By Beth Szczepanski
Cultural cadres in the People’s Republic of China are charged with a nearly impossible task: to preserve traditional culture while discouraging practices deemed superstitious. Since much of traditional culture in China involves ritual activity focused on ancestral spirits, it is difficult for officials to find non-superstitious practices to preserve and promote. Twentieth-century Nationalist and Communist policies toward religious practice ranged from tacit acceptance to outright repression. Suppression of ritual activity peaked during the Cultural Revolution, from about 1966 to 1968. This period saw the forced laicization of most Buddhist monks and nuns in China and the shuttering, repurposing, or destruction of temple structures. Monasteries of Wutaishan in Shanxi Province, one of the four holy mountains of Chinese Buddhism, were completely shut down during this era, with most surviving temples not reopening until the 1980s and 1990s.
After the Cultural Revolution, China underwent a period of national regret for the loss of traditional culture. During the era of Reform and Opening Up, monks and nuns trickled back into monasteries and ritual activity resumed, though in a simpler form than before. Today, the Chinese government boasts an enormous bureaucracy in charge of cataloging, preserving, and promoting intangible cultural heritage at local, provincial, national, and international levels. Cadres added Wutaishan’s local style of Buddhist wind-and-percussion music to the list of national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. China remains a secular state, however, with severe official reservations about “feudal superstition,” the common term for traditional ritual and religious practices. How, then, can the Chinese government support the preservation of a style of music that is used almost exclusively as an element of religious ritual?
Since the 1990s, Wutaishan’s monks have reinstated the performance of local instrumental music during Fang Yankou, a ritual for the salvation of hungry ghosts. This music, now under government protection, accompanies the chanting of mantras, performance of sacred gestures or mudras, and the drawing of sacred diagrams or mandalas. These actions allow monks to feed hungry ghosts, miserable beings usually prevented from eating by the flaming coals in their mouths and their needle-thin necks. Once fed, hungry ghosts become receptive to the Buddhist teachings chanted by the ritual leader during Fang Yankou. After receiving the teachings, the ghosts may die and be reborn at a better plane of existence. Monks perform Fang Yankou in order to accrue good karma, which they then transfer to the recently-deceased ancestors of the donors who pay for the performance. In this way, donors can provide their deceased ancestors with a better afterlife.
From the points of view of the monks and the donors who support Fang Yankou, this ritual provides comfort to hungry ghosts and ancestral sprits. Cultural cadres, however, cast things in a different light. In his 2004 book Wutaishan Fojiao Yinyue [Wutaishan Buddhist Music], cultural cadre Han Jun writes that, “While Fang Yankou has a very strong religious and superstitious tinge, from the perspective of style it has some aesthetic value with regards to the literature, music and dance (mudras) used. Thanks to its artistry, people are not bored by this 4-5 hour ritual, which not only worships deities and comforts the dead, but also entertains the living (68).” Han justifies his research on Buddhist music, and his efforts as a cultural cadre to preserve it, but focuses on the aesthetic value of each ritual component rather than their “superstitious” functions. To further highlight the aesthetic value of Wutaishan Buddhist music, Han has arranged a number of recording sessions and concert appearances for Wutaishan monks. This exposure undoubtedly contributes to the recent increase in the number of pilgrims and donors visiting monasteries and requesting rituals like Fang Yankou. In this case, then, the Chinese government’s focus on preserving and promoting traditional cultural practices comprises de facto support for the performance of rites to aid spirits.