Slapping the coffin, and headgear

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin.

Apart from the liturgy of the Daoists that is my main topic, many other concomitant mortuary observances tend to fall under the domain of “folklore”.

After a death in rural Yanggao, among all the complex arrangements shown in my film, there’s a tiny exchange (from 14.11) where the son of the deceased reads out Li Manshan’s prescription for the funeral arrangements.

I’ve never witnessed Slapping the Coffin (yicai 移材, my book, pp.186–7), but I now find a little description in Wu Fan’s notes from our 2003 fieldwork in Yanggao:

According to the “old rules”, Slapping the Coffin follows the nocturnal Escorting Away the Orphan Souls ritual segment and the lengthy Crossing the Soul [aka Sitting Through the Night] instrumental sequence from the shawm band or Daoists (my book, p.128). Around half an hour after the band has fallen silent, when all is quiet, the oldest son and oldest daughter slap the coffin with their palms, crying out “Go, then” (Zouba, zouba 走吧,走吧). Then the son leads the way, sweeping the path while the daughter takes the paper cart (now often a car) from the funeral artefacts, kowtowing all the way to a crossroads, where the cart is burned.

See also Allan Marett’s comment below on a Song-dynasty Zen collection.

By 2003 this procedure had commonly been simplified for some time, and even Sitting Through the Night was optional. But it’s an instance of all the minutiae formerly observed by the kin, beyond the more public rituals of the Daoist band—”customary” rather than “religious”.

The kin still observe elaborate, ancient distinctions in their funerary headgear—these are just the appendages for the female kin:


Headgear appendages for female kin. Left to right: 1–2 daughters, wife; 3–7 sisters’ daughters, wives of sisters’ sons; 8–9 granddaughters, wives of grandsons; 10–11 maternal granddaughters, wives of maternal grandsons. Made by Li Manshan’s wife.

Left, sister; right, granddaughters.

But as ever, “customs differ every 10 li“. We should document both religious and customary rituals. Neither is timeless: we need to show how they change within local societies.

While we’re talking headgear, I’m very fond of this image from my film, of Daoist hats hanging out to dry after being washed—a reminder that ritual equipment has to be maintained:

yinyang hats




6 thoughts on “Slapping the coffin, and headgear

  1. Pingback: Regional cultures | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  3. Pingback: Changing ritual artefacts | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  5. I’ve always loved this story (Case 50) from the Blue Cliff Record (Biyanlu/Hekiganroku), a Song dynasty collection of Chan/Zen koans. Daowu and Jinyuan lived in the ninth century and I find myself wondering whether rapping on coffins might not be a rather old custom:.

    Daowu and Jianyuan went to a house to express condolences. Jianyuan rapped on the coffin, and said, “Living or dead?”
    Daowu said, “I won’t say living and I won’t say dead.”
    Jinyuan asked, “Why won’t you say?”
    Daowu said, “I won’t say! I won’t say!”
    On the way home, Jianyuan said, “Your Reverence, please tell me right away. If you don’t I will hit you.”
    Daowu said, “If you like, I’ll allow you to hit me, but I’ll never say.” Jianyuan hit him.
    Later, after Daowu had passed away, Jianyuan went to Shishuan and told him this story. Shishuang said, “Alive, I won’t say! Dead, I won’t say!”
    Jianyuan asked, “Why won’t you way?”
    Shishuang said, “I won’t say! I won’t say! With these words, Jianyuan was enlightened.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Coronavirus 4: household Daoists in Shanxi | Stephen Jones: a blog

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