Singing from a different hymn-sheet

vocal trio 2001

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

That’s the zippy title of Part One of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China.

There I observe that nationally, Daoist ritual is far from standardised. Our picture (still misleadingly reinforced in encyclopaedias and media coverage) has previously been based on southeastern Orthodox Unity Daoists performing jiao Offering rituals, using manuals from the Daoist Canon; to be sure, scholars note a wide variety of practice even in south China, both within a region like Fujian and between regions like Jiangxi, Sichuan, or Jiangsu.

But to include in our picture the vast area of north China—always wrongly assumed to have no household Daoists at all, merely celibate temple-dwelling Complete Perfection priests—suggests a still more complex taxonomy. Household ritual specialists may be either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection; and at least until the 1940s,  temple-dwelling priests too might belong to either branch. Moreover, the very distinction doesn’t explain nearly as much as has been assumed: rituals, and ritual texts, of the two branches overlap to a great extent.

“Singing from a different hymn-sheet” also seems a suitable metaphor to challenge the reified conformity of many reports by both scholars of Daoist ritual and Chinese musicologists—their dry, silent, timeless lists often relegating thick ethnographic description and accounts of society and lives in change (my book, pp.364–6).

So just as ritual is itself diverse, I’m seeking a more varied spectrum of our areas of enquiry.

En passant, I note that Daoists rarely sing from hymn-sheets at all! They may possess ritual manuals, but in performance they are seldom needed (my book, pp.203–14). Oral transmission is a major element in both training and ritual practice. Often the only manuals they place before them on the table are the jing scriptures—lengthy discursive texts, chanted very fast, isorhythmically. Anyway, the efficacy of a ritual lies more in its performance than in its written text: ritual is conveyed by means of sound.

One thought on “Singing from a different hymn-sheet

  1. Pingback: Sacred and secular | Stephen Jones: a blog

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