On my recent trip to Yanggao I spent most of my time at home with Li Manshan, making little trips to nearby villages with him or his son Li Bin. But of course I had to check out a funeral and catch up with the other Daoists, so Li Bin came to collect me to drive to Zhu Family Cavetop.
The village population, 749 “mouths” in 1990, has now declined to only a couple of hundred at most. By the time we arrive, the other Daoists have already Opened the Scriptures at the soul hall, singing the Hymn to the Three Treasures as prescribed. After Li Bin delivers the paper couplets and diaolian inscriptions, we go to the scripture hall, which today is conveniently the little room on the south side of the funeral family courtyard, right by the soul hall—so no need for the usual long procession.
I catch up with my old mates Golden Noble and Wu Mei, whom I haven’t seen since our French tour last May. Golden Noble has high blood pressure and is off the fags and booze; Wu Mei is sweet as ever. They check out my blog on their phones.
The cosy atmosphere of the scripture hall.
Li Sheng makes repairs to his sheng.
Li Sheng, another regular member of the band and a dedicated chain-smoker (my nickname for him is Fag Devil 烟鬼 Yangui—the gui in falling 4th tone!), is as hyper as ever. His manic energy reflects both in his quickfire dialect and in his fine sheng playing—he struggles to conform to the solemn immovable posture of the Daoists of which Li Bin is a master. He comes from a renowned gujiang shawm-band family from the nearby township of Shizitun. He didn’t know what year he was born; chatting in 2013, he only knew that he was 60 sui, so I translated that to 1954. He is twelve years younger than his brother, a wonderful cultured gujiang also called Li Bin. They learned with their distinguished blind father Li Zhonghe (1908–88), who was still playing in his eightieth year. Again, these two Li families have long been on good terms—the great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s. Li Sheng’s older brother went off to work as a cadre in the mines in Datong around 1970, and Li Sheng did some work there too, as well as doing petty trade in Datong, returning around 2000. He has four daughters and one son.
To make up the numbers for the Daoist personnel today, Li Bin has booked two yinyang I haven’t met before, both from hereditary traditions. They’re nice, but turn out to be of somewhat limited abilities. While the gujiang shawm bands have a reputation for smoking dope, some Daoists do too, crushing annaka amphetamine pills into their cigarettes to give them energy (cf. my book, p.325). In the scripture hall my new mates use tinfoil to smoke annaka through a rolled-up 1-kuai note.
As I soon learn when I take a session on small cymbals, the new drummer “calls the beat” arbitrarily, so I keep getting confused about where to place the down-beat. This is just as irritating as an old Daoist I met a few years ago who kept beating out the syncopations on small cymbals, no matter whether we were anywhere near a cadence—”unruly” (bu guiju), as Li Manshan tuts.
The band makes up for the time saved on procession by playing “little pieces” and popular errentai melodies as they arrive at the soul hall. But no-one here cares anyway, and it’s the latest in a long line of funerals where they merely need to go through the motions, with the simplest ritual sequence possible. None of the kin, returning from the big cities for the funeral, kneels or kowtows. No-one pays attention to the Daoists even when they launch into a showy errentai sequence (except in the afternoon, when they even applaud).
Along with the kin we have a good communal lunch in the big tent set up outside, with disposable (yicixing) plastic crockery—I never miss an opportunity to use the expression yicixing (“one-off”), corpsing the Daoists. Meals at Yanggao funerals have improved as ritual practice has declined.
I take a siesta along with three other yinyang in a heap on the little kang brick-bed. The pop band on the truck outside starts up around 3pm, but there’s only a tiny audience even for this, and they soon drift off too. After the Daoists’ first visit of the afternoon, a group of travelling beggars shows up—the usual personnel, with head-mikes, an erhu, fan, and clappers.
Li Bin on large guanzi, flanked by Golden Noble (left) and Li Sheng.
For the Daoists’ second visit of the afternoon they only play a popular errentai medley. For the third session Li Bin (who usually plays sheng mouth-organ) leads the hymn Diverse and Nameless on large guanzi—good, in tune, with a fine new instrument he’s found. For a change Wu Mei plays drum, but he’s somewhat distracted by using his mobile at the same time… The beggars return, and then the Daoists play another errentai sequence. I’m bloody cold and less than riveted (as we say in the orchestral biz, “Of all the funerals I’ve attended in Yanggao… this is one of them”), so I get Li Bin to take me back to Upper Liangyuan before the Invitation ritual. As I get home Li Manshan and his wife are busy making paper artefacts together.
As Li Manshan observes at the end of my film,
Things ain’t what they used to be