A great Daoist priest

Today is the first anniversary of the death of Zhang Minggui 张明贵 (1931–2016). He was one of the most exceptionally enlightened Daoists I have had the honour of meeting, a fine authority not only on Daoism but on all aspects of local culture, and indeed life. [1]


With Zhang Minggui, Baiyunshan 2001. Photo: Zhang Zhentao.

He served his local community as long-term abbot of the White Cloud temple (Baiyunguan, known as White Cloud Mountain Baiyunshan) temple complex of Jiaxian county in Shaanbei, bordering the Yellow River that divides Shaanxi from Shanxi.

One of many determined local temple managers, [2] with his archetypal long white beard Zhang Minggui couldn’t help becoming a poster-boy for official Daoism, and was honored with high positions in the state Daoist hierarchy. We spent a few days as his guests during the 4th-moon temple fair in 2001. In informal chats between receiving a constant stream of pilgrims and visitors, freed of the necessity to churn out the usual empty clichés, he was far from the bland diplomacy of the modern Daoist priestly leadership or the simplistic patriotic eulogies to be found on Chinese websites. [3]

Zhang Minggui was tireless in his work on behalf of his local community under both Maoism and the reforms. His life reminds me of the continuum between temple and folk life. Baiyunshan has been a rather popular topic in Daoist research. In recent years his prestige hasn’t protected the temple from the Busby-Berkeley-esque stage commodification of its Daoist practice demanded by “cultural” officials—but we should look beyond that, and beyond the temple, to study the wider picture of folk ritual activity in Jiaxian county.

The temple complex is now an isolated outpost of institutional Daoism in the region, with its Longmen Quanzhen tradition whose priests have long performed both jiao and mortuary rituals among the local people. Founded in the 17th century from the Baiyunguan in Beijing—though links with Huashan and Shanxi may have been just as significant in its early history—it is a zisunmiao “hereditary” temple. [4]

The temple Daoists were first given permission to marry in the Republican period (one Daoist there told us it was in 1924), apparently creating competition (presumably including ritual competition) between the married priests and those unable to find wives. [5]

From their biographies, [6] we find that the priests listed for the 20th century were all local, indeed from the county itself—unlike the priests of many large metropolitan Quanzhen temples, who come from many areas, notably south China. Their numbers since the 1940s have stayed at around a dozen. Coming from poor families—inevitably, since Jiaxian is the poorest county in a chronically poor region—most of them entered the clergy “from infancy”, or in specific cases between the ages of 7 and 14 sui.

Zhang Minggui was exceptional, coming from a scholarly family; since he was ill, his parents pledged him to the temple when he was 5 sui old, but they bought him back after a couple of years, only giving him back to the temple when his illness recurred at the age of 11. Notwithstanding the destruction of the temple’s precious Daoist Canon by the occupying PLA in 1946, Mao’s 1947 famous visit to Baiyunshan to hear the opera there [7] was the beginning of the local CCP’s efforts to recruit Zhang Minggui as a schoolteacher. He reached a deal whereby he could also take care of temple affairs. He was already a fine vocal liturgist by the age of 18, and went on to steer the temple through the choppy waters of Maoism.

Throughout this period there was also Byzantine intrigue among the priestly adherents of the Hunyuan and Yaochi dao sects for control of the temple. This continued through the 1950s, just as they were being targeted in campaigns, with sectarian Daoists plotting against the more orthodox clerics; some activity is still said to continue today. [8]

The temple complex (and the sects) managed to keep active through the 1950s until 1963, with vast crowds attending the temple fairs. More open worship resuming gingerly around 1979. Through this period Zhang Minggui worked tirelessly to restore the temple. Since then there has been a political tug-of-war for control of the temple and its substantial funds between the Daoists and the mafias of the secular county departments—the temple income is a major factor in the economy of this poor county.

The main temple fair on the mountain is held over the week leading up to 4th moon 8th, with smaller fairs on 3rd moon 3rd and 9th moon 9th. Throughout the county there is an active tradition of performing major jiao Offering rituals. The jiao is held four times in the spring: in three specific villages in the 1st and 2nd moons, apparently not a recent tradition; in the temple itself during the 4th-moon temple fair; and eight times earlier in the winter, sponsored by a group of many villages in a parish (she) clubbing together, rotating the host village over many years. [9] The latter system consists of a group of 48 villages to the south of the temple, and 12 villages to the north; to the west, the smaller jiao is a niuwang jiao for the Ox King. Apart from the temple Daoists, there are other less costly lay Daoist groups performing similar rituals in the nearby countryside. [10]

A major aspect of devotional activity at the Baiyunshan temple fairs is a group of eight (five in the 1950s, now in practice more than eight) regional associations (hui), which serve mainly to organize the large groups of pilgrims, though they appear to include few groups of ritual specialists. [11]

candlelit altar

Pilgrims of a regional association listen to a bard, Baiyunshan 2001.

Apart from the temple fairs, the Daoists’ income comes mainly from performing funerals outside the temple.

Sincere and broadly curious, Zhang Minggui’s tastes extended to writing articles on Beijing opera and stars of world ping-pong. [12] Far from a mere figurehead, he was an active ritual performer, deeply concerned with the welfare of his community. He will be much missed.


[1] These notes are based on my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.96–101; further detail in Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen, pp.178–209. See also Yuan Jingfang, Li Shibin, and Shen Feixue, Shaanxi sheng Jiaxian Baiyunguan daojiao yinyue (1999); for Abbot Zhang, see pp.40–41. On the temple’s history, note the writings of Fan Guangchun. We await further work from Liu Hong of the Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music.
[2] For an ethnography of a temple in southern Shaanxi, cf. Adeline Herrou, A world of their own, and await further work from her.
[3] Cf. my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”.
[4] Despite the claims of Yuan, Li, and Shen (1999: 26), their shengguan music cannot have been acquired from the Baiyunguan in Beijing, which never had any; it is possible that it came from contact with Buddhist monks, as local scholar Shen Feixue suggested to us.
[5] See also my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: 97 n.11.
[6] Yuan, Li, and Shen 1999: 30–42.
[7] Among many bland reports, see e.g. http://crt.blog.ifeng.com/article/35721644.html, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_551d0f8c010005r3.html,
[8] Yuan, Li, and Shen 1999: 28; Zhang, Shengman shanmen, pp.182–4. Zhao Jiazhu, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng (2004) contains many refs. to both sects; those to the Yaochi dao are mainly for counties in Shaanxi and Gansu (see also his general introduction, p.14)—indeed, I haven’t found it in areas of Hebei and Shanxi that I have visited.
[9] For the parish, see the indexes of my various books.
[10] For more on the jiao in Jiaxian, see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: 98–101; Zhang, Shengman shanmen, pp.187–9. Several Chinese websites for Shaanbei show photos and videos of jiao rituals around Jiaxian.
[11] For these groups, see refs. in Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: 85 n.20; Zhang, Shengman shanmen, pp.172–5.
[12] Zhang, Shengman shanmen, p.180.

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