Yang Yinliu: a conference


YYL poster

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 (1899–1984), from 10th to 15th November a conference on his life and work is taking place at the Chinese Academy of Arts in Beijing (more details on WeChat, I trust).

Yang was one of the great musicologists of the world; his research is central our understanding not only of music history but of traditional Chinese culture more generally.

YYLHe excelled not only as a historian but as fieldworker and performer, steering the Music Research Institute through the choppy waters of Maoism. I’ve devoted a lengthy tribute to him; and do consult his tag in the sidebar—adducing his work on early history, folk and elite traditions (the latter embodied by the remarkable team of qin scholars at the MRI), Daoist and Buddhist ritual, and a range of regional instrumental and vocal genres, including

While I don’t much go on for conferences, I’m sorry I can’t attend this one, which also serves as a retrospective on the whole history of Chinese musicology, with contributions from leading scholars. There have also been celebrations in Yang’s home city of Wuxi.


Archive Chinese recordings

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 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.


The Confucian ritual in Hunan


Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan.

One subject of Yang Yinliu‘s 1956 ambitious survey of the diverse performing genres in Hunan province was the large-scale Confucian ritual sacrifice of Liuyang, east of Changsha. Appendix 2 of his report,

  • Kongfu dingji yinyue 孔府丁祭音乐 (1958, 78 pp.)

was discreetly tucked away in a separate mimeograph; I haven’t yet tracked down the original, but its material is included in the 2011 reprint of Yang’s Hunan volume, and cited in the Anthology section. [1]

There are all kinds of themes to unpack here. First, a confession: my own reluctance to study the topic is flawed. Cultures routinely exclude certain soundscapes from their concept of “music”, but ethnomusicology counsels a far more inclusive view. Indeed, for China I’m keen to include the songs of spirit mediums, work hollers, and vocal liturgy within our brief. I have no argument with studying elite culture, even if in most societies, including China (both historically and today), it only represents a tiny tip of the iceberg (for imperial culture, see here; and for similar reservations about the qin zither, here).

I keep stressing that our focus shouldn’t be some reified concept of “music”, but expressive culture within society; and the topic of the Confucian rituals may lead all too easily to the glorification of some notional Golden Age of Ancient Sages. So I’m wary of “recreations” claiming to preserve or salvage such glories. Such a mindset may even distract us from other forms of musicking that are far more deeply embedded in social life.

Still, like the performance of modern CCP propaganda, the Confucian sacrifice is a political subject, which of course we have to study. So it may be irrelevant that it seems to exclude most features that I (or the Chinese) can perceive as “musical”, and that (unlike folk ritual) it seems remote from the lives of ordinary people. Ritual often seems austere—we might adduce the hymns or the fast chanted scriptures of household Daoists like the Li family—but expertise, human energy, social interaction, are usually evident in performance.

The origins of the Confucian sacrifices are in the numinous ancient music of Shao, whose wonders made Confucius himself oblivious to the taste of meat, if only for three months. But I’m going to start with the Tang—not because I wish to recreate its glories, but precisely because I don’t.

Now I don’t applaud the xenophobia and moralistic snobbery of the Tang poets Bai Juyi and his friend Yuan Zhen, as society struggled to recover from the cataclysm of the An Lushan rebellion (see here, n.2). Bai’s poems like “The Standing Orchestra” and “Chime-stones from Huayuan” (which I might rename “Just Can’t Get the Staff, Nowadays”) rest on a flawed nostalgic idealization of the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages; but, with ethnographic candour, they also reveal the ineptitude of the yayue Confucian ceremonial performers of his day.

Several studies have been made of these poems, but they were a theme that my teacher the great Tang scholar Denis Twitchett approached with relish (as you may see from our irreverent correspondence on the faqu, here and here; see also my own spoof Tang poems). So below I’ve adapted his (apparently unpublished) translations from a draft that he sent me, retaining the sometimes E.J. Thribb-like character of Bai Juyi’s original, and refraining from adding the Teutonic footnotes that every phrase invites (as parodied by Flann O’Brien’s commentaries on de Selby):

The Standing Orchestra
Drums and fifes of the Standing Orchestra blare out
Dancers perform the two-bladed sword-dance, jugglers toss the seven balls
Slender maidens walk the tightrope, quivering with long pole
Among the orchestras of the Court of Sacrifices is a rigid hierarchy
Those in the upper hall sit, those in the lower hall stand
In the upper hall the mouth-organ songs of the Seated Orchestra are pure
In the lower hall the drum and fife of the Standing Orchestra resound
At the sound of a single note from the mouth-organ songs, everyone inclines their ears
But if drum and fife were to play ten thousand pieces, no-one would listen
The Standing Orchestra is base, the Seated Orchestra noble
Once rejected, a member of the Seated Orchestra joins the Standing Orchestra
Playing drum and mouth-organ to accompany circus acts
But once a member of the Standing Orchestra is rejected, where can he find a job?
First he is sent to the suspended bells and chimes to play the ritual music
The ritual music has fallen so far out of fashion
That incapable dolts like you are ordered to perform the gong and zhi modes
When at the urban sacrifice we pray to the Earth Lord at the circular altar
The claim takes this music to move the spirits of Heaven and Earth!
Hoping to make the Phoenix come and the hundred beasts dance
Is just like driving your carriage north, hoping to arrive in Chu!*
The musicians are all incompetent fools—how can I adequately describe them?
And you, the Three Ministers of the Court of Sacrifice, whatever sort of men are you?

Chime-stones from Huayuan
Chime-stones from Huayuan, chime-stones from Huayuan
Men of old didn’t listen, but men of today listen
Sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river, sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river
Men of today don’t play them, but men of old played them
How is it that men of old and men of today are so different?
Which instruments are used and which rejected depends on the musicians
Although the musicians have ears like a wall, if they’re unable to distinguish Pure from Muddy sounds then they might as well be deaf!
When the pupils of the Pear Garden adjust the temperament
They only know the new sounds, they are ignorant of the old
Of old it was said of the fouqing chime-stones from the banks of the Si
That their sound moved the listener to thoughts of those serving and risking their lives in distant places
But when once the sound of the Huayuan chime-stones had been heard at the palace
The prince’s heart straightaway forgot his subjects guarding the frontiers
And sure enough, when the barbarian brigand rose up from Yan
Few of the generals were willing to die in defence of the borders
If once one understands how music and the state of government are intertwined
How can one simply listen to the clashing and clanging of these instruments?
“Xiang, the player of the stone-chimes, withdrew to his island in the sea”, leaving never to return
And now kids from the Chang’an market-place have become Master Musicians!
Who is there to truly understand the difference between Pure and Muddy sounds
Between the chime-stones from Huayuan and the sonorous stones from the banks of the Si?

So Bai Juyi is contrasting the expertise of the Seated Orchestra with the ineptitude of the ritual musicians, but “It’s Complicated”. The two genres serve entirely separate functions, with different demands. Technical virtuosity doesn’t correlate with efficacity: a lullaby serves its purpose perfectly, whereas the years of discipline that go into mastering a Paganini Caprice hardly go beyond mere technique. And some of the finest musicians in the world come from the “market-place”… Of course, recruiting practices may have changed from Tang to Ming, but I doubt if evidence is available to suggest that later ritual musicians were of a higher standard—they hardly needed to be. Bai Juyi’s argument doesn’t invalidate the performance, but it does rather, um, chime with my own reservations about studying it.

“But that’s enough about me”. Yang Yinliu, with his historical erudition and concern for “literati music”, “palace music”, and indeed “feudal superstition” and the culture of the “exploiting classes”, was doubtless more interested in the Confucian ritual than I am. Whereas I can see the “value” of exploring the topic but prefer to focus elsewhere, for Yang and his colleagues it formed part of the rich topic of archaeology and early historical sources on which they also worked tirelessly.

The wider context
A useful introduction, for the Ming, is

  • Joseph Lam, State sacrifices and music in Ming China: orthodoxy, creativity, and expressiveness (1998).

He stresses those features, even if the latter two may seem rather remote from many people’s understanding of the topic. For dance, see also

The stimulating article

  • Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, “Lijiao: The return of ceremonies honouring Confucius in mainland China”, China perspectives 2009.4.

mainly concerns Qufu in Shandong (birthplace of Confucius, and site of the most renowned rituals) and the rehabilitation of Confucius since the 1980s.

Confucian sacrifices were performed widely throughout the empire until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911. They are not only documented in the national dynastic histories but also (at the expense of folk traditions!) often occupy an unreasonable amount of space in imperial county gazetteers, compiled according to a template. The topic, burdened by abstruse theory and false nostalgia, may seem largely to belong to the rarefied confines of early sinology. However, as always, it is no timeless “living fossil”, but was constantly remoulded and re-invented throughout the imperial era right down to today.

Through the Republican era the rituals declined. After the 1949 Communist victory they were promoted by the Nationalist regime on Taiwan, but on the mainland they fell silent—apart from a few initiatives from cultural authorities.

In late imperial times the rituals must have been common elsewhere in Hunan too (the Anthology mentions mid-19th-century accounts in the Yongzhou and Jiahe county gazetteers), but it is those of Liuyang that came to achieve national celebrity. So here I’d like to introduce the fortunes of the rituals there over their life-span of a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Liuyang [2]
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!) [3]—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.

Liuyang 2
Liuyang 1

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. [4]

As ever, I’m struck by both how much has survived and how much has been destroyed, and by the maxim “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”.

The 8th-moon ritual was held in 1937 with an ever-dwindling personnel. After Liuyang was occupied by the Japanese, activity was interrupted in 1944. [5] 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.

LY JC score

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.

LY JC diagram

Reconstructed diagram showing deployment of instruments. Source: Anthology.

* * *

So once again, we have to unpack the thorny question “What is music?”. As Confucius himself observed,

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?

Always remote from the lives of ordinary people, and performed only intermittently, the Liuyang ritual was a very minor aspect of musicking in Hunan; but it’s one that may attract sinological historians. To be sure, like folk musicking, it was in a constant process of change; and a certain creativity was involved—though far from the kind universal to most expressive culture in China and elsewhere.

With Chinese and foreign scholars alike still keen to imagine “living fossils”, such as the ritual traditions of Beijing, Xi’an, and south Fujian, reification is a dangerous theme throughout traditional culture.

Irrespective of my own ambivalence about the topic, Yang Yinliu’s work, even amidst pressure to downplay elite culture, shows his dedication to all aspects of performance and the historical background. At the same time, he wasn’t alone in studying the Liuyang ritual: the Hunan cultural authorities made efforts to document it throughout the first fifteen years after Liberation.


* Satnav on the blink again—Ed.


[1] 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.

[2] For Liuyang, online sources I have consulted include http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_95b86dd70102xhke.html
In the Anthology, note the biography of Qiu Zhilu (p.2137) and the item on the Bureau of Rites and Music (p.2141).
See also Yu Yizhi 喻意志 and Zhang Yu 章瑜, “Liuyang jikong yinyue chutan” 浏阳祭孔音乐初探, Tianjin yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2008.2. As ever, several details remain to be clarified.
In English, an early mention of Yang Yinliu’s work on the Liuyang rituals is Rulan Chao Pian, Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation (1967), pp.94–6.

[3] 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…

[4] 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.

[5] 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!



New tag: Yang Yinliu!

Yang Yinliu 1950

I’ve just added a new tag in the sidebar for the great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984), whose encyclopedic work on Chinese music encompassed elite and folk traditions, historical sources and fieldwork.

The starting point is this tribute, describing his early background in Kunqu, qin, and Daoist circles, and reflecting on his constant determination to document the whole heritage—notably ritual—despite the strictures of Maoism. It leads to further posts on his discovery of Beijing temple musics, his 1956 fieldwork in Hunan (here, and here), and much more.

Famine and expressive culture

Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.

Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.

Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. [1]

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.

Dikötter observes:

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!). [2] 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. [3]

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, [4] 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:

wenjian 1
wenjian 2
wenjian 3
wenjian 4

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, [5] 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. [6] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

[3] For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.

[4] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.

[5] Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!

[6] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.


An American musician in 1920s’ China

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. [1]

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!) [2]

Shifan gu and Shifan luogu under the more monitored conditions of Maoism.

The concerts ended with Eichheim himself playing a selection of WAM violin pieces accompanied by his wife on piano—I can’t find a list of items, but I like to imagine that they included Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois (1910).


Yang Yinliu, undated early photo. Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

Among the musicians that Wu Wanqing assembled was his pupil Yang Yinliu, still only 22. Already a pupil of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he now served as translator for Eichheim.

After trips to Japan, Korea, and India, Eichheim returned alone to a snowy Wuxi in December that year to hear more Shifan luogu. As Yang recalled,

I asked why he wanted to hear shi-fan-luo-gu again. He said that in the intervening months he had travelled to many countries, but this is the music that impressed him the most.

They played from 2 to 7.30pm, before Yang took Eichheim to the train station to rejoin his wife and daughter in India.

Later he also made trips to Indonesia. He was among many composers inspired by the soundscape of the Mystic East, including Ravel and Colin McPhee (but not Berlioz…)—though the influence of gamelan in his works, such as his symphonic variations Bali (1931), is not always audible.

Eichheim’s instrument collection is now housed at USCB. I wonder if any further records, such as photographs, survive of his visits to Wuxi. If only there were recordings! Perhaps it would be too much to expect Yang Yinliu to have taken him to film the rituals of the Daoists…


[1] 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).

[2] 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.


A 1956 fieldtrip to Hunan

zuo getang

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”.


Children’s songs.

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).

zan tudi

Singing the god of the soil, Han Chinese performer in Dong minority region of Xinhuang, west Hunan.

Customary (fengsu) musics are classified under calendrical and non-calendrical subheads. Many have ritual components: the former include songs to the god of the soil, pilgrimage songs, rain rituals, and 7th-moon rituals to the orphan souls. The non-calendrical items were mainly performed for weddings and funerals; texts of laments for both are provided—among the rich material here is extensive coverage of female ritual specialists “seated in the song hall” (zuo getang, see photo above), with dancing.


Bamboo-horse, Yizhang county, south Hunan.

The seemingly unpromising rubric of song-and-dance is again based in ritual, with local variants of “flower-drum” (huagu), “flower lantern” (huadeng), and “bamboo horse” (zhuma) groups. A brief item on the zanggu 藏鼓 of Cili county, already rare by the 1940s, opens a window on the redemption of vows in conjunction with spirit mediums.

sixian, Wugang county, 1956 and 1980s.

For narrative-singing, apart from various regional types of yugu, daoqing, tanci, pingshu, lianhualao, and sixian, the team also unearthed interesting genres like the widely-distributed public declamations of the Sacred Edict (sheng yu 聖諭: cf. here, under Gegezhuang; cf. Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, p.101).

The team could only provide a brief overview of the riches of regional opera, such as huagu xi (brief excerpts on CD2 of Jinye lai changxi [The beauty of Chinese opera], Taipei: Wind Records), marionettes and shadow-puppets, and nuoxi masked ritual drama.

Under instrumental music, after an introduction to individual instruments, the main topics (as in most regions of China) are shawm bands (xiangfang 響房, gufang 鼓房) and percussion groups—again serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals.

Though ritual pervades all the sections, in view of the political climate separate coverage of more explicitly religious and ritual music is relegated to appendices—with an obligatory defence on the “significance” of studying the topic.

Here Yang Yinliu outlines Buddhist and Daoist temple and household groups (the latter under the heading of yingjiao 應教); the songs of spirit mediums (shijiao 師教, wujiao 巫教)—who, he notes, were ubiquitous; and folk Confucian practices.


Zhou incantations sung by Yinlian.

Under Buddhist temple music Yang considers the daily services and the major Flaming Mouth (yankou) and Water and Land (shuilu) rituals. For the latter, he already mimeographed a separate report after his return to Beijing in 1956. It’s based on the style of the Tianning si temple in Changzhou as learned by Yinlian 隱蓮 (then 52 sui)—a northern monk who after widespread “cloud roaming” was then working as a Chinese doctor in a lay Buddhist community in Shuangfeng county of Hunan.

A second Appendix, on the Confucian sacrifice at Liuyang, was mimeographed separately, and I discuss it in another post.

The whole volume attests to Yang Yinliu’s awareness of the importance of all kinds of ritual practice. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve updated my tribute to him, to reflect his studies of the ritual soundscape in a bit more detail.

The 1980s: ambitious new projects
Once political conditions allowed, a huge revival of traditional culture took place across Hunan, as throughout China, and fieldwork resumed uner the auspices of the monumental Anthology. Some of the genres uncovered by the 1956 fieldwork may have been unable to revive, but (as with all the provincial volumes) the editors could now elaborate on the genres that Yang and his colleagues had only been able to outline, with each broad genre (folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, dance) covering a couple of thousand pages. Apart from all the coverage of ritual genres under other volumes, in the instrumental music volumes the sections on “religious music” alone cover over 400 pages.


Folk ritual groups, Hunan.

In another post I’ve discussed the complementary tasks of making regional surveys and in-depth studies of a particular locale (for which, apart from my work on Gaoluo village and the Li family Daoists, see e.g. my reports under local ritual). Of course, all of the individual genres under these broad headings merit detailed studies—indeed, some of them have been the subject of monographs since the 1990s.

Despite Yang Yinliu’s background studying with the Daoists of his home city Wuxi, at the time he could only devote very limited attention to Daoist ritual in Hunan. Only after the 1980s’ liberalizations did it become possible to initiate major projects on local household “altars” of Daoist ritual in Hunan and elsewhere in south China. Though they mainly stress “salvage” rather than the changing fortunes of local ritual life since the 1930s, they provide a level of detail that most Chinese musicologists can hardly imagine.


Whereas the 1956 survey was partly documenting the riches of local culture on the eve of Liberation, the Anthology was seeking to record both the 1980s’ revival and earlier history, without quite spelling out the diachronic story. More recently, reification has only become more severe with the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

* * *

Traditional local cultures may have begun a long decline soon after Liberation—indeed, even before, in wartorn regions under CCP control. But even after collectivization intensified from 1956, ritual and other genres somehow kept active—I take the story onto the mid-60s here. It’s yet another reminder that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”, to cite The dream of the red chamber.

I can’t help thinking that under the CCP, for all that local traditions were attenuated and scholarship circumscribed, both somehow persisted more “obstinately” than in the Soviet bloc. Of course, surveys like the Hunan volume are far from the cultural ethnography of a changing society; still, the point is not to reify tradition but to read scholarship, of any period, within the context of its own time.

Meanwhile Yang’s colleague Zha Fuxi was making a survey of qin zither players around the country—a tiny but much-studied elite. And in the winter of 1961–62 Li Quanmin led a similar trip to Fujian province. Beijing scholars embarked on many such trips in the fifteen years between Liberation and the Four Cleanups, laying the groundwork for more ambitious projects after the 1980s’ liberalizations.

So to repeat my reminder: Chinese culture doesn’t reside merely in silent immobile old books in libraries… See also Social issues in rural Hunan.


Hequ 1953: collecting folk-song


The fieldwork team sets off into the Hequ countryside, 1953.

After the Russian revolution, the work of ethnographers in the Soviet Union and their satellites was severely hampered right until the 1990s (see also here). So turning to China, I remain deeply impressed by the energy of fieldworkers documenting folk culture in the first fifteen years after the 1949 “Liberation”, for all its limitations.

In autumn 1953, in one of the first major field projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu and Li Yuanqing dispatched a team to spend three months collecting folk-song in rural Hequ (“river bend”) county in Shanxi. On the banks of the Yellow River at the borders of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, this large isolated area in the far northwest corner of the province connects the Datong region and the much-studied Shaanbei (see also here).

The results of the project were published in the 244-page

  • Hequ minjian gequ 河曲民間歌曲 [Folk-songs in Hequ], ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1956, reprinted 1962).

Hequ cover

The team of eight was led by Xiao Xing 晓星, and included Li Quanmin 李佺民 and Jian Qihua 简其华, who went on to do significant field research further afield.

Meanwhile back in Beijing, a Czech couple were documenting narrative-singing, while Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi were discovering the shengguan wind ensemble of the Zhihua temple. Whereas the study of temple music was rather bold, folk-song—the creation of the labouring masses—seemed to make an acceptable topic.

But despite the experience gained in the Yan’an base area in the 1940s, where collecting folk-song was already a pillar of CCP cultural policy (as shown in the 1984 film Yellow earth), the editors reveal a certain resistance among local cadres to the idea, and go to some lengths to justify it. With the social changes upon Liberation, they hint that it was already to some extent a salvage project: “people don’t sing shanqu nearly as much as before”.

Hequ singer

Here one can hardly expect candid ethnographic coverage of the Japanese occupation, civil war, and the early years of Liberation (cf. Hinton‘s detailed, but also ideologically-driven, accounts for the land reform and later campaigns in a village in southeast Shanxi). And sadly, the volume includes only a few very brief biographical accounts of the singers. This 1953 photo of Guan Ermao was reproduced in the Anthology.

As in Shaanbei, the repertoires are dominated by “mountain songs” (shanqu), “Walking the Western Pass” (zou xikou), and errentai genres. Through the zou xikou songs the collectors paid attention to seasonal migration, and songs about love and marriage prompted them to explore the lowly status of women—in the “old society”. They documented work hollers (including those of boatmen), and the songs of miners. Apart from lyrics and transcriptions, the introduction (5–41), and the substantial report (107–224) are inevitably pervaded with the language of the day—”feudalism”, “working masses”, and so on; the authors’ attempt to explore the relation of the songs with people’s lives is constrained by ideology. Still, there’s rich material here.

For a definitive 2-CD set with archive recordings of Chinese folk-song, note

  • Tudi yu ge 土地与歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs], ed. Qiao Jianzhong (Taipei: Wind Records, 1996).
Hequ map

Field sites in Hequ county, 1953.

The bleak Hequ landscape later formed the backdrop for Chen Kaige’s 1991 film Life on a string. By the way, I’m curious to learn of any household Daoist activity in this little-studied region.

* * *

After the Cultural Revolution disrupted research, and lives, the collapse of the rigid commune system from the late 1970s soon allowed the task of documenting expressive culture to resume—now with the monumental Anthology project. The folk-song volume for Shanxi

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中國民間歌曲集成, 山西卷 (942 pp.)

was published in 1990. For Hequ, indeed, it includes some transcriptions from the 1956 volume.

I touched on folk-song collecting in

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

Clearly, as William Noll also observes, we always have to interpret texts in the context of their time; learning to read between the lines is a basic task in studying both early and modern Chinese scholarship. Yang Yinliu and others had to learn to use the rhetorical language of communism to handle ideological pressure. However obligatory his language of class struggle, he documented both folk and élite traditions with great insight.

Still, explicit or implicit ideological frameworks will inevitably affect the work of collection and presentation. An obvious case is the former Maoist highlighting of “revolutionary songs”.

It is a tribute to the advances of Chinese musicology since the 1980s that Yang Mu’s comments (“Academic ignorance or political taboo? Some issues in China’s study of its folk song culture”, Ethnomusicology 38.2 [1994]), based mainly on his experiences in China in the 1980s, now look dated. Yang caustically describes the limitations of Chinese folk-song collection, questioning the “authenticity, representativeness, and reliability” of the early Anthology folk-song volumes. He observes the narrowly political nature of fieldwork in China: that “the arts must serve proletarian politics”, and that collection often served as material for new composition. Yet this criticism again seems to fail to distinguish slogans from genuine intent or actions.

Yang Mu reasonably finds such collections misleading, with revolutionary songs being given space far above love songs. Yang points out that revolutionary songs are not representative of actual folk-song activity, as they were not popular, being performed only for government-sponsored events—at least by the 1980s, and quite probably through the Maoist era too, I might add. Such songs may be academically significant as reflections of the Party’s artistic policies, but as Yang Mu says,

after asking the local singers to sing all types of their local folk songs, and having listened to them singing for many hours, I never heard a single song that could be considered “revolutionary”.

Singers may know a few such songs, but they are not part of their customary repertory. Yang Mu claims the scholars arguing against political control lost the battle, but revolutionary songs take a more modest place in most of the published volumes, so quickly has Chinese thinking shaken off Maoism. Whereas until the 1980s revolutionary songs compulsorily opened most collections, in the Anthology they take their chance along with other songs.

in the Anthology the list of themes at the end of each volume (with minor variations), however subjective, is as useful as any rough-and-ready system. Political songs are included under the headings “social struggle” and sometimes also “revolutionary struggle”, both with sub-categories; a category called suku, “speaking bitterness” or lamenting hardship, may be included under either heading. In many volumes these songs occupy around 10% of the total, which one may still find “unrepresentative”, though by no means as dominant as Yang Mu suggests. I gave a couple of examples:

table 3

table 4

Yang Mu also criticizes the excessive selection of “texts describing or complaining about the bitter life, suffering, and distress of the laboring class people before they were liberated by the CCP”. But such songs are not always clearly about the old days, and even if they are (such as deploring a cruel landlord), songs lamenting the bitter life of olden times are rather common in many societies, and motivations for singing them may be quite complex; they may embody a kind of historical memory, and might even be seen as a subtle criticism or expiation of current woes. Many songs I have consulted in this category seem, like the blues, to be simply lamenting hardship or separation, with no clear time-frame. So I would be less keen to assume political bias here.

Still, if songs praising the CCP are no longer dominant, songs criticizing it are entirely absent, which may or may not reflect reality! Songs with “negative” (e.g., feudal, religious, or sexual) texts may have been censored, both by singers and collectors.

In the Anthology love songs and work songs are in a majority. The ritual and religious soundscape has been allowed a certain presence throughout; but if the collectors and editors have significantly reversed any revolutionary bias, a secular bias may remain. How may one assess their relative importance? Short of fly-on-the-wall recording of folk-song life over a long period, singers may indeed censor songs they see fit to sing for outsiders, long before collectors and then editors make their own selections.

By contrast with Yang Mu’s criticisms, I’ve already discussed the choice of one local cultural cadre collecting the repertoires of blind itinerant male bards in 1980s’ Shaanbei (see here, under “Research and images”):

“When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!”

For more on folk-song collection, see here.

* * *

For Shanxi, neither in the 1956 report nor in the Anthology folk-song volume do the collectors give revolutionary songs pride of place; but they hardly fulfil their aspiration to evoke people’s lives. And while the 1980s’ Anthology fieldwork now looks impressive by comparison with the later superficial reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, it too falls short in ethnographic detail.

All the same, I’m full of admiration for the team that spent those months “among the people” in 1953. And how one wants detailed accounts of the fortunes of their peasant hosts as collectivization and campaigns got under way.

The folk–conservatoire gulf

Yang Yinliu 1950

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

I just remembered a wise quote from the great Yang Yinliu. First, some useful background (“Typical!”).

Further to my post on Different values, the gap that has opened up between the sound ideals of traditional and conservatoire musicians is a regular theme of this blog (see e.g. many posts under heritage). Indeed, I already discussed it in chapter 3 of my first book Folk music of China (1995/1998). It may be a spectrum, but it often seems like a chasm.

In the Republican era, in the face of the apparently wholesale victory of Western civilisation and technology over the “backward” Chinese heritage, along with the influx of a range of Western genres patriotic Chinese sought with modernizing zeal to create an “improved” “national music”, learning from the West while searching for valuable elements in their own tradition. This, of course, was a common reaction in many cultures around the world, as explored by Bruno Nettl.

Some rejected the old “feudal” culture completely; another response was a self-conscious musical antiquarianism, with educated Chinese establishing patriotic groups for the preservation of the “classical” heritage. This not only perpetuated the abstractions of early Confucian music theorists, but also left a legacy that has now been enshrined in the romantic staged reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Indeed, in the Chinese and foreign media this has come to stand for traditional music, despite the continuing vigour of a vast wealth of rural genres.

Early uses of the term “national music” (guoyue) were found among the literati of what were still regional groups, as in Chaozhou and Hakka groups and around Shanghai. What became a “conservatoire style” was based to a large extent on the Shanghai style.

Meanwhile inland in Shaanbei at the CCP base of wartime Yan’an, a debate was also waged between “foreign” and “indigenous” (yang 洋 and tu 土) approaches; the latter was always going to dominate, but Communist cadres often found the raw folk material that confronted them “feudal and superstitious”. I noted the dilemma of cultural cadres in “managing” poor blind bards there under Maoism; and for gender perspectives on “superstition”, see here.

The ambiguity, not to say confusion, of the Party line on traditional culture was expressed by Wang Chun, mentor of the author Zhao Shuli. He criticized both opera and narrative-singing, lamenting the close links between folk music and “superstition”. This established a tendency to treat music as autonomous, divorced from context.

Of course, all this was based on social conditions. At local level, despite the assaults on former patrons, the expressive culture of many rural societies remained based in ritual, whose values were little influenced by the secularizing trends of the cities. As you can see from my post on Festivals, what developed was a range of performance along a continuum.

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

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), 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 (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.

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. 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:


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—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.

Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans

Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.


Source: reddit.com.

Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. Some tracks appear on YouTube, such as

Note also this channel.

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodály, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples (cf. The whisperers). Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding the interest of early east European music scholars in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though by the 1970s they had weathered the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

See also The Kazakh famine.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course the latter too would have suffered under the policies of their own regime.

* * *


Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.


Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodály’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.


In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: Tibetan monks lay down their arms, 1959 (AFP/Getty.).
Right: Norbulingka, Lhasa 1966 (from Forbidden memoryessential reading).

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1956 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo (see Labrang 1).

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.


Three baldies and a mouth-organ

*UPDATED with links to posts on the Zhihua temple and related topics!*


Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:

Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple. […] It was only hearing the temple musicians that directed me irresistibly to living traditions. I began to neglect ancient history…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]

While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—the soundscape of its shengguan remains a classic source. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.

In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster.** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.

chat with HQX

There’s always so much to learn from Hu Qingxue.

It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.

For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:

Qingjiang yin score

Qingjiang yin, copied by Hu Qingxue.

Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy.

Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.

As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.

This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:

Music of the Zhihua temple
Stephen Jones

A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming – several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.

The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.

Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing.  After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.

Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicised, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.

Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context – in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.

While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.

The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerizing heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.

Further reading

  • Stephen Jones, Folk music of China: living instrumental traditions, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 (paperback edition with CD, 1998).
  • Stephen Jones, Plucking the winds: lives of village musicians in old and new China, Leiden: CHIME Foundation, 2004 (with CD).
  • Stephen Jones, In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010 (Appendix 1).
  • Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu [The Buddhist capital music of China], Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2012.
  • Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu [Wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing], Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe, 1993.

Articles on this blog:

And for conceptual backgound,

On the Qujiaying connection:

which leads onto the Hebei village associations and further afield (under Local ritual, including Ritual groups of suburban Beijing).

See also Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing.

* * *

The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also includes flamenco (cf. my series starting here), Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.

And what should await me on my return home than a live broadcast of Mahler 10 with S-Simon Rattle. Without this lying xenophobic government, London could be wonderful.


**Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.

A tribute to Li Wenru

Li Wenru

Li Wenru (1924–2016).

Many of us are nostalgic for the old days of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, in the days when it was still at its original home in Dongzhimenwai—bare dingy corridors, peeling plaster and all.

As I pore over the substantial collection of ritual manuals and gongche scores that we found among village ritual associations in Hebei, I’m reminded of yet another MRI luminary. Through the 1950s, while a stellar team of great scholars like Yang Yinliu, Cao AnheZha Fuxi, and Yuan Quanyou were dedicating themselves to ground-breaking research, the MRI’s remarkable archive was maintained, indeed developed, by the kindly and unassuming Li Wenru 李文如. [1]

Li Wenru spent his youth helping his father in antiquarian bookshops in Liulichang. After the Communist Liberation, the MRI recruited him from 1953 to seek out and buy old musical scores—including precious early manuscripts for the qin zither—and to preserve, bind, and reproduce them. The treasures of the MRI archive owe much to his careful work. Ever reliable, he was much respected by the scholars there, and he remained loyal to them in periods when they were under a political cloud (for a 1965 photo, see here). Over more than four decades he also edited many catalogues and articles on Chinese music periodicals, notably his comprehensive Ershi shiji Zhongguo yinyue qikan bianmu huibian 二十世纪中国音乐期刊篇目汇编 (2005).

From 1986, as I visited my mentors at the MRI—Qiao JianzhongTian QingXue Yibing, Zhang Zhentao, all then still living in very modest circumstances—we would explore the library’s treasury of material on early and traditional music from all over China, in search of leads to local folk musical cultures. Even in the early 1990s the MRI was still poor, retaining the leisurely old-world atmosphere of the commune system.

Far from our modern equipment that allows us to take and store infinite photos, in my early years of fieldwork in rural China I had to bring several dozen films for my camera (not to mention all the audio and video tapes). On our project in Hebei, where possible I photographed ritual manuals and scores complete, but occasionally when we found lengthy fragile volumes that clearly deserved careful copying, we asked the association leaders if we could take them back to Beijing to photocopy. They were sometimes anxious about this—quite rightly, since several local cultural cadres had “borrowed” scores and never returned them.

YMK jing

Such texts, copied at various stages since the late 19th century, were often in precarious condition.  Though by then nearly 70, Li Wenru relished the tasks we gave him of preserving the Hebei manuscripts, painstakingly handling the damaged pages from his little room behind the library. Finally he would bind three copies—one for the MRI, one for me, and an extra copy for the home village when we returned the original to them.


Just a few of the Hebei ritual manuals and scores bound by Li Wenru.

By 1993 the MRI had basic computers, so Li shifu could add a succinct printed preface by Zhang Zhentao or Xue Yibing.

ZZT xu

Zhang Zhentao’s preface to the Gaoqiao score.

Gaoqiao score

From my partial photos of the Gaoqiao score.

Many of the gongche scores in the major recent anthology Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 passed through Li Wenru’s expert hands—the Hebei scores that we consigned to him appear in the three weighty volumes for that province.

With his modest and industrious demeanour, Li Wenru (like performer-turned-cadre Li Jin in Yanggao) was one of those unsung generous workers who managed to contribute to the new society despite the futile interruptions of Maoist campaigns. Quite separately from official slogans, such integrity was always much valued: local moral values endured.


[1] See e.g.
http://www.zgysyjy.org.cn/204/32044.htmlhttp://news.ifeng.com/gundong/detail_2014_03/27/35175677_0.shtml, and http://chuansong.me/n/1391306852337


Spiritual and marvellous mysteries

I recall with deep admiration the unsung scholar Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (1920–2003).

Wang and Yuan
While a student in Beijing she studied with her future husband, the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang 王世襄 (1914–2009) (see wise and affectionate tributes by Craig Clunas [1] —another great Ming scholar—and now here). After Yuan Quanyou graduated in 1943, they married in 1945.

Wedding of Yuan Quanyou and Wang Shixiang, 1945—after the defeat of the Japanese, on the eve of civil war.

Yuan Quanyou had studied the qin zither with Wang Mengshu 汪孟舒 from the age of 14 sui. Through the 1940s she took part keenly in the activities of the Beiping qin society, among a dazzling array of illustrious qin masters. She later became a disciple and colleague of the great Guan Pinghu.

Wang Shixiang soon found that his wife’s skills focused on the traditional literati accomplishments of “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting”, to the exclusion of more mundane activities like cooking. So it was he who became a fine chef; and he considered himself her “qin servant” 琴奴. Several online pages about the couple describe their lifelong rapport by the term zhiyin 知音 “kindred spirits”, a bond whose etymology derives from music.

Complementing Wang Shixiang’s refined literati tastes, through his enthusiasm for falconry, badger-hunting, cricket rearing, and pigeon fancying he had gained what Craig Clunas calls “a raffish reputation” (as you do…). I also learn that he loved football, “as anyone who has tried to make conversation while he is watching soccer on the television can confirm”—cool by me. He retained a rare passion for both elite and popular culture.

From the early 1950s Yuan Quanyou worked tirelessly in the archives of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, alongside the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe, as well as a whole host of qin masters like Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, and their students—including Xu Jian 许健, and the fine female qin player and scholar Wang Di 王迪 (1926–2005). [2]

GPH and students

60th-birthday photo of Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

By 1957, while her husband was also busy publishing ground-breaking research, Yuan Quanyou’s close collaboration with Yang Yinliu resulted in the publication of the fine iconographical series Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片 [Reference illustrations for Chinese music history] (see also here).

CKTP best

Some treasured volumes in my library.

Yuan Quanyou 1950s lowres

All this activity took place under extremely trying conditions. As Craig notes:

The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.

After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Shixiang was employed at the Palace Museum, but he was wrongly jailed for ten months and expelled from the museum in 1953. In 1957, he was branded a “rightist,” a stigma he bore for twenty-one years. Craig’s account of the couple’s enforced inactivity during the Cultural Revolution is also worth citing. Despite Wang’s undoubted sufferings after being sent down to a “Cadre school” in Hubei province, he could “make the experience sound positively bucolic”. While callow young Red Guards were duped into destroying as much of the heritage as they could find, the exiled Wang wrote poetry in the classical style (“much of it on his work as a swineherd and cowherd, which draws on deep-rooted traditions of verse by those who were out of office and out of favour at court”), and even managed to cook gourmet delicacies.

But the mental pressure cannot but have been considerable, since no term was set to the period of banishment, and little or no news was available as to the fate of family or friends.

Old portrait photos are all the moving when we consider the troubled stories behind people’s lives (intellectuals, urban and rural dwellers alike) under Maoism, as evoked by films like The blue kite and To live (see also my tribute to Li Jin). Craig’s aperçu about Wang Shixiang’s renewed energy in the 1980s, “as if making up for lost time”, also resounds in both Chinese music studies and folk culture. Meanwhile, a discreet amnesia took over. (For the concurrent tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars and artists, see here.)

ZGYYSTJFrom 1986 I used to visit Yuan Quanyou in her office at the dilapidated yet numinous MRI compound at Dongzhimenwai, her beaming face greeting me between high stacks of ancient documents. There, with unassuming industry she was still producing further volumes in the MRI’s wonderful annotated series of iconographical collections on Chinese music history, such as the 1988 Zhongguo yinyueshi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 [Illustrated history of Chinese music].

Even as my interests were moving from Tang history to the modern transmission of folk culture, I relished her detailed article on the medieval konghou harp.

Remarkably, after the end of the Cultural Revolution Wang Shixiang had managed to reclaim much of their precious collection of Ming and Qing furniture and artefacts. By the 1990s he and his wife began the process of bequeathing it to the Shanghai Museum, where it now forms a major and prestigious exhibit.

With her calm acuity and beautiful accent, Yuan Quanyou exemplified the refined virtues of old Beijing. She was closely involved in the remarkable work documenting the history and changing performance practice of the qin zither—including research on the 1425 Handbook of spiritual and marvellous mysteries (Shenqi mipu, aka Wondrous and secret notation), most numinous of all tablatures for the qin, compiled by the Emaciated Immortal (as the early Ming prince Zhu Quan styled himself).

Now, this may hardly atone for my recent challenge to the mystique of the qin, but I treasure the precious copy of the 1956 reprint of the 1425 score that Yuan Quanyou inscribed to me in her elegant calligraphy in 1987, for me to “study and practise”.


BTW, having chosen that lower page rather casually (mainly for the numinous Daoist title “Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly”), I now find myself moved by Zhu Quan’s wisdom—in utter contrast to the “living fossils” flummery of recent years, culminating in the befuddled Intangible Cultural Heritage. The opening of his introduction reads:

The Emaciated Immortal says: “The ancient version of this piece has long since been lost.”

These days it’s all “The ancient version of this piece has been transmitted continuously for 2,000 years.” [Expletives deleted—Ed.].

Jinfeixibi 今非昔比 (“Things ain’t what they used to be”), as Li Manshan reflects at the end of our film.

Wang and Yuan later


[1] See https://www.academia.edu/34156645/The_Apollo_Portrait_Wang_Shixiang_Apollo_127_November_1987_pp._350-1, and https://www.academia.edu/34156683/_Wang_Shixiang_Spiritual_Resonance_and_the_Ten_Thousand_Things_in_Fariba_de_Bruin-Derakhshani_and_Barbara_Murray_eds._The_2003_Prince_Claus_Fund_Awards_The_Hague_2003_pp._17-23.
Among many other reports, see e.g. http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/170145.htm, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2580161, and this tribute from Yuan’s granddaughter: https://kknews.cc/culture/2ao24jz.html, with further lovely old photos. Among several biographies and collections is Chen Zhou 晨舟 Wang Shixiang 王世襄(2002).

[2] For an English introduction to the (pre-ICH) Beijing Guqin Research Association, successor to the Beiping qin society, see Cheng Yu, “The precarious state of the qin in contemporary China”, CHIME 10–11 (1997). Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 has written fine tributes to Guang Pinghu and Wang Di:
“Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根——管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3; and
“Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生 Mingjia 名家 49 (2015) (on several online sites e.g. here).

A tribute to Yang Yinliu


Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Since I mentioned Yang Yinliu’s groundbreaking work on the Zhihua temple, he too richly deserves a tribute. Indeed, since soundscape is such a basic aspect of Chinese culture, his work should form a basic training for us all.

Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 / 杨荫浏 (1899–1984) is often described in mediaspeak as “the Chinese Bartók”, but Bartók should rather be described as “the Hungarian Yang Yinliu”. A fine musician and fieldworker, erudite historian, and incidentally a Protestant, Yang’s whole oeuvre was remarkable.

Brought up in the final years of the Qing dynasty in the milieu of the Daoist instrumental music and the refined Kunqu vocal dramas of the Wuxi area near Shanghai, Yang was a fine exponent of qin zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and the ethereal falsetto singing of Kunqu (I haven’t yet found my copy of the precious recording from the 1920s found recently in Berlin). He learned instruments from Daoist priests (including Abing) from the age of six, joining the elite Tianyun she society.

YYLIn Wuxi, under the tuition of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he studied English and Western music theory. He also became an active Christian. He went on to gain a cosmopolitan education in Shanghai, attending St John’s University from 1923. After returning to Wuxi in 1926, he was married in 1928, becoming a professor at Yenching University in Beijing in 1936. Offered a job in the USA heading a Chinese music institute there, he commented, “I can do nothing if I leave Chinese soil, where Chinese music lives.”

After the Japanese occupation in 1937, and through the troubled 1940s, not inclined to join the Communist base area in Yan’an, Yang moved from Nanjing to posts in Kunming and Chongqing, always continuing his research.

The Wuxi Daoists
Yang and his cousin Cao Anhe returned regularly to Wuxi, where they were engaged in a long-term project studying the music of the local Daoists. Of their two major books on the theme, their work on Shifan gu was first published in 1957, Yang’s on Shifan luogu not until 1980.

In some respects Yang seems like a traditional historical musicologist rather than an ethnographer; but he was well aware of complex social issues. This passage on the position of Daoists in Wuxi society illustrates his sophisticated interest in ethnography and ritual practice, besides his more traditional “musicological” concerns: [1]

In the past [?!], Buddhists in south Jiangsu divided into two types, Chan school (chanmen) and Auxiliary school (fumen).

Those of the Chan school were completely vegetarian, and didn’t have families. They only used percussion like woodblock, bowl, nao and bo cymbals, and tonggu drum to punctuate their vocal liturgy; they didn’t play any melodic instrumental pieces. They never took part in production, living in their temples, some of which had large estates.

The Auxiliary school ate meat and had families. Few in number, they lived scattered in the villages, taking part in agriculture and only reciting the scriptures and litanies as an auxiliary occupation. Among the Buddhists, they are the only ones who play the fanyin [melodic instrumental repertoire] and [separate] percussion items.

Among the Daoists, the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) school (belonging to the Qingchengshan style of Sichuan) were similar to the Buddhist Chan school, not using separate percussion items or silk-and-bamboo instruments. Those who played the fanyin and separate percussion items mostly belonged to the Zhang Heavenly Masters school of Longhushan in Jiangxi.

Among the latter group, there was a further clear class distinction. A minority of abbots possessed ritual titles of the Zhang Heavenly Masters, like “Master who Guard the Way” (daoweishi) or “Ritual Master” (fashi), and mostly owned land. They didn’t take part in production. They interacted with landlords and the bourgeoisie in the cities and villages, taking ritual work and contacting and hiring the common village Daoists to take part in major rituals (daochang fashi).

These common Daoists mostly took part in agricultural production, being hired ad hoc: performing for rituals was an auxiliary occupation for them. In both agriculture and Daoism, they were an exploited class. These common Daoists—even the indispensable drummers and flute players, with their excellent musical technique—only got a tiny wage for a whole day’s work.

Conversely, the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters”, having only taken responsibility for quite brief ritual segments of a few hours like Issuing the Talismans (fafu), Reporting the Memorial (zoubiao), and Flaming Mouth (yankou), claimed a reward many times higher than that of the others. Those who played music were mostly the common semi-peasant Daoists; very few of the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters” could do so. This shows that in the past it was agricultural life that produced and developed music.

Never mind the diplomatic PC spin (for “reading between the lines”, see my article cited under Hunan below), Yang had already observed the important distinctions common to local ritual cultures all over China, long before the major projects on local Daoist ritual since the 1980s. [2]



Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, c1962.

Nearby, the Daoist rituals of Suzhou were also thoroughly documented in an amazing 1956 project. Following such early work, major studies of the Daoist rituals of Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai have been made since the 1990s. [3]

The Music Research Institute
After the 1949 “Liberation” Yang’s erudition was much needed. Managing to adapt to the new Communist regime, he arrived in Beijing to become director of the newly-formed National Music Research Institute of the Central Conservatory of Music (predecessor of the Music Research Institute [MRI] of the Chinese Academy of Arts), beginning a golden age for research there. Under his committed guidance they accumulated a large archive of field recordings and traditional notations.

A qin player himself, he was closely involved with all his eminent colleagues’ research on qin.

The golden age of the MRI, 1954;
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Zha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.

The MRI was given a new building (typically, soon dilapidated) in Dongzhimenwai in the northeast of the city. Even in the 1980s, when it became my home base between field trips, its bare dingy corridors were animated by the spirits of the old masters. The new compound, further out in Huixinxijie, is less characterful.


Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

Both before and after Liberation, until the early 1960s, in collaboration with other fine scholars—notably his cousin and lifelong companion Cao Anhe (1905-2004)—Yang managed both to perform remarkable research on a range of living traditions and to compile major collections and transcriptions of traditional notation. Just as important was his monumental history, first in draft from 1944, covering with unique erudition the whole of Chinese music history, and elite as well as folk genres, albeit couched in the language of its time.

His most renowned recording—on another trip home to Wuxi in summer 1950—of pipa and erhu solos by the blind beggar Abing, is perhaps his least interesting. Abing was once among the Daoists whose company Yang kept in his youth, but the 1950 recording was a casual event, on a day off from working with the Daoists who were his main focus.

His work on the Zhihua temple followed on from his 1952 monograph (with Cao Anhe) of the “Songs for Winds” band from Ziwei village in Hebei during their 1950 visit to Tianjin—a band still active when Xue Yibing and I visited them from 1989. In summer 1953 Yang made an important visit to Xi’an to investigate the music (and scores) of local ritual groups; and he drew attention to the ritual music of Shanxi, notably the Buddhist mountains of Wutaishan—also later to become major scholarly themes in China. [4] With Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua he also took part in a project to transnotate a rare score of the “suite plucking” repertoire of old Beijing. For more evidence of his good taste, see here.

Hunan, 1956
Along with his historical research, Yang Yinliu did all kinds of fieldwork. Just as remarkable as his studies with the Wuxi Daoists was a major fieldwork trip he led to Hunan province in 1956, amidst escalating collectivisation. There Yang Yinliu headed a team documenting all kinds of ceremonial music-making, notably ritual and customary musics. Despite the politically correct language of the published volume, they seem to have taken what they found. The resulting “Report on a survey of the musics of Hunan” (Hunan yinyue pucha baogao, 1960) has 618 pages, besides separate mimeographs on Confucian and Buddhist ritual. I’ve written about it at greater length here.

This, the first general survey of all the genres of a given area, was an influential blueprint for later regional surveys from the 1980s, notably the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, on which see my

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

The energy of those times at the MRI, in the midst of increasing political control, was remarkable. Also wide-ranging was an early fieldtrip to Fujian for two and a half months in the winter of 1961–62, led by Li Quanmin, and published in 1963. [5]

In 1962 Yang Yinliu published a masterly overview of Chinese notation in his Gongchepu qianshuo 工尺谱浅说.

All this extraordinary work was carried out under the most taxing conditions. Worse was to come: academics and peasants alike, as representatives of the “Four Olds”, suffered grievously after the Four Cleanups campaigns began in 1963. In May 1965—after the end of the campaigns, when over thirty MRI employees had undergone Socialist Education in Chang’an county, Shaanxi—they celebrated their temporary freedom with a visit to Huashan:

Huashan 1965

In the row behind, fifth from left is the trusty Li Wenru (for whom, see here). Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

As the Cultural Revolution broke out, even in the Hebei village camp where Yang and others were sent for “re-education” he furtively continued research, including studies (along with Huang Xiangpeng, another distinguished colleague) of the 1972 excavation of the Han tombs at Mawangdui (see e.g. Micic, p.104). During this period Yang’s colleagues members of the elite qin fraternity were also given permission to continue their studies.

“How to assess religious music”
Within the confines of the day, Yang Yinliu paid just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular genres (pace Joseph Lam). Indeed, Yang was perhaps predisposed to studying early music history; and it wasn’t so much post-Liberation ideology that drew him to popular living genres, but his own training in performance (Kunqu, Daoists and so on).

In the useful article

he discusses Yang’s own article “Ruhe duidai woguode zongjiao yinyue” 如何对待我国的宗教音乐 [How to treat religious music], Wenhui bao 1961.3 (also reproduced in the 2013 Yang Yinliu jinian wenji), written just as a very brief lull in extreme leftist policies followed the climb-down after the terrible famine.

Meanwhile scholars had been discussing the classification of genres; their framework was enshrined in the 1964 Minzu yinyue gailun [Survey of Chinese music]. Despite the separate and subsidiary place of “religious music”, they were aware that ritual practice pervaded all genres of rural performance. Indeed, Yang seems to have been the first to use the term “ritual music” (yishi yinyue ) in China. [1] From 1959 he also spent many years revising his masterwork Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of Chinese music], which was finally published in 1981. Covering literati, palace, folk, and religious traditions required him to take great care over how to couch his language.

So in his 1961 article he was subtly, and boldly, justifying the very need to study ritual traditions, using the language of class struggle while attempting to refine it. It will hardly satisfy modern anthropologists of religion; indeed, it makes a rather severe test of our ability to interpret writings of the time. Of course, in the 1950s the tenets of ethnomusicology were still far from common even in the West. Yang’s use of language shows the hoops that scholars had to jump through in order to get on with documenting the diverse genres.

After the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the demise of the commune system, Yang Yinliu finally saw his great history formally published, and cultural and academic life restored. Though he lived long enough to witness the revival of tradition, he could hardly have imagined how widespread it would become, and how important the study of ritual and its soundscape was to be. How he would have delighted in the renewed energy of the Anthology and later fieldwork projects! His interests may have been more directed towards the “salvage” of genres common in his own youth and throughout imperial history, but I think he would have understood the value of documenting their fortunes since Liberation, even if that was still to remain a sensitive subject.


The Protestant hymns of Yang Yinliu
Unlike Bartók, Yang wasn’t also a composer. Except

As a coda to this little tribute, the 2-CD set from Wind Records ends with a touching hymn that Yang wrote in 1934, a simple harmonization of the qin piece Yangguan sandie:

I was most moved to hear the Beijing Protestant Church Choir sing it at a memorial concert for Yang in November 1999. His Christian background has long been recognized, but only with the liberalizations since his death did it become possible in China to admit, sotto voce, that he remained a Christian all his life. This makes his hymns all the more moving, especially bearing in mind all the silent tribulations since the 1940s of Chinese Christians, along with artists, intellectuals, and peasants.

* * *

Along with my Chinese friends, some of whom were his pupils, I can’t help feeling a deep nostalgia for the golden days of the MRI. Yang Yinliu’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge and musicianship are likely to remain unmatched. If only my other great mentor, Laurence Picken, had been able to confer with him!

Like many ethnomusicologists, I no longer want to be limited by the narrow association with “music”, but while Yang Yinliu’s writings are wide-ranging as well as profound, his focus on “music” was also admirable.

Finally, two suitable quotes from a junior colleague of Yang (see Peter Micic’s second comment below), and a pupil, [6] who were also to become my mentors:

Yang Yinliu was a large tree full of lush leaves and branches reaching high into the sky. I can only caress each branch and leaf with my hands.Yang was a bridge between the ancient and the modern, Chinese and foreign. I’m still walking along that bridge that Yang built.   —Huang Xiangpeng (for whom, see Peter Micic’s comment below)

Through him, Chinese music history was freed from the shackles of the text, allowing the music and the musicians to take centre stage.   —Qiao Jianzhong


With two distinguished successors of Yang Yinliu at the MRI, 1989: Huang Xiangpeng (left) and Qiao Jianzhong.

Alas, I arrived in Beijing in 1986 a couple of years too late to pay homage to Yang Yinliu in person. But his spirit animates us all.

Selected resources

  • Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of ancient Chinese music] (Beijing, 1981)
  • Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji [Selected articles by Yang Yinliu on music] (Shanghai, 1986)
  • Qiao Jianzhong and Mao Jizeng, eds.: Zhongguo yinyuexue yidai zongshi Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) [Yang Yinliu, master of Chinese musicology, commemorative collection] (Taipei, 1992)
  • Chuancheng: Yang Yinliu bainian danchen jinian zhuanji/Heritage: in memory of a Chinese music master Yang Yinliu (2-CD set, Wind Records, 2000) [with detailed booklet]
  • Yang Yinliu quanji [Complete works of Yang Yinliu] (13 vols, Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 2009)
  • Yang Yinliu jinian wenji [Collected articles commemorating Yang Yinliu] (Beijing, 2013)
  • Han Kuo-huang, “Three Chinese musicologists: Yang Yinliu, Yin Falu, Li Chunyi”, Ethnomusicology 24.3 (1980), pp.483–529
  • Stephen Jones, “Yang Yinliu”, in The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians (2001)
  • Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music: a life of Yang Yinliu”, in Lives in Chinese music, ed. Helen Rees (University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp.91–116. Note also references.


[1] Sunan chuidaqu, 1957 edition, pp.11–12. This passage was cut from the 1982 edition. There may be a story to tell here: perhaps such material was still more sensitive when they revised the text around 1980 than it had been even in 1957.

[2] See also Meng Fanyu 孟凡玉, “Lun Yang Yinliude yishi yinyue yanjiu” 论杨荫浏的仪式音乐研究, Yinyue yishu 2017.6.

[3] For a simple introduction to the musical and ritual culture of south Jiangsu, see my Folk music of China, pp.246–8.

[4] Ibid., pp.195–202 and 213–45.

[5] Cf. ibid. pp.286–321.

[6] Cited in Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, pp.105–106.

A slender but magical clue


Former monks of Beijing, September 1954.

The whole topic of amateur ritual associations on the Beijing plain, and indeed north Chinese ritual, was first suggested by a 1953 monograph, slim yet astounding, by the great musicologists (and musicians) Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi on the shengguan music of recently-laicized Buddhist monks throughout the north and east of Beijing city, commonly associated with the famous Zhihua temple—just at a time when they found themselves in difficult circumstances after the radical social transformations around Liberation, suddenly deprived of their ritual livelihood. [1]

You can hear a haunting track from Yang’s 1953 recordings in the playlist in the sidebar, #14 (commentary here). For a roundup of posts on the Zhihua temple and related ritual activity, see here.

One of the most moving sections of the monograph [2] is a remarkably frank and perceptive letter that Zha Fuxi wrote to the former monks, dated 30/12/1952. As a qin master and scholar, his aesthetic world was remote from theirs, but he deeply valued their music, and quite understood how disgruntled they were.

While I realize that you are trying to pursue your livelihood on the basis of your knowledge of the new society, you will try to consign your repertoire to the cultural sphere… […]

But you bitterly regret that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your youth of studying this music to the point of damaging your health and wasting your opportunities to study culture [sic]. You are particularly resentful that because you are uncultured [sic] you can’t express how these heritages of your elders in the temple—its two great arts of intangible music and material architecture—are worth preserving.

Zha goes on to itemize all the respects in which their music was such a valuable resource for musicology, partly seeking to bolster their self-esteem. He concludes by recognizing how very tough their learning process was, and suggests patience, in the hope that

even if some people in the old society despised you, their moral character has been raised in the new society and they will gradually recognize you.

But of course he was unable to suggest how their position in the new society might be practically ameliorated; the ritual business of their youth would never be restored. Under Maoism both the monks and the scholars would suffer in various ways (for ritual artisans at the time, see here).

Fast-forward to the reform era since the 1980s. For two decades, whenever I returned to Beijing from the countryside, I would go and visit the former monks, notably the late lamented Benxing, and by the 1990s they were training a new generation—a group of teenage boys from Qujiaying village.

But they continued to feel resentful, despite social liberalizations and the ongoing efforts of well-meaning scholars and cultural officials to reinstate the prestige of their music, with frequent conferences and TV appearances, propaganda for the whole “living fossil” “cultural heritage” shtick. Media publicity was one thing, the reduction of their busy ritual “rice-bowl” since 1949 quite another. Today the new recruits are rather good; led by the bright Hu Qingxue, they even manage to do folk rituals as well as obligatory tourist “performances” of the shengguan music at the temple.


Former monks performing a funerary yankou ritual, Beijing suburbs 1993

This film features cameos from Hu Qingxue and our revered master Benxing, but also illustrates the current media style of presenting such culture…

* * *

Anyway, I digress. The 1953 monograph soon attained an iconic status in Chinese musicology, as indeed did Yang and Zha themselves. [3] But Beijing and the Zhihua temple are only the tip of the iceberg. In his monograph Yang Yinliu mentioned a hereditary sheng-repairer (dianshengde 點笙的) called Qi Youzhi, who used to mend and tune the instruments of the Zhihua temple. Thoughtfully, he even provided Qi’s address:


South of the capital, Baxian county east, Xin’an town, Zhongyong street.

Thirty-six years later in 1989, with my brilliant fieldwork companion Xue Yibing I began a survey of ritual associations on the plain south of Beijing. Baxian county was to be on our route, so I copied the page—just on the off-chance that anyone there might still remember him. Arriving in Xin’an town, as soon as we mentioned Qi Youzhi, the members of the ritual association exclaimed, “Sure! We’ll go and get him for you!” He was still only 70 sui, a mere youngster by the standards of many ritual specialists we were now finding everywhere. Our chats with him yielded some interesting material on the transmission of shengguan music throughout the area.

QYZ 1989.jpg

Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

The Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing and the countryside just south. According to Yang Yinliu, Qi Youzhi was the sixth or seventh generation of sheng-repairers in his lineage—though he told us he was the fourth. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.

Qi Youzhi, Qi Lanpu’s second son, [4] was born in 1920. In 1929 he began to play sheng in the Shifan association in Xin’an town, and from 1931 until the Japanese invasion in 1937 he helped his older brother with his sheng business in Tianjin and Beijing. There he learned to make and repair sheng; they also made guanzi oboes, dizi flutes, and shawms (laba).

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. At the North Great Gate of Tianjin, Qi Youzhi recalled, the Buddhist monks at the “Buddhist temple” and the Daoist priests at the Chenghuang miao had many sheng. We asked him if nuns (called “juvenile monks”, youseng!) also played shengguan music; indeed, the Qi family used to tune sheng for the Taishan miao nunnery and the one in Xiaomalu (“Small road”). They used to go to tune sheng not only for the Tianjin and Beijing temples, but also throughout the villages, tuning and mending sheng for both types of ritual association, “northern” and “southern”—the latter also known by the fine terms qie 怯 (“rustic”) and kua 侉 (“with an outsider’s accent” or “bumpkin”), as well as for shawm bands. But after the Japanese invasion in 1937 their activities were highly restricted.

Based in Xin’an in the mid-1940s the family resumed its work, apparently even through the 1946–7 civil war. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. In Beijing, he recalled that temples like the Guandi miao in Sitiao, and the Guangji an at Chaoyangmenwai dongdaqiao, used the classic “capital” (“northern”) shengguan music. But the Baita si, Huguo si, and Longfu si temples seem to have been “rustic” or “southern” in style, since they included small shawms (laba) in their shengguan ensemble. The gradual destruction of this whole landscape of old Beijing has been bulldozed most radically since the 1990s.

After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, seems to have been much less active.

We went to see him again in 1993, between visits to two amazing village ritual associations near Xin’an, Gaoqiao (Buddhist—another sheng-making/repairing lineage; audio playlist track 8, and commentary) and Zhangzhuang (Daoist).

By then our team was joined by Zhang Zhentao, who has since published detailed work on the sheng and its history. Meanwhile Yuan Jingfang made detailed studies of the Zhihua temple style, further adding to the list of its clerical exponents.

Everywhere we went on the Hebei plain, we made a point of seeking out sheng-repairers—often they were themselves members of a ritual association, but anyway they always knew precisely where other groups were active in the area. We also valued sheng players, always most knowledgeable about scales and pitch systems—in Hebei, Shanxi, and throughout north China.

* * *

I still marvel at that miraculous thread which linked us so vividly to Yang Yinliu’s time with the Zhihua temple monks, and further back to the world of palace eunuchs and the ritual life of the Qing dynasty.


[1] Yang Yinliu (1953) Zhihuasi jing yinyue caifang jilu [Record of visits to the capital music of the Zhihua temple], 3 parts, Beijing: Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo gudai yinyue yanjiushi, mim., now available in his complete works. This post is based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.146. For Buddhist and Daoist ritual life in Beijing and Tianjin, see ibid., Appendix 1, whose citations include Vincent Goossaert’s splendid 2007 book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949. As I note in the Appendix (p.222), only five of the nineteen former monks assembled came from the Zhihua temple. On ritual life in old Beijing I must also mention the works of Chang Renchun 常人春.
[2] Part 2, pp.40–45, signed with his other name Zha Yiping.
[3] Cf. Tian Qing, “Shijimo huimou: Zhihua si yinyue yu Zhongguo yinyuexue” [A fin-de-siecle retrospective: the music of the Zhihua temple and Chinese musicology], Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan xuebao 1998/2: 38–45.
[4] As you see from the page from Yang Yinliu’s notes, he had learned that Qi Youzhi was adopted son of Qi Fu, another distinguished sheng-repairer. We didn’t clarify this—such family relations can be hard to elicit on a brief acquaintance.
[5] See In search of the folk Daoists, pp.145–55.