told us, while giving birth in 1954 and 1961 she “went mad”, clambering up the walls, fearless; in a dream she saw Guanyin of the Southern Seas seated in lotus posture before a table on the kang brick-bed. She would levitate, only coming back to the ground when she called out to the deity. She began healing at the age of 31 sui, around 1971, and had by now healed over a thousand people, notably for gynaecological ailments. We heard her sing “ritual songs” (foge 佛歌) such as The Ten Lotus Leaves (Shiduo lianhua 十朵莲花).
We also chatted with Ren Xiuzhi (then in her 60s), who came from another village in Yixian county. She had begun to “fall ill” in her 20s, and began healing people when 42 sui—in the mid-1970s.
These accounts also suggest that there could be quite a long gestatory interval between the initiatory crisis and the consolidation of healing powers.
Houtu temple, Dingxing Northgate 1995.
Still in 1995, nearby at the Houtu temple (formally called Taining gong 泰宁宫) in Northgate of Dingxing county-town, we met the exceptionally renowned medium Chen Shiying (1907–98),  who was still in charge of the temple. Indeed, its popularity rested mainly in her reputation as a healer.
I have supplemented our notes with the 1994 biography (indeed, hagiography) displayed in the temple, which shows a rather distinctive path:
Unusually for a medium, she came from a successful literate family. This precious old photo of the Chen family is said to date from the 1930s:
As always, I wonder what became of them all through the ensuing turbulent times.
After the early death of her husband, Chen Shiying contemplated suicide. But when she was 37 sui (1943) her husband appeared to her in a dream, telling her that her mission was to become a healer.
Chen Shiying continued her story for us. By the age of 46 sui (1952!) she had earned such merit that Houtu occupied her body, telling her that as she had no resting-place, Chen should collect funds to build a temple for her. With collectivization escalating, she now had to persuade the reluctant village authorities. As she tearfully threatened the village chief that she would die if he didn’t give permission, and that he would soon follow her, eventually he had no choice but to allocate a plot of land by the river. She told us that she practised as a medium throughout the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution, though “Granny” (Houtu) didn’t necessarily possess her body then.
Now one would clearly like to learn more about this whole period… When we visited the temple in 1995, Chen Shiying was still living there, healing a regular succession of patients there. A placard was displayed, reading “Holy physician, sacred practitioner” (Shenyi shengshou 神醫聖手). “Granny” had recently told her she also needed an opera stage before the temple, so she was now busy assembling funds to build one.
As Zhang Zhentao observes, the popularity of the cult to Houtu depends largely on the great faith that villagers place in the efficacity of both the mediums and the deity occupying them.
* * *
In Shaanbei, spirit mediums (both female and male) are also ubiquitous (for an introduction to the various categories, see Chau, Miraculous response, pp. 54–6).
Here, again, we find that the waxing and waning fates of temples (not always evident from written sources) may depend largely on the efficacity of their presiding medium. The intrepid Guo Yuhua (Minjian yishi yu shehui bianqian, pp.378–9) gives an interesting illustration of such change over a brief period—in this case referring to a male medium:
On a hill above Yangjiagou village the Lingguan temple (full name Heihu lingguan miao, to Efficacious Officer Black Dragon) was rebuilt in the early 1990s and rapidly became very popular, thanks to the renowned efficacity of its healing matong medium. Villagers throughout the area flocked to its temple fair on 7th moon 15th, making donations of several thousand yuan that financed the new god statues and the performance of a “holy opera” down in the village.
But suddenly in 1996 the temple revenue declined sharply, because the medium died. Villagers explained that the god had departed along with him. Then over the following New Year the temple mysteriously caught fire. burning the “god places”, an offerings table, the door, and windows.
At the same time the village’s Longwang miao and Pusa miao temples were enjoying a revival with their successful rain processions during the droughts of 1995 and 1997. So villagers soon transferred their loyalties. As the “rain opera” at the Longwang temple on 5th moon 15th became popular, the Lingguan temple accordingly moved the date of its own temple fair to combine with it. The villagers even moved the Lingguan god statue, responsible for healing, to the Pusa temple so that they could seek cures before it at the 4th moon 8th fair, and “hang the locket” there for their children—not part of the temple’s original functions.
With this in mind, a return visit to Chen Shiying’s temple in Hebei, since her death, would be interesting.
As Guo Yuhua notes, this is also an instance of the resilience of popular strategies, by contrast with state measures towards religion. Temples are not just timeless ancient vestiges of some ancient cultural heritage, but depend on people—both educated and illiterate, both male and female.
The Lingguan temple, now forlorn, Yangjiagou 1999.
* * *
The healing sessions of mediums, while now acting in tandem with (rather than in conflict with) more orthodox medical procedures, are clearly a significant and enduring aspect of folk healthcare. And in all these regions, mediums vocalise in various forms including singing: soundscape is always an important aspect of our ritual studies (see also here, and here).
While it is hard enough to unearth the history of household Daoists under the Maoist era, it’s even more so for the female mediums. Their domestic healing activities never drew much outside attention, so it seems likely that they discreetly maintained their activities under the commune system. But since women tend not to relate their stories to the public life of the society, and such mediums are often illiterate, it will take thoughtful work to explore this topic. Similarly, fieldworkers are unlikely to happen upon the initiatory crises that first trigger their possession, which might also make a revealing study.
For more on studying gender in Chinese religious life, see here.
 Note the bibliographies here and here. See also my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese music (2013), pp.32–4 and n.40, as well as the work of Mayfair Yang on the mediums of Wenzhou (here, n.2).
 Adapted from Xiao Mei, “Bodies, gender and worldviews: me-mot spirit mediums in the Jingxi region of Guangxi”, in Gender in Chinese music, pp.247–64. For more, see Xiao Mei, “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷) [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, vol.2, pp.328–494; note also the amazing scenes on the DVD). On the initiatory crises, see p.438 ff.; for the diary, pp.455–7.
 For her birth-date,the biography gives a Guangxu year of Yiwei 乙未, equivalent to 1895, but then states that she was 88 sui in 1994 (indeed, in 1995 she told us she was 89 sui), so perhaps we should read the year as 丁未。
Map of Upper Liangyuan village, Li Manshan 2012, showing former temples and the houses of Daoists.
As you may notice in my series of reports on local ritual, fieldwork often oscillates between various geographical levels, all mutually beneficial—zooming in with thick description, or out to sketch the wider picture.
Dong Xiaoping reflected on this issue in a thoughtful review of field reports on west Fujian (in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.347–50), commenting again on the old “unity and diversity” theme in Chinese culture.
We need a balance between “making a base” (dundian) and “surveys” (pucha). My two detailed long-term projects on Gaoluo village and the Li family Daoists have both benefitted from surveys of the wider regional culture of which they are part.
Thus, in my writings as in the wider literature, one can find studies of
In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.
Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.
At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)
Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.
Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 611 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.
This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:
And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social and ritual context:
One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristofer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.
Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!
For a broader introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.
I go to some lengths to show how Daoist ritual and religious practice are important topics in the local cultures of north as well as south China (for a succinct encapsulation of the chasm, see here). But every time I feel I’m establishing some kind of parity for the north (heartland of ancient Chinese culture!), yet more research materializes to remind us just how amazing local ritual traditions are in the south—in terms of both the range and complexity of rituals performed, and the sheer volume of artefacts preserved there.
With the noble exception of studies by Chinese music scholars from the 1930s, fieldwork on local Daoist ritual began in earnest in the 1960s with Kristofer Schipper’s groundbreaking studies in Taiwan. As mainland China began opening up in the 1980s, such work was able to expand first into Fujian and then further afield in south China—Jiangxi, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, and so on. Major projects (largely in Chinese), led by the indefatigable holy trinity of C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and latterly Lü Pengzhi, recruited local cultural workers who went on to develop considerable familiarity with the ritual specialists who were their subjects.
Wang, C.K. [Wang Ch’iu-kuei 王秋貴] ed., Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書. Taipei: Shi Ho-cheng Folk Culture Foundation, 86 vols (building on an extensive series of articles in the journal Minsu quyi). See also “The collecting and editing of Taoist ritual texts.” Chinoperl Papers 23 (2000), pp.1–32, and Studies in Chinese ritual, theatre and folklore series: abstracts of the first sixty volumes (1997).
For useful reviews in English of the early projects, see
Daniel L. Overmyer, ed., with the assistance of Shin-Yi Chao, Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of achievements and results. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Company (2002),
and for a fine overview of such work within the wider context of Daoist studies,
Vincent Goossaert, “L’histoire moderne du taoïsme: État des lieux et perspectives.” Études chinoises XXXII-2 (2013), pp.7–40.
These vast series continue to yield further discoveries. The latest project, from Xinwenfeng in Taiwan (long an industrious publisher of major works on Daoism) is initially (!) planned to comprise fifteen lengthy monographs:
The southern bias of Daoist studies has a long ancestry: from very early in Chinese history, southern Daoists have dominated the picture. The ritual vocabulary that I provide in my writings on north China is partly an attempt to rebalance a picture largely conditioned by southern Daoism (see also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp. 15–21, 211–213). As I note there,
It is rather as if our knowledge of Christianity in the whole of Europe were based almost entirely on Sicily and Puglia, with the odd footnote on the Vatican and Westminster Abbey. We may like what we find in those places, perhaps considering it more exalted, mystical, and ancient—but that is another issue.
Still, the material here is overwhelming. So far three volumes (each consisting of around 1,500 pages!) have been published in this new series, on local Daoist altars in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Fujian respectively:
Dai Lihui 戴禮輝 and Lan Songyan 藍松炎, Jiangxi sheng Tonggu xian Qiping zhen Xianyingtan daojiao keyi 江西省銅鼓縣棋坪鎮顯應雷壇道教科儀
Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇and Li Xinwu 李新吾, Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一：湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承 (for Hunan Daoism, see my overview here)
Ye Mingsheng 葉明生, Minxinan Yongfu Lüshanjiao chuandu yishi yanjiu 閩西南永福閭山教傳度儀式研究
Ye Mingsheng is one of the most distinguished collaborators of the project, having worked for decades on Lüshan household Daoists of Fujian. This new publication focuses on the ordination rituals in Yongfu in the southwest of the province. As John Lagerwey writes in his Abstract:
The present book begins with an investigation of the histories of the Daoist altars of four lineages […] in Yongfu. It systematically examines the origins of the local Lüshan school, the structures of their altars, and their rituals, manuscripts, talismans, and registers. It also describes in detail two actual Flag-Raising Transmissions in the years 1999 and 2011, discussing all aspects of the transmission ritual from a variety of disciplinary angles so as to provide students of religion with as complete an understanding as possible.
Volume 2 provides a wealth of ritual texts. Among the many photos is a substantial section in colour, including beautiful god paintings.
Still, even photos of ritual practice remain silent and immobile. Given that ritual is noisy and vibrant, part of “red-hot” social performance, the whole project seems to cry out to be accompanied by films. Since the scholars working on these projects have rich archives of fieldwork videos, how very valuable it would be to accompany each topic with an edited film of, say, two or three hours, with voiceovers and/or captions.
As I observed here, all these series (like the “music-genre” system of Yuan Jingfang), while documenting particular rituals in detail, focus on the salvage of texts—at the expense of ethnographic study, performance practice, and social change. Now, faced by such a wealth of precious manuscripts it’s no simple task to incorporate the topic into wider discourses on a society in constant change. But many students of religion, for whom social and political changes over the past century are a major topic, may find that “variety of disciplinary angles” elusive. They may miss even succinct discussion of how local ritual traditions have been affected by such mundane issues as migration, successive political campaigns, and changing economic circumstances—all the more since the subject of this new volume is transmission, utilizing field material from 1999 and 2011, through yet another period of change. 
Still, none of this detracts from the value of the project. This vast body of work on local ritual in south China continues to form the vanguard of Daoist ritual studies—essential material on Chinese religion.
Further to the delights of Indian and world fiddles, I write this partly as a reminder to myself, while I enjoy an unlikely renaissance in my playing of the “mellifluous” erhu fiddle (see also here).
For Chinese instrumental music, I’ve showed how the conservatoire solos are merely the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of instruments are played not solo but as part of ensembles, not on the concert platform but as part of social life. Bowed strings mainly accompany vocal music—the ritual genres that I study in north China are dominated by wind and percussion ensembles (the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here, making a useful introduction).
So ironically, the four solo instruments (pipa, zheng, qin, and erhu) that dominate the popular image of “national music” are rather rare in the countryside. But even if it’s bowed fiddles (“friction chordophones”, ha) you’re after, don’t limit yourselves to the erhu. Much as I love fine renditions like this, there’s a wide range, to rank alongside all the variety of world fiddles.
One guide, mainly useful for historical sources on early fiddles (huqin, xiqin, and so on), is the 1999 book
Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi 中国弓弦乐器史 [A history of Chinese bowed string instruments].
For illustrated introductions, see e.g. Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴, pp.236–73. For folk practice in modern times one should look to field reports on local traditions, setting forth from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (for leads, see my book Folk music of China).
Suzhou Daoist Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu fiddles, UK 1994.
On a journey south, passing the tiqin of Kunqu and Daoist groups of south Jiangsu, regional traditions along the southeast coast have several types. The nanyin of south Fujian and the ensembles of Chaozhou (areas that are nearby yet culturally very different) use distinct fiddles (both written as erxian 二弦).
Nanyin ensemble, Wang Axin on erxian. Quanzhou 1990.
The exquisite Hokkien tradition of nanyin (nanguan) of south Fujian and Taiwan uses a core chamber ensemble of pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, xiao, end-blown flute, and erxian fiddle—all regionally distinctive versions. The large repertoire of long slow sustained ballads somewhat resembles the last page of Mahler 9 elevated into a whole genre. The pipa and xiao are focal to the group, but the erxian is also amazing, demanding extraordinary bow control, full of inflection. For an introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.
Fiddles in Shiyin 十音 ensemble. Puxi village, Quanzhou 1990.
Blind instrument-maker Cai Qiuzong (b.1947) on touxian, Dahao town, Shantou 1990.
Guangdong province has several other fiddle types, such as the yehu, and the Cantonese gaohu.
If strings are better known in south China, note that wind and percussion ensembles are just as common there. But northern fiddles are also varied, such as the banhu, huhu (some played with metal rings on the left finger, as in the photos below) and sihu, the Beijing-opera fiddle jinghu, and zhuihu and ruyigou in Henan and Shandong. What most of these fiddles have in common is a gritty timbre, quite far from the suave polished ideal of the conservatoire erhu.
An honorable mention too for bowed zithers (zhaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghursatar and ghijak, and so on.
Of course, one may end up specializing, but musicians are versatile: they pick up various instruments in order to learn how to take part in the social activity of musicking. The repertoires of such regional traditions took shape long before the modern standardizations of “national music”.
Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not at all popular is the erhu! It has commonly been added to ensembles accompanying regional vocal genres since around the 1920s, but remains subsidiary. As always, we should rejoice in regional diversity.
Zooming out, see here for an introduction to the sidebar tag fiddles.
Strange—not to say fatuous—goings-on in Pingyi county in Shandong.
I generally give Short Shrift to horror stories in the Western media about new clampdowns on “superstitious practices” in China, finding that they rarely have any perceptible long-term effect at local level. Indeed, I have it on good authority that this latest instance of interference from local government is only a blip, going against the current tide in these more laissez-faire times—but it’s still rather interesting.
A fine article “The endangered sound of suona” by Fu Danni, on the Sixth Tone website, reports on the recent ban on shawm bands at funerals in Pingyi county. But the official directive looks far more disturbing than that—it’s just one aspect of a far more ambitious attempt to limit the length of life-cycle ceremonies and extravagant spending therein. The Pingyi measures even castigate the zacai decorations at the funeral altar as a “corrupt feudal practice”. Similar leftist campaigns, effectively seeking to deprive villagers of their traditional funerary observances, have occasionally been touted ever since traditional life-cycle events revived in the 1980s—a related article makes an ominous comparison with the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.
But there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Campaigns aimed at enforcing frugality at life-cycle ceremonies have a long and mostly futile history, long before funeral strippers became a routine and salacious media topic (as a quick Google search will reveal). So it’s good to see twenty-one noted Chinese academics protesting at the fatuous recent official directive in a detailed open letter (Chinese text here). Note how adroitly it adopts the language of both Confucian and current CCP values—reminiscent of the recent online rebuffs to the Chinese FA over their attempt to ban Daoist ritual at a football match. The open letter has stimulated much online discussion, in which voices in support of the restrictions are largely drowned out.
Still, however isolated and fleeting such instances of local implementation may be, it’s remarkable that even in 2017 the Pingyi county government announced that it would confiscate musical instruments played at funerals. Sure, this kind of thing has happened occasionally since the 1980s’ revival; generally, as here, the musicians manage to get them back after a while.
Wang Ruiyong’s shawm band in Pingyi, suffering from the recent directive. From Sixth Tone article.
It may be that in Pingyi the shawm bands have unfairly taken the blame; some scholars too have reservations about “other, more vulgar, funeral practices” (like stripping, perhaps), though it’s unclear how a criterion for vulgarity might be policed, short of inculcating norms of public decency—for which cadres are not renowned.
Burning paper ritual money for the deceased before the coffin—village funeral, Yanggao 2011. My photo.
The article on the Pingyi nonsense observes the flagrant irony of the simultaneous [albeit formalistic and superficial, I should add!] brief of the cultural authorities to document such bands as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project—whose agenda has anyway never been exactly ethnographic. But by contrast with the project’s kitsch nostalgic dreams, shawm bands all over China are far from a bastion of tradition. They’re always innovative: for several decades, they have themselves been spontaneously adapting to the times by replacing their traditional repertoire with popular melodies and supplementing their instrumentation with trumpet, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. You can read all about shawm bands in my post Walking Shrill, and in my books on Yanggao and Shaanbei (both with DVDs); there I documented the rapid substitution of the majestic old suite repertoires with pop music before my very eyes and ears. There are tracks on the playlist too, with notes here.
Were I just a tad cynical [surely not—Ed.], I might say that the Chinese are perfectly capable of diluting their own local traditions without government assistance. This cultural shift has been taking place ever since the early 1980s, as a result not of state interference but of changing popular tastes. And when the article comments that “most suona players have started to take on other jobs”, such as in factories and construction, this too is part of a much wider and longer trend, not some sudden response to the directive—as I noted for the Li family Daoists, the choice to abandon a hereditary tradition is complex.
Though the Sixth Tone article uses the nationally standard term suona for the shawm, it’s good to see the local term wulawa—one of many such names by which this most ubiquitous instrument is known (hence my adoption of the English term shawm, avoiding official vocabulary). And I was glad to see a reminder of the technique of blowing through a hollow reed into a basin of water—standard device for teaching circular breathing to young students.
The article doesn’t mention liturgical performance (such as household Daoists) at funerals, which generally alternates with that of the “secular” shawm bands, but it’s quite possible that there aren’t any ritual groups in this area. Anyway, hiring such bands is only a minor item in the total budget for the funeral family.
Keep calm and carry on
Back in 1990 I attended an impressive funeral in Meixian county-town in Guangdong province, with accomplished young xianghuahousehold Buddhist ritual specialists presiding. Above the road outside (where they performed many of their rituals) was draped a slogan advertising a campaign against spirit mediums (cf. my unpublished article “Striking a happy medium”). Of course mediums and liturgical specialists (not to mention shawm bands) provide very different services, but one might suppose that there’s a risk that blanket directives may throw out the baby with the bathwater.So while there are complex issues at work here, the recent directive illustrates a common befuddled knee-jerk response from local government. If they’re so keen on harking back to Maoist values, they might instead consider a re-education campaign for cadres—it is they who now lead the way in “vulgarity” and “lack of culture”.
Still, I can’t quite join in the general moral outrage over the Pingyi campaign. While it is quite right for scholars (both Chinese and foreign) to protest, at the same time we shouldn’t overestimate the long-term effect of such fatuous official measures. Observers have been lamenting “cultural impoverishment” in China for many decades—indeed, further afield, nay worldwide, the call to “rescue endangered traditions” went out a nanosecond after the birth of anthropology. But change is a constant. As is clear from my recent film and book, since the 1980s’ revival—in both ritual and music—any dilution takes place not so much as a direct result of sporadic leftist campaigns, but under more pervasive socio-economic pressures (to be sure, related to wider political currents) such as urban migration, modern secular education, and the changing tastes of rural patrons as they aspire to the modernity of pop and media culture. Since these are trends with which few seekers of hallowed Chinese traditions tend to engage, the state may seem to make an easier scapegoat.
Update Local relations have only deteriorated following the interference of the radical cadres of Pingyi in funeral customs. An article on Chinese Twitter (no longer available) told how irate musicians have ceremoniously burned their instruments in protest. The only good news is that public criticism of the directive forbidding “extravagant” funeral observances is ever-more widespread, both from local villagers and from higher-ranking officials and pundits further afield—again adroitly (indeed convincingly) adducing “cultural heritage” and the good old Confucian values touted by Uncle Xi.
One old musician observed that neither the Allied forces suppressing the Boxers, nor the Japanese invaders, nor even the Four Cleanups campaign had ever managed to silence such bands:
From London, or even Beijing, it’s hard to judge what’s going on. The focus on shawm bands still seems something of a red herring. As locals observe, “extravagance is something for people with money—what have the common people got to waste?” The shawm bands are not only inexpensive but utterly “secular”—and again, we’re not being told about the wider restrictions on funeral observances.
This still seems to me like an isolated blip—has anyone heard of serious instances anywhere else recently? It’s all the more curious when funeral customs continue to be observed grandly throughout China—see this recent report on a six-day Daoist funeral in Hunan.
The radical stance of the Pingyi cadres seems deranged. Usually such campaigns blow over (an apt metaphor), or at worst cadres adopt the age-old practice of “one eye open, one eye closed”, or “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented”; but here they haven’t backed down, and the musicians’ astute demonstration has gained widespread publicity.
For more background, see here; and for a related debate, here.
Further update I can’t keep up with all such cases, but this one caught my eye.
Chinese media (in English, see e.g. here, and this article with further background) are in uproar over a draconian policy in 2018 to destroy coffins in rural Jiangxi province—which one might suppose less vulnerable to radical directives. It’s a misguided attempt both to save land and to discourage extravagant burial rituals.
Again, campaigns to enforce cremation have a long history, but have been largely ineffective outside the towns.
In this case the protest doesn’t even need righteous netizens—it’s led by the state-run media:
Chinese state media editorials on Monday slammed the policy as “barbaric and unpopular”. Articles in both People’s Daily and Guangming Daily urged the Jiangxi government to rethink its funeral reform.
“Is there any reason to carry out such a rough and even barbaric move?” the editorial in People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, said. “Even if the funeral reforms are effectively carried out, the hearts of the people are hurt and [the administration’s] credibility is lost … [and] built-up resentment triggers instability.”
Even Jiangxi’s department of civil affairs issued a notice saying a number of county-level officials had taken “simplistic and extreme” actions that had “hurt the feelings” of local residents.
Again, it looks like a conflict between particular trigger-happy extremist local governments, with central authorities on the side of the local population.
None of these stories is so simple as blanket state repression: conflicting forces operate.
Yangyuan village, central Hunan: above, ritual in action; below, god images.
From Shidaoheyi (see below).
Along with regions like Fujian, Jiangxi, and south Jiangsu, Hunan province is among the hotspots for research on Daoist ritual—which, as elsewhere, is part of a whole range of mutually related ritual and paraliturgical activity, including Buddhist ritual specialists, spirit mediums, and so on.
Any such province represents a vast area, for which it is hard to encapsulate all the individual reports on particular villages or Daoist “altars”. As ever, most such studies, setting forth from sinological historiography, focus on documenting ancient ritual texts and artefacts; less common is detailed ethnography on how ritual life adapts in a constantly changing society—so we learn a lot more about ritual manuals and titles than about migration and motor-bikes. So this vast body of research, that should be of such significance for the anthropology of religion, still seems an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry,
Much of the scholarship on Hunan has received generous long-term funding from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taiwan, with early results published in Minsu quyi.
Outsiders like me may feel in need of an overview. Alain Arrault has edited a useful volume of articles:
Interdisciplinary studies on the central region of Hunan, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 19 (2010)
including thoughtful overviews from him and Georges Favraud, including discussions of the thorny issue of “Meishan culture”. Another major topic is statuary, on which there is detailed research by Alain and others (see e.g. here and here).
With Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾, Alain Arrault is co-editor of a substantial related collection derived from a 2006 conference,
Xiangzhong zongjiao yu xiangtu shehui 湘中宗教与乡土社会, still awaiting publication.
Further volumes are planned in the Daojiao yishi congshu series on the Daoism of the Yao people in Lanshan (on which note also the work of Zhao Shufeng 赵书峰)—the ethnic minorities in the western areas of Hunan also having rich ritual traditions. See e.g.