Diary of a household Daoist

LMS 1992

August 1992: In a brief break between ritual segments of a funeral led by Li Qing, his son Li Manshan consults with another family to determine the date for a future burial.

In my book (pp.18–21) I gave instances of the daily ritual schedules of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin. They’re always so busy that Li Bin has only just found time to report back to me on what they’ve been up to recently. Apart from all the necessary research into the ancestry of ancient ritual texts, and so on, such diaries are an illuminating aspect of the ethnography of Daoist ritual practice. Apart from my film and book, Li Bin is also one of the protagonists of Ian Johnson’s The souls of China.

Li Manshan, now 72 sui, has recently been scaling down his activities a bit—mainly doing funerals in the immediate vicinity, and determinining the date. But since the band’s “triumphant return” (Kaixuan guilai 凯旋归来, on which more anon) from our mini-tour of France in May—and indeed throughout the previous months—Li Bin has hardly had a moment of free time. As he tells me,

The thing that’s the most hassle is when I get two or three concurrent funerals, having to arrange personnel and all the equipment. Each band needs suitable liturgists, wind players, percussionists, and someone to write the documents. And I have to make sure all the various sets of costumes and equipment are complete.

Until the 1950s their ritual work consisted of three types of “scriptures”: funerals, temple fairs, and (through the winter) Thanking the Earth rituals for individual families. The latter two types are now rare, so since the 1980s’ revival the vast majority of their business consists of funeral rituals and all the associated proprieties surrounding a death. But for reputable Daoists like Li Manshan and Li Bin, this alone can be a full-time occupation. In this area south of the county-town they are the most popular group performing such tasks, but there are others.

Before we look at Li Bin’s diary day by day, some more background. Funerals commonly last one and a half days. It’s very tiring work, performing from 7am to nearly midnight on the first day, with a whole series of long processions. As I say in my book,

Excuse the facile analogy with Western art music, but just the seven visits to the soul hall are like doing two motets and five cantatas over the course of the day—plus a few oratorios, and (previously, for temple fairs) six long symphonies.

For the wind players (like Li Bin) especially, accompanying the liturgy is tough physical work.

And on the following morning they make the lengthy burial procession from 8am to midday—as well as all the solo work of Li Manshan or Li Bin in exorcizing the house and checking the precise alignment of the coffin in the grave. Apart from singing the vocal liturgy, they have to double on the wind instruments and ritual percussion.

As I have also described (my book, ch.17), in addition to the two other core members Golden Noble and Wu Mei, Li Bin and Li Manshan need a pool of deps—some regular, others occasional—from the ranks of other local Daoist families and shawm bands. Using his smartphone, Li Bin has to keep a careful note of the fees he owes them; and he’s constantly driving round from village to village with his car packed with ritual equipment—ritual instruments and costumes, paper artefacts, mourning weeds for the kin, duilian and diaolian mottos to paste up at the soul hall and scripture hall, and so on.

Li Manshan prepares most of the mottos at home; he, Li Bin, or Golden Noble will also have to find moments during the funeral to write other ritual documents to be burned for particular ritual segments. At least recently they have deputed to the junior Daoists the lengthy and fiddly task of decorating (and later dismantling) the soul hall.

Usually the first day’s rituals come to a close around 11pm with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (magnificent percussion coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual) and the Escorting Away the Orphan Souls segment (see my film, from 1.11.07), but sometimes the host asks them to do a lengthy Sitting through the Night sequence into the small hours (playlist, track 3—see my notes). Until quite recently the six Daoists routinely dossed down for the night in a row on the kang brick-bed of the “scripture hall” (making room for me too, a fond memory), but now with the improved road network, given the rather basic conditions of most scripture-hall hosts, they sometimes zoom off back home on their motor-bikes. If the funeral isn’t too far away, Li Bin often drives back to his home in town—not least in case he needs to bring more equipment for the burial next morning or his next stop thereafter. But each night on reaching home after a seventeen-hour day, he always remembers to light incense before the statuette of Zhang Daoling in his funeral shop.

Apart from determining the date for funerals, siting the grave and decorating coffins (also both lengthy processes), booking the band, and then performing the rituals—not to mention the daily business of running his funeral shop and making paper artefacts with his wife—Li Bin is always busy doing consultations to determine the date for weddings, construction work, journeys, and so on.

I have to field constant phone-calls every day. Sometimes I determine the date over the phone for “moving the earth” (dongtu 动土) for building work. Over the phone people can go on for ages about weddings or opening a new business—often when I’m right in the middle of some really busy arrangements. It’s a real hassle, but I can’t refuse…

Free-lance musos in London would be only too happy to have such a full diary, but it comes at a cost. As a freelancer myself, I’m glad he’s in work; he has bills to pay, but I hope he gets a bit of time off occasionally. We can well understand why Daoists don’t want their sons to continue in the family tradition.

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin (Li Manshan’s son, 9th generation) on sheng, 2011.

These notes cover the period from their flight home from Paris on 22nd May through to 8th August.

From the map below we can also see the rather typical radius of their ritual activity. Apart from the occasional funeral in Yanggao town, and a rare visit to Datong city, they work mostly in a small area in east-central Yanggao, around the Li family’s old home of Upper Liangyuan and Gucheng district just south. You can click on the place-names in the sidebar to see dates. For another map of the area (also indicating location of other Daoists groups now and before the 1950s) see here.

The Li band may cater to the mortuary needs of many of these individual villages a dozen or so times each year. And they have done so for several generations, with many trusted friends in places like Yangguantun, Pansi, Luotun, and so on.

22: we take 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing;
23: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station.

  • 24: our train from Beijing arrives at Yanggao at 3.44am. At 4am [!] I drive down to Upper Liangyuan (dropping off Li Manshan at home) to help the Sun family prepare for funeral, then I drive back to town again to fetch equipment for them. I determine the date of the burial for 3rd June. 8am: to Shangzhuang to determine the date for a burial there (1st June).
  • 25: I decorate the coffin for Shangzhuang.
  • 26: I decorate the coffin for Upper Liangyuan, and site the grave.
  • 27–28: funeral at Upper Liangyuan for Zhao Xilin (date already determined before French tour).
  • 29: making paper artefacts, preparing for the Shangzhuang and Upper Liangyuan funerals.
  • 30–31: two concurrent funerals at South Luoyao and Pansi
  • 31–June 1: funeral at Shangzhuang.
  • 1: after the Shangzhuang burial, to Houguantun to determine date for burial (12th June, a simple solo “smashing the bowl” ritual—see my book, pp.193–4).
  • 2–3: Upper Liangyuan funeral. After burial, back home to make more paper artefacts.
  • 4–5: funeral at Anzao.
  • 6: making paper artefacts.
  • 7–8: funeral at Zhaoshizhuang.
  • 9–11: three days free to make paper artefacts. Hardly any rest since we came back from France.
  • 12–13: two funerals, at Huiquanzi (in Yangyuan, Hebei) and Houguantun.
  • 15–16: funeral for Sun family in Upper Liangyuan (Li Manshan’s home village).
  • 20–21: two funerals, in Wangguantun and Yanggao county-town.
  • 22–23: funeral at Shizitun; 23 pm I determine the date in Luotun, for burial on 4th July.
  • 25–26: funeral in Lower Liangyuan.
  • 28–29: funeral at Shizitun; 29 pm I determine the date in Yangguantun, for another burial on 4th July.
  • 1–2: funeral at Yousuoyao; I also determine the date in Houguantun, for burial on 8th July.
  • 3–4: funeral at Luotun. [4: burial at Yangguantun]
  • 7–8: two funerals, at Yangguantun and Houguantun. 8: after the burial at Yangguantun, another old person has died, so I go to determine the date—for 5th August.
  • 9: three families come to determine the date for their weddings.
  • 11–12: funeral in Datong
  • 14–15: concurrent funerals in Anzao and Zhanjiayao.
  • 16: coming-of-age party (yuansuo 圆锁) in town for friend’s son (cf. the scene of the party for Li Bin’s own son in my film, from 5.25).
  • 18: massive downpour in the northern hills; two killed as floods carry off a tractor [Li Manshan summoned to determine the date for a burial there].
  • 20–21: funeral at Upper Liangyuan.
  • 22–23: funeral in the county-town.
  • 27–28: funeral at Fantun (just east in Tianzhen).
  • 2–3: funeral at Lower Niangcheng.
  • 4–5: funeral at Yangguantun.
  • 7–8: funeral at Sibaihu. On the afternoon of the 8th, after the burial, just northeast all around Jijiazhuang, Lanyubu, and South Xutun, extreme windstorm and hailstones destroyed cornfields; one family in Jijiazhuang lost 40 mu of peppers.

For Li Manshan’s ritual schedule for 2019, see here; and during the Coronovirus scare, here.


With thanks as ever to Li Bin and his son Li Bingchang
(also an Ariana Grande fan, I learn).

39 thoughts on “Diary of a household Daoist

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