Ritual groups of Xushui

QMZ 1958

The Shangzhuang association, 1959. From https://kknews.cc/zh-my/history/5mykll.html, which has many fine photos.

Ritual groups all around the Hebei plain survived Maoism to revive under the reform era since 1978, but the county of Xushui makes a particularly intriguing case, notable both for its ephemeral fame with the razzmatazz of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and for its more long-lived ritual groups.

For all its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religious activity, notably the cults of the sectarian creator-goddess Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm Granny (Cangu nainai 蚕姑奶奶)—the latter a popular deity in this area, rarely featuring prominently elsewhere on the plain. Associations commonly display ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) and the Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and perform vocal liturgy. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the rather distant pilgrimage to Houshan, though they more commonly visit the nearer Western Summit (Xiding 西頂) on Langyashan further southwest from Houshan.

Despite the famine around 1960, many groups managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of crisis such as the famine and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

Further to my brief introduction in my post on Festivals, here I introduce some of the groups we visited from 1993 to 1996.

Prelude: Politics; Northern and southern styles
1  Qianminzhuang
2  Shangzhuang
3  Gaozhuang
4  North Liyuan
5  East Yuzhuang
6  Qingmiaoying
7  North Heshouying
8  East Zhangfeng
9  Xiefangying
10 Hanjiaying
11 North Longshan
12 Langwuzhuang
13 Other groups

Red: village associations visited
Orange: village associations mentioned

During the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Xushui became a model county for state collectivizing measures. The Xushui experiment in Communism was one of the most revolutionary, ludicrous, and tragic experiments in the history of China, as Chinese scholars now recognize. [1]

Mao XushuiAt the height of the Great Leap, Chairman Mao visited communes in Dingxian and Xushui. Just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village [2] was renamed the 4th August brigade. But when Zhou Enlai visited he was shocked to see the destitution that communization was bringing, and Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there around 1960.

Recalling the period, villagers deplored the sudden shifts in policy of the county leadership. They recognized the abilities of Zhang Guozhong, Party Secretary of the county during the 1958 Great Leap, and realized he was under immense pressure; but he had conned the nation. They observed wryly that his grid-plan for the county-town had now been realized—the only thing he didn’t foretell was the motorway. How he would have relished the current Xiongan development.

The political innovations of 1958 had precedents in the modernization campaigns since the 1920s, when magistrates launched campaigns against superstition. A major factor in official support was the convenience of the main railway line south from Beijing. Xushui was on the way to Baoding, the provincial capital in the 1950s; just further south was Dingxian, another model county for the New Education movement in the 1920s, with James Yen and Sidney Gamble. The effect of later Maoist campaigns, though more pervasive, was only short-lived.

Northern and southern styles
I’ve been trying to avoid too many musical technicalities in this series on Local ritual, but here a little discussion will be useful, since the instrumental ensemble is an intrinsic part of the ritual soundscape. Even so, I’ll refrain from giving details of repertoire and scales, though they are a further aspect of any deep understanding of religious practice.

One theme throughout the Hebei plain, but notable in Xushui, is the spread of “southern” music (nanyue 南樂). [3] As explained in my introduction to the Hebei associations, the classic shengguan instrumental music that accompanies ritual throughout north China (featured in several tracks on the playlist) is simply called yinyue (“music”); in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei it is also known as beiyue “northern music”, or xiaoguan “small guanzi. But since early in the 20th century some village associations converted to a style called “southern music” (nanyue, or daguan “large guanzi”). This style was transmitted by Buddhist monks and Daoist priests, like the monk Haibo around Laishui and the priest Yang Yuanheng (1894–1959) from Anping county, but here we heard of considerably earlier transmissions (see below).

This music differs from the traditional style in both instrumentation and repertory. Apart from the large guanzi, a small shawm (haidi) and bowed fiddles are used, as well as a “lama horn” and haizhui conch. These ensembles play not only traditional repertory but also newer popular pieces related to folk-song and opera; and since the 1980s their repertory has also included popular theme tunes from TV and films.

Such “southern music” ensembles became popular throughout the plain, but are found mainly in the southern region around Baoding; similar groups have been reported in southern Hebei (notably in Yongnian) and eastern Hebei.

The two styles are now quite mixed geographically, and it’s possible that “southern” once denoted a style brought from further south of the region on the plain. But the distinction may rather derive from the Buddhist temple music of Beijing and Tianjin, where the terms northern and southern also denoted different styles of shengguan music within those cities.

By the 1950s, under the new Communist government, some “southern” groups continued to innovate by adopting revolutionary songs as part of a politically directed development. It was now that the name “songs-for-winds” (chuige 吹歌) also became common. The most celebrated of such bands were in the counties of Dingxian and Xushui, gaining an ephemeral national reputation in the Great Leap Forward.

The national reputation of the songs-for-winds rests on two bands which became widely known then, from the villages of Ziwei in Dingxian and Qianminzhuang in Xushui. However, such initiatives was neither all-pervasive nor lasting. While some “southern” groups have modified quite radically since the 1950s, the more traditional style of some such groups reveals their origins in the more classical “northern” style. They too have hereditary traditions, tracing their heritage back at least five generations. Their social practice is similar to that of the northern associations: they only perform for rituals—for funerals but not weddings—and as a social duty, without a fee. God paintings are displayed and incense offered, although vocal liturgy has become less common.

The modernization represented by the spread of the southern style in the first half of the 20th century was inspired by popular taste rather than external political pressure—a demand for innovation from the audiences at folk rituals.

The common reason given for converting to the southern style was that it’s more exciting, easier to learn, and that you have to move with the times. Yet several “southern” musicians acknowledged that the traditional style is ultimately more satisfying. As an elder in Shangzhuang observed, “If you listen carefully, the [northern] music still sounds better—it’s more equilibrious (pinghe)”. The old style is “civilized” (wenming), associated with the moral virtues of the “old rules” and adhering to the strict sequence of the old suites, whereas the southern style is exciting (re’nao), even “chaotic” (luan)— you can play any pieces that come to hand.

Even the percussion of “southern” ensembles was less elaborate, lacking the majestic suites led by large cymbals. The Shangzhuang musicians noted that some of the northern associations excelled at such suites, like those of East Yuzhuang and North Heshouying.

The choice of clerics and associations seems to have derived more from personal taste than from political pressure. There has been neither a simple modernizing process nor a simple resistance to change. Some groups felt they had to “move with the times”, others adhered to the “old rules”.

Ritual groups in Xushui
By the 1990s, in a county where Maoist influence was more deeply felt than in most other parts of the area, social and musical changes dictated by political whims seemed ephemeral—we found the traditional ritual associations and sects just as strong here as elsewhere on the plain.

Even by the 1990s Xushui was becoming quite rich, with many thriving liquor factories, though the benefits were less apparent in the villages. Ren Yulin (himself a leading modernizer) told us that the county had over a hundred such associations in the mid-1950s, of which about 70% were still playing the traditional style; and by 1995 another local cultural cadre claimed that around eighty were still active.

I’ll begin with the more “revolutionary” groups, moving on to some of those that weathered the three-decade Maoist storm.

1 Qianminzhuang
For revolutionary fervour, the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for-Winds Association” of Qianminzhuang village brigade in Xushui was thrust to national and international fame. The case of Qianminzhuang (“Migrant village”) is fascinating, both since the group both evolved out of a traditional ritual association (reciting the scriptures, and performing only as a social duty for funerals) and because it became so dependent on political expediency. We visited the village in 1995.

Originally a “northern” group, the story goes that in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) the Daoist priest Wang Leyun from Nangong county came to Xushui to teach them the southern style—this would be considerably earlier than other estimates for its spread. They were still on good terms with other associations which had learned with Wang Leyun soon after—Greater Ciliang and North Zhangcun (Rongcheng county), as well as Baitapu.

Qianminzhuang once had sets of Ten Kings and Water and Land paintings. By the time their chest of scriptures was burned in 1958 they no longer recited them.

They played the new socialist repertoire right from the 1949 Liberation, taking part in regional festivals. But Qianminzhuang’s propulsion to national fame was largely thanks to the work of an idealistic young cadre called Ren Yulin (b.1933), whom we also visited.

Ren Yulin

With Ren Yulin and his wife, 1995. Photo: Zhang Zhentao.

Ren Yulin, a native of Beijing, had joined the Propaganda Team of the Beijing Military Region Second Artillery Corps in time to be sent to the Korean War, but was sent home when he developed tracheitis and arthritis. In 1953 he was stationed at Qianminzhuang as a composer, getting to know the association musicians. Demobbed in 1954, he was recruited to the Xushui Hall of Culture. The following year he returned to Qianminzhuang. While learning their gongche solfeggio, he began teaching them cipher notation, mimeographing scores for them. He rehearsed The Great River Crossing (Da duhe, full title Yingxiong zhanshengle da duhe 英雄战胜了大渡河) with them, teaching them cipher notation. He was rather proud of his four-part arrangement of the piece.

In 1957 the Qianminzhuang group won an award at a provincial festival in Baoding, and they were invited to perform in Beijing the following May.

Ironically, having been summoned to perform for the leadership on the 4th August 1958, by the time they came to play, Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai had already left. Only Ren Yulin caught a glimpse of Mao, waving as he passed in his cavalcade. He took a combined group of over seventy musicians to perform again in Beijing for the celebrations leading up to National Day on 1st October. They made two records, and the Ministry of Culture presented them with a phonograph. Ren was looking forward to taking them on tours abroad. The county Secretary Zhang Guozhong (see above) would take them wherever he went—Ren Yulin felt he was very reliable.

In 1959 Ren Yulin held an eleven-day training session to convert the guanzi players of thirty associations to the large guanzi of the southern style. They received 4 mao per day, as well as work-points. That year he held a big festival for them. Finding the traditional ethos of such associations too conservative, he sought to make them display more “solidarity”. He even managed to get Yao Leping of Qingmiaoying, who ran a stall at the county-town market (see below), to tune their sheng to the same pitch standard.

Meanwhile a national campaign, soon to become a catastrophe, was unfolding, for which Qianminzhuang and Ren Yulin were unwittingly to supply jovial music. [4] The village was not among the poorest in the county, and villagers supported the association members with what little cabbage and grain they had, but even here several villagers died early in the famine.

Even Ren Yulin was “struggled” briefly in the Cultural Revolution for printing a score of “Two hundred foreign songs”. Even in the early reform era he was submitted to investigation for a song he has written. But in retirement, he still felt moved by the excitement of his work with the songs-for winds groups.

Through the Cultural Revolution, and since, the Qianminzhuang group continued to perform for a succession of dignitaries, Chinese and foreign. The old amateur tradition of such associations was exploited by the cadres— under Maoism they were lucky to get even so much as a free meal from such performances. They have continued to be very much part of the official propaganda machine, but recently they had recently started to charge fees. But since their ascent to celebrity they have had no times for funerals or weddings.

2 Shangzhuang
This nearby association (see photo above) had made up a band with Qianminzhuang to perform for the central leadership in Xushui and Beijing in 1958—though their pitch standard was higher, their repertoire was the same.

With four generations, they had been active for over a century when we visited in 1993. They converted to the southern style at least seventy years earlier, learning it from Feng Daya (known as Old Feng), a sheng-repairer and versatile musician based further south (variously Nangong, Anping, or Hejian). In a common refrain, he suggested they change to the southern style, because there were too many northern associations in this area, and southern music is higher-pitched (by implication, more exciting) and progressive. So they changed from small to large guanzi, and added haidi small shawm, lama horn, and dahu large fiddle.

They seem never to have recited scriptures, but they still had a pantheon, Ten Kings paintings, and diaogua hangings, hung out in the ritual tent from 1st moon 10th to 17th. The pantheon was lost in 1958, so they had now had a new one painted. They made the pilgrimage to Houshan even after 1949. For 2nd moon 8th they also used to perform for the temple fair at Hongtushan (Baohe district, northwest Xushui), competing with Qianminzhuang.

To show their prestige and influence, they gave us a list of their disciple villages—transmissions that must have occurred before the 1950s:

  • South Chengcun (part of the county-town)
  • Jiazhuang (Baohe district)
  • Xiefang (see below)
  • Lücun (Yixian county)
  • Hanjiaying (see below)
  • Ancheng (Humu district)
  • North Liuzhuang (Shirui district)
  • Wuzhuang (Yazhuang district?).

The standard period for learning from a master from outside was over the three winter months. The village gave him “a little cash and grain” to pay for his keep. The master generally took along his own score, so he could remind himself of all the pieces; as he sang the gongche solfeggio, his students would write it down.

Having converted to the southern style they lost all the pieces and scales of the original music. In their generation they had discarded the traditional gongche scores of their “southern” pieces, the younger musicians preferring cipher notation. After their sudden fame in 1958 they had to keep playing revolutionary songs, even in the “three years of hardship” when they couldn’t get enough to eat, and even for New Year.

3 Gaozhuang
Here I’ll again augment my notes under Festivals. Very near Qianminzhuang, in Dasigezhuang district just southeast of the county town, the Gaozhuang association was one of many in Xushui villages that maintained the older more solemn shengguan style. Like so many villages in north China, it had been founded by relocation from Hongtong. When we visited in 1993 and 1995 it was already becoming quite rich, with a population of over 1,700.

Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association was divided into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble), and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy), often combining. It had over forty performers; including helpers and cooks, over seventy members. As usual, there was a strong moral basis. They were taught not to speak wrong, and earned the respect of villagers.

Cai Fenglin (b. c1935), Party Secretary since 1991, was very keen. He was at least the fourth generation in the association, his nephew the fifth. In 1991 they took in a new batch of a dozen or so pupils; though some had dropped out by 1993, they had trained a new generation.

Their scriptural tradition is said to have been bequeathed by a Buddhist monk, “over 500 years ago”. They also said a monk from Laixianzhuang (?) came to help them restore some shengguan suites. They had heard that a sheng-repairer—perhaps the Feng Daya from the Nangong–Anping region who taught Shangzhuang (see above)—came to the village, encouraging them to change to the southern style. But they didn’t.

Unusually, the association also cured illness. This tradition perhaps dated from the late 19th century, when a certain “Ancestor Han” 韓祖 came from northeast China to offer incense, since his family were from Xushui. Before 1937 they used to go on foot to Houshan, but visited the Western Summit more often. They never made the Maozhou pilgrimage.

In 1958, as part of the nationwide campaign to smelt steel in village furnaces they had to melt down waterwheels, woks, and door hinges.

“Waterwheels are made of steel,” observed one villager caustically, “what’s the bloody point of melting them down to make steel?”

Some village ritual associations had to sacrifice their yunluo gong-frames in the campaign. But they restored in 1961 despite the famine.

In the 1965 Four Cleanups campaign Li Yueneng, district Party Secretary, brought a work team here himself, but they didn’t interfere with the association—they played old pieces for relatives of the army. They stayed over a year, leaving after the opening of the Cultural Revolution. Still, a whole chest full of scriptures was burnt in the Four Cleanups.

Through the Cultural Revolution there were no attacks on the village association, and the front altar kept active throughout. “The association isn’t against anything, it makes no demands, not offending anyone, so everyone believes in it. and it’s never disbanded.”

Another senior member commented, “In the Cultural Revolution there was no other entertainment [!], so we still used to play the old pieces at New Year. The then secretary didn’t interfere, he didn’t think it was the brigade’s responsibility—they were always quite enlightened. The common people had a good impression of the association, we weren’t after money, we practise good (xingshan).”

Soon after resuming activities upon the liberalizations following the dismantling of the commune system, they had built a “music room” (yinyue fang), where they kept the association’s artefacts, including a tent, bowls, and pots to rent out for funerals.

After sacrificing most of their old scriptures, they had restored only around a tenth in performance. They could no longer recite the Dizang jing or Huayan jing 華嚴經, though they had bought a copy of the Zaojing 早經 and learned to perform that. A recent ICH article mentions (former?) Hunyuan/Hongyang sectarian scriptures: Hunyuan Hongyang dafazu mingjing 混元弘陽大法祖明經 and Hunyuan Hongyang Piao Gao zu mingjing《混元弘陽飘高祖临凡經。

Gaozhuang 93

The Gaozhuang association, 1993.

Their instrumental repertoire was quite “classical”, with suites for both shengguan and percussion. In style they remained conservative: “no-one would dare change a single note”. However, they had long used both large and small guanzi, the latter serving as leader.

Their gongche score is dated 1982 12th moon 11th. An old man, who had been village accountant before 1949, wrote well, and feeling that he would die soon, copied the score as a social duty (yiwu 义务), making a vow to do good; although he wasn’t a performing member, they helped him copy it, checking it afterwards. Everyone learned together.

They would start rehearsing after the slack season in the 10th moon. For the New Year’s rituals they put up the tent in the courtyard of the temple on 1st moon 12th, Opening the Altar (kaitan) on the 13th, Sealing it (fengtan) on the 16th. They used to hang out paintings of the Ten Kings, Auntie Silkworm, Rulaifo, Wenshu, and Puxian. Many other associations came to pay respects.

As ever, their main duty is to perform for funerals; the kin would come to kowtow to the association leader to ask them to perform.

Gaozhuang bei

Stele for Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother, 1993.

In 1994 the village built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang, a rather rare use of the term citang in this region), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 yuan to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 yuan. The altar had five female deities: Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

The village Party Secretary told us that the sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a village-wide ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

Gaozhuang list

Transient paper accounts for rebuilding temple, 1995.

4 North Liyuan
Still near the county-town, this Daoist-transmitted (laodaojing) association, with over forty members in 1995, used the classic northern style. This was the old tradition—you couldn’t just go with the trend, they would rather disperse than change to the southern style.

The huitou leader Gao Xiushan (b. c1921) learned the ritual music from 15 sui. He joined the CCP in 1942, but felt he hadn’t really made any “contribution” (gonglao) since he had never “gone down south of the Yangtze”. His father Gao Laoding was a fine percussionist. His son was an industrialist in the district township, so the family donated over 100 yuan to the association each year.

The association had paintings of the Ten Kings, Guanyin, and Auntie Silkworm Granny. They used to have a coffer full of scriptures, but some were “nicked” in the Cultural Revolution; Gao was now the only one who could recite them. For funerals the recited the Daotou jing 倒頭經. They used to perform Crossing the Bridges (duqiao), Chasing Around the Eight Trigrams (pao bagua), Chasing Around the Five Quarters (pao wufang), and yankou (shishi jing).

N. Liyuan listTheir New Year ritual schedule was busy. On 1st moon 14th they recited the Dizang jing and Zaojing; on the 15th they recited the Huayan jing. They linked poles, sticking in 108 red (not white!) candles. On the 16th they “made the donations” (huashi 化施, perhaps shishi 施食?). On all three days they sang Pu’an zhou.

Some villagers made the 3rd-moon pilgrimage to Houshan, but they placed greater value on the 1st moon 18th visit to the Western Summit (Xiding) on Langyashan, the route passing through Xiefangying, with tea tents providing refreshment. On 1st moon 19th villagers “burned favourable incense” (shao shunxiang 燒順香); those making the Western Summit pilgrimage had to get back in time to recite the Zhenyan jing 真言經 scriptures in the evening.

For the shengguan music they had two scores. One, in traditional gongche  notation, was dated 1980 12th moon, and written by Liu Shuting, over 50 sui in 1993, who worked for the district cultural education department; his father used to be leader of the association. The other, dated 1993, was in cipher notation: Gao Jinhua (b. c1937, guanzi) had studied with his father, and having learned cipher notation when he was playing dizi in the village propaganda team around 1972, he transcribed the gongche score into the new format. His master Gao Maishou (b. c1913, also a guanzi player) sang the gongche for him as he wrote down the akou decorations in cipher notation. On consulting the notation for one piece, he recalled that his original transcription had too many notes per beat, so he had to redo it.

5 East Yuzhuang
Just southeast of the county-town, visiting East Yuzhuang in 1995 we found an active devotional group called Altar of Accumulated Altruism (Jiren tan 積仁壇). The village yinyuehui was distinct, but served it; they had persisted with the classical “northern” style, and had taught the Lizhuang association.

The village had a population of around 1,000 in 1960, over 1,600 by 1995. Over thirty people died early during the famine, but there were no statistics.

The huitou leader Zhang Yupu (b. c1928, a percussionist) worked in the county liquor factory for ten years from 1951. Four generations of his forebears were all in the association.

Though they weren’t attacked in the 1950–51 campaigns against sects, the altar ceased to function. The yinyuehui stopped activity in 1960, restoring briefly in 1965. After the Four Cleanups campaign the work teams didn’t interfere when they did funerals, but they soon became an opera troupe and a “club” (julebu 俱乐部). During the Cultural Revolution they sometimes played old pieces on their own (they got on well with the village cadres) but there was no way they could perform openly. Since their instruments had been taken over by the troupe, when they restored—as early as 1975—they had to gradually buy them back, with some support from the brigade.

They used to recite scriptures—Zhang Yupu’s great-grandfather was a renowned liturgist. But they had hardly maintained that aspect of the tradition.

The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, once a rich man’s dwelling, used to have over ten rooms, but the buildings had been converted to a school. The altar used to have a stele tracing it back to the late Qing. They had just restored when we visited in 1993.

E. Yuzhuang duilian

Couplets were pasted at the entrance of the Altar’s building:

Purity and Inaction, such is the Great Way
Cleansed and pure, heart at peace, the essential spirit is venerable.

Above the entrance were the mottoes “Way and its Power, the Way complete” and “Study altruism, righteousness, rites, wisdom, and trust (renyilizhixin 仁義禮智信)”

E. Yuzhuang altar

E. Yuzhuang days

Calendrical observances.

Inside the building, next to “god places” to the Jade Emperor and other deities, lists of rules on paper were stuck on the wall, stressing obedience, correct moral behaviour in word and deed, and so on.

E. Yuzhuang doc 1

E. Yuzhuang doc 2a

E. Yuzhuang doc 2b

E. Yuzhuang doc 2c

They ingenuously disclaimed religious or political implications. “We don’t discuss national affairs, family affairs, village affairs—we just exhort people to do good, and respect their parents.” Still, their moral lead surely stemmed from the moral failure of official (village, and national) policy. As they commented, “Morality (zhongxiao liangfang 忠孝良方) is an area which the nation can’t discuss or educate”, so they were “establishing peace on behalf of the state” (daiguo li an 代國立安). They had made mimeographed copies of their morality pamphlet Mantras to awaken the age (Lingshi zhenyan 怜世真言) in 1985 and 1989, and were reprinting it again when we visited. It was available for those who wanted it—they didn’t inflict it on people. They received 400–500 yuan income each year from incense offerings; donors were all listed. They used to make medical prescriptions, and had a booklet to show people how to make their own, but now people bought medicine from pharmacies.

E. Yuzhuang printing

Printing morality texts.

The village Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui), considered equivalent to the yinyuehui, had hangings of the Ten Kings, and thirty Water and Land paintings. The association used to be able to survive on donations from the villagers, but this was becoming tough, mainly because instruments were so expensive.

E. Yuzhuang chui

Their sheng, several decades old, were made by the Yao family of Qingmiaoying (see §6). Their gongche score, entitled “East Yuzhuang brigade yinyuehui score” and dated 1981 1st moon 29th (though you might suppose it to come from the Qing dynasty), was copied by Yang Zhensheng. Some villagers knew cipher notation, but the elders didn’t want their score to be “translated”. Unusually, it reads horizontally.

E. Yuzhuang score cover

1981 score.

E. Yuzhuang gongche

Gongche solfeggio for Yan guo nanlou and Ma yulang.

Taking their own provisions, villagers made pilgrimages on foot (individually, not as an association) to both Houshan and the Western Summit, but they now preferred the latter, because the Matou people controlling Houshan were so mercenary, demanding exorbitant entrance fees. In 1950 an 84-sui-old man visited both sites, making the round trip in two and a half days! Even now there was an 82-sui-old man who still did both pilgrimages.

6 Qingmiaoying
Just south of Xushui county-town, Qingmiaoying village used to have a yinyuehui ritual association. They had recited the scriptures in 1963 to try and avert a flood, and revived for a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but by the 1990s they had converted to an occupational shawm band.

Time now for another interlude on sheng-repairers (cf. Fan Huilai in Xiongxian)—like the Qi and Shang lineages in Bazhou, Qingmiaoying is famous throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several associations in this western region have fine sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect.

Visiting Qingmiaoying in 1995 we found Yao Haijun ( b. c1965). His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Yao Jiqing also made some fine instruments after Liberation—those of Yishangying (Dingxing county) were made in 1951. By 1995 Yao Haijun’s grandfather Yao Hongru (b. c1914) was still just alive. Haijun’s father Yao Xinghua (b. c1930) was deaf in one ear and so unable to continue the family business, although he still helped out with tasks like carving the inscription on the pipes. But the craft was handed on to Haijun’s uncle Yao Xingli, then playing sheng in the Laishui county Hebei bangzi opera troupe. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.

In 1995 Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing over a hundred sheng every year to him to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. But he tuned a lot of them for free, because the associations had enjoyed good guanxi with the family for several generations, and he wasn’t mercenary—”money is something outside one’s body” (qian nai shenwai zhi wu)”. Someone from the Baoding branch of the Hongsheng musical instrument factory had come to ask him to make sheng for them, but he hadn’t taken it up.

Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. He was in the village ritual association too, so they were all on good terms. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; even the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991 (see my book Plucking the winds, pp.118, 198, 254).

7 North Heshouying
Visiting this association nearby in 1995 we chatted with the huitou leader Wen Yushu (b. c1922). As he told us, the master Zhao Lingwen (who had died the previous year, aged 81 sui) had started teaching seven or eight youngsters in 1990. He sought them out, but they were happy to learn; the brigade gave some money, and the families donated too. Still, they preferred learning the pop pieces they heard on TV. The association used to have their own building, but now they rehearsed in the house of a bachelor.

Again the yinyuehui served the Great Tent Association. For the New Year’s rituals around 1st moon 15th they set up a great tent in the courtyard between the front and back halls of the temple. The front hall had images of Milaifo 米萊佛/彌勒佛, while the rear hall was adorned with Water and Land (Shuilu) paintings. After Opening the Altar, in the evening they Displayed the Altar (putan 普壇). Other associations came to pay respects.

The older generation used to make pilgrimages to both Houshan and the Western Summit. They stopped going to Houshan after the Japanese invaded. They had a diaogua painting of the physician deity Bian Que but no temple to the Medicine Kings, and (like other associations in this area) they never made the Maozhou pilgrimage.

N. HSY score

Their score, dated 1935, contains distinctive percussion notation, as well as clues to a former string ensemble.

8 East Zhangfeng
Northwest of the county-town, this ritual association claimed seven generations. They had learned from Qingmiaoying. Originally a “northern” ensemble, they converted to the southern style over fifty years earlier. They used to make the Houshan pilgrimage, and had even gone three or four years previously.

They claimed that the village’s former Granny temple (Nainai miao) was the largest temple in the county. In the brigade courtyard we also saw a stele, of white jade, for the restoration of the Dongyue miao temple, dated Jiaqing 3rd year (1798).

After the reforms, the village committee had funded the renovation of a large building on the site of the Granny temple, effectively a new temple, where the association performed its rituals and displayed its religious paintings. Many village associations from all around paid ritual visits over the New Year period.

Their old diaogua ritual hangings were used as curtains for the village propaganda team in the Cultural Revolution. They had a whole array of new ones painted by a young man from Baitapu, including the Ten Kings, Dizang, Holy Master and Holy Mother (Shenggong Shengmu), Wenshu pusa, and the Four Officers of Merit. There was also said to be a fine god-painter at South Shaozhuang.

There was originally a Hunyuan sect here, crushed in the campaigns of 1950–51; a villager recalled seeing their former scriptures. As in Hanzhuang (Xiongxian), the lines between various ritual groups were blurred. The villager implied that the sect overlapped with the Great Tent Association, which worshipped the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing jiaozhu) and Auntie Silkworm Holy Mother (Cangu shengmu蚕姑聖母), and thus the yinyuehui sometimes played for its rituals.

E. Zhangfeng paintings

On the riverbank we found a recently-restored Dragon King temple (Longwang miao). Apart from paintings of Holy Mother of Five Dragons (Wulong shengmu) and Sire Dragon King (Longwangye), there were wooden god placards for Wusheng laomu (cf. Yixian, and Cangyanshan) and Guanyin. Temple keeper Tang Guishu (b. c1930) claimed it was several centuries old. It was restored during the Japanese occupation—apparently with Japanese donations! During the floods in 1954 and 1963 old people all came here to pray; through the Cultural Revolution it was used as a flood-prevention centre. He told us how he had come to serve as temple keeper and organize its restoration: one day as he was riding along on his bike, he found himself unable get past the site, no matter how hard he pedalled— village elders explained that it was because the Dragon Kings wouldn’t let him pass.

9 Xiefangying
Moving further northwest, the association of Xiefangying had over fifty performers when we visited in 1995. Originally playing in the classic northern style, they had converted to “southern music” by learning with the Greater Ciliang association. They played for the New Year’s rituals 1994 but not this year, and like many such amateur associations, since there were few funerals they weren’t very active.

The village’s Great Tent Association used to set up a lantern tent in the courtyard of the Auntie Silkworm Granny temple, adorned with Water and Land (Shuilu) and Ten Kings paintings. The older generation recalled receiving pilgrims on the route to Houshan, preparing refreshments for them. As the associations stopped off, they would light lanterns in the tent as they played.

All the local associations used to pay ritual visits to the village’s Bixia gong 碧霞宮 temple. Worship of Bixia yuanjun, common nearer Beijing, is rare on the Hebei plain further south, but (in a creative variation) the temple was also called Sanxiao shengmu miao, to the more popular Three Ladies of the Empyrean (see e.g. here, under Hanzhuang; see also my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7). It was destroyed around 1958, but no-one dared build on the plot, and since it wasn’t depriving anyone of land to rebuild it now, the county authorities agreed to its restoration, and it was rebuilt in winter 1992. The statues of the three sisters Yunxia, Bixia, and Qiongxia were made by villagers.

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The temple had been restored three times (we saw a stele dated 1792 (Qianlong 57th year). It originally had a shanmen gateway and a large courtyard, and before 1937 opera was performed on a stage opposite the temple; but now they had only rebuilt the main temple buildings.

The most committed benefactor in the project was the splendid philanthropist Jia Zhi (b. c1916), in fine health at the age of 80 sui. In his youth he had not only received pilgrims to Houshan, he had made the pilgrimage himself—as well as to Langyashan, known as the Western Summit (Xiding); he had gone as recently as 1993. The main temple on Langyashan was the Auntie Silkworm temple, burnt down by the Japanese. In the centre was Auntie Silkworm, flanked by Caigu 蔡姑 and Zhanggu 张姑 deities.

Jia Zhi recalled many scriptures—he used to perform them himself for the Hongyang Sea Assembly (Hongyang haihui 弘陽海會). From his sample list they sound sectarian: Longhua jing 龍華經, Chaoyang jing 朝陽經, Jin’gang jing 金剛經.

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Opening of donors’ list for restoration of Xianghe gong temple, 1992.

The smaller Xianghe gong 祥和宮 temple had also been restored recently. People came to offer incense on 1st moon 20th. The temple-keeper was an old woman.

The Hanjiaying elders recalled hearing the monks of the Buddhist temple in Xiefang village just south before the Japanese invasion—they too used the southern style.

10 Hanjiaying
Further west, this association had over twenty members when we visited in 1995. They claimed four or five generations, but didn’t know where they learned from. They, in turn, had taught the Wujitai association.

Before Liberation the village had thirteen temples. The association used to have a pantheon that they displayed in the Temple to the Yama Kings of the Ten Palaces (Shidian Yanjun miao). The temple was destroyed in 1938 after the Japanese invaded.

They still played in the classic northern style even in the revolutionary times of 1958— though their ritual building was destroyed that year, they still sent Wang Yi (b c1927) to make the Houshan pilgrimage on their behalf. The traditional route (see map) passed through Greater Wangdian, Fushan, Bailing, Shanbei, and Shaling, where they lodged; all along the route were tea tents where people worshipped Auntie Silkworm.

They changed to the southern style in 1971, belatedly “moving with the times”. But their repertoire and scales still showed traces of the classical style, with suites like Huayan, Xing daozhang, and Pu’an zhou.

11 North Longshan
Still further west, the North Longshan association had over twenty members when we visited in 1995. They played in the southern style, adding several types of bowed fiddles to the usual wind ensemble. As in several villages, the association’s “public building” (guanfangzi) had a blackboard with pieces in gongche solfeggio for young recruits to learn.

The association was taught some eighty or ninety years previously (1905–15) by the Buddhist monk Wuming 悟明, who came from a temple in Qicun in Mancheng; he died before the Japanese invasion. Someone from the village knew him and invited him to come and stay and teach—he taught them sixian opera too! Their old score also contained many opera texts, some with their own gongche solfeggio.

They had taught the associations of Dagong village, Great Ciliang village, and Fushan in the hills to the northwest. They mentioned another “northern” association at Lesser Chilu village. Just south, Tongzhuang held its main temple fair on 3rd moon 15th. Here there was no connection with Houshan, but Houtu worship was common, particularly among women.

12 Langwuzhuang
North of the county-town, when we visited this association in 1996 they had just revived the previous year, with over thirty members.

The leader of the association was Sun Kai (b. c1921), who had learned in his teens with twenty or thirty others. His son was the boss of a large company in the village, with thirteen factories; most of the musicians worked there. Some of the old members used to get together to play for fun, and the youngsters who heard them became keen. Sun Kai had produced 1,000 yuan of his family’s new-found wealth, the factory had given 2,000 yuan, and the rest of the members had contributed about 600 yuan in all, with which to buy instruments. They studied every evening after knocking off from the factory, using cipher notation.

They used to have scriptures, but they hadn’t restored their vocal liturgy. Their god paintings included Ten Kings and Water and Land sets. They used to wear Daoist robes, and had just had new ones made.

They had taught a new group in 1962­–63, without much success, and stopped with the the Four Cleanups in 1964, when the commune also burned their scriptures. In 1975 they taught students to play new pieces in the songs-for-winds style, but stopped again. In 1984 they had got the old members together to make a recording, with which they were pleased.

They called their music yinyue (the classic “northern” style) but in instrumentation and repertoire it was a hybrid with the southern style. At first the new students learned the popular repertoire, but they liked playing the old pieces too. Their gongche score was dated Guangxu 30th year (1904) 1st moon 26th.

For the New Year’s rituals the lantern tent was called Laojun tang, divided into Front, Middle, and Rear Altars, each with its own tent. In the Front Altar tent, they hung Jieyin Buddha; in the Middle Altar tent, the Ten Kings; in the Rear Altar tent, Laojun. They Displayed the Altar (putan) on the 13th, Opened the Altar (kaitan) on the 14th, and Sealed the Altar (fengtan) on the night of the 15th. The yinyuehui played in the Middle Altar tent, the liturgists (foshihui 佛事會, as in Yixian–Laishui) recited in the Rear Altar tent.

Diaogua paintings were also hung out in the streets, and they set up an eight-sided lantern street (dengjie) according to the eight hexagrams. The ritual specialists led the way, the yinyuehui parading behind. After the yinyuehui withdrew, the leader of the ritual specialists performed Chasing Round the Eight Quarters (pao bafang), their leader reciting scriptures as he wielded a wooden sword and a bronze bell.

On the 15th and 16th they used to perform the Crossing the Bridges (duqiao) and Beholding the Lanterns (guandeng) rituals, the instrumental music and vocal liturgy performing together.

For Beholding the Lanterns, after setting up a structure on the tables of the Rear Altar, over eighty little “lanterns”, made from cotton-wool soaked in oil, were placed in bowls while the association played. They last did the ritual during the War against Japan; just as they were doing it, the Japanese surrounded the village and ordered people to keep still.

During the whole period they ate vegetarian feasts, going the rounds of house of both members and non-members. As ever, they also did funerals, both within and outside the village.

One of their masters had been invited to teach the Wencun association, staying there for one winter. That group was no longer active, but they still came to pay respects at New Year. They told us the Qingyang jiao 青陽教 sect was common in this area; the Daoist-transmitted Mazhuang association belonged to the White (Bai) branch. But both the yinyuehui and foshihui were separate from it. Nearby there were associations at Mazhuang, Baitapu and Zhanli—the latter held a temple fair that attracted several ritual groups. In Baitapu most villagers had followed the Sanyuan dao 三元道 sect, proscribed after Liberation.

13 Other groups
As in every county where we made surveys, there is much more to explore here. We were told of many other village groups—including Bailing, Taitan (Yixian), East Yizhuang (North and South), Great Pangcun, Greater Wangdian and Suicheng, Shakou, Greater Xinzhuang, and Gaolin, as well as Lesser Xinzhuang (Mancheng county). As in all the counties we visited, virtually every village had some form of ritual association.

In all, despite the piecemeal innovation of the southern style, the persistence of tradition—both in religious activity and its soundscape—are all the more striking such a revolutionary county as Xushui. Forty years after the convulsions of the Great Leap, the musical and social changes forced by political whims seem ephemeral. As ever, updates are much to be desired.

Again we found a rather complex overlap between village-wide ritual associations, sects, and yinyuehui. Among the distinctive features of this region were the pilgrimage to Langyashan, the cults of Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm, and several sectarian groups.

As I noted here, Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972: “I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.” But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. The later fortunes of ritual practice were determined more by the materialistic pressures of modern life. Still more recently the secular image, narrowly propounding a few “outstanding” (apparently secular) groups like Qujiaying, has been encouraged by the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

[1] See e.g. Xin Ping 辛平, “Menghuan de tiantang: Xushui ‘gongchan zhuyi’ shidian ji” 梦幻的天堂: 徐水”共产主义” 试点记 [Illusory paradise: record of the experimental site for “Communism” in Xushui], Yanhuang chunqiu 1994/1, pp.29–40—admittedly an article of rare candour. See also e.g. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state, pp.217–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70, 290.

[2] By the way, in South Gaoluo, Hebei, erudite Shan Fuyi explained village names for us. Among many terms for “village”, two are common in that area, cun and zhuang (or gezhuang). Only villages with a “great temple” (dasi) could be called cun; villages which lacked a “great temple” were called by the less numinous term gezhuang. So going back to Dasigezhuang (“Great temple village”), that clearly contradicts the Hebei rule! That may seem just a curious little detour, but it was precisely the villages with a “great temple” that held temple fairs.

[3] For more, see my book Folk music of China, pp.195–203, with further citations.

[4] A period-piece is the little volume Yuejin qiyue ji 跃进器乐集 [Collected instrumental pieces of the Great Leap Forward], Minzu yinyue yanjiusuo congkan vol. 2 (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1959). This may be the kind of thing that anxious cadres suppose I do.