Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.

1 Hanzhuang
Scores 1: the Miaoyin transmission
2   West An’gezhuang
3   Lihezhuang
Scores 2: the North Dayang transmission
4   North Dayang
5   Gegezhuang
6   Guzhuangtou
7   Kaikou
8   Mihuangzhuang
9   South Shilipu
10 Zhaogang
11 North Shakou

As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.

Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but we gained rich material on the transmissions of ritual culture in the county.

Now, in an effort to rescue such study from the narrow confines of musicology, I tend to downplay such instrumental music in my discussions of local ritual. But reaching Xiongxian it’s time to redress the balance and stress how the shengguan wind ensemble has long formed a major aspect of both Daoist and Buddhist ritual practice—both in urban and rural temples and among folk ritual groups, amateur and occupational.

So here’s a reminder: studying ritual involves studying performance, which in turn involves sound. The ritual soundscape in north China consists of three elements:

  • chui-da-nian—vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan wind ensemble. That is to rearrange them in order of importance—but in most cases the latter is also a significant component of our studies. [1]

Like many other groups on the Hebei plain, the village groups around Xiongxian are often known by the term yinyuehui “music associations”, most misleading to our modern urban ears—as locals know, “music” refers narrowly and specifically to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble, common to both temple and folk ritual groups throughout north China, that accompanies funerals and calendrical rituals. But despite the modern paucity of vocal liturgy in the Xiongxian area, the yinyuehui are far from “secular”, and there are ample clues that they were based in sectarian practices.

Even in the field of shengguan repertoire, as ritual practice was impoverished since the 1940s, we commonly heard that whereas the previous generation could play all the pieces in the score, now few groups could play more than a few of the twelve or thirteen great suites from imperial times.

Since at least the 18th century, many of the village ritual associations in the eastern part of Xiongxian had regularly recopied beautiful old gongche scores of the shengguan music. This was routine throughout the whole region, but here we found the most perfect dated scores recording the strict classic tradition of long paraliturgical shengguan suites (daqu 大曲) deriving from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin, as was their system of four main scales.

Apart from all the rich ethnographic material here on local ritual histories, this substantial repertoire, which was already long established in the Beijing temples by the 17th century, is a major addition to our knowledge of early Chinese melody; and analyzing it—not only on the basis of the skeletal scores, but in living performance practice—is a rich project awaiting someone!

For us nerdy music historians, another exciting find in many of these villages was the nine-hole guanzi oboe, whose second thumb-hole allowed ensembles to play in beidiao/kaofan scale, largely obsolete since the 1950s. As with household Daoists, majestic percussion items for the large cymbals are another important aspect of these groups, and mnemonics for these also feature in the scores. [2]

By 1995 I had decided to write a detailed history of the Gaoluo ritual association (see also pages under Other publications sub-menu), and the most in-depth studies in our ongoing survey were in that western region of the plain. Still, our notes from briefer forays in these villages further east and south offer rich material.

1 Hanzhuang
We made several visits to the old association leader Xie Yongxiang (b. c1917), a fine ritual musician and a delightful, kind, and modest person. His comments are worth citing at some length, setting the scene for other groups in the area; he was able to explain the complex connections between temples, priests, village-wide associations, and sects in some detail.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

The village (formally Hanjiazhuang) was founded in the early Ming, by the Han lineage from—guess where—Hongtong! Actually it was once called ZhangHanzhuang, and now there was no-one called Han, with the Zhangs the dominant lineage. The 1993 population was said to be 3,200, with nearly 800 families and 7,831 mu of land. Their estimate of an average per capita annual income of 1,000 yuan, albeit doubtless conservative, now seems incredibly paltry.

As in the Laishui–Yixian region (see my Plucking the Winds, pp.33–4), Xie Yongxiang explained that villages with a “Great Temple” (dasi 大寺) were founded earlier than those without. The village is divided into east and west ends, and most of the association members were in the east end; people in the west end didn’t seem to have an ear for the music! People from rich families—like the Xin family in the north part of the village, and the Sun family in the south, didn’t join the association.

By 1996 there were over a hundred households “in the association”. But when they collected donations, they visited all the village households, not only the families of members. Those requiring the services of the association for a funeral but not formally “in the association” could just present them with a pennant, cigarettes, or invite them for a banquet.

The association leader is called “incense head” (xiangtou[3]—the relatives of the deceased must kowtow to him after a death; he then mobilizes the association. Everything for the offerings is kept at his house: he organizes everything. He, and the guanshide 管事的 organizers, may or may not be a ritual performer.

Xie Yongxiang was the fifth generation of his family in the association, taking us back at least to the mid-19th century. His great-great grandfather was a member, and his great-grandfather Xie Xiangru was incense head. Xie Yongxiang’s grandfather Xie Dongzhou, a guanzi player, could play all thirteen suites, and his father Xie Fuyou played sheng. Xie Yongxiang’s fourth son was now the incense head of the association, and his third son played sheng. Indeed, the Xie lineage had so many members that it was popularly known as “Semi-Xie association”. Four of the nineteen who studied the ritual before Liberation were still alive.

Xie Yongxiang attended sishu private school for five years, studying the Confucian classics. He married when he was 12 sui, his bride 15—such early marriages were quite common in Hebei, by contrast with north Shanxi. He joined the village ritual association at 16 sui, and after becoming an underground Party member in 1942, aged 27 sui, he still continued taking part in the activities of the Hongyang teachings (Laofomen, Tea-leaves teachings) sect, as well as the Tea Tent Association (Chapeng hui). From 1955 he served as Party secretary of the village, stepping aside in 1958 as the people’s communes were imposed.

When class statuses were allotted upon land reform in the late 1940s, they considered not only people’s material property but also whether they were “upright” (zheng 正). This may sound purely political, but perhaps it was also a recognition of traditional morality. The quota was to attack 15–30% of villagers: for this purpose, obstinate elements, “immoral” people (renpin buzheng 人品步正) and bullies might be labelled “rich peasants”.

Xie said the 1930s and 40s were the heyday for the association—mainly because they had a full complement of good musicians. But they kept going in the early 50s too; the village leaders were mostly members. They remained active then despite the suppression of the sects; Xie himself was responsible for curbing the more questionable sectarian activities. He claimed that the campaigns against sects hardly affected the village. Sure, the county authorities had a directive to attack the sects severely; members of the Laofomen and another sect, the Puji fojiao hui, were given the stigma of a “hat”. But control was exercized by village cadres, there was no need for police from outside; people realized they had no choice but to reform.

The association played for commune meetings in the 1958 Great Leap Forward, and for the 1st May workers’ festival. In the early 60s the county Hall of Culture organized associations to compete at Suzhuang, with both “northern” and “southern” shengguan styles, playing traditional and new pieces; soon afterwards they went to compete in the county town, winning a pennant.

The association had to put activities on hold when their instruments were confiscated in the 1964 Four Cleanups campaign. Xie Yongxiang, as a cadre and Party member, was summoned by the work-team to answer questions; when he put on a good show, they returned some of the instruments. Xie’s third son had learned sheng by playing for the propaganda teams then, performing the music of various local opera genres.

They restarted as early as 1977, after someone came from the county Bureau of Culture to encourage them; a new group began learning in 1978, with the support of the village brigade—they gave work points if they were learning the music instead of working! Later the brigade gave two or three thousand yuan every year—a lot. The association periodically collected donations from its members too. But it was difficult: Xie reminded us of the often-heard saying “Rather manage a thousand armies than one association”.

Chatting with the current Party Secretary, they agreed that it was much easier in the 1950s to support such an association: whereas in those days labour in the production teams held little attraction, now everyone was too busy making a living for their own families (many of them away from the village), so it was no use the brigade just giving money to buy instruments or to let people study. This was soon to become an even more serious problem for all such amateur associations.

Hanzhuang heying 93

The Hanzhuang yinyuehui, 1993.

The village yinyuehui is said to have been founded in 1761 (Qianlong 26th year) to serve (cihou) the Guanyin miao temple, known as Pusa miao. The temple was repaired in 1787 (Qianlong 52nd year). It had fore and rear halls (qianhou dian). In the main temple were statues to Laoye (Guangong) and Erlang. By the mid-20th century one solitary Daoist priest (laodao) looked after the temple. Undoubtedly in disrepair, it was finally demolished in the 1964 Four Cleanups.

Villagers used to offer incense at the temple for the birthday of Guanyin (Wangmu niangniang) on 2nd moon 19th. This was still the MA’s annual feast day (chihui 吃會), though by the 1990s it had become a secular affair, mainly to reward supporters with a lunch of dumplings; they played shengguan through the afternoon, and offered incense after supper. By 1995 they were hoping to rebuild the Guanyin temple, but needed support—they asked me if they were Buddhist or Daoist, so they could apply to the appropriate association! Sure enough, by 2001 they had rebuilt the temple, as we see from the recent fieldwork project led by Qi Yi.

Apart from a Dizang wang temple in the north of the village, there was also a large Yaowang miao to the Medicine Kings. Its annual temple fair was organized by the village Tea Tent Association; they also received associations from other villages. They had still held the fair a few times during the Japanese occupation (with local baoding 保丁 and huchang 護場 officials to keep order), but later they had to stop. After Liberation the temple was gone, and they no longer put up the tea tent. Suzhuang also had a Yaowang miao, whose temple fair on 3rd moon 3rd five associations used to attend.

They heard their elders say they used to go to the Great Temple at Maozhou; the association had “three rooms and a well” there. From the time of Xie’s generation they hadn’t been. Before 1937, they attended the Chenghuang miao temple fair at Bazhou, and the Granny temple (Nainai miao) at Zangang, whose fair was held on 4th moon 1st. After the Japanese occupation in 1937, they had still gone once to the Granny temple fair in Yaozhuang.

The 1950s were a sensitive time: although the association’s activity over New Year was not exactly considered superstitious, it was “treading the same path as superstition”.

The New Year rituals
Here the New Year’s rituals from 1st moon 13th to 16th are known as Releasing Lanterns and Flowers (fang denghua) or simply “stirring up the assembly” (naohui 闹会). On the 12th they put up a tent outside the village brigade office—which contributes. Every family hangs out ritual paintings.

The New Year rituals were the province of the village Tea Tent Association; they issued an announcement (tie 帖) to the yinyuehui. On the evening of the 16th, everyone went to the tent to to pacify the gods (anshen) by offering three cups of pure tea and issuing the document (fashu 發書) by burning yellow paper.

Inside the tent were images of Dizang wang in the centre, flanked by the Ten Kings; as one entered, the Three Ladies of the Empyrean (san xiaonü 三宵女) were to the left, God of Fire (Huoshen) to the right. The Ten Kings on both sides. In the room behind were images of Baiyi pusa (Guanyin, back-to-back with Dizang), facing Yaowang, flanked by the Ten Great Physicians (shi da mingyi 十大名醫). The yinyuehui played in a separate tent to the side.

HZ tent map

The ritual tent of Hanzhuang until the 1950s, after Xie Yongxiang’s description. From the ever-diligent Xue Yibing’s 1993 notes, vol.2, p.91.

But their most common activity was performing for funerals, playing shengguan and percussion suites without vocal liturgy—they consider the shengguan version of Pu’an zhou as efficacious as the former version sung by temple monks.

Hanzhuang chui 93

Photo: Xue Yibing, 1993.

Sects and village-wide ritual activities
Now the plot thickens. Xie distinguished the Tea-leaves teachings (Chaye jiao), a religious sect (jiaomen), a shamanistic cult for curing illness, from the Tea Tent Association (Chapeng hui), a “mass organization”, the formal ritual association representing the whole village; further, the latter group is a “charitable association” (shanhui 善會). [4]

According to Xie, the Tea-leaves teachings were the same as Laofomen and Hongyang sects. The Hanzhuang sect was transmitted from Duangang nearby; several dozen households were members, including Xie himself.

The Tea-leaves teachings sect worshipped Hunyang jiaozhu and Śākyamuni. They cured illness with tea leaves, but didn’t offer incense or take money. They didn’t display paintings, but their scriptures included Linfan jing 林凡經, Shiwang juan 十王卷, Erfo zhou 二佛咒, Pu’an zhou 普安咒, and the Eighty-eight Ancestors (Bashiba zu). At their monthly offering (yuegong) the chief (dangjia) burned seven sticks of incense, hung out a red veil, and made offerings, writing upper and lower slips (shangdan, xiadan), the former reading “name of god invited, what the offering is, date of offering”, the latter “Thanking the gods for well-being (ping’an xiefo 平安謝佛)”, with the name of the disciple beneath.

The chief of the Tea-leaves teachings was the grandfather of the deputy Party Secretary when we visited. The recalled that he could cure illness. He had three lumps of gold, an incense burner, a strip of silver, and a muyu woodblock. The silver had a mantra (zhou, or zhenyan) on it, most efficacious. “Six ears can’t hear the mantra”—that is, no more than two people, or else it’d lose its efficacity. They had one chief and two deputies; the chief could only tell one of the deputies the mantra on his deathbed. They were chosen for their good heart, because they could “do good for the people” (weimin xing shanshi).

The villagers insisted that it wasn’t a reactionary sect (fandong huimen), and that it wasn’t suppressed here after Liberation, unlike in many other villages in the county. As Xie said, if a sect was doing good for the villagers, it wasn’t suppressed!

Still, people could see the way things were going. The secretary’s granny smashed the incense burner in the Four Cleanups, and buried the strip of silver along with her husband. The mantra for curing illness was not transmitted. The scriptures, which they had long since stopped reciting, were burned at the opening of the Cultural Revolution. Some members of the ritual association were in the Laofomen, but the two weren’t related.

Xie Yongxiang made further fine distinctions—which would surely have been lost on cadres from outside the immediate vicinity. The Tea Tent Association was not the same as the yinyuehui: the latter served the former. The scriptures of the Tea Tent Association were seized by the village’s own Red Guards in 1966, and were now lost. But they had started putting up the tent again in recent years.

Turning to the shengguan music, Xie Yongxiang told us of an association rule: you can’t just take the instruments as you please—they’re kept in the chest, in the custody of the incense head. Like other ritual leaders, he observed that the ritual shengguan repertoire is “civilized”, and not to be sold—they perform only as a social duty. The association had a rule that if you behave badly or go off to be a chuigushou [low-class occupational shawm player], then you’re expelled, getting a bad name: “It’s easy to enter the association, but difficult to leave”.

Hanzhuang drumHanzhuang guanzi set

Their drum was said to be 200 years old. They were among several villages in the area with a rare nine-hole guanzi.

Villagers recalled a saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at maintaining sheng. They came twice a year, repairing eight sheng for 100 yuan. One, incised “made by Shao Guanghui”, was said to be from 1929. They claimed to have an even older one, with wooden bowl.

Their master Liu Yuntian (1880s–1941), one of the compilers of the 1920 score (see below), could play all thirteen suites, as could Xie’s grandfather; Sun Ruzhou (c1909–92) could play all except three. Xie and his colleagues could now only play three (Pu’an zhou, Qi Yanhui, and Jintang yue); of the percussion suites they could play Fendiezi and Dou anchun. As elsewhere on the plain, the long mantra Pu’an zhou was most commonly used, to banish evil (xie).

Xie Yongxiang recalled that in his first winter he couldn’t learn a single suite, but the second winter it came much more easily. He mainly learned by reciting the score with his second uncle, a guanzi player. First, students learned pieces in the main scale of zhengdiao, beginning with Pu’an zhou, the teacher leading while they sang along, following the score. As they learned each piece they made their own copies, beginning with the long slow prelude. They took up the instruments after a month or so, the master allotting them according to people’s tastes and aptitude. Similarly they began learning the percussion pieces by reciting the mnemonics, then by miming the actions with their bare hands, finally by taking up the instruments—all that was difficult too.

I had a welcome reunion with the Hanzhuang association at a conference in Beijing in 2015, remembering Xie Yongxiang fondly as we sat outside in the sun.

Scores 1: the Miaoyin transmission
While we have seen many fine gongche scores of the shengguan ensemble music that accompanies ritual all over the Hebei plain, those of the Xiongxian associations give an unusually detailed picture of local transmissions. Though quite similar in repertoire, there seem to be two somewhat separate networks here, using different gongche symbols and metrical indicators.

Extant scores from Lihezhuang and Hanzhuang, copied in 1915 and 1920 (4th and 9th years of the Republican period) after previous copies in 1874 (Tongzhi 13th year), state that their shengguan music was transmitted in 1787 (Qianlong 52nd year) by the Chan monk Wang “Bodhisattva” Guanghui, called Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—a fitting name for a musical monk. In Hanzhuang they had heard that Miaoyin had come from elsewhere—Beijing, perhaps?

Hanzhuang had several scores, notably from the early Republican era. I can’t be sure how early the association was founded, but we see a continuous transmission from the 18th century right down to today. Zhang Zhentao (see n.2 below) makes the important point that such scores had an average life of roughly fifty years between recopyings.

Hanzhuang xu 1

Hanzhuang xu 2

From verso: list of movements in each of the great suites.

Hanzhuang xu 3

Hanzhuang xu 4

Verso: percussion items.

Hanzhuang XWJ

Slow opening of the Xiwen jing suite—wonderful, difficult, and later obsolete.

The associations of Hanzhuang, Lihezhuang, Guzhuangtou, and West An’gezhuang were all derived from Miaoyin in the 18th century.

2 West An’gezhuang
The Lihezhuang association had also taught that of West An’gezhuang, which had a similar score.

This was a small village, with a population of 600 in 100 households. According to a recent stone tablet at the entrance to the east village, An’gezhuang took its name from the early Hongwu era (1368–98) when the family of Zhang An’ge 張安哥 moved here from Shanxi. East and West villages separated in the early Qing.

By 1993 the yinyuehui had seventeen members, but it had been inactive since 1988. As often, the elders were keen to keep it going, but no young people were coming forward to learn. We chatted with their leader Zhang Dehua (b. c1924), who was running one of four general stores in the villages, and was quite content earning 7 or 8 yuan a day—try telling that to young people today

Zhang Dehua still had a nine-hole guanzi. He made his own guanzis, from redwood, karin wood, or rosewood, the latter rare—it’s good if you can find some old furniture to use. He went looking for reed after 5th moon 5th, both to make guanzi reeds and for the membrane of the dizi flute.

The association learned from Lihezhuang in 1947—Zhang Dehua was part of that first generation. He remembers Wang Yongzhuang and Wang Qingling (listed in the score) coming from Lihezhuang to teach them, staying for two or three months. He and his fellow-students often went to Lihezhuang to study too, and sometimes at New Year they’d take a cart to collect their masters. Zhang went to Lihezhuang to learn the Zhoujintang suite—it took him a whole month. He only mastered it just in time to play with them as they put out the lanterns and paraded the village.

The masters made them all begin with guanzi, then chose the promising boys, making the others learn the other instruments. Zhang recalled their instructions, like holding the sheng upright, playing with eyes closed (photos here, and here).


Prelude of W. An’gezhuang score, 1947, listing transmission history.

We copied their 1947 score—also including rare fingering charts for the instruments. As we heard in several villages, another precious old score had been burned at the request of a senior musician for his funeral.

WAGZ score

The preludial Hesi pai (aka Chuisi diao in the Zhihua temple, Beijing), leading into Qi Yanhui.

Hesi pai score.jpgfrom my “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.385–7.

I should outline the learning process. Students first study singing the skeletal notes of the gongche score by decorating them with akou ornaments in unison; later they adapt this secondary melody to the various instrument types, imitating the heterophonic idiom of their masters.

Exceptionally, at the end of their score the West An’gezhuang students made more detailed notations of the slow manban pieces, always most complex to learn. They wrote these soon after their masters had taught them how to embellish the skeletal notes of the gongche symbols with akou decorations. So when they recited a piece, they used the standard gongche at the front, but when they played it, their own more detailed notation at the back made a useful further guide.

They told us of a contest in the late 1970s. The East Houliu group came to “clash associations” without having issued an announcement, but they were away from the village doing another ritual. Hearing about the visit when they got back, the West An’gezhuang association issued them a formal challenge. As they took their seats around two long tables, the host association let them play first, as guests. East Houliu began with Pu’an zhou, so the hosts played it too. Then it was their turn to choose a suite—they now played Pu’an zhou in the transposed version with large reed on the guanzi. But the East Houliu group didn’t know how to play it in that scale, so they put down their instruments and sloped off, defeated.

Lihezhuang had a similar contest with North Dayang just at the time of the wheat harvest, but both village associations let the wheat stay unharvested while they competed, matching each other piece for piece. The village chief kowtowed to the association head, imploring them all to harvest the wheat, but to no avail. West An’gezhuang and North Dayang had “faced in the tent” for three or four years at the Banjiawo temple fair—they had to provide each other in advance with a list of the pieces that they intended to play.

Both Hanzhuang and West An’gezhuang had learned from the Lihezhuang association:

3 Lihezhuang
This village was founded in the early Qing by families from Nanzhuangzi and Wangcun.

We met senior members Li Xinchen (b. c1926) and Zhang Shaoqing (b. c1924)—whose grandfather had been a minor figure in the Boxer uprising in 1900.

The association originally had four scores, and one in a wooden cover for group reading. The association must have been active from at least 1874, as the Hanzhuang score shows; and they were training other nearby groups in the 1940s, despite a massacre by Japanese troops in 1939. Later the troops had descended on the village while they were score-reading and burning incense, but they were pleased to find them learning ritual music and worshipping the Buddha. Once they took Li Xinchen off to deliver equipment to the town. They used to watch the opera at Zhanggang—getting a bit nervous when it was a martial play!

Opera 1996

Opera for 3rd -moon Houtu temple fair, West Xin’gao 1996.

Li Xinchen played sheng, having learned in his teens from Wang Yongfa. The score and effects were kept at his house because he was conscientious. In those days it cost over 300 dayang to get two frames of yunluo retuned. Zhang Shaoqing learned from 13 sui, beginning to take part in temple fairs the following year. The rule was to study score-reciting for three years before taking up the instruments, but he was allowed to learn the sheng in his first year, studying all day and all evening in the winter, so he could take part in the temple fair in the spring. The teacher stuck red paper slips on the pipes of sheng so they could learn the note names, and wrote scores of individual items for them to take away and learn.

While they rather downplayed any religious connection, they considered the yinyuehui as “Buddhist”—the monks in the old village temple could all play shengguan, and took part in the temple fair at Great Bucun, asking Wang Yongfa to go along with them to play. And Zhang recalls attending the Maozhou temple fair as a Yaowang association when he was around 16 sui—usually they took part in the nearby fair at Zhanggang. But the association had no scriptures—only a ritual tent, a table, and cloth hangings, all destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

The previous generation could play all the suites. The only one that Zhang’s generation couldn’t play was Xiwen jing (see photo under Hanzhuang above). He learned all the other movements except the long slow “main pieces” that gave their name to the suite; he studied it for a whole winter, but then gave it up. But generally teachers didn’t punish poor students, since it was voluntary—unlike professional opera, where beatings were frequent.

Of their old masters, they recalled the brothers Wang Qingling and Wang Changling, both guanzi players, who died before Liberation. Wang Qingling (also a dizi player) was renowned. Wang Xu (also listed in the score) and Han Fushun specialized in the percussion (“martial altar” wutan)—Han, a master drummer, was heartbroken when the drum was burned in the Cultural Revolution. Liu Jinghui, the copyist of their score, also an active member of the association, died before the Cultural Revolution, aged over 60 sui.

Zhang Dehua from West An’gezhuang had come to find them and play with them. They also knew of the Kaikou association (see below), and recalled the Wangzhuang association in Zangang “facing in the tent” with North Dayang. Each association has its favoured suites. At a contest “facing in the tent” with North Dayang, they made up a saying:

When Lihezhuang plays Xiwen jing, North Dayang digs a hole;
when North Dayang plays Da Hongpao, Lihezhuang takes fright.

As we’ve often seen, collectivization didn’t necessarily force these associations into inactivity, but here they fell silent after 1953. Despite the old people’s protests that it was the only diversion (wanyir) the village had, and they mustn’t be the generation to let it go, though the village Party Secretary wasn’t against it, he was helpless to support it.

Scores 2: the North Dayang transmission
But there’s more! Nearby, the North Dayang association had taught those of Guzhuangtou, and later Gegezhuang, North Shakou, and East Houliu.

This tradition is rather different from that transmitted by Miaoyin. Both were fixed, conservative, and likely to represent a ritual repertoire going back at least to the 18th century. But these scores use old-style gongche solfeggio symbols in the rare and early form like those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing, and they were exquisitely copied, with elegant and literary preliminary texts. [5] Curiously, their metrical markers are more simple, lacking the equivalent of the slow 8/4 time signature, with its distinction of one main beat and two subsidiary beats, used in the scores transmitted by Miaoyin (see photos above).

4 North Dayang
When we visited in 1995 this association was barely active, and it has remained so despite more recent initiatives (see update here).

Not unusually, Dong Xinnian (b. c1936) was both village Party Secretary and leader of the ritual association. He had the thankless chore of trying to implement the birth-control policy, which (ironically) took up nine months of his year.

His grandfather Dong Fuxing had played dizi, his father Dong Fengxiang guanzi. Dong Xinnian himself learned guanzi when 12 sui with the master Han Zhenghai, who bequeathed him a nine-hole guanzi. When Dong was young, he stuck the score to the bed-head, so he could start reading it as soon as he woke up in the morning. He drew the gongs of the yunluo on the wall, and struck them like that, until there were holes in the wall!

Han Zhenghai died in the 1950s, aged 76 sui. Yao Fushou died before Liberation; he taught Dong’s father. Their own teacher was called Shi Deshan (or Yushan).

The old leader was Liu Jianxian, a sheng player. He served as difang local chief, but never married. His mother loved the shengguan music—she never minded all the people who went to their house to learn, and after spending all day in the fields picking hemp she spent her evenings making it into lantern wick for them.

They had stopped practising for some time before Liberation, but in 1951 over thirty boys had studied, bringing their own kerosene lamps. In the early 1950s the association was respected by other local groups. But they had to stopped again in 1957.

The village had a Great Temple—and as we often heard, “where there’s a Great Temple there’s an association”. The elders said their ritual had been transmitted by a priest from Beijing.

Here the formal name for the group was Road Lantern Association (ludeng hui). Like Gaoluo, they had diaogua hangings with scenes from popular tales like The Journey to the West (Xiyou ji). The association had 3.7 mu of land, from whose income they bought lanterns for New Year; if there wasn’t enough, they collected more from individuals. They used to perform for the Granny temple (Nainai miao) fair on 12th moon 30th, hanging out the Granny painting, flanked by the Ten Kings; and then again for the New Year’s lantern rituals from 1st moon 14th to 16th. They also offered incense on 4th moon 18th—when there was a tent, but no Tea Tent Association as such. The Laofomen sect was also common in the village.

Later when the Laoye miao temple was demolished they sold off its tiles in order to have their sheng tuned. Fan Huilai (see Gegezhuang below) used to come to tune sheng for them. Later his disciple Li Yunteng (who played both sheng and guanzi) learned to do it—he could make sheng too. But then Li “Made a Mistake” (cf. the section titled The Houshan Daoists here) by becoming a common shawm-band player (chuigushou) and taking payment, so the association threw him out. (I explored this tension in Plucking the winds, pp.324–9.)

They had taken part in the temple fairs at Zangang and the Yaowang miao temple in Greater Lüzan village. They recalled “facing in the tent” with the association of South Gongjing in Xincheng.

Dong Xinnian was still moved to recall the copying of the score in 1949 (“Republic, 38th year”). Sun Fatang and Han Zhenghai had put out the table at Han’s house—Dong, then 14 sui, had ground the ink for them, the masters singing the gongche solfeggio as they copied. It was still fresh in his memory. Dong Xinnian recalled an old score stating that it was handed down from the Ming dynasty, but after the 1949 recopy it was lost. That must have been the score that the Gegezhuang association had copied in 1943.

The score’s preludial text—full of erudite allusions to the ancient history of courtly ritual and music, such as could only have been composed by a highly knowledgeable urban elite—is the most overwhelming reproach to anyone who, confronted by peasants seemingly “without culture”,  belittles the lowly status and simplicity of so-called “folk music” (as conservatoire musicians and younger urban-dwellers tend to do), to sinologists who prefer their culture safely enshrined in libraries and museums, and indeed to cautious orchestral boards. At the same time, the way that such traditions are deeply embedded in constantly changing social history refutes any search for “living fossils”; the brief of ethnography is not to glorify some reified patriotic concept of ancient splendour.

N. Dayang xu 1

N. Dayang xu 2

N. Dayang xu 3

N. Dayang xu 4

N. Dayang xu 5

Verso: note Text to Awaken the Age (Xingshi wen).

N. Dayang xu 6

Note (from line 3)  “Couplets in praise of [shengguan] music” (Zan Yinyue duilian).

 5 Gegezhuang
Among the associations that North Dayang trained was that of Gegezhuang. We visited as early as 1989 on our first exploratory survey, and returned several times in 1993 and 1995.

Gegezhuang, like so many villages in the region, was settled in the early Ming, by the brothers Guo. By the Tianqi era (1620–27), the Ge 葛 lineage was dominant, so the village became Gegezhuang. The Zhang lineage was also important—they used to have a lineage temple and genealogy. In 1993 the village had a population of 5,000, with 1,200 households.

Former temples included a Longwang miao, Nainai miao, Yaowang miao (to the ten great doctors), and Tudi miao. The village had Hunyuan and Puji Fojiao hui sects. The leadership system of the former consisted of great and deputy sectarian heads (dajiaotou, erjiaotou) and “altar chief” (tanzhu 壇主)—all imprisoned after Liberation.

The association used to attend temple fairs in the county town and Zangang, but not Maozhou. They already played “small pieces” when in 1943 they decided to invite the masters Han Zhenghai and Yao Fushou from North Dayang to teach them the great suites—they knew them all, and were renowned for playing “correctly” (zheng 正), and for their excellent (jing 精) technique. At the same time they made copies of the North Dayang score. Zhang Wenhan (b. c1932), now manager of the village wedding and funeral committee, was part of this group, learning from 14 sui, along with other young villagers who also learned opera. In 1978 Zhang was a leading figure in getting the brigade to support the revival of the association, soon after the opera troupe, but they had suffered from some restrictions since. They now had over twenty members, a few in their 30s.

Fan Baohua (b. c1952), learned around 1963 when he was 12 sui, along with his older brother Fan Huilai; they both learned from their father Fan Huoqing. Baohua didn’t know gongche, but picked the melodies up by ear.

GGZ Fan Huilai 93

Fan Huilai overhauling sheng.

Fan Huilai soon became a renowned sheng tuner. Like Qi Youzhi half a century earlier, he was itinerant, and apart from his experience of tuning and scale systems, he could tell us all about ritual groups throughout the area. Here is some of the equipment he used to maintain sheng:

GGZ sheng stuff 1GGZ sheng stuff 2

So here’s another hot fieldwork tip:

  • If you’re looking for ritual groups in Hebei, find a sheng tuner!

The association’s scores, copied in 1943, consist of one large volume containing the great suites, and two smaller ones of individual pieces. The senior master Wang Zhongxiang (1920s–early 1990s) recopied them all in 1947. Written, like the North Dayang original, in old-style gongche symbols, they are among the most exquisite scores we found.

GGZ xu 1 cropped


GGZ xu 2

GGZ xu 3

At the top of the page above, note the title Sacred Edict Sheng yu: for a fine discussion, see Victor Mair, “Language and ideology in the written popularizations of the Sacred Edict”, in Johnson, Nathan, and Rawski eds., Popular culture in late imperial China.

GGZ score

from mid-page, Zhoujuntang, version in zhengdiao scale.

GGZ score 2

Verso: Hesi diao, rare version in kaofan scale (cf. Hesi pai in zhengdiao, under Hanzhuang above)

On 20th–21st January 1995 we attended a funeral in Gegezhuang for a 60-sui old woman. Since this was not a very advanced age, the rituals were relatively simple, but we noted several customs differing from the style of funerals further north and west on the plain, including the headgear of the kin. The yinyuehui only played shengguan, and had apparently never recited scriptures for funerals, despite all the local temples, priests, and sects. The sequence included Pacifying the Soul (anling 安靈), Placing Offerings (baiji 摆祭), Escorting to the Road (songlu 送路, or Triple Libations of Wine san dianjiu 三奠酒, cf. Triple Libations of Tea) with Burning Horse and Cart (shaoche 燒車), and kailing 開靈. Throughout both days the yinyuehui played a series of long shengguan suites, seated under the fine old archway that they had rescued from the Red Guards in 1966.

GGZ funeral 95

GGZ funeral chui 95

6 Guzhuangtou
North Dayang had also trained the village ritual association of Guzhuangtou. Their old score, now lost, dated from the Tongzhi era (1861–75), but we copied a more recent one.

The village was founded in the early-Ming reign of Hongwu (1368–98) by two brothers from Fengyang in Anhui. This was yet another village where the Laofomen sect was formerly active. The yinyuehui had once had over forty members, but now only a dozen remained, and they had been inactive since around 1989. As the village (with a 1993 population of around 3,000) was becoming quite well-off, its youth were off making money, with no interest in learning old ritual music anyway. The usual story…

The huitou leader Liu Wanfu, an endearing shepherd with big ears, had learned from his elder brother Liu Wanting. We also met the former leader Zhang Gengxiang (b. c1915). The two of them couldn’t bear to let the tradition die out. On 1st moon 15th of 1992 they played deep into the night, but Liu’s high blood pressure worried his family, so they wouldn’t let him play any more.

Their instruments were still well maintained. They had three old nine-hole guanzis; seven of their eight sheng had wooden bowls, and at least one (said to be over 100 years old) had a full complement of seventeen reeds—another rare echo of the Zhihua temple in Beijing; it still sounded good.

7 Kaikou
Further east lie the three villages of Kaikou, where a ritual association had recently revived when we visited in 1995 (For a recent restudy, see here).

Kaikou has been renowned since the Republican era for its production of medicine for respiratory and gynecological ailments, a tradition they had restored. This was the main income of the village—there were many advertisements on the village walls.

We chatted with the huitou leaders Li Baohua (b. c1921) and Dong Xiuzhi (b. c1932).

Everything was lost in the Cultural Revolution. Unlike other villages, the association hadn’t revived with the liberalizations of the late 1970s—but their incentives for restoring in winter 1993–94 were the rebuilding of the Dong lineage temple and the pilgrimage to Maozhou. Lineage temples are far less common in north China than in the south, but ever since their first ancestor in the Yuan dynasty, the lineage had an illustrious history, right down through the Maoist era. After the old temple was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, the new one was indeed inaugurated in 1996.

They restored for the New Year’s lantern rituals of 1994. The 1st and 2nd brigades gave some money and villagers made donations, amounting to several thousand yuan, to buy instruments—for which they had to make raher distant journeys. They bought four new sheng from Gaoqiao (originally in F, they had them retuned to E), and three more from the equally fine sheng factory of Lesser Huangzhuang, in Jinghai further east. With their old yunluo gong-frames both lost, they borrowed one from Gegezhuang, and bought a new one from Beijing, with whose timbre they were underwhelmed. Their old drum was still serviceable after being re-braced.

Here’s the opening section of their public list of expenses for restoring the association, mainly showing the purchase of instruments, as well as some poignantly modest bills for travel and meals (politicians of all nations take note!):

Kaikou expenses 95

So they could now perform for temple fairs and funerals. For the New Year’s observances from the 14th to the 16th they played each day on a tour of the village, with a yankou in the evening. They revived their feast on 4th moon 8th, and went on to perform at the Maozhou temple fair for the 15th—the village committee gave them a lorry, and the temple put them up; everyone paid 5 yuan, and they refrained from drinking or eating meat.

The association originally had its own building, but now they used Li Baohua’s house. When we visited they were making tables and chairs for ritual performance. They had a new ritual tent (6 x 2 metres), and four pennants, as well as three three-cracker-firers. They never wore costumes, but originally had a large yellow ritual umbrella (wanmin san 萬民傘)—dated, with names of ritual leaders.

The two incense heads were Dong Wanchi (b. c1929, from a revolutionary martyr’s family) and Sun Shaoyan (b. c1926). They said they were a “Medicine King Association” (Yaowang hui) for the renowned Tang physician Sun Simiao.

Kaikou painting

This new painting had been “invited” from the Maozhou temple—that is, animated there.

With a dozen seniors and a dozen younger men, their shengguan playing was already quite accomplished. Their old scores, “transmitted from the palace” (a boast that we can’t take lightly, given the prefaces of scores like those above), had been lost in the Cultural Revolution. They were copying a new score into an exercise book.

Kaikou chui 95

8 Mihuangzhuang
In a relatively well-off district, the village population was then around 3,000. The association still had twelve members, the youngest 50 sui. They learned just after Liberation. The huitou leaders were Liu Wenxing (b. c1929) and Zhang Guoben (b. c1924). In 1995, on our second visit, we also had a nice chat with the senior Cheng Wanxiang.

Mijiawu had five villages: both East and West villages had Great Temples. Before Cheng’s time, the Laofomen sect in North village had learned from the Buddhist monks of the Great North Temple in West village. There were still monks in the temple when Cheng was young; Xie Yongxiang (see Hanzhuang above) recalled them “taking out the scriptures” (chujing) to perform rituals among the folk—they also played shengguan. But the temple, and their instruments, were burned down during the War against Japan.

The Mihuangzhuang association (also Laofomen sectarians) originally learned from the North village. Before 1937 they had informally invited the father of Xie Yongxiang in Hanzhuang to instruct them—he was a distant relative.

The lead guanzi player of the Bandong (East Banjiawo) association was working in Mihuangzhuang when he came along to a winter rehearsal and joined in. They realized he was really good, so he took part in their sessions every evening, and taught them some pieces, including the fast concluding sequence Elangzi. They wrote their gongche score as they went along, learning new pieces. One Ji Yushan (deceased) had written a “large volume”, which had been lost by his irresponsible son as they were demolishing their house while moving.

So their shengguan repertoire, as Cheng Wanxiang observed wisely, derives from three sources: Mijiawu, Hanzhuang, and Bandong.

They restored around 1981, despite a lack of support from the village brigade and the disapproval of the county authorities. Cheng’s family were poor, but they had forked out the money to buy sheng, so the others were moved to bring out their grain to buy a drum and other instruments. As he commented, “Village life is so monotonous—the association helps us handle (tiaojie) life, but the brigade won’t support it. The association’s raison d’etre is to do good, and learn proper behaviour (xingshan, xue guiju).” Cheng Wanxiang himself went to invite people to learn—ironic, as he notes, the teacher inviting the pupil! But still no-one learned. Even so, there were now fifty or sixty households “in the association”.

Before Liberation they put up a tea tent for the rituals around 1st moon 15 th, and also in the 10th moon, with the association playing shengguan. Like Xie Yongxiang, Cheng Wanxiang made several fine distinctions. The temple fair over three days around 3rd moon 15th was known as Granny Assembly (Nainai hui) or Favourable Incense Assembly (Shunxiang hui), made up of old women. A tent was set up, with paintings of Wusheng laomu and Granny (Houtu), and the association helped out. The purpose of the Favourable Incense Assembly was to “do good” (a common theme, as villagers denied “superstitious” elements), but they stopped activity in 1937. The association hadn’t made the pilgrimage to Houshan, but some of the old women had.

The Laofomen sect was also distinct. They cured illness by using tea-leaves and qigong, not incense. They too “did good”, not accepting gifts; there was no charge—they even fed members. Their main scriptures were Dafa jing 大法經 (for Presenting Offerings, shanggong), scrolls to the God of Earth and the Ten Kings (Tudi juan 土地卷, Shiwang juan 十王卷), and the ubiquitous Pu’an zhou. Some are recited scriptures (nianjing), some “wind-music scriptures” (chuijing). They kept performing them after the Japanese invasion, but less well. So the yinyuehui also served the Laofomen. After Liberation the Laofomen was suppressed, but they continued curing illness. Their volumes were burned at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

9 South Shilipu
Here we found yet another village with Laofomen sectarian background.

First we met Zhang Fucai (b. c1912), a versatile wind musician who could play both “northern” and “southern” styles of ritual music, as well as shawm-band repertoire. He had fallen out with the village association, because his disciple had gone off separately to organize a separate one.

Zhang Fucai’s house was on the main road from Xiongxian south to Zhaobeikou and the Baiyangdian lake, and his daughter was running a general store there, doing well.

For three generations before him, Zhang’s forebears had been fine wind players. He learned the ritual music when 20 sui ( 1931) from the celebrated Buddhist monk Haibo (then about 50 sui) in a temple at Langgou in Xincheng, some 70 Chinese li (35 km) distant; he also studied with a Daoist called Faliang, another guanzi player. They told him that his area lacked this skill (gongfu), so why not learn the large guanzi of the southern style, not the more “classical” small guanzi of “northern” music. Zhang went back and forth to “request the scriptures” (qingjing). He was illiterate, and couldn’t read scores either, but he was very musical, and still learned by reciting the gongche solfeggio; soon he became a fine guanzi player. He only learned to play shengguan, not to recite the scriptures.

Through the 1950s he spent time in Beijing with the Chinese Opera Research Academy and the Chinese Beijing Opera Academy, touring with an acrobatic troupe there to the USSR, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. In 1958, as the Xi’an airport was built, he performed with the Xi’an Air Force Beijing Opera Troupe on forces visits. But he kept returning home, leading his band and playing fiddle in the village opera troupe.

Zhang Fucai had a dozen or so disciples, but he only taught the guanzi to his own sons. His third son Zhang Changnian (b. 1966) began learning from his father when 12 sui, leaving school early after his 4th year at primary school; he couldn’t read the score or even recite the gongche solfeggio, learning entirely by ear.

Political interference gradually subsided as political reforms spread, but occasionally new campaigns temporarily influenced folk activity (cf. Yanggao, and a recent campaign in Shandong). The Public Security Bureau had recently confiscated Zhang Fucai’s instruments while they were doing a funeral, even damaging some. He was angry, because he always went on official jobs without expecting any reward, but as soon as there was folk activity, they were now breaking it up. Alone of the counties we visited in the whole region, Xiongxian was mindlessly implementing a campaign against extravagance in life-cycle ceremonies, to adverse effect. Around 1990 the county Discipline Inspection Committee summoned all the managers of life-cycle rituals to a meeting in the county-town, where they were told that instruments would be confiscated if they played, and a fine payable. The county cultural authorities found this “harmful to the development of traditional folk arts”, but they felt powerless; they had liaised with the committee to get Zhang Fucai’s instruments returned, but without success. After all the campaigns under Maoism, the new campaign had a sinister feeling, albeit familiar to hardened elder villagers.

S. Shilipu yunluo

Base of yunluo gong-frame, Guangxu era, 1903.

We did manage to visit Zhang Hongzhi (b. c1927), guanshi organizer of the South Shilipu association, a guanzi player. As you can see from the photo, the association goes back to at least 1903; and since Zhang’s grandfather and great-grandfather were members of the association, this puts it back to the 19th century.

The village-wide organization for the New Year’s rituals was called Road Lantern Association (Ludeng hui), displaying heavenly lanterns (tiandeng) and diaogua hangings of West Qi and the Three Kingdoms. Until the 1950s the village had a Yaowang miao temple (to Lüzu, as at Maozhou, he said) and a Granny temple (Nainai miao) to the Three Ladies of the Empyrean (Sanxiao nü), as well as temples to Caishen, Luban, Laoye, and Huoshen.

The Laofomen sect was popular in the village. Zhang was an old member, and had revived it recently—“the disciplines (xiulian) are good for health and mind”! Again, he equated Laofomen with the Hongyang sect, worshipping Wusheng Laomu; their main painting was a pantheon. Their scriptures included Dafa jing, Yuhuang jing, and Linfan jing. When a member dies, they didn’t play shengguan, but recited the Shiwang juan.

But the yinyuehui was considered separate from the Laofomen sect—it never had its own scriptures. During the War against Japan, while the village was hiding its provisions, the association wasn’t allowed to play. But they resumed, and were still active sporadically after Liberation. Zhang Hongzhi learned after Liberation from Zhang Beimin. Even now there were eighty (!) musicians in the association, the oldest 67, the youngest in their 20s.

They used to make the 4th-moon pilgrimage to Maozhou, but hadn’t been in living memory. At the 1991 New Year’s festivities, one was killed and nineteen injured as they let off a metal cracker. Someone smashed up the association’s lanterns. The district cadres stepped in, and haven’t spoken to the association since—they hadn’t had the heart to play again.

For a recent restudy, see here—with a photo of Zhang Fucai’s 1958 concert in the Soviet Embassy!

10 Zhaogang
In 1993 we met Zhang Ruisheng (b. c1920), huitou leader and incense head, at this village in Zangang district.

Three of the first generation were still alive, and a dozen from the second generation; a third generation had began learning just the previous winter, their families sharing the responsibility for feeding the masters. As usual, it was considered a moral education, so the older generation were happy to teach them, distracting them from getting into trouble by gambling, which is rife. The Deputy Party secretary played large guanzi in the association.

Formerly 95% of the village belonged to the Hongyang sect, worshipping Laofoye. Around 1939, when Zhang Ruisheng was 20 sui, they agreed that they needed to supplement their rituals with shengguan wind music. He and fellow villagers learned from a master in Zhancun (?) in Xushui county—like them, a Hongyang (Laofomen) sectarian. Someone from Zhancun, who used to do business in Zhaogang, said they could invite their village master to teach them shengguan. The master said they now played both large and small guan, but he preferred the large guan music of the “southern” style, so the Zhaogang villagers agreed to learn it. He brought sheng and other instruments from Xushui for them, staying with them for ten days. As they studied, he copied a score for them, inscribed “Yinyuehui”. But during the Japanese occupation, they didn’t dare study openly, so they dug a trench and practised in it!

In the tradition of such amateur associations, they didn’t accept money for funerals even outside the village. Again, it was a village-wide organization: the village brigade was responsible for hanging lanterns and ritual paintings at New Year.

We also found Laofomen sectarian backgrounds in the ritual associations of Nanzhuangzi (“Buddhist-transmitted” sengmen) and Duzhuang in Shuangtang district. Senior villagers often gave us leads to other associations that we didn’t manage to pursue. Zhang Dehua told us of the Daoist-transmitted association in Yagucheng village—Qi Yi’s team has recently visited them, but if we had managed to do so two decades earlier, we would have been able to seek more detail on its changing social and religious history.

There were, and are, still more ritual associations in Xiongxian, but I’ll end this scanty overview with a village just further north in the county, whose ritual tradition was rather separate, more related to the Houtu cult that we found further west:

11 North Shakou
This village, with a 1993 population of over 2,000, is the seat of the district, on the way from Xushui and Baoding to Tianjin, so there was a proper road, shops, and a restaurant. We soon found the association organizer (guanshi) Liu Jinyu (b. c1946), who was running a bicycle repair shop (chepu), and soon met the senior leader (huitou) Liang Fengtong (b. c1928), a guanzi player. They claimed that the village—and even the association (though we can only take this with a pinch of salt)—was founded in the Northern Song.

At first they were active when the Japanese troops were occupying the area, but most people fled when they built an arsenal nearby, so the association was inactive then. Under Maoism most groups managed to maintain ritual activity after a fashion, but here they didn’t perform for over thirty years; they restored soon after the downfall of the Gang of Four, but then lost interest.

The county Hall of Culture came to record them around 1983, when they could still get a good band together. They only restarted again when they heard the Qujiaying association on the radio around 1989. They cycled over there and talked to a sheng player who said they’d had visits from Beijing—so they thought, why don’t we do it too? Indeed, Qujiaying’s style was of great solemnity, but our new friends in North Shakou observed that their own tempi were even slower—their masters wouldn’t let them speed up. “It must be stable—that takes skill, you mustn’t lose a single note, the metre must be accurate, everyone following the guanzi.”

So in 1991 the senior members mobilized parents to volunteer their children to learn, and a group of seven kids started to learn, getting them to practise every day after school and and giving them supper afterwards. They could now play over twenty small pieces. The parents liked the idea of them learning, but were afraid it would detract from their time for homework, but their headmistress was unusually supportive.

N. Shakou kids

Liang Fengtong had chosen the sturdy Li Hongtao (13 sui, at 6th grade in primary school) to learn guanzi. First the seniors taped themselves singing the gongche solfeggio, so that the kids could practise with the recordings. Liu Jinyu’s grandsons Shengkun (7 sui) and Shengxin (5) were busily learning gongche, playing the tape all day long. Liang Fengtong had coaxed them into learning the pieces by singing the gongche solfeggio, giving them 3 mao per piece—but they were getting bolshy, wanting 5 mao!

N. Shakou kid

Diminutive Liu Shengkun belted out the gongche along with his teachers—gallingly, he was far more accomplished than me. So after years of talking with ancient old masters and recording their score-reading, Xue Yibing now found himself interviewing our youngest ever informant in one of our most delightful sessions.

N. Shakou XYB and kid

Despite this promising young group, all the old members had entered the association in 1940, and there were no middle aged members. I gather the association may now be inactive, but I’d love an update on their current lives.

For the New Year’s rituals from 1 st moon 14th to 16th the association used to parade to the Wudao miao temple and outside the village. The Wudao miao was destroyed in the 1940s. In a typical list, the village also had a Great Temple (to Rulaifo), Sanyi miao (to generals Liu, Guan, and Zhang), Dongyue miao, Chenghuang miao, and Wenchang ge.

On 3rd moon 15th, as in Yixian, Laishui, and Dingxing, the village observed Houtu’s birthday at its own Houtu huangdi nainai miao temple. The association set up a tent, displaying their painting of the goddess. As they performed, people came to offer incense from other villages.

For funerals they used to hang out paintings of the Ten Kings. They still attended for families too poor to look after their food—indeed, they went even earlier and performed a still more complete series of rituals. The elders recalled monks who recited the scriptures and played shengguan, doing rituals like Chasing Round the Quarters (paofang)—but they had to be paid.

Their drum was said to be over a hundred years old, and they had an old nine-hole guanzi. Of their sheng, one was inscribed with the characters “Republic 14th year [1925], made by artisan Liu Zhong, North Shakou yinyuehui”, and another “North Shakou, Jin [Dianchi]”, who, they told us, had died in the early 1950s. Liu Zhong had taught Liang Fengtong from 1938. That generation could play all the pieces in the score.

The association used to have its own sheng tuner, but now they invited Fan Huilai (see Gegezhuang above) to come and tune their sheng for them.

They now practised mainly at the house of the huitou leader, where the instruments were stored. Their scores were kept at the house of Liang Feirong (b. c1931). An old one was tattered and without its cover, but they recalled it was dated 1915 (Republic, 4th year); Liang Feirong wrote out an exact copy in 1982 (1st moon, auspicious day). We made a copies of both.

Like all these associations in the classical “northern” style, they had a strict rule (guiju) that you mustn’t play new pieces.

Like other broad regional surveys, our project in the 1990s was merely “gazing at flowers from horseback”. We made brief visits to over a hundred villages—and now these articles merely scratch the surface of what were anyway sketchy notes.

If the western area around Yixian and Laishui is the heart of vocal liturgy on the Hebei plain, with both foshihui ritual associations reciting “precious scrolls” and associations whose rituals are further enriched by shengguan wind ensemble suites, then the epicentre of the latter is the Xiongxian region, again clearly derived from the temples of old Beijing.

This treasury of old scores of suites is indeed remarkable, but again we have to bear in mind that they are a mere mnemonic outline of pieces played to worship the gods, forming one aspect of religious life in rural China. These senior ritual specialists have more to teach us than any text to be found in libraries. And while vocal liturgy is sparse in this area, the villages provided us with rich material on sectarian networks.

Going further south, we find many groups around the Baiyangdian lake, many of which make the pilgrimage to the Maozhou temple. Moving even further south in Hebei, the ritual scene appears to feature still less complex liturgy—until we reach the Handan region, with its rich traditions of jiao Offering rituals performed by occupational household Complete Perfection Daoists.

As always, we’re accumulating a vocabulary for religious life, very different from that of southeast China (jiao Offerings, gongde funerals, fenxiang division of incense, and so on: see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.211–14) which still tends to dominate our image (for a more succinct encapsulation, see here). But the ritual scene on the Hebei plain seems quite different even from that of north Shanxi. In the latter region, we found occupational household Daoists, and sectarian groups, but villages on the Hebei plain are dominated by amateur ritual associations that are mostly village-wide.

Sorry to go on, but fieldwork is the key here. Such local temples, and the amateur associations that perpetuated their traditions, would be unknowable without exploring the area on the ground, village by village. The project is of great significance for our understanding of local history—not just for the late imperial period, but from the Republican era through Maoism and the reforms, right down to today.

Compared with lofty library research on the culture of the Tang dynasty, our project through the 1990s may sound quite topical, but although the commune system had already been dismantled, we were blessed to visit before the explosion of social media, easier transport, and the dreaded Intangible Cultural Heritage—which of course is also a worthy topic, if handled critically! Even so close to Beijing, villages were then still quite poor and isolated. So now it’s important to document how such groups have negotiated the latest series of challenges since then—as Qi Yi’s team is doing.

Happily, a simple search under 雄县音乐会 reveals quite a wealth of recent audio recordings in the 土地与歌 series on https://v.qq.com of several of these village associations reciting the gongche solfeggio of some of the major pieces in the suite repertoire, often showing the precise place in the score as the melody progresses. Sure, it’s no more social ethnography than are the abundant monographs recreating medieval liturgical sequences—but given that shengguan music is a major aspect of ritual performance, with which we must all familiarize ourselves, it’s valuable teaching material! And (by contrast with most rural ritual groups further afield) WeChat will doubtless reveal lively discussion groups.

And now many of these precious scores are reproduced in a major anthology (see n.2 below)!

For historians, scores (especially dated scores) of the repertoire of “great suites” may seem valuable—but the main value of the many ritual associations throughout the Hebei plain lies in the role in the ritual performance of local society. So yes, we should make recordings, but we should neither limit our studies to the performance of shengguan, nor reify it by settling for recordings in artificial conditions.

Rather, by gladly spending time with local ritual specialists, unpicking changes in social and ritual practice, documenting with audio and video recordings, and even engaging in participant observation, we can gain deeper understanding of local history, and the whole transmission of the diverse ritual traditions which are so crucial to it, through changing modern times.


[1] Since vocal liturgy was rather sparse in this area, it features rather little in Part Three of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China, so for this article I’ve gone back to our original notes, mainly the brilliant work of Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao. See also Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, and our partial notes in Zhongguo yinyue nianjian 1994–96. Ha, I’ve also just realized I can also press into action sections of an ambitious multi-volume work on the Hebei groups, which was shelved while I focused on the ethnography of the village of Gaoluo in Plucking the winds. Still, here I reluctantly omit most of the rich musical details from our notes on instrumentations, repertoire, and systems of scales; and our archive of audio and video recordings remains to be publicized more widely. Note also the recent fieldwork project led by Qi Yi, better equipped than our visits twenty years earlier, and valuable—albeit following the format of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in being more formalistic and focused on instrumental music rather than ritual practice within changing society.
[2] Essential reading on the gongche scores of these groups is Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, ch.9. Listing 80 scores collected by our team on the whole Hebei plain, he gives a thorough account. Note also the Hebei volumes of the major new anthology Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成, latest in a remarkable series of such compilations on Chinese music history. For an introduction to scores and score-reading, see my Plucking the winds, pp.261–7, and its CD (cf. playlist in sidebar, ##8 and 9, and commentary).
[3] A common usage on the Hebei plain, although here and elsewhere it may also denote a spirit medium.
[4] It’s always worth consulting the recent county gazetteers, even if they often give religion rather short shrift. The 1992 Xiongxian county gazetteer lists major temples, both urban and rural, and gives a long list of over forty sects, briefly describing campaigns to suppress them. I have also used its material on the early history of villages.
[5] See Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.34–6, 391–3, and the recent Hebei volumes of Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng (n.2 above).