Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo

dervish

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. [1] 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—not at all for 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.

 

Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] 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). 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 self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).

 

Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.

Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate

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 ), 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 )
  • 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan )
  • 3) Birth (shengzi )
  • 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
  • 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou )
  • 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang )
  • 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
  • 8) Miscellany (zazu 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 [1] 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. [2] 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.

A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kiteevoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.

For Katz’s work on ritual in Hunan, see here; and for his article on temple fairs in Taiwan in a recent book on doing fieldwork in China, here.

 

[1] On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).

[2] I also look forward to reading Mayfair Yang, Re-enchanting modernity (2020).

 

Coronavirus 3: temples, Sichuan

sdr

Daoist temple ritual, Sichuan, lunar New Year’s Eve, 2020. Photo: Volker Olles.

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.

notice

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​

Huolei
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.

 

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.

Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian

The film footage of Harry Caldwell

Fujian province in southeast China remains one of the most vibrant regions for folk religious activity (see this introduction).

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
  • “Hell puppets”
  • 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.

A new volume on Chinese religion

Cover

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

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

Rain ritual《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图

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

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

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

Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu

JC

Here’s a roundup of a series of posts on ritual life and musicking in south Jiangsu.

For vignettes from before Liberation:

In this post I reflect on amateur entertainment and ritual connections in urban and rural Shanghai:

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:

See also

ritual 2

On Daoism around Suzhou, following this introduction to a remarkable project under Maoism

I surveyed the broad field of research in

And to illustrate the challenges of adapting ritual to the concert stage:

XMG 93

For a very different take on musicking in Shanghai, see

Suzhou Daoists, England 1994

home

With Zhou Zufu at my house, almost getting Rowan Pease into the picture.

Having unpacked the red herring of “Daoist music”, my post hinting at the complexities of ritual life around Suzhou puts into context my modest ventures into presenting ritual on the concert stage.

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.

tape cover 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:

tape notes

At least no-one suggested we call them the Suzhou Taoist Music Philosophy Philharmonic Orchestra (cf. the Sistine Chapel Choral Society).

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.

Oxford

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 the instrumental 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.

manual

Opening of Lingbao xianweng jilian fake ritual manual,
which Zhou Zufu brought to England.