Temple murals of north China

Temple ritual, Yuxian 2014. Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

Further–waay further—to my page on the Guangling DaoistsHannibal Taubes has a fine, ever-growing, website documenting his ongoing research project (worthy of further funding!) on the iconography of rural temples in north China, with wonderful photos of murals taken by him and his assistants.

One of his main sites is the Yuxian–Guangling–Yangyuan region on the border of Hebei and Shanxi. The project—reminiscent of that of Willem Grootaers in the 1940s—is another illustration of the hidden depths of ritual culture in north China, so long a poor cousin of the south.

Such work can be a valuable adjunct to fieldwork on ritual practice. I hesitate to look forward to Hannibal expanding his already vast project to ritual paintings, and incorporating temple steles too…

Material like this may be more fruitful for the study of deities than for actual ritual life. But just a couple of examples from the website that do suggest the latter, from village temples in Yuxian just southeast of Yanggao. This is from a Dragon King temple in Yuxian, perhaps dating from the late Qing:

full mural lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Here are two details of the procession at the foot. Leading the way, as ever, is a shawm band—in uniform, which by the 20th century was discarded:

chuishou lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Bringing up the rear, on the left (after the temple helper bearing the ritual umbrella) it shows a Daoist band—with chief vocal liturgist, a drum master, and players of the sheng mouth-organ, yunluo frame of ten gongs (now quite rare in the area), and guanzi oboe. The outsider might easily fail to notice that the latter figure (far right) is playing the guanzi—but locals, experiencing the shengguan ensemble at their village rituals all their lives, will recognize it at once.

yinyang lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

I won’t quibble with the marching order—the drummer always leads the way, but hey.

Below we see a similar quorum from another nearby Dragon King temple, dating from 1709. Here they wear the same red costumes as household Daoists today—as do the two trumpet players leading the way, though they should be from a separate shawm band…

Daoist procession

Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

As with any such iconography (one thinks of Renaissance depictions of angel musicians), we are confronted with the issue of how “realistic”, or how generic and idealized, such depictions may be as a portrayal of local ritual life at the time. This detail from my photo of a ritual painting by Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen undoubtedly shows an authentic view of a 1940s’ ritual band (standing) such as the one that he himself led, with a group of seven—two guanzi, two sheng, yunluo (only three gongs?!), drum, and small cymbals:


The dizi flute, usually a member of the full shengguan ensemble, was perhaps less often used on procession—indeed, it’s largely fallen from use in this area since the 1990s. For the public ritual in the painting, the Daoists wear their red fayi costumes over their black dashan costumes, just as today. Interpreting such details is naturally informed by knowledge of the current scene.

Apart from another ambitious collaborative project on Shanxi temple murals, Hannibal is now further presenting his vast archive in a separate website, which I introduce here.

Of course art is a valuable adjunct to our studies of ritual and religious life, but with my own stress on performance I find myself frustrated that it’s static, two-dimensional, and silent. But whatever your angle on Chinese religion, Hannibal’s sites are fantastic new material, with rich potential. For his recent article on the use of perpectival painting, click here.

12 thoughts on “Temple murals of north China

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