Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen: an update

I’ve just added to my page on Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen, but it’s worth highlighting my new reflections here.

I began exploring the false dichotomy between Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi)  and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) branches in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (note especially pp.17–18). Now that we have more instances, let’s revisit the scene.

In areas of north China for which I have information (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China), household Daoists may nominally belong to either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection branches. But such simplistic pigeonholing may distract us from the details of their ritual practice.

In their rituals and ritual manuals I can discern no significant distinction. When the Complete Perfection branch evolved in the 12th century, its priests (both temple and household) took over Orthodox Unity ritual practice: as John Lagerwey once observed to me, “that was the only show in town”. And while a distinct Complete Perfection literature did evolve (see my book, pp.203–207), their ritual practice never developed into a separate corpus of Complete Perfection ritual texts.

That explains why such an august Complete Perfection temple priest as Min Zhiting (see above) was constantly citing Orthodox Unity ritual manuals from the Daoist Canon; and why the best mainstream source for the manuals of the Orthodox Unity Li family household priests in Yanggao is the repertoire of modern “Complete Perfection” temple practice like the Xuanmen risong.

On the evidence to hand, household Complete Perfection Daoists seem rather more likely to recall their place in their particular lineage poem. They may have a clearer family tradition of earlier ancestors having spent time as temple priests. But household Orthodox Unity priests may also possess both these features. Of course the histories of such groups need documenting, but when we come to performance (which, after all, is the heart of ritual) it may be less germane.

And in some places now—since around 2000—the picture is further confused by a certain “centripetal” tendency. With wider access (such as the internet), some groups that have always been Orthodox Unity may be exploring ways of “legitimizing” themselves by seeking manuals from prestigious central sites like the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, and having costumes and hats made which make them appear to be Complete Perfection Daoists. They may even reform their “local” ritual practice by adopting elements from the “national” White Cloud Temple.

The scene is further obfuscated by a tendency among some scholars (both local and central) to assume that if a group is household-based, then they must be Orthodox Unity—a problem I have already queried. We really must debunk this assumption. In my recent posts, the Changwu Daoists turn out to belong to the Huashan branch of Complete Perfection, and the Guangling Daoists appear to come from a Longmen tradition. Actually, this is not so clear-cut—even non-Quanzhen priests might adopt Longmen titles (note sources by Vincent Goossaert cited in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.18 n.34).

So while the ritual texts and ritual sequences of the two notional branches are rather similar, what always makes local traditions distinctive is the way in which the texts are performed.

vocal trio 2001

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

Even here there’s another erroneous cliché that needs debunking. Generations of scholars of Daoist music have parroted the notion that in style the “music” of Orthodox Unity (conceived narrowly as “household” or folk) Daoists is more popular and lively, whereas that of Complete Perfection (again, conceived narrowly as austere monastic) Daoists is solemn, slow and restrained. It derives entirely from an unfounded theory about household and temple practice. We only need to watch my film about the Li family band to realize this simply won’t do. Orthodox Unity Daoists, their basic style (exemplified by the zantan hymns that permeate all their rituals) is extremely slow and solemn—but as you can hear, it is indeed punctuated by exhilarating moments. The style of (household!) Complete Perfection Daoists is certainly no more “solemn”. Both branches may use melodic shengguan instrumental ensemble—and if anything, that of the Orthodox Unity groups tends to be more slow and solemn.

Indeed, when I showed Li Manshan my videos of funeral segments by the Complete Perfection Daoists in Shuozhou, he found their performance “chaotic” (luan). Orthodox Unity groups in Yanggao like that of Li Manshan pride themselves on the “order” (guiju) of their performance.

My only ongoing note on this is that several household Complete Perfection groups (such as in Shuozhou and Guangling) may have preserved the element of fast tutti a cappella recitation of the jing scriptures better than in some Orthodox Unity traditions like those of Yanggao. But that doesn’t bear on the false stylistic dichotomy. Like Life, It’s Complicated… We always need to expand our database and use our critical faculties.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen: an update

  1. Staying in Sichuan now, I can tell that this kind of dichotomous thinking is very widespread in mainland Chinese academic circles. Like these endless discussions about science and/or religion, it drives me crazy sometimes. And yes, music and chanting of householder Daoists can be very slow and solemn. Yet, they sometimes speed it up in order to save time…


    • Thanks, Volker! Indeed. I’m not very up to date with fieldwork reports from Sichuan—perhaps you can look into household Quanzhen Daoists there, any good links welcome! Any useful summaries of the overall distribution/regional features of household Daoists there?!
      Tempo: my point was that Zhengyi tempi can be just as slow as any Quanzhen. And about speeding up: this needs unpacking. Abbreviating ritual segments (e.g. yankou) must have a rather long history. Whereas singing hymns too quickly may be a more recent phenomenon—I wrote about this in my book Daoist priests of the Li family (and on this blog, somewhere!). But again, this doesn’t bear upon ZY/QZ…
      Any use of the term yinyang for household Daoists in Sichuan?!


  2. Oh, and the jing scriptures (chanted fast, tutti, isorythmically) are a case worth studying, quite separate from sung hymns. Again, I discuss them in Daoist priests of the Li family—in Yanggao they no longer chant them but still have the manuals, but elsewhere (such as in the groups I’ve posted about recently) they still do.


  3. I am unaware of the use of “yinyang” for householder Daoists in Sichuan; I don’t think it’s in use here. They are simply called 道士 (道師) or 法師, or referred to by the name of their branch 壇門, e.g., 法言壇. I have seen the words 道君師 together with a taiji tu embroidered on the ritual hat of a Fayan tan gaogong. As to householder Daoism in Sichuan, the two main branches in pre-communist times were Fayan tan (derived from the Confucian Liumen 劉門 tradition; see my book Ritual Words) and 廣成壇 (more connections to Quanzhen). Guangcheng Daoists are either householders (often defining themselves as Zhengyi) or monastics (Quanzhen). It is thus interesting to note that the Zhengyi/Quanzhen dichotomy is irrelevant to the actual ritual traditions, but this scholarly (and official) notion is nevertheless often adopted by contemporary Daoists when they interact with outsiders.
    Fayan tan Daoists are exclusively householders. Today, the two branches still exist. However, Fayan tan suffered setbacks due to its connection to the Liumen, which was stigmatized as “huidaomen” (reactionary secret society) in several counties. As far as I know, there are no exhaustive surveys of Sichuan householder Daoists so far. To a certain degree, this is still a sensitive matter, since the Sichuan authorities cling to a rather conservative attitude to (popular) religion. Chiang Fu-chen wrote her dissertation on Guangcheng Daoism, under the supervision of Vincent Goossaert. However, most of her informants are temple-based Daoists. Currently based at Sichuan University, I will continue research into Fayan tan and Sichuan Daoist ritual in general very soon.


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