Funerals in Hebei

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(under Themes > Local ritual)

GL procession 95

Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two, as in this composite funeral sequence for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region south of Beijing.

Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. While we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves. In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.

A gradual dilution of ritual practice has  undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone.

2 thoughts on “Funerals in Hebei

  1. Another fascinating piece. Is the burning of the paper horse a typical feature of Daoist ritual, or is it specific to Hebei? Are you aware of any relation to the Vietnamese practice of Tay ethnic group (not Daoist) Presume it is related to joss paper and represents a deflation of the economy of ‘sacrifice’ (as in Houben: ‘To Kill or not to Kill’ 1999; Parpola: Nāsatyas, the Chariot and Proto-Aryan Religion’ 2005)?


    • I admire your wide-ranging reading, Keith! Horse, cart, lad and lass are basics in a vast range of paper artefacts for burning. Far more elaborate artefacts in south China, but anyway they now commonly include limos, mobile phones, etc. etc. to accompany the deceased.


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