For the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, north Shanxi, in addition to my film and book you can find subheads under the Li family category in the sidebar for updates and vignettes. I’ve filed some under both—here’s another one.
Over the days following a death in Yanggao, among the many solo tasks of household Daoists like Li Manshan and his son Li Bin (along with determining the date for the funeral, writing the yangzhuang placard, supervising the encoffinment, decorating the coffin, and so on) is to determining a suitable site and alignment for the grave in the fields outside the village (see my film, from 16.21).
To help the Daoist in this task, some lineages still preserve grave charts (fenpu 墳譜). Only lineages that were relatively well-to-do before Liberation had them made, and rather few have survived the ravages of Maoism.
My main energies are devoted to the ritual performance of the Daoist band for the funeral proper—including my attempt to understand the texts that the Daoists perform then, with the help of their ritual manuals. From my notes:
As my frame of reference gradually expands—from the instrumental music to the ritual to local history to the wider activities of the Daoists—I am often out of my depth, but Li Manshan has developed a fine sense of where the borders of my research might lie. One day, as I query some abstruse comment of his on the correct timing for the burial in accord with the calendrical indications, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey Steve, you don’t have to understand everything!”
So, like Li Manshan’s many almanacs to help him determine the date, the grave charts are way beyond my competence; but in a society where so much has been lost, they offer a glimpse of former geomantic knowledge in the area.
My account to accompany the scene in the film (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.190):
We have just had supper at Li Manshan’s house after an unusually rainy day. Around 7pm he gets a call. A rich entrepreneur in town is to collect him to go to a grave siting (kanfen) outside Lower Liangyuan for his mother. Li Bin has already determined the date. The entrepreneur, in mourning weeds, arrives in one of the poshest cars I have ever seen, and we keenly set about getting it all muddy. Collecting two grave-digger types in the village, we reach the sodden fields as it gets dark. It’s like Glastonbury, only without the irritating music. While I film with night-shot, Li Manshan takes out his luopan compass from its bag, and conscientiously checks the alignment with the compass and some string, consulting the family’s old grave chart.
By the time they finally finish it’s pitch dark. Oblivious of my presence, they blithely stride off with their torches, leaving me stumbling over grave mounds into puddles. At least I finally seem to have achieved that chimera of the fieldworker, becoming a fly on the wall. They come back to rescue me with their torches, and we all clamber back into the posh car and set to work making it all muddy again.
In some cases, such as when the old ancestors are buried elsewhere, Li Manshan really has to look for an appropriate site in the fields before using his compass for the specifics. On one such morning we spend considerable time seeking a suitable spot, driving round, getting out, studying the lie of the land. Me, I’m just looking for an Italian coffee bar.
Some of the grave charts look to have been written from memory since the 1980s, but on Li Bin’s travels through the countryside to assist funeral families he is sometimes shown some older ones. Here are a couple of photos he took from a chart made by a lineage in Xujiayuan north of the county-town, dated 1937:
And Li Bin recently came across one in nearby Yangyuan county, also apparently from before Liberation—here are three of its seven pages:
You can find further images of grave charts online, and articles like this.