Dharma-drumming associations of Tianjin

Tianjin huanghui tu

From Qing-dynasty Tianjin Tianhou gong xinghui tu 天津天后宫行會圖;  see also e.g. here.

Just southeast of Beijing, the municipality of Tianjin is extensive, subsuming suburban and rural regions. I’ve only made brief forays there (notably to sectarian groups around rural Jinghai), but it’s a remarkably rich site for fieldwork, both for ritual traditions and for various genres of narrative-singing.

Many villages in the Western and Southern suburbs have large “dharma-drumming associations” (fagu hui 法鼓會)—the common outsider’s term is Tianjin fagu 天津法鼓, latterly also Jinmen fagu 津門法鼓. The fa 法 is generally associated with the Buddhist “dharma”, but there are Daoist-derived groups too, so a more suitable rendition might often be “ritual” (see note here); the percussion of temple and folk groups is known as faqi 法器, “ritual instruments”.

Xiangyin 1987

The Xiangyin dharma-drumming association, Liuyuan village, at the 1987 festival;
for more, see here and here.

In April 1987, soon after the “discovery” of the Qujiaying ritual association, scholars from the Beijing Music Research Institute attended a major festival of folk performance groups in Tianjin, with many dharma-drumming associations—another clue to the unsuspected riches of ritual culture on the doorstep of Beijing. In February 1989 Xue Yibing and I paid a brief visit to members of the Xiangta laohui 香塔老會 in Yangliuqing town—a group that incorporated shengguan melodic ensemble (for which, see below; see also Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group).

Tianjin fagu 1989

The shengguan section of the Xiangta laohui, 1989. My photo.

As our project on the Hebei ritual associations developed, we were always aware that these groups were related; but we soon became immersed in the village ritual scene further south.

So this little introduction, like several of my pages on local ritual, will mainly be based on secondary sources.

A useful early book was

  • Guo Zhongping 郭忠萍, Fagu yishu chutan 法鼓艺术初探 [Preliminary study of the art of dharma drumming] (1991),
    with text (pp.1–152), tables (pp.153–80) and transcriptions (pp.181­–266).

Her fieldwork was done in conjunction the Anthologywhere dharma drumming appears under the dance volumes for Tianjin (Zhongguo minzu minjian wudao jicheng, Tianjin juan 中国民族民间舞蹈集成, 天津卷, 1990). 

Large percussion ensembles are a common feature of folk ceremonial life throughout China. The style of the Tianjin groups resembles a large-scale variant of the percussion component of temple and folk ritual groups in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei.

The dharma-drumming associations perform for mortuary observances, calendrical rituals for the parish (she 社) temple fairs, and rain prayers (see under Rain tituals in north China); processions for popular entertainment, and formerly the grand ceremonies of the elite.

The Tianjin dharma-drumming associations seem to have became popular from the Ming dynasty. Like the ritual associations just southwest, early groups were often closely linked with temples, notably the Dajue an 大覺庵 in the Western suburbs. Artefacts support oral histories, such as cymbals bearing the date “Great Ming, Xuande 5th year” (1429) of the Tianxing 天興association of Lower Xinkou village. Several oral accounts suggest a sectarian connection, like the Xiejiazhuang village association, whose original name was “Buddhist Dragon-flower assembly” (Shijiao Longhua hui 釋教龍華會)—the Dragon Flower Assembly was a common feature of many Hebei groups, including Gaoluo.

The style of the Xiejiazhuang group was distinctive, with a solemn Buddhist flavour. Other early groups included the Jinyin 金音, Xiyuan 西园, Dongyuan 東园, and Yongyin 永音 fagu hui. For the renowned temple fairs of Gegu town in the Southern suburbs, seven dharma-drumming groups performed on procession: Qingyin 清音 (2), Wuyin 五音 (2), Yayin 雅音, Jingyin 京音, and Jiaqian 駕前 fagu hui.

Before Liberation over two hundred men might take part in an association, and even since the 1980s groups are often several dozen strong. While a single large tanggu drum leads, the percussion is dominated by balletic (or rather mudra-like) large bo 鈸cymbals, playing in hocket with the large nao 鐃 cymbals.

It’s important to experience this music with both ears and eyes; I can’t seem to find a good video example online, but this clip (albeit reified) of the Duzhuang ritual association in Xiongxian county gives an impression of the more solemn style.

By the 1980s not all these groups managed to revive, but in an Appendix (pp.153–80) Guo documents forty-five active groups (and these were just the ones that fieldworkers visited!) with the names and main instrument of their many members; over half of the groups listed incorporated shengguan melodic ensemble.

This genre is particular to this region of Tianjin: even in Wuqing county, within Tianjin municipality, village ritual associations belong to the style common further west and south.

Titles of percussion items don’t overlap strongly with those of temple and folk ritual groups just further southwest—where pieces like Kaitan bo 開壇鈸, Hexi bo 河西鈸, and Tianxia tong 天下同 are played for specific ritual segments. More lengthy suites (datao 套) also differ from those of the Hebei associations.

Among most ritual associations in the region, “civil” and “martial” (wen–wu 文武) generally refer to the division of ritual tasks between vocal liturgy and instrumental music, but here it is applied within the percussion repertoire, with the martial style more extrovert.

Some groups also subsume a shengguan ensemble (yinyue fagu 音樂法鼓, yinyue “music” referring specifically to the melodic ritual ensemble, as always in north China; cf. yinyue yankou—see under Three baldies and a mouth organ). This repertoire, while small, is much closer to that of the temple and folk ritual groups of Beijing and Hebei. I haven’t seen any mention of vocal liturgy; scholars may have neglected it, but it was doubtless subsidiary.

Further afield, the ritual groups of Xi’an are known for their shengguan melodic music, but some also consisted of percussion alone.

Guo Zhongping and the Anthology go on to detail the whole paraphernalia displayed on procession.

Mazu worship and the Imperial assembly
As a major port city, Tianjin is a centre for maritime trade. So among the many gods venerated in the region, it has long been a rare northern outpost for the worship of the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 妈祖 (Tianhou Empress of Heaven, or simply Niangniang “Our Lady”) (see e.g. here), such a pervasive element in the cultures of south Fujian and Taiwan. Among all the temples in the region for a variety of deities, there were once sixteen to Mazu, with their main temple fair held in the 3rd moon from the 16th to the 23rd, dominated by the main temple outside the East Gate.

Also known as the “Imperial assembly” (huanghui 皇會) since the patronage of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, it is the subject of considerable research—not least on its heyday before Liberation, suddenly a legitimate topic after the 1980s’ reforms (note the 10-volume compendium Tianjin huanghui wenhua yichan dang’an congshu 天津皇会文化遗产档案丛书, 2015). Among the many processional groups taking part, dharma-drumming associations were prominent, notably the Yongyin 永音, Heyin 合音, Qingyin 清音, Leiyin 雷音, Xiangyin 祥音, and Longhua 龍華 fagu hui.

Huanghui 2

Among a fine series of images of the 1936 Imperial assembly here.

Even in the decades before Liberation the main event could no longer be held annually; processions were organised in 1904, 1915, 1924, and for the last time in 1936. In recent years the Mazu temple fair has become a glossy, lucrative “cultural tourism festival”.

For the first fifteen years of Maoism until 1964, while traditional ritual contexts may have persisted at local level, we hear little of them. But secular performances continued under the umbrella (sic) of “entertainment associations” (huahui 花会), largely submerging ritual elements. With percussion groups always prominent in political campaigns, dharma-drumming associations were roped into the Great Leap Backward. During the early years of reform, when the most detailed fieldwork was done, traditional observances revived, along with a gradual increase in secular performances.

In recent years the spectacle of the dharma-drumming associations, the Imperial assembly, and Mazu worship has made them objects for the commodifying agenda of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), with its concomitant kitsch costumes, and a stress on presentation at secular festivals (for four associations selected, see here).

By contrast with the fieldwork of the early days after the reforms, such work is more propaganda than research, conforming to the state agenda. Among media coverage, see e.g. here, with several links; I only mention this article for the entertainment value of its Chinglish.

Of course, the ICH is itself part of a wider social transformation; people’s lives have changed hugely since the 1980s, as rural areas have become absorbed into the urban sprawl and the media present tempting alternatives to local culture.

The dharma-drumming associations are yet another instance of the variety of ritual performance around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei.