In China, as in most societies, public performance—of all kinds, including ritual—is still largely a male monopoly. In the course of thirty years of documenting ritual groups in the countryside, it has been distressingly possible for me not to meet any women at all; from local cadres to temple committees, from shawm bands to ritual specialists, public roles remain largely monopolized by men. As until very recently in the Vienna Phil, women are invisible. Their absence from our accounts of household Daoist ritual is understandable, yet partial.
It’s not easy for male fieldworkers to engage with rural women. In Yanggao the potential for such study was suggested by the easy rapport (with both genders) of female scholar Wu Fan, whose fine book Yinyang, gujiang led the way in incorporating women into the picture of Yanggao ritual life.
Even before we consider public roles (see the two following posts, about sacred and secular performers respectively), the female members of Daoist households play a significant role. Just as Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom, I’d like to give a face and personality to these fine people.
So in this first of three posts I’ll introduce Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei, Li Peisen’s wife Yang Qinghua, Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian and their second daughter Li Min, as well as Li Bin’s wife Jin Hua. I give the formal names of women in an egalitarian spirit that is quite misplaced—married women’s formal names are hardly heard.
That I can provide such little sketches is thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Li Manshan’s family since 2011.
In the “old society” (as in Europe until quite recently) women had many children, of whom rather few might survive. Childbirth was itself dangerous for the mother; many Daoists took successive wives after the early deaths of previous partners. In education, attending sishu private school was costly; only a tiny minority of the more affluent villagers could afford to send their sons to school. In Yanggao until the 1950s only very few males were literate—but no females were.
In 1953, at the same time as he was beginning to learn Daoist ritual with his brilliant father Li Qing, Li Manshan, aged eight sui, also began attending school, then still in the decrepit Palace of the Three Pure Ones. The village of Upper Liangyuan set up a lower primary school, for years one to four. This was the official requisite age to attend lower primary after Liberation, but he was one of few children in the village who went so young—most of his classmates were four or five years older. Impressively, girls now began to attend too, though boys outnumbered them by two to one. In Year One there were around forty pupils, but as they dropped out after failing exams, by Year Four Li Manshan was in a class of only a dozen. Still, the school had around a hundred pupils in all, the beginnings of a modern education system.
If rural girls seldom advanced far in education under Maoism, they made rapid progress since the 1990s. An utterly unscientific survey among the grandchildren at Yanggao funerals suggests that girls are now going on to tertiary education at least as much as boys.
From 2013 I finally paid visits to Li Qing’s wonderful widow Xue Yumei (1925–2016; see my film, from 36.46).
Early in 1945, with Yanggao still under Japanese occupation, Li Qing was married, at the age of twenty sui. His bride Xue Yumei, one year older (brides were commonly a year or two older than grooms) came from a common family in Houguantun just west. As usual until at least the 1970s, they were introduced by a matchmaker. Like all village girls, she was illiterate; she had bound feet, again like all girls before the 1930s when warlord Yan Xishan’s campaign had some influence in Shanxi. But she was tall, with poise—a local beauty.
The wedding was one of the last grand events of the old society. Wearing a “python costume” (mangpao) with phoenix headgear, the bride was carried in a sedan—by then, sedan weddings were none too common.
The new couple’s first child, our very own Li Manshan, was born in the first moon of 1946. They went on to have three more sons and three daughters: the second son, Yushan (b.1954) later also become a Daoist. They had another son in 1956, but as Li Qing’s wife had no more milk, after three days they had to give him away to a family living opposite; and then having done so, they had no money to buy him back (he now lives in town, and does well—they sometimes see him). After long years of separation and trauma, the couple would have two more children—the youngest son Yunshan (Third Tiger, b.1969) training as a Daoist too. Xue Yumei had to labour in the production team too, despite her bound feet and the burden of childcare—not alleviated (in Yanggao at least) by notional crèches.
Traditionally only sons, not daughters, learn to perform ritual. Like most Daoists, indeed like most rural Chinese, Li Manshan doesn’t approve of girls learning. In recent years, a few Daoists in the area just northeast of the county-town have taught their daughters, but it remains a curiosity, and they never continue after marriage (Wu Fan 2007: 262–7). Li Manshan’s own second daughter Li Min (see below) is highly intelligent, and graduated from senior secondary—not such a common feat in rural Yanggao. She appreciates the Daoist rituals, but it was inconceivable that she might learn.
During the Cultural Revolution she and Li Qing bore their sufferings with dignity. On his deathbed in 1999, recalling their tribulations under Maoism, he was wise and benevolent as ever, enjoining his children: “After I die, you mustn’t curse the village cadres or bear grudges!” When in 2015 I went with Third Tiger and Li Bin to visit Li Qing’s widow in her 90th year, she was clearly still moved to remind them of his entreaty, her own moral compass shining through.
In her old age, like many of the older generation, she preferred to stay on the land, living on a farm estate that Third Tiger runs in the rural southern suburb of town, where his staff could look after her. Though hard of hearing, she chatted with Li Bin as she sat outside on the ground, trimming green vegetables.
Alas I never observed Xue Yumei’s activities in support of Li Qing, but Yang Qinghua, wife of his Daoist uncle Li Peisen (also known as Li Peisheng, 1910–85) was a respected local personality (for more, see my book, and film from 38.44).
Li Peisen had served as village chief under the Japanese occupation. Like his Daoist cousins, he owned surplus land. But in 1947, towards the end of the civil war, perhaps realizing land reform was imminent, he quietly moved his family to his wife’s natal village of Yang Pagoda in the hills just south, taking his sets of ritual instruments and costumes, as well as two trunks full of scriptures handed down in his branch of the lineage.
Moving to the wife’s village was quite a common expedient when her family lacked male relatives. But more significantly, people from “black” families tended to encounter less scrutiny outside their home village. The family of Li Peisen’s wife were well-off and well connected; both he and his wife are remembered as highly intelligent. Their move was clearly an astute way of sidestepping any investigations into his background—his economic standing, and his connections with the vilified Japanese and Nationalists. Yang Pagoda might make a safer base from which to survey the lie of the land under the new regime—the potential sensitivity of practicing ritual would have been a minor issue.
Anyway, Li Peisen wasted no time in displaying his political correctness. Amazingly, he now gains an honorable mention in the county gazetteer. In March 1949—just as family members back in Upper Liangyuan were being stigmatized with a “rich peasant” label—he was the very first in the whole county to organize a mutual aid co-op, consisting of three households. This is the only tiny glimpse of him in the official account, but with his prior experience as village chief in Upper Liangyuan, and as one of very few literate villagers, he went on to serve as brigade accountant in Yang Pagoda right until the Four Cleanups campaign in 1964. And meanwhile, when conditions allowed, he continued to lead a Daoist band. His wife helped him organize his schedule. Li Peisen’s move to this tranquil village, and his wife’s careful assertion of local status, were to play a major role in enabling the lineage to preserve its Daoist traditions.
In 2014 the couple’s children erected a stele to their parents.
It took me quite a long time to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian. Even if we managed to understand each other’s dialects, she wasn’t used to conversing with a foreigner, and I couldn’t break the ice.
They were married in the winter cold late in 1971, when he was twenty-six sui, with Li Manshan’s family and the whole society under a cloud. Still bearing the hat of “rich peasant,” he had little choice of bride, despite Li Qing’s repute. Li Manshan’s uncle Li Tao lived in Yaozhuang further north, and his bride came from there. She never went to school, but over the years she has gradually picked up a few characters like their names. It was a very simple wedding—in this period even the shawm bands were only able to accompany life-cycle rituals in the more remote hill villages. Li Manshan remains eternally grateful to an uncle who came from Inner Mongolia for his wedding with a sack of white flour to make the prized gao paste for the wedding meal. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform.
Staying with them since 2011, I came to admire her unassuming hosting skills— not just with me, but her natural rapport with both female and male guests who constantly arrived for a “determining the date” prescription with Li Manshan—putting them at ease, exchanging local gossip, sympathetic. Though not a smoker, she is always ready to offer a cigarette to male visitors.
While not in great health, she washes and mends the Daoists’ costumes, and helps out with making the paper artefacts for funerals too. Without making a fuss over me, she worked out what kind of food I like, and prepared a range of delicious meals for the family. We eat meat sparingly; the basis is noodles and mostly home-grown vegetables—potatoes, beans, mushrooms, greens, as well as fresh eggs and succulent tomatoes. Actually, Li Manshan is on the road so much that his wife’s cooking duties are usually modest—though his patriarchal background obliges him to disparage her cooking, even with me (I resist the temptation to ask him, “Why don’t you cook for me, then?”).
Apart from Li Bin (Daoist son of Li Manshan and his wife), their three daughters are all highly intelligent too. In growing to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife, their second daughter Li Min (b.1975) served as a bridge when she brought her young son to stay with us, in an astute move to make my visits more pleasurable for all; she not only interpreted for us, but at informal family meals I relished their thoughtful and humorous exchanges.
Li Bin’s affable wife Jin Hua is an equal partner in running their busy funeral shop in town. With Li Bin constantly away doing prescriptions, decorating coffins, performing rituals, and networking, she is often left to fend alone with the shop; this is a largely female-driven cottage industry. Along with her own chain of female supporters, they provide all the paper artefacts that will escort the deceased to heaven—houses, carts, treasuries, floral decorations, wreaths, “banner to lead the soul”, and so on. Though these artefacts are less elaborate than in south China, the whole process of making them is complex and skillful. I keep them company as they make the two treasuries, using sunflower stalks to make the frames.
As Jin Hua observes, it takes two people a whole day to make the two treasuries, but only one minute to burn them to ashes. I ask her why patrons still demand such complex structures that will go up in smoke, when they are otherwise so lukewarm about ritual. She explains astutely that the hosts have money and can afford to pay people to spend the time making them—but they themselves can’t be bothered to do all the work that is involved in organizing long complex rituals.
I’m aware that so far we have mainly found such women assuming domestic and supportive tasks, but their contributions should not be neglected. And in the following two posts (here and here) we will observe women taking more independent roles.