When Li Qing began recopying the family ritual manuals as Daoist activity gradually revived, the very first manual that he copied in 1980 was the hymn volume of funerary texts.

Within this volume, Li Manshan loves, and identifies with, the beautiful long meditation on impermanence titled Kangxi yun—actually attributed to Kangxi’s father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61), and Buddhist in language. The standard version is known by names such as as Poem on returning to the mountains (Guishan shi 歸山詩), Poem on entering the clergy (Chujia shi 出家詩), or Gātha in praise of the sangha (Zanseng jie 贊僧偈).

The Li family’s ritual manuals are largely superfluous to their ritual practice today: those rituals that are still required they perform from memory. The Kangxi yun is one of many texts in the manuals that are no longer performed; and the Daoists never read the manuals as silent literature. But as I began to go through them with Li Manshan, I found that he was most taken by the poem. It shows how drawn he is to the retreat from worldly cares; household Daoists don’t necessarily evince this, and you might not notice this contemplative aspect of his character.

Li Manshan says parts of it were formerly performed as a shuowen 說文 solo introit within particular ritual segments. He has a distant memory of hearing the Daoists reciting it for a temple ritual when he was 8 or 9 sui, around 1953–54, but he only began taking note of it when he came across it in his father’s hymn volume in the 1980s.

Indeed, it is among several rather long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be used thus; but there are no longer any suitable ritual segments in which to recite them. The shorter solo introits still used, like those for Presenting Offerings, are now mostly recited by Golden Noble.


From my film: a shuowen introit from the shanggong ritual.

I’ve long wondered how, and when, this long poem found its way into the ritual manuals and ritual practice of the Yanggao Daoists. We discussed this further during my stay with Li Manshan in 2018 (under “Pacing the Void”).

* * *

For readers less than fluent in classical Chinese (of whom I hope there are many!), below I offer a very rough translation (for the challenges of translating the Li family texts, see here). I can’t find an English rendition of Shunzhi’s standard text (anyone?), but here I use the variant in the Li family manuals, only resorting to the original where sense requires. But often Li Qing’s variants seem no less elegant than the original, and sometimes I even find them preferable.

When we have a more widely-distributed “classical” source with which to compare the ritual texts of household Daoists (as is often the case), one often finds minor discrepancies. Many manuals (including most of those of the Li family) were recopied from memory in the 1980s, so a certain amount of variation was likely. However, while sometimes the Daoists might remember how to recite or sing a phrase or character but not how to write it, in general Li Qing’s manuals are remarkably accurate. Moreover, it’s also likely that variants had entered into the ritual manuals of household Daoists long before that. So it’s hard to tell when and how the variant of this poem arose.

The poem is not just about the emptiness of worldy cares, but refers to Shunzhi’s own struggle between his responsibilities as emperor and his personal inclination to Buddhist transcendence:

The forest of temples throughout the empire offers sustenance like a mountain
Everywhere the monastic bowl depends on the lord to provide.
There is no value in yellow gold and white jade
Only to don [1] the monastic cassock is difficult.
I, as great lord of the land of mountains and rivers
Am concerned for the nation and the people, serving to deflect their troubles.
One hundred years, thirty-six thousand days [2]
For a monk, don’t amount to [3] half a day’s rest.
Confusion on arrival, bewilderment on departure [4]
Travelling in vain for a while among men.
Better not to arrive and not to depart
With neither pleasure nor pain.
Before I was born, who was I?
Who was I at the hour of birth?
I only became an adult after I grew up
And once eyes are closed in the void, then who am I?
In this world the only good is to enter the clergy
With pure heart and peaceful mind, who is to know?
The mouth having taken its fill of eating harmonious flavours
One can always wear restitched robes from cast-offs.
The five lakes and four seas make a superior guest
Roaming free in the God Palace, lodging at will.
Do not call it easy to attain the dharma by becoming a monk
Let us talk only of the various bodhi of bygone ages.
I, as great lord of the land of mountains and rivers [5]
Seek the body of Crop Founder descended to earth.
Bright as is the cassock of the Western Quarter
Why has it descended upon the imperial family?
Just because at first my recitation was deficient
I had to exchange my purple cassock for a humble new robe.
For eighteen years I have been dreaming—
When can I rest from the great task of mountains and rivers?
Today, clapping my hands, I return to the mountains
How can I be expected to control the thousand, myriad autumns?

I’ve largely refrained from adding the Teutonic scholarly footnotes that the text suggests, but:

[1] Using the original 披肩.
[2] Chinese poetry has a lot of lines like this, and they read better in Chinese!
[3] Using the original不及.
[4] Referring to life and death, of course—but please feel free to provide your own joke about the airline of your choice.
[5] Here Li Qing repeats the earlier phrase, whereas the original couplet has “Even without being a true luohan, one also dons the triple vestments of Sakyamuni.” The following couplets of Li Qing’s version depart further from the original, and my translation is even more approximate.

4 thoughts on “Recitation

  1. Pingback: At home with a master Daoist | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: A meditation on impermanence | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Meditation: update with translation! | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Epidemics in a Chinese county | Stephen Jones: a blog

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