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  • Going with the Flow:Embracing the Tao of China's Jiangnan Sizhu
  • Kim Chow-Morris (bio)


Religion has for many decades been a sensitive subject in mainland China. So, too, has tradition. Despite the social freedoms gained since the early 1980s, the people I encountered during my four research excursions to Eastern China from 1998 to 2006 were at times quite nervous about questions I posed which might reveal that they had warm feelings for religion, particularly as expressed in China's feudal past. The New Culture Movement of 1919, the more lenient Communist Party of the 1920s, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) all attempted to eradicate so-called "feudal superstition" from Chinese music and culture (see Hsü 2000; Lary 2007). As the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, which labeled traditional Chinese culture "backward" and "superstitious," remain fresh in the minds of the older generation, the questions that I posed during my fieldwork may have been perceived by some as "baiting the snake out of the hole"—a technique of subtle interrogation common during the revolution that prompted individuals to incriminate themselves, and often resulted in a forced exile from their home to a commune in the country, where they endured "re-education" through hard labor.1 However, traditional religious worship is significantly less taboo than it once was. Since the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976, the Third Party Plenum in 1978, and the Fourth Congress of Arts Workers in 1979, sanctions against tradition and religion have become more relaxed. In fact, as one professional musician from Shanghai commented, "there are no restrictions on religion now. No one is worried. Only on superstition" (George Gao, personal communication, 1999). Nonetheless, this musician's perception of a clear and rigid division between superstition and religion serves only to highlight the governmental control over whose beliefs may today be considered religion, and whose superstition.

In my travels on the mainland, several people were eager to point out the revived St. Ignatius Cathedral now actively functioning in Shanghai. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, the same cathedral had lain quiet, filled with grain.2 [End Page 59] Moreover, during my 1998 climb up Taishan—one of the five sacred Taoist mountains of China—I engaged in a lengthy and animated conversation with a well-traveled Chinese man in his mid-twenties, in which we discussed our personal religious beliefs, and the difficulties of his plight as one of the few Christians in China. Such liberal debate would have been quite impossible only a few years previous. Nonetheless, unpredictable, recurrent backlashes against these new freedoms, such as the (1989-1990) Seven Evils Campaign, which railed against "feudal superstition," have kept mainlanders cautious in their speech and writing.3 The Chinese government's ongoing arrests of members of the Falun Gong meditation movement, which authorities regard as a cult, have raised new questions regarding mainlanders' freedom of religious expression, and the government's intentions in protecting its citizens from the group.

While in Shanghai, I was invited to play bamboo flute with a large number of Jiangnan sizhu (silk and bamboo from south of the Yangtze River) ensembles. This musical exposure, in conjunction with my interest in the strong historical connections between Chinese philosophy and music, led me to ponder the socio-musical and philosophical influences of Taoism on the Jiangnan sizhu instrumental ensembles.4 As no cohesive research has been devoted to this issue, this paper attempts to lay a foundation for the examination of Taoist influence on the genre. In a broader sense, this paper also explores the intersections between traditional Chinese religious culture and contemporary musical practice. In so doing, I question the sanitized secular historiographies of Jiangnan sizhu widely propagated by local Chinese performers and historians and western academics alike who have, with the notable exception of Stephen Jones (1995) and a few brief references in J. Lawrence Witzleben's ground-breaking monograph on Jiangnan sizhu (1995), largely portrayed the genre as secular "teahouse music" or described the music in positivistic terms (cf. Thrasher 1985, 1989, 1993; Wong 1997; Lau 1998, 2008; Witzleben 2002; Miller 2009; Stock 2009).5

Jiangnan sizhu is, along...


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pp. 59-87
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