The Long March, Bach and Daoist style

In 1705 the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach set off from his home in Arnstadt to walk 250 miles to Lübeck, there to meet his hero, the composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude.

Bach is compulsory Radio 3 listening over Christmas, and apart from yet another excursion on Composer of the week, Horatio Clare’s series Bach walks makes fine slow listening, taking the walk in five episodes, punctuated by musical snippets that seem all the more miraculous. And it stands in tranquil contrast to the hectic claustrophic life that he was to lead through the years of his greatest creativity in Leipzig.

What makes such a modern retracing of Bach’s steps so thoughtful is all the social detail that can be incorporated, along with Clare’s reflections on the present landscape. Bach had actually walked a similar distance when he was 15 to enroll in St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg

By now you won’t be surprised to learn that this reminds me of the Li family Daoists.

Early-18th-century Germany was more advanced in transportation than rural China in the 1930s, or even the 1980s. And by contrast with many more adventurous composers of the day, Bach spent most of his career employed in a rather small radius within Thuringia and Saxony.

From my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.12–13):

Since ancient times, elite Daoists travelled widely over China to famous temples and religious mountains, seeking the wisdom of other sages and propagating new revelations. One such master was Kou Qianzhi (365–448), who served the court of the Northern Wei dynasty at their capital Pingcheng (modern Datong), and who is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. Still today, temple Daoist priests commonly spend periods “cloud wandering” around the main urban and mountain temples.

By contrast, household Daoists are active within a small radius (see map here). Even those who spent their youth as priests in temples before the 1949 Liberation did so only locally—like several boys in Upper Yinshan village in nearby Tianzhen county, who learned their ritual skills in a temple just further east. Occasionally the Li band is invited to do rituals further afield—just east in Hebei or north in Inner Mongolia. Li Qing and the elders used to walk for a whole day to do Thanking the Earth rituals for patrons in Inner Mongolia, because around eighty percent of the Han Chinese population there had migrated from Yanggao, some of whom were quite affluent. But the main area of their work is defined both by walking distances and by the availability of Daoists elsewhere—north around the county-town, west in Datong county, and east in Tianzhen. So even now, with motor-bikes and cars, most of their ritual business is still in the districts of Shizitun, Houying, Baideng, and Pansi. They work quite often just further south in the districts of Gucheng and Lower Shenyu, and sometimes in Dongxiaocun district and in the west of Tianzhen county. But they rarely perform rituals in west Yanggao, or further north in North Xutun district or around the county-town where other groups of Daoists are available.


Until bicycles became generally available from around 1980, people had to walk everywhere, or go by ox-cart, equally slow. Li Manshan recalls wryly, “We didn’t even have Chinese carts (tuche), let alone foreign ones (yangche)!” Occasional visits to the county-town on foot took over three hours. Li Manshan went occasionally before the Cultural Revolution; he recalls walking there with his aunt in 1954 to watch the grand Offering Tribute (xiangong) parade on the 24th of the 6th moon, which was by then a purely secular event.


Horse-cart on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.

For a funeral twenty-five Chinese li away, walking at roughly ten li an hour, the Daoists had to set off at 4am. The hill villages to the east were not so far, but the climb took longer—when Wu Mei was learning with Li Qing in the late 1980s it took him a whole hour to walk from his home in Renjiayao, only five li away. Most gigs might be in the nearby villages, but for longer journeys the more elderly Daoists might send their fitter younger sons and disciples. When the Daoists were invited for funerals a long walk away, there was no need to get the Lis to determine the date on the death, or decorate the coffin—there were men available locally for such tasks.

Until the 1980s when there was a death, the son would walk to Li Qing’s house to invite him to do the funeral—and was then quite likely to learn that he was doing a funeral in another village and to have to make another trek by foot there. From 1980 to 1990 he could make this search by bicycle, and then perhaps by motor-bike; since around 2002 he can just call up Li Manshan on his mobile.

I was amazed to read that bicycles were already common in some central Shanxi villages by the 1930s [1] —perhaps a hint of how much poorer Yanggao was than areas further south. In the countryside here, most people only began riding bicycles around 1978; before that only some village cadres had them. Li Qing rode a Red Flag bike from around 1981. With a bike costing around 150 kuai, and a Daoist earning 6 kuai per gig, or over 70 kuai a month, one bike cost at least two months’ earnings. In Baideng town, Daoist Wang Xin set up a little stall mending bicycles.

Actually, bicycles speeded up mobility only slightly; in the countryside there was still nothing quite resembling a road, the tracks being deeply rutted until transport arteries began to improve significantly since around 2003. And neither bicycles nor motor-bikes have significantly expanded their radius of activity; they continue to work mainly within a small area.

I also reflect on walking within a funeral (pp.27–8):

In order to allow for a suitably lengthy and imposing procession, the house chosen for the scripture hall should be at a considerable distance from the soul hall where the rituals are performed. Indeed, since the scripture hall is on average around half a kilometer away, they potentially have to walk—playing all the while—seven kilometres a day for the seven routine visits alone, let alone other processions from the scripture hall to the soul hall before leading the kin to the sites for the other public rituals, and again next day for the procession towards the grave. Apart from anything else, this is good exercise.

IMG_2794 - Version 2

Over the day the Daoists make seven processions from scripture hall to soul hall and back, as well as processions to the other ritual sites.

But once at a funeral in nearby Yangyuan county I was surprised to find the scripture hall very near the soul hall—and this turns out to be an older custom, so that the Daoists would be on hand to respond promptly for the many rituals once needed. Since the 1980s there is less need for this, and Li Manshan observes that the recent distance also serves to marginalize them. But it is also welcome so they can escape from the din of pop and get some peace.


[1] Harrison, The man awakened from dreams, p.156. Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, reform, and resistance in village China, p.228; Harrison, The missionary’s curse, p.145.

3 thoughts on “The Long March, Bach and Daoist style

  1. Thanks for the tip – just listened to the first walk not in Lüneburg or Lübeck, but Luzern (last concert in just over an hour).
    By the way, Josie’s orange box isn’t quite as bad as she makes out…

    Sent from my iPod


  2. Pingback: A Bach retrospective | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Echoes of the past 1 | Stephen Jones: a blog

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