Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

Tianjin FYT 1993.1

Li Jinwen leading on the drum, Samye ling 1993.

Having written about the UK tours of ensembles from Wutaishan (Buddhist, 1992) and Suzhou (Daoist, 1994), now my articles on dharma-drumming associations and sectarian groups around Tianjin remind me to introduce a household Buddhist group there, and their 1993 UK tour.

From 1986 my main mentor at the Music Research Institute in Beijing was Tian Qing, who was busy promoting Buddhist groups all over China as they revived. Himself a native of Tianjin, in 1989 he led me to a group of household Buddhists based in Xinzhuang village in the Southern suburbs. Xue Yibing and I visited them at the house of Pan Shizhong in February that year, as a prelude to our important initial reccy of ritual associations in rural Hebei (see also Buddhist ritual of Chengde).

It’s always a pleasure to return to Xue Yibing’s detailed notes and fine diagrams (see e.g. under Xiongxian). At this stage we were still striving to escape the common perception of “religious music” as referring narrowly to paraliturgical instrumental music.

The leader of the group was Li Jinwen (b.1923), son of a poor family in Dezhou in Shandong province south of Tianjin. As was common, he was given to a local temple when young (7 sui), taking the Buddhist name Nengwen 能聞 “Able Listener”. As he took part in the daily temple routine, fetching water and tilling the temple land, he learned to perform the vocal liturgy, and from the age of 9 sui he studied the shengguan instrumental music that punctuates ritual, taught by his master Juesheng 覺聖. Aged 18 sui he moved to the Damo an 達摩庵 temple in Tianjin, one of several Buddhist and Daoist temples there that used shengguan for their rituals. [1]

Adapting to the style there, more refined than the “coarse” idiom of Dezhou, Li Jinwen soon gained a reputation for his guanzi playing. Apart from performing for their own temple, the monks were in great demand to perform rituals among the folk.

Li Jinwen was laicised soon after the Communist victory in 1950. Like many ritual specialists (e.g. Li Qing in Datong, Daoists in Suzhou) he was recruited to a state troupe, accompanying the regional Pingju opera on banhu fiddle.

After retiring in 1987, despite not having played the shengguan music for thirty-seven years, he was soon in demand to teach the local folk ritual performers the more “orthodox” temple style of his youth, and to join them for funerals and temple fairs, now once again thriving.

The other senior master was Li Jinwen’s Buddhist “older brother” Li Lanting (b.1916). Also brought up in Dezhou, his parents sent him to become a temple monk when he was only 4 sui; given the Buddhist name Jilin 極林, he took up the shengguan music from 10 sui, enduring a typically strict, punitive training. At the age of 20 sui he too moved to the Damo an temple in Tianjin, continuing his studies under master Fengyi 楓儀. Though laicised soon after Liberation, unlike Nengwen he seems to have continued performing folk ritual, singing the vocal liturgy and playing dizi flute, whose free-floating arabesques resemble those of the Beijing temple style.

Tianjin FYT 1989

Our 1989 visit, with Li Lanting on left.

Pan Shizhong (b.1919) was brought up in Xinzhuang village. He worked as a apprentice craftsman in Tianjin for a while, but with his independent mind he preferred to resume his life as a peasant in his home village rather than taking orders. Meanwhile he learned the local folk Buddhist ritual, specialising in the large guanzi oboe, here known as menzi . His sons and grandsons were now learning too.

Zhang Yujie (b.1924) also comes from Xinzhuang. He began learning Buddhist ritual at the age of 12 sui, soon specialising in guanzi. After leaving school he spent some time as a carpenter in Tianjin, returning to Xinzhuang when 21 sui. From 1952 he worked as a primary school teacher, while continuing to perform for folk ritual. He retired in 1984. Apart from his fine drumming, he also played guanzi.

Zhang Shicai (b.1921) was also brought up in Xinzhuang, learning to perform the local ritual from 12 sui. A peasant all his life, since 1986 he had also been making guanzi and reeds for local ritual groups.

Wang Fengrui (b.1956) comes from a nearby village. At first a peasant, he was now working in a village timberyard. He began studying with Li Jinwen in 1986, often taking the lead on guanzi.

There was a pool of other performers, including Ye Chunhua (b.1917) and Chen Wenzheng (b.1919), both former monks, and Chen’s brother Chen Yonghua (b.1935). As usual, they were all versatile on several instruments.

By the 1980s Zhang Shenglu was a cadre in the local Bureau of Culture, responsible for the Anthology fieldwork and influential in promoting the group. Born in Shijiazhuang in 1942, he graduated from the middle school of the Tianjin conservatoire in 1963. Through the Cultural Revolution he worked in army cultural troupes in south China, returning to Tianjin in 1979. While documenting the local Buddhist ritual music he studied dizi flute with Li Lanting—cultural cadres rarely learn to perform the ritual music they study, but I think of young Wang Hui at the Zhihua temple, who has also learned to play dizi impressively.

Later I would find that such stories illustrated several common patterns (see many pages under Local ritual). Clerics were commonly given to temples from young, soon learning to perform ritual; laicised after Liberation, some continued performing among the folk under Maoism, while others only took it up again upon the 1980s’ reforms. Many peasants also persisted, or resumed, sometimes learning from former clerics (like Daguang in nearby Tongxian). And by the 1980s cultural cadres might be closely involved. Still more common were hereditary family traditions of household ritual specialists, like the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi.

Of course, now I would seek a lot more detail about the tenuous maintenance of ritual around Tianjin during the Japanese occupation, the civil war, and through the Maoist decades.

The 1993 UK tour
In the summer of 1993 we did further fieldwork on ritual associations in Hebei villages. In October–November, a year after the UK visit of former Buddhist monks from Wutaishan, I helped Asian Music Circuit invite the Tianjin group on another delightful tour, ably assisted by Rowan Pease (later my partner-in-crime for the Chinese Goldberg variations). Though Li Lanting was too frail to come, the group was cohesive, and they gave fine concerts. By now Tian Qing, still not quite a towering media pundit but at least rehabilitated after his “mistake”, was able to join them, giving lively introductions.

Tianjin FYT 1993.6

Tianjin FYT 1993.2

As well as concerts in London (St James’s Church Piccadilly), Kirklees, Farnham Maltings, and Llantwit Major, we were happy to be invited to perform at the monastery of Samye ling in Eskdalemuir—despite any reservations among the Tibetan community about PRC cultural initiatives (Tian Qing himself was soon to record a CD of Tibetan temple music in Labrang). While the concert was warmly received, the Buddhist robes that the performers wore on stage may have led our ascetic hosts to imagine them as pure, saintly clerics; unable to live up to this image, we sneaked out for a great session in the local pub. For later tours, notably with the Li family Daoists, I take care to explain clearly that such groups consist of ordinary peasants.

The group also went down well in Holland (see Frank Kouwenhoven’s article in CHIME 7, 1993).

The Nimbus CD
To follow two 1988 cassettes of the group, Jingu fanyin 津沽梵音, in the major series of “Chinese religious music” instigated by Tian Qing as part of the Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China, besides a programme for BBC Radio 3 we also recorded a CD for Nimbus, Buddhist music of Tianjin (1994), making a nice counterpart to the repertoire familiar (!) from the Zhihua temple and the Hebei ritual associations. In 1995 I featured archive recordings of shengguan music in the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions for AIMP.

The complete Nimbus album is here (without denying the training of temple-trained monks, eyes closed in concentration, the title “Meditation” here has apparently been added by some new-age hippy going for the singing-bowl market?!):

Like temple traditions of Beijing and folk associations in rural Hebei, their free-tempo preludes and the gradual accelerando of their long suites are wonderful, as in Xingdao zhang 行道章 (#4, with Li Jinwen on guanzi), for the nocturnal yankou ritual.

In a typical instance of the folk variation of the titles of classic qupai “labelled melodies”, in local tradition Lanhua mei 蘭花梅 (“Blue-blossomed plum”, #1) has become “Disdains to paint her eyebrows” 懶畫眉 (#1)!

I don’t know why I translated Dao Ti jindeng 倒提金燈 (#2) as “Cleaning the golden lantern”. Now I surmise that the dao refers to some kind of “inversion” of a labelled melody Ti jindeng (“Raising the golden lantern”)—which however I can’t find elsewhere, although the title Dao Ti jindeng is quite common both around Tianjin and among the Hebei ritual associations.

The percussion “Cymbals to open the altar” (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸, #3) made a suitable contrast to the shengguan items. The hocket of nao and bo cymbals also intersperses the sections of Elangzi 鵝浪子 (#6), also commonly played towards the end of a long suite in the yankou, as in Beijing and Hebei.

The final Yan guo nanlou 雁過南樓 (#8, cf. Dissolving boundaries)  is preceded by Li Jinwen singing the gongche solfeggio outline which forms the basis for them to learn the melodies before adapting them to the idiom of the instruments (cf. the standard group singing of Hebei groups like Gaoluo, as in playlist #9, with commentary here; for the basics of Chinese and Indian solfeggio, see here).

In 1989 we recorded some vocal liturgy from the nocturnal yankou ritual, and the 1988 cassettes also feature several excerpts; but in the absence of the chief liturgist Li Lanting, we didn’t include any in the concert programme or the CD.

Their use of the yunluo is curious. In most traditions its ten pitched gongs are an equal carrier of the melody along with guanzi, sheng, and dizi (e.g. playlist, ##14, 8, 10, again consulting the commentary). Among ritual groups in some regions the full frame has been lost (e.g. the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi), making it capable only of rhythmic accompaniment. Here they had the full frame, but still refrain from burdening it with the melody—the gongs may no longer have been in tune, but it seems to have been an old tradition.

Rather than reifying “religious music”, such CDs should always serve as a stimulus to search out ritual performance in society. Amidst an ever-changing society, large-scale rituals continue to held at major Buddhist temples around urban and rural Tianjin, with both clerical and lay performers; and household groups are busy performing for funerals and local temple fairs.

So these three articles on Tianjin cover a range of ritual behaviour: sectarian activity, household Buddhist groups, and dharma drumming. There’s always more fieldwork to do.


[1] For Daoist and Buddhist ritual life in pre-1949 Tianjin, note my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 1, pp.227–30, based on major insiders’ accounts by Zhang Xiuhua and Li Ciyou—consistent with the complex picture of ritual groups in old Beijing. You may recall that sheng-tuner Qi Youzhi always found a lot of work in the temples of Tianjin. For some reason I haven’t seen the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Tianjin.