Shanxi, summer 1992

Partly to remind myself that I don’t only do jokes, here are some more fieldnotes.

I’ve already noted the differences between our early fieldwork in the 1990s and conditions more recently. So I thought I’d give you a flavour of one of those earlier fieldtrips.

Over the hot summer of 1992, following hot on the heels of the Wutaishan Buddhist group’s visit to England, Xue Yibing and I made a three-week trek from Taiyuan northwards through Wutai, Xinzhou, Daixian, and Hunyuan, finding ritual activity all along the way, en route for another rendezvous with the great Li Qing in Yanggao. Our last stop was nearby Yangyuan county, just in Hebei.

Since our fruitful initial survey of ritual associations in Hebei over New Year in 1989, this was my fourth fieldtrip with Xue Yibing. Before we could return to the Hebei plain, and before I began to focus on particular villages and families, this was still only a partial survey of central and north Shanxi—for what became Chapter 12 of my book Folk music of China.

We had a van and a driver from the MRI at our disposal, and for parts of the trip we were accompanied by Shanxi scholars Jing Weigang and Wang Bin, whose local knowledge was valuable. We were mostly unencumbered by the need to “kowtow to the Gods of the Soil”, except when we knew there was a knowledgeable scholar—like the senior Liu Jianchang in Taiyuan, who was studying the Buddhist ritual music of the Wutaishan mountains through the 1950s whenever political conditions allowed. All along the way we found local traditions, differing significantly from each other. [1] Power cuts were frequent. And before motorways, our progress was often far from smooth; even on the main roads we generally found ourselves crawling along behind long lines of coal lorries.


Dongye township
In central Shanxi, I had already visited the central area of Wutaishan, so I was interested to explore the outlying areas. While we found many shawm bands (here called gufang 鼓房), our main interest was in ritual shengguan bands (here called xiangda 响打). Though they were rarely ritual specialists with vocal liturgy, some bands performed a fine repertoire of long suites related to the temples of Wutaishan and Beijing—the kind of groups found by the great Yang Yinliu in 1953, in whose steps we were now following.


Funeral procession, South Daxing, Dongye.

We spent time with one such band, led by Xu Yousheng in Dongye.

It soon became clear that this whole area was also a hotbed for female spirit mediums, including Xu Yousheng’s wife. These mediums did exorcistic rituals as a group, singing ritual songs a cappella. In this photo, at Xu Yousheng’s house near Dongye, his wife and her fellow medium pose before ritual paintings commissioned by him.


This page from Xue Yibing’s precious notebook lists the gods on the pantheon to the right in the photo.


In this detail, the “young soldier god” features because a medium had divined that he once saved the life of Xu’s son while he was in the army:


For more on such pantheons, see the remarkable website of Hannibal Taubes.

The Xinzhou region
In this large and mountainous region we found more household Daoists (this time of the Complete Perfection branch!), as well as a thriving community of Catholics who also used shengguan music to accompany their rituals.


The Ekou Buddhists
After digging our van out of the mud yet again, we reached Ekou township in Daixian county, in the northern foothills of Wutaishan. I was hoping to see Chengde, lovely former Buddhist monk whom I had hosted in England a few weeks earlier. But he was doing a temple fair some distance away—so we had a chat with his older brother, who provided us with useful detail on local ritual life there. This was one of rather few occupational household Buddhist groups that we found.


Old pantheon at Chengde’s house.

Arriving hot and sweaty in the (then) cosy little hill town of Hunyuan (at the foot of Hengshan, the northern marchmont of Daoism), we checked into a modest hostel. On the guest registration form, under “Level of Culture” (wenhua chengdu 文化程度) I wrote “None” (wu 无), as is my wont.

After a long drive and many days in scorching temperatures without running water, we were delighted to find that not only did our room have a bath, but that hot water was promised (typically “after 8pm”, which often means either “never” or “from 3.30 to 3.35 am”).

The bathroom wasn’t exactly hygienic, but hey, we weren’t fussy—ruxiang suisu, “when in Rome…”. Xue Yibing rashly took the plunge first, and he was just sinking into the water in ecstasy when the ceiling (exhausted by unprecedented strains on the plumbing above) promptly caved in, covering him in rusty debris (or is that the name of a Country singer?). Adopting what Nigel Barley calls “fieldwork mode”, we both burst out laughing. He came out a lot dirtier than he went in.

Next day we found no ritual activity at the Hengshan mountain temples, but in town we found yet another great family of household Daoists.



Page from ritual manual: end of Fetching Water ritual and opening of Dispensing Food.

This group belonged to a lengthy Orthodox Unity lineage. By the time I went back to see them in 2011 with the wonderful Li Jin, significant changes had taken place in their practice (see fieldnotes here).

The north
After a brief visit to more Orthodox Unity household Daoists in Datong county, we reached Yanggao, where I was delighted to find Li Qing again, performing a funeral with his ritual band. He also managed a long session with us, providing detailed accounts of ritual sequences, augmenting my notes from the previous year.

After a brief and rather unedifying stop-off in Yangyuan county, we made our way back to Beijing. Upon my return, I once again (as usual) sought out former monks, before we set off once more for Liaoning in the northeast, finding majestic shawm bands there too…

* * *

Such early fieldtrips with Xue Yibing were an important training for us both, before we launched into more in-depth study of the Hebei ritual associations. I always treasure his notes, but however brief our visits on that Shanxi trip, the three hand-written volumes he copied out for me are full of wonderful ethnographic detail on folk religion.

Since 2011, having profited from collaborative fieldwork for twenty-five years, I have largely engaged with the Li family Daoists on my own, regaining a certain self-esteem—except for the occasional mishap

[1] For more detail on most of these sites, see my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.65–81; Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.65–90 and passim. For a richly-illustrated overview of folk customs throughout Shanxi, see Wen Xing 文幸 and Xue Maixi 薛麦喜 (eds.), Shanxi minsu 山西民俗 (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin cbs, 1991).

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