Vignettes 2: Li Bin

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin on sheng, 2011.

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin (b.1977) seems like a typical entrepreneur in the religious market, but he’s a master of all five skills of the Daoist. Ian Johnson writes eloquently about him in his The souls of China.

Li Bin is gradually taking over the reins from his father. For our foreign tours he is our main link to get all the complex paperwork done, and I’m in constant contact with him online. He always answers my queries promptly, in between ritual segments.

Li Bin began learning with his grandfather Li Qing in 1993 after graduating from junior secondary. In awe of the wisdom of his elders, I tended to underestimate him; though seemingly rather concerned with the more mundane aspects of the business, he knows a lot, and his keen sense of humour hints at his acumen. He is not only an anchor on the sheng mouth-organ, but sometimes takes a turn on guanzi or drum, apart from the cymbals and vocal liturgy; he determines the date, decorates coffins and altars, and makes paper artefacts.

Since the 1990s the lineage has spread into the county-town as never before. Li Manshan’s younger brother Third Tiger was first to move to town, to take up a state job around 1990. Since 2006 he has been employed in the county anti-corruption unit, where, with his sincere intelligence, he has risen to high rank. He makes a good living, with several sidelines. But he loves the Daoist rituals, and can offer a lot of detail about the old masters. He even tells me he is keen to get back to ritual practice when he retires!

Since the 1990s it has become common among Daoists for the son to run a funeral shop in town while the seniors remain in the old village home. Of Li Peisen’s sons, Li Huan moved to town in the 1980s to determine the date from a base there; more recently his younger brother Li Hua, and his sons, have opened funeral shops in town as a base for their ritual band; in 2016 Li Hou followed suit. Li Bin moved with his family to the county-town in 2007, initially as 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. He went on to buy a first-floor flat there, running a funeral shop with his wife on the ground floor. This is where I stay on my rare forays into town to take a shower and see old friends (in that order)—we call it “the five-star hotel,” as it is handsomely furnished. Li Bin has managed to buy urban registration for his son—that’s always the priority.

In 2010 Li Bin bought a little car for the princely sum of 48,000 kuai. On the bumpy village roads, any car will have a tough time. In 2013 he upgraded to a fine Nissan hatchback, and in nine months had already done 13,000 kilometres, almost all on local business. His car has a posh sound system and, for his rare excursions outside the vicinity, satnav. He did a hundred funerals in 2010, not including countless determining the date sessions, decorating about forty coffins, and all his work in the shop making funerary artefacts. In 2012–13 he did 118 funerals, including eight three-day ones; in the winter he had fifty days’ solid ritual work without a single day off. He knows that Li Manshan’s health is fragile and that he should help him work less as he gets older, but they often have to split into two bands, and don’t like to turn work down. For a diary of Li Bin’s ritual activities after returning from our French tour, see here; for his busy schedule even during the Coronavirus scare, here.

Li Bin has a firm grasp of all aspects of the Daoist arts, but developing his business seems uppermost in his mind, all the more so now that he is based in town. In Adam Chau’s phrase, he is a real “household entrepreneur in the religious market”. Though his earnings can’t compete with those for temporary manual labour, he does quite well (or he would do, if he didn’t spend it all). He has become used to a more comfortable life than those still left behind in the villages. Well connected, he enjoys eating out with a wide network of friends, not only gujiang, singers and members of the county opera troupe, but also cadres, teachers, and so on—a far cry from his father’s tranquil home life.

The diplomat of the group, he is the first port of call for visitors like Chinese and foreign journalists seeking soundbites. He can speak standard Chinese when required, and his “bilinguality” is even evident from the two different kinds of name-cards he distributes—one for his local clientele, one for his diplomatic contacts with visiting dignitaries.

The card he uses locally is headed “Ninth generation of yinyang in Upper Liangyuan,” whereas his diplomatic card reads “Hengshan Daoist music band, Shanxi.” He even uses his elegant given name Bin (“civil and martial”) on his local card, but the more colloquial Bing (“soldier”) on his diplomatic one. The local card reads “the whole chain of supplies for funerals,” with a list of services on the back; instead, the back of his diplomatic card lists their Intangible Cultural Heritage status and foreign tours.

Li Manshan and the others haven’t got a name-card. Neither have I. In a typical exchange one day, I ask him:
“You got a name-card, then?”
“Oh yeah!”
“Um… can you give me one?”
“Sure—whose do you want? I’ve got loads of ’em!”

Li Manshan does have to be a shrewd band boss, maintaining the livelihood of his group. He now goes off to work (rituals, determining the date, decorating coffins, and so on) with a smart shoulder bag bought for him by Li Bin, but he makes a less convincing businessman than his son. Whereas Li Manshan tots up the fees on the paper lining of a cigarette pack, Li Bin works them out on a calculator. Of course all this is a common generational contrast. Li Manshan’s demands on the material world are modest, and he remains firmly rooted in old village culture. He wouldn’t contemplate leaving the village or the land—it keeps him healthy and active, and he doesn’t like the bustle of town life. There’s not exactly a connection with being a Daoist (indeed, urban Daoists are more likely to excel, even without land), but it’s part of his personal discipline.

Remarkably, almost alone among all the rural Daoists whom I know, Li Bin has been devout since his youth. Among various Daoist artifacts that he has ordered from Longhushan (distant headquarters in south China of the Orthodox Unity branch of Daoism) for sale in his shop, he keeps a statuette there of Zhang Daoling, ancient founder of the Orthodox Unity branch. Every morning when getting up at home, and every night on his return, he lights incense before the statuette.

He is simply adapting to circumstances, as Daoists have always done throughout history—competition and syncretism with Buddhism, urbanization and the shift of economic power to the south in the medieval era, and so on.

On our foreign tours, whereas the village-based Daoists carefully hoard their fees, Li Bin spends with abandon on gifts for his guanxi network. In Paris, now dangerously armed with a credit card, he spent with abandon on gifts like vin rouge, olive oil, perfume, watches, and leather bags. To me it seems profligate, when he has a family to support—but I dare say such gifts are a calculated investment for him, consolidating his guanxi. By now he has built up a substantial power-base, and people trust him.

But now Li Bin could well be the last generation of Daoists in this fine lineage. And this is perfectly understandable. Would any of us want our sons to do this job? Many elements mitigate against youngsters taking it up—state education, migration, upward mobility, pop culture… Parents (including Daoists) naturally want their children to do well in school, find a secure well-paid job in town, and get urban registration—whereas working as a Daoist is a tough life, with long days in poor demoralized villages for a rather small fee. I’m not going to pontificate about perpetuating the illustrious ancient Chinese heritage, and nor should anyone else. [1]

See also Li Bin’s ritual diary.

[1] Much of this and related posts is adapted from my book.

12 thoughts on “Vignettes 2: Li Bin

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