All this may sound like a typical story of adaptation to modern secular contexts. But it’s not. Let’s face it, the Li family is never going to become the next Buena Vista Social Club. Year in, year out, their livelihood remains performing for local rituals. Li Manshan’s recent nomination as Transmitter of the ICH brings him a modest extra income for now, but the Daoists continue to rely on doing funerals around their home base; their ICH status and foreign tours are only a minor element in their reputation, which is an accumulation of local charisma over many generations. They still lack disciples, either from their own or other families; and crucially, local patrons no longer pay much attention to the niceties of ritual practice.
It all reminds me of the elderly fiddle player in the Romanian village band Taraf de Haidouks, reflecting on his meteoric rise to global success on the world music scene: “A little fairy granted me my wish to be happy in old age. Now I have suits in terylene.”