Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.

Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985; see also the succinct introduction in Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, pp.1005–1009). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.

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). [1]

Often valorized 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.


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

In the mid-19th century [2] a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.

Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.

By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:

  • Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.

This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:

  • Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.

Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai雪齋 (1893–1966, also a scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. [3]

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. Daoust 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:


Xiansuo beikao, opening of Shiliuban. From Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian, vol.4 (1955).

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 (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.

QYDWhat 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!).

Jixian chengyun

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):

So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,

After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.

We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite Correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:

* * *

Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.

These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8, and also recently the object of heritagification).

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. See also my post on the “little pieces” of Yulin city, revised from my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei—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!


[1] 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.

[2] Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.

[3] 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”, see here.

Guide to another year’s blogging


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

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

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

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



New tag: south China

FWIW, some more housekeeping.

I’ve just added a new tag to the sidebar, for south China, in addition to the “south China” subhead of the ritual category! This also picks up various posts on Hakka and Hokkien soundscapes.

My main topic is north China, to which (apart from its subhead under the ritual category; see also under Local ritual) I also give tags for Beijing, Hebei, Gaoluo, Shanxi (other) (supplementing the extensive category Li family), and Shaanbei. Ah, the joys of indexing

Lives of female mediums

Here’s a companion to my post on female spirit mediums and sectarians in Yanggao.

As I observed there, alongside the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China, mediums also play an important role in local society. The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life. [1] For them in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable.

Their abilities often stem from traumatic domestic and psychosocial crises—which the Maoist era provided in plenty. [2] Mediums we met came from a wide age-range: some began their careers under the commune system, others since the 1980s’ reforms.


Me-mot spirit mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Perhaps the most detailed research on spirit mediums in China comes from Xiao Mei 萧梅, with her study of me-mot mediums of the Zhuang people in Guangxi in southwest China—including a diary of one medium’s busy healing schedule over a month (a fruitful way of studying the lives of local ritual performers—cf. household Daoist Li Bin).

In this region, as Xiao Mei explains, [3]

Whether mediums are biologically male or female, when performing as mediums they adopt the role of female. But they all have experience of having encountered intractable calamity, either personal (such as incurable illness or mental disorder) or domestic (such as frequent illness or death in the family) [SJ: here Xiao Mei doesn’t consider socio-political aspects], and it is only through becoming a medium that they can be released from such calamities.

In Jingxi county the me-mot have a close relationship with household Daoist priests. The latter not only play a major role during the process of someone becoming a medium, but also need to collaborate with the medium in practising rituals for averting calamity and seeking blessing.

* * *

But mediums are also just as common among the Han Chinese in north China.

For Yanggao in north Shanxi, I’ve just added Wu Fan’s interesting notes from 2003 to my post on mediums there. That post also includes some material (including photos) from the Hebei plain—which is now even nearer Beijing than it was when we were doing fieldwork on ritual groups through the 1990s. In the course of our studies we met many mediums; on and around Houshan they often channeled the goddess Houtu (see also here).

Zhang Zhentao (Yinyuehui, pp.302–4) introduces some of them in his notes from 1995, offering rare glimpses into their activities during the Maoist era:

Liu Derong (b. c1941), from a village near Houshan, used the ritual name (faming 法名) Longding 隆定. As she told us, while giving birth in 1954 and 1961 she “went mad”, clambering up the walls, fearless; in a dream she saw Guanyin of the Southern Seas seated in lotus posture before a table on the kang brick-bed. She would levitate, only coming back to the ground when she called out to the deity. She began healing at the age of 31 sui, around 1971, and had by now healed over a thousand people, notably for gynaecological ailments. We heard her sing “ritual songs” (foge 佛歌) such as The Ten Lotus Leaves (Shiduo lianhua 十朵莲花).

We also chatted with Ren Xiuzhi (then in her 60s), who came from another village in Yixian county. She had begun to “fall ill” in her 20s, and began healing people when 42 sui—in the mid-1970s.

These accounts also suggest that there could be quite a long gestatory interval between the initiatory crisis and the consolidation of healing powers.

Dingxing HTM 1995

Houtu temple, Dingxing Northgate 1995.

Still in 1995, nearby at the Houtu temple (formally called Taining gong 泰宁宫) in Northgate of Dingxing county-town, we met the exceptionally renowned medium Chen Shiying (1907–98), [4] who was still in charge of the temple. Indeed, its popularity rested mainly in her reputation as a healer.

I have supplemented our notes with the 1994 biography (indeed, hagiography) displayed in the temple, which shows a rather distinctive path:

Chen Shiying bio

Unusually for a medium, she came from a successful literate family. This precious old photo of the Chen family is said to date from the 1930s:

Chen Shiying old pic

As always, I wonder what became of them all through the ensuing turbulent times.

After the early death of her husband, Chen Shiying contemplated suicide. But when she was 37 sui (1943) her husband appeared to her in a dream, telling her that her mission was to become a healer.

Chen Shiying continued her story for us. By the age of 46 sui (1952!) she had earned such merit that Houtu occupied her body, telling her that as she had no resting-place, Chen should collect funds to build a temple for her. With collectivization escalating, she now had to persuade the reluctant village authorities. As she tearfully threatened the village chief that she would die if he didn’t give permission, and that he would soon follow her, eventually he had no choice but to allocate a plot of land by the river. She told us that she practised as a medium throughout the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution, though “Granny” (Houtu) didn’t necessarily possess her body then.

Now one would clearly like to learn more about this whole period… When we visited the temple in 1995, Chen Shiying was still living there, healing a regular succession of patients there. A placard was displayed, reading “Holy physician, sacred practitioner” (Shenyi shengshou 神醫聖手). “Granny” had recently told her she also needed an opera stage before the temple, so she was now busy assembling funds to build one.

As Zhang Zhentao observes, the popularity of the cult to Houtu depends largely on the great faith that villagers place in the efficacity of both the mediums and the deity occupying them.

* * *

In Shaanbei, spirit mediums (both female and male) are also ubiquitous (for an introduction to the various categories, see Chau, Miraculous response, pp. 54–6).

Here, again, we find that the waxing and waning fates of temples (not always evident from written sources) may depend largely on the efficacity of their presiding medium. The intrepid Guo Yuhua (Minjian yishi yu shehui bianqian, pp.378–9) gives an interesting illustration of such change over a brief period—in this case referring to a male medium:

On a hill above Yangjiagou village the Lingguan temple (full name Heihu lingguan miao, to Efficacious Officer Black Dragon) was rebuilt in the early 1990s and rapidly became very popular, thanks to the renowned efficacity of its healing matong medium. Villagers throughout the area flocked to its temple fair on 7th moon 15th, making donations of several thousand yuan that financed the new god statues and the performance of a “holy opera” down in the village.

But suddenly in 1996 the temple revenue declined sharply, because the medium died. Villagers explained that the god had departed along with him. Then over the following New Year the temple mysteriously caught fire. burning the “god places”, an offerings table, the door, and windows.

At the same time the village’s Longwang miao and Pusa miao temples were enjoying a revival with their successful rain processions during the droughts of 1995 and 1997. So villagers soon transferred their loyalties. As the “rain opera” at the Longwang temple on 5th moon 15th became popular, the Lingguan temple accordingly moved the date of its own temple fair to combine with it. The villagers even moved the Lingguan god statue, responsible for healing, to the Pusa temple so that they could seek cures before it at the 4th moon 8th fair, and “hang the locket” there for their children—not part of the temple’s original functions.

With this in mind, a return visit to Chen Shiying’s temple in Hebei, since her death, would be interesting.

As Guo Yuhua notes, this is also an instance of the resilience of popular strategies, by contrast with state measures towards religion. Temples are not just timeless ancient vestiges of some ancient cultural heritage, but depend on people—both educated and illiterate, both male and female.

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, now forlorn, Yangjiagou 1999.

* * *

The healing sessions of mediums, while now acting in tandem with (rather than in conflict with) more orthodox medical procedures, are clearly a significant and enduring aspect of folk healthcare. And in all these regions, mediums vocalise in various forms including singing: soundscape is always an important aspect of our ritual studies (see also here, and here).

While it is hard enough to unearth the history of household Daoists under the Maoist era, it’s even more so for the female mediums. Their domestic healing activities never drew much outside attention, so it seems likely that they discreetly maintained their activities under the commune system. But since women tend not to relate their stories to the public life of the society, and such mediums are often illiterate, it will take thoughtful work to explore this topic. Similarly, fieldworkers are unlikely to happen upon the initiatory crises that first trigger their possession, which might also make a revealing study.


[1] Note the bibliographies here and here. See also my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese music (2013), pp.32–4 and n.40.

[2] For a fine ethnography of an Yi community in Yunnan, describing possession and exorcism as symptoms of (and strategies to handle) the violent traumas of both Maoist and reform eras, see Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001). For a blunt psychiatric perspective, see Albert C. Gaw et al., “The clinical characteristics of possession disorder among 20 Chinese patients in the Hebei province of China.” Psychiatric services 49.3 (1998), pp.360-65. 

[3] Adapted from Xiao Mei, “Bodies, gender and worldviews: me-mot spirit mediums in the Jingxi region of Guangxi”, in Gender in Chinese music, pp.247–64. For more, see Xiao Mei, “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷) [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, vol.2, pp.328–494; note also the amazing scenes on the DVD). On the initiatory crises, see p.438 ff.; for the diary, pp.455–7.

[4] For her birth-date, the biography gives a Guangxu year of Yiwei 乙未, equivalent to 1895, but then states that she was 88 sui in 1994 (indeed, in 1995 she told us she was 89 sui), so perhaps we should read the year as 丁未。


Layers of fieldwork

SLY map - Version 2

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

  • A whole province, like Ningxia
  • One region, like Shaanbeisouth Shaanxi, or southwest Shanxi
  • One county, like Yanggao (for other Daoist groups there besides the Li family, see here; for a wide range of personalities, see here); or Shuozhou (and most pages under Local ritual)
  • One village, like Gaoluo
  • One individual or family, like Li Manshan and the Li family (main subject of this blog).

My posts on local ritual illustrate all this with many maps. The more we zoom in, the more satisfying the results; but the broader picture is necessary too.

Hokkien culture: nanyin

Nanyin 1986

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

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 1986:2

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 Kristoffer 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.

Daoist ritual in south China


From 2011 Hong Kong conference volume.

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.

As I commented in Appendix 1 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family (where you can find further references),

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).
  • Wang, C.K. ed., Zhongguo chuantong keyiben huibian 中國傳統科儀本彙編 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng), 17 vols.

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.

Yongfu picsStill, 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. [1]

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.

For a broad introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian—based on ritual—see here, including references to the fine writings and film of Ken Dean, one of few scholars of Daoist ritual to encompass modern social change.


[1] For basic biographical accounts of the Yongfu Daoists, see pp.79–103.