The life of the household Daoist

vocal trio 2001

Vocal trio, 2001: Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Li Bin.

Not so much

Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington


Don’t put your son on the Daoist ritual arena, Mr Li.

Patrice Fava’s film Han Xin’s revenge, about the rituals of a group of household Daoists in rural Hunan, is very fine. The voiceover contains an intriguing line:

“Many young people choose to become Daoists.”

Whether in Hunan or elsewhere, today or when the film was made, I find this hard to believe—it seems a romantic notion.

As I observe in my book, Li Bin (b.1977) is the ninth generation of Daoists in the Li family, and could well be the last. Moving with his family to the county-town in 2007 was initially a stepping-stone for his son to get a better education—seeing it as a route towards betterment, just as his forebears had done under successive regimes.

Even if new recruits can now skimp on the training, Daoist fathers no longer want their sons to continue the tradition; there are now easier ways to make a better living, and people like pop music anyway. Fees are low, and the lifestyle, working long days and nights traipsing around backward demoralized villages, is tough and none too comfortable (see e.g. recent diaries of Li Bin and Li Manshan). Potential young recruits go away to seek urban laboring work or get a good education leading to a secure job in town, providing an escape from the countryside towards urban registration and higher wages. And this is what their parents (including Daoists) want for them.

In The souls of China (p.48) Ian Johnson puts it well (in a passage about Li Manshan’s “determining the date” activities):

… Their relief was palpable, but so was Old Mr Li’s exhaustion. It was a tiring life, always on call, staying in people’s homes, burying their dead, eating their banquets. The questions never stopped—an avalanche of new challenges and problems that were overwhelming these old villages.

So whereas Daoist ritual somehow managed to survive after Liberation in 1949, and to revive after the liberalizations from 1979, today, in a world turned competitive, where the villages themselves are depleted, working as a household Daoist offers no route to advancement. As the Daoists realize, official initiatives like the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are quite unable to solve these issues.

If there are indeed areas of China where recruits do still emerge to perform a more complex repertoire of rituals, it would be interesting to discern reasons for such variation.

All this is explored in my film too. After screenings I like to ask the audience,
“Would you let your sons take this up as a livelihood?”

This doesn’t amount to hand-wringing, however. Daoist ritual has adapted under all kinds of vicissitudes over the last century, as it always has done.

13 thoughts on “The life of the household Daoist

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