* Yet another in a series of vignettes (starting here) from my recent stay with the wonderful Li Manshan (for similar excursions, see here and here). *
My time with Li Manshan last month also gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Elder Hu, most intriguing of local deities in the region.
Surveying “cultic buildings” just northeast of Yanggao in the troubled 1940s, the intrepid Belgian missionary Willem Grootaers drew attention to a local cult of the deity Hutu 胡突 or Hudu 胡都, aka Elder Hu (Hulaoye, Huye, Hushen 胡老爺, 胡爺, 胡神) or even Dragon Hu (Hulong 胡龍). His temples are often known as Hushen miao 胡神廟. See
- Willem A. Grootaers, “The Hutu god of Wanch’üan, a problem of method in folklore”, Studia Serica VII (Chengdu, 1948), pp.41–53. 
Around the Xuanhua region Grootaers and his Chinese assistants found fourteen temples devoted to Elder Hu, as well as six more with tablets in the temples of other gods; as a lateral image in Dragon King temples he appeared sixteen times.
I have already published brief introductions to the cult in Yanggao. 
In south China one often find “cults,” in the common sense of groups (whether voluntary or ascriptive) devoted to a particular deified local territorial personage. Much work on southern Daoism is complemented by studies of such gods. One finds some cults in north China too, although they are more often to “national” deities. Such groups may or may not include ritual specialists performing complex sequences of ritual and liturgy.
But one important regional deity whom people in north Shanxi and northwest Hebei do worship is Elder Hu. Perhaps an ancient general, his proper name Hutu (or Hudu) may be Mongol. Closely related to the Dragon King deities, he too is thought to have power over rain and the elements. In Upper Liangyuan there was a statue of him in the Temple to the Three Pure Ones (my book, pp.46–9), but in Yanggao the main sites for his worship, still today, are the temples of Zhenmenbu (for recent images from Hannibal Taubes, see here), Xujiayuan, and Lower Liangyuan. Here I introduce the latter two.
The Xujiayuan temple (formally named Temple of Clear Clouds Qingyun si 清雲寺, though as usual it is commonly identified simply by the name of the village) is part of a network of early temples lining the border north of the county-town, just beneath the remains of the Great Wall. From our 2003 notes:
In the main temple the three god statues (from left to right) were Pineapple Tree King God (Boluoshuwang fo, responsible for water), Watery Heaven God (Shuitian fo, one of the Heavenly Officers tianguan), and Elder Hu (Hulaoye, responsible for rain, not water in general). On either side of Elder Hu were small dragon statuettes. There was also a portable statuette to Elder Hu to be taken on procession.
The various local legends about Elder Hu are not consistent. Xujiayuan villagers said that his old home was Hujia village quite far further east in Tianzhen county (see map below), so the village always donates to the Xujiayuan temple fair (in 2003 they gave 300 yuan). According to the temple’s abbot Miaoyun, Elder Hu was an ancient general called Hutu; the common people erected a temple to him after he was wrongfully executed by an emperor and the climate went awry (xingfeng zuolang 興風作浪).
Several online sources on the temple claim that Elder Hu was a grand court official called Hu Tu 胡秃 [sic] in the Warring States period. Unjustly executed, his soul wouldn’t disperse, whereupon The Jade Emperor enfieoffed him as a god. In the early Tang dynasty, during natural disasters in the 6th year of the Zhenguan era (632 CE), Elder Hu rescued the populace by scattering buckwheat, and they built a temple to him in thanks.
Most village temples in the region are unstaffed, but the Xujiayuan temple had about eight resident Buddhist monks when we visited in 2003. The main day for the temple fair is 7th moon 3rd; it begins on the 1st and finishes on the 4th. This is a most vibrant event, with many stalls, and an opera troupe, shawm bands, and the temple’s own monks all performing an impressive nocturnal yankou ritual (see the DVD Doing Things with my book Ritual and music: shawm bands of Shanxi, §B5).
Another major ritual of Xujiayuan is the rain procession on 5th moon 18th, bearing aloft the statuette of Elder Hu. The temple is the centre of a parish (she 社) of twelve villages (still known as “brigades”—note the casual elision of imperial and Maoist vocabulary), although by 2003 it was mainly the four nearby village that were taking part actively. Elder Hu “deputes the dragons” (fenglong 封龍) to release rain.
Today on the plain southeast of Yanggao county-town, with no temples still standing in Upper Liangyuan, the most important temple in the area is in the sister village of Lower Liangyuan just north. Its formal name is Temple of Efficacious Source (Lingyuan si 靈源寺).
The survival of the temple is due in large measure to the sprightly Yuan Xiwen 袁喜文 (b.1934!), still blessed with a youthful spirit within the body of a fit 50-year-old.
Serving as a brigade accountant and cadre under Maoism, he did what he could to protect the temple, and led the revival of its temple fair upon the 1980s’ reforms. He has recently compiled a detailed genealogy of thirteen generations of the Yuan lineage (my film, from 57.46). Local society depends on men with such charisma.
The village has long had a larger population than Upper Liangyuan (1,120 in 1948, 1,805 in 1990, according to the county gazetteer), although since then it continues to suffer from the inevitable drift to the cities.
Back in 2013 we strolled over there to find Yuan Xiwen sitting in lotus posture on the kang in his bare house. He too told us a charming local legend about Elder Hu, detailed enough to have a certain authentic value:
Dragon Hu came from Jiaocheng village, southwest of Datong.  He held the post of looking after the cabinet official (geyuan 閣員) Wang Qiu 王囚 in Shandong province. Wang agreed to his request to return home for a visit to his old home. So Dragon Hu began the journey home, riding the clouds (jiayun 駕雲) from Shandong to Jiaocheng. Once he reached north Shanxi, he passed through “nine dragon mouths” (jiu longkou) in all.
[For villages marked * below I know of active temples today; the others remain to be explored. The legend doesn’t track his earlier progress from Shandong—however did we manage before satnav?!].
At Wayaokou (Tianzhen county) there was a heavy downpour; he rode on through Zhendagou 镇大沟 (?), Zhenmenbu*, and Xujiayuan*, where he rested his horse (yinma 飲馬). Continuing his journey south, he rested his horse again at Liujiaquan, then at Lower Liangyuan* at midday, then on to Tailiang 太梁 (?) [which, said Yuan Xiwen, still had a decrepit old temple to him], to Lower Shenjing (?), and one other village which escaped me.
Throughout Dragon Hu’s progress, all the places he passed through were beset by hailstones. The Heavenly God (Tianshen) was angry, and made him pay a forfeit. So Dragon Hu pinched three ears of wheat into the shape of a shuttle, creating what is now buckwheat…
There’s clearly a lot more fieldwork to be done here—but how exciting it may be for someone to pursue!
Towards a modern history of the temple
Yuan Xiwen recalled the village’s last rain procession, and temple fair, before Liberation. In the 7th moon of 1947 some three hundred villagers went on procession to the Xujiayuan temple, with big drums, gujiang shawm bands, and banners bearing the characters “Silence!” (sujing 肅靜), both there and back. From 1st to 3rd they stayed at Xujiayuan, returning on the 4th, holding their own temple fair from 5th to 7th.
The temple only had around a dozen mu of land; it was common land, not “owned”, and anyway there were no resident clerics, only one shabby temple keeper. This was surely typical—far from the great temple estates further south.
As collectivization escalated, the temple buildings were taken over by the Supply and Marketing Co-op (Gongxiao she 供销社). The god statues were taken away in 1956, to a little shrine in between the Lower and Upper villages; people still worshipped surreptitiously before them. The temple was only assaulted in 1966 at the opening of the Cultural Revolution; the murals were further damaged while it was used as a classroom. It was not until 1987 that Yuan Xiwen was able to lead the first temple fair there after the revival.
The modern religious history of this and other villages is closely related to the fates of sectarian groups. Though village temples were public sites, they made a natural base for sects like the Way of Yellow Heaven and the Way of Nine Palaces.  By the 1940s Lower Liangyuan was a hotbed of such groups. After the Yiguan dao sect was introduced to Yanggao in the 1940s, 200 of the 240 households in Lower Liangyuan are said to have belonged. While the villagers’ more public religious activities were somewhat separate, the sectarian persecutions of the early 1950s inevitably affected their spirits. Still, the sects survived underground until reviving along with more public ritual behaviour from the 1980s.
I should add that (as far as I know) there is no separate “cult” of sectarians worshipping Elder Hu, nor any scriptures to him.
Over the years I’ve often passed by the temple—for instance when the Treasuries are burned before it during funerals (my film, from 1.03.56). But it’s been ages since I took a close look at the interior, so Li Manshan calls up the wonderful Yuan Xiwen and we stroll over there. They’re in the middle of a meeting of the clansmen—his younger brother is there. I’d have learned more about the temple images if Yuan had come to the temple with us, but he’s too busy with his family. Later Li Manshan tells me the temple committee had recently lost the temple’s old divination list,  and how rumours flew around about an inside job—until they found it again.
The villagers don’t seem to know of any surviving steles—though after our discoveries in the Upper village, there may still be room for exploration in nearby ditches.
The temple has belatedly been taken under the wings of the county Bureau of Cultural Preservation, and (judging from my 2003 photos) some of its old murals seem to have been retouched. Though they clearly date from the late Qing (not the Ming, as the temple minders airily claimed), their beauty is rare in Yanggao villages—by contrast with the amazing wealth of such murals in nearby Yuxian.
The interior complex
Inside the temple the main complex facing south onto the courtyard now has two rooms: a central hall to the Dragon Kings, and an east room to Elder Hu.
The main altar of the central hall has statues of six dragon gods before a mural of the Jade Mother of the Five Dragons (Yulong shengmu 玉龍聖母):
On the rear wall, to the west and east of these central images, are further murals to the mythical emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu:
My 2003 photos of the above:
Further murals adorn the side walls—for the River God (heshen 河神) to the west, Efficacious Immortal (lingxian 靈仙) to the east (I think):
To the east of this central hall is the room to Hutu (photo at top of article). To one side of the main altar is a small portable statuette for processions, carried in a palanquin that rests by the west wall:
The side walls bear murals depicting the progress of Hutu through his domain:
Outside, to the west of the rear complex an old pillar capital survives (for much, much more, cf. Hannibal’s photos from nearby Hunyuan, and Yangyuan):
The front complex
At the main entrance of the complex is a central room to Śakyamuni, flanked by his attendants Mañjuśrī (Wenshu) and Samantabhadra (Puxian). To its west is a room to Dizang and the Ten Kings:
The west and east side walls bear Ten Kings murals repainted since the 1980s—here are two details:
For even more recent images from Hannibal Taubes, see here.
* * *
But in the end I want to return to real human beings. As disembodied “cultural relics” these images may have no particular artistic merit; however numinous they may be, they’re still silent and static. In between the common fates of falling apart or becoming museums, temples are for living people, for interaction under changing social conditions; their gatherings are full of life, “hot and noisy“.
I can’t help thinking back to August 1992, my second visit to Li Manshan’s father the great Li Qing, when I even attended a funeral he led at Lower Liangyuan—alas, I had only just missed the village’s 7th-moon temple fair! Li Qing told me that two Daoist bands took part (later the temple committee only invited one). All his colleagues, with whom he had been performing rituals since the 1930s, would have taken part, like Li Yuanmao, Li Zengguang, Kang Ren, and so on.
After the 1980s’ revival I suspect they didn’t restore a fuller sequence of the jiao 醮 Offering, for whose segments Li Qing had recently recopied ritual manuals (I doubt they chanted any of the jing scriptures, for instance)—but still, their ritual programme may have been rather more complex than it later became (my book, pp.237–43). For Hoisting the Pennant, did they sing the hymn Yuyin 玉音 at the central pole? And how I would have loved to witness their Communicating the Lanterns; by the time I attended it at the temple fair in 2003, Li Qing was no more, and his pupils were less than familiar with the ritual.
* * *
So this little introduction to Elder Hu gives you an idea of what we were up to before our brief yet charming encounter with the local constabulary on the walk home to the Upper village.
 Part of an extraordinary series that also includes
- “Les Temples Villageois de la Region au Sud-est de Ta-t’ong (Chansi Nord), leurs Inscriptions et leur Histoire”, Folklore Studies 4 (Beijing 1945), pp.161–212.
- with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Temples and history of Wan-ch’üan (Chahar); the geographical method applied to folklore”, Monumenta Serica 13 (1948), pp.209–316 (for Hutu, see pp.272–274).
- with Li Shih-yü and Chang Chi-wen, “Rural temples around Hsüan-Hua (South Chahar), their iconography and their history”, Folklore studies 10.1 (1951), pp.1–116.
- with Li Shih-yü and Wang Fu-shih, The sanctuaries in a north-China city: a complete survey of the cultic buildings in the city of Hsuan-hua (Chahar) (Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques vol. 26), Bruxelles: Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1995 (for Hutu, see pp.7–9, 70–73, 109–10).
 Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.73–84; Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.49–50; Wu Fan provides further detail (Yinyang, gujiang, pp.61–71, 150–59).
 Yuan Xiwen said it was in Shanyin county, which it isn’t now—but anyway, judging by the logic of the route, and the limited radius of the cult, not the county considerably further south.
 See Yanggao xianzhi, pp.610–15; Zhao Jiazhu, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng, pp.159–62. The Yiguan dao was a particular scapegoat; though in some respects inquisitors were quite meticulous, I suspect the name served as an umbrella term, a rallying-call for persecution. The campaigns of the early 1950s are a growing theme of research.
 Cf. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, pp.280–85.
12 thoughts on “The cult of Elder Hu”
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I am fascinated by your account and I look forward to every thing you write on this subject.
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