Ian Johnson’s fine new book The souls of China contains many evocative descriptions, not least of our very own Li family Daoists in Yanggao county. His accounts make a valuable supplement to my book and film.
I like his focus on the young Li Bin, forging an innovative path in the county-town while his father Li Manshan remains in the village. He gives further vignettes on “determining the date” (cf. my book pp.186–9). He describes the chain of events that led the Li family Daoists to wider fame—from Chen Kexiu and me to the inconsequential initiatives of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (cf. my book pp.174–9, 331–3, 341–2).
Left: Yuan Xiwen, 2013. My photo.
Right: Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, 2018. Photo: Li Bin.
Ian gives a sympathetic account of a fine local ritual leader, Shi Shengbao in Yangguantun. But he got an unfortunate impression of the great Yuan Xiwen, distinguished temple leader in Lower Liangyuan (my book p.50, 240; film from 57.49). The guanxi involved in booking Daoists for the temple fair there may be complex, but both local people and Li Manshan himself respect him deeply.
Also most germane is Ian’s focus on the patrons, as well as on other performers, such as spirit mediums. I find myself having to speak up for the shawm bands again. His belittling of them is understandable, given the simple repertoire that they were performing by the time he found them. But a glance at my 2007 book and film reveals that their traditional repertoire was magnificent and complex right until the 21st century; even groups like that of Yang Ying (erstwhile Daoist with the Li band) still perform the old style with searing intensity.
Along with my own work and that of Wu Fan, this all adds to our picture of changing religious life in Yanggao.