Li Manshan is as adorable as ever.
I was determined to get to CDG to meet the band off their Air France flight from Beijing, but it arrived early at 5.30am, so in the end I just had to wait for them at our hotel right by Gare Saint Lazare. We met up there at 7.30, Li Manshan giving me a big grin and a hug.
Now 72 sui, he is gradually giving way to his son Li Bin, only doing nearby rituals. But he still can’t turn down requests to go and determine the date, and he still decorates coffins. This process of handing over must always happen, but no-one ever describes it. Personalities within a ritual group, the transmission from father to son as the latter gradually takes over—all such detail is absent from both historical records and most fieldwork reports. If only we could document it in detail for ancient Daoist masters like Du Guangting.
Li Manshan has new headgear, now a more trendy baseball cap, not as sweet as his old one, but hey. He only takes it off, reluctantly, when we enter Notre Dame. He also has a new mobile, the same old make, but with a new ringtone that sounds like The magic roundabout, so another of my names for him is Zebedee—who would have liked the Daoist Pacing the Void. I miss Li Manshan’s old kitsch ringtone of The little wicker basket.
After his lovely gift to me of the old folding stool he made, I gave him a digested translation of The good soldier Švejk, a copy I must have bought in Beijing in the early 1990s. I inscribe it to him:
Old Lord Li, superstar Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper
“Old Lord Li” references one of our favourite ritual couplets pasted up at the gateway of the scripture hall, hard to translate elegantly:
Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves the male and female elements.
And Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper are rituals in the family’s manual collection.
Old Lord Li is immediately hooked on Švejk. I knew it would be just his cuppa tea—the innocent common man muddling his way jovially through an irrational state machinery. He can’t put it down. Later, suitably, I also give him my old spare toothbrush to use, as he hasn’t brought one.
After catching up together and working out our day, I go off with Li Manshan for the first of many meetings with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui).
How amazing to be on tour again with this brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. We use our secret language, always laughing.
In the concerts, the others (like Wu Mei for his amazing tricks on the wind instruments, or Golden Noble with his solo recitation) may attract more attention, but Li Manshan is right at the heart of everything, drumming unerringly, singing intensely, subtly directing. Even the twisting route he improvises on the tiny stage as he leads the final Chase round the Five Quarters, unsheathing the “precious sword” to sketch talismans on the ground, is magisterial.
Late at night we have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel. It’s been a long day, but they’re troopers.
Li Manshan is always tapping away on his fingers (even while sleeping on the train) or on his chopsticks as we wait for our meal to arrive.
Following a quick weekend flit to Clermont-Ferrand, after our last gig back in Paris he had a (rare) bath—the concerts are hot work, and they’re all bathed in sweat. He then slept till 1am, watched some TV, slept again, got a call from Pansi village to determine the date after a death, and was up by 4am.
We meet up in the foyer at 5am for fags outside, lovely. I take him to the bar down the road, full of workmen on the early shift, so I can have a café and orange juice as we chat with the Wenzhou people behind the bar. Trump comes on TV—Old Lord Li hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable. Back to my room together to read through a draft article by our wonderful Confucius Institute host Yan Lu that she has just sent me.
Li Manshan calls Pansi again at 6am with more guidance. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him.
After our hectic schedule, we’re all glad to have a final day free for sightseeing and buying gifts. While his son spends a fortune, Li Manshan just wants to find a couple of toys for his young grandson.
A quick farewell hug, and they embark on their long journey back to Yanggao to resume their busy ritual routine. Hardly had they got back home when both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off to separate villages to determine the date for more funerals, which is the start of another sequence of tasks for them over the next couple of weeks.