Revisiting material on Daoism around Shanghai and Suzhou reminded me of two astute articles by Yang Der-ruey 楊德睿, a fine sociologist trained under the great Stephan Feuchtwang at the LSE. Following his PhD, his writings from the standpoint of contemporary ethnography contain lessons for scholars of ritual, suggesting parallels with other metropolitan centres—including Suzhou and Beijing.
In a fascinating article on how Daoists learn to make their way in the real world of the ritual market:
- “The changing economy of temple Daoism in Shanghai,” in Yang Fenggang and Joseph B. Tamney (eds), The state, the market, and religions in contemporary China (2005), pp. 113–48.
Yang explores the ramifications of the training programme established by the Shanghai Daoist College, founded in 1986 under the Shanghai Daoist Association, and subordinate to state and Party authorities—the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. He shows how the economic behavioural patterns and intellectual concerns shaped by their life in the College are challenged soon after they graduate by the rather traditional local religious economy in which they now have to make their living:
They soon had to learn to discern the structure and change of the local religious economy, to recognize their assets, to envision their niche in the changing economic landscape, and to adjust themselves accordingly, manoeuvring among diverse economic patterns and selectively integrating them into a distinctive, viable niche.
On one hand they learn to accommodate with the secular state apparatus and economic order upon which these young priests’ living depends:
This order can best be named a “socialist public-supply economy” since it is at once “socialist” in terms of the internal redistribution system of the Shanghai Daoist Association and is “public-supply” in terms of the style in which the SDA deals with the clients. The morality it claims to embody is egalitarianism and unselﬁsh devotion for common causes, but in reality this economy encourages hierarchical exploitation, sloth, and apathy.
Temple priests soon began working with the unlicensed freelance household priests. At the same time both learn to collaborate with spirit mediums (daxian 大仙 or xiangtou 香头), the main sponsors of ritual life, and to imitate their approach: 
Their economy is an integrated system of a gift economy in the private/individual domain and a tributary economy in the public/communal domain. In the private domain, they provide individual devotees or families with magical or non-magical healing, spiritual protection, divination, psychological consultation, and so on. In the public domain, they take the initiative to organize communal religious activities.
Temple priests began to provide facilities for patrons to create god statues, spirit tablets, and amulets, and to offer divination services. And to satisfy the taste of clients, temple priests began to expand the range and style of their rituals. He cites the remarkable case of Xiao Wang and the “Maoist shaman” whom he replaced as temple leader; thus temple priests learn to act as both “immortal magistrates” and cadres.
Daoist temples came to be considered as a crucial means for revitalizing the economy of old, run-down neighbourhoods to boost the motivation of the local population for pursuing economic development. And temple priests have gradually developed a distinctive synthesis of all the economic patterns they can learn from bureaucrats, freelance priests, and mediums.
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So what Chinese sources often portray as a seamless transition is actually beset by conflict. I’ve already given instances of the different values of the traditional ethos of folk musicking and the new style of the conservatoires and state troupes, including a wise insight from the great Yang Yinliu. In
- “From ritual skills to discursive knowledge: changing styles of Daoist transmission in Shanghai”, in Adam Yuet Chau (ed.), Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008), pp.81–107.
Yang Der-ruey shows how modern schooling for training novice Daoist priests has produced a new style of learning and a new type of knowledge among the younger generation of Daoist priests. He argues that the curriculum instituted by the Shanghai Daoist College
is actually an attempt to reset the priority attached to different ways of learning and different kinds of knowledge. In sharp contrast to their predecessors who prioritized rote learning and repetitive bodily exercise, and who attached the highest value to the ability to exert up efficacious power while achieving the highest aesthetic qualities in representing tradition, the College-trained younger Daoist priests are taught to prioritize understanding, explanation, argumentation, and to accord the highest value to the ability to compose awe-inspiring discourse embroidered with references to many books. In short, the College’s curriculum functions, purposefully or inadvertently, to instigate an intellectual revolution among younger Daoist priests by replacing “ritual skills” with “discursive knowledge” as the new ideal model for Daoist knowledge.
This “paradigm shift” of Daoist knowledge/learning style is not directly imposed by state authority or enforced by the official ideology of atheism but derives from an acute sense of a crisis of legitimacy, or even survival, of Daoism that is now widely shared among the Daoist clergy. This sense of crisis was actually cultivated by the State in the first place through forcing Daoism to engage in a peculiar Chinese-styled inter-religious competition that is arguably biased against Daoism as a tradition of “mere” ritual skills. However, the inflictor role of the state tends to be ignored, as it also functions as the enlightening pedagogue that shows Daoist clergy the way toward emancipation: modern priestly schooling modeled after the state-run public schooling system.
The story may sound quite upbeat for preservationists and revivalists of the Daoist tradition in China, but the reality is just the opposite. Many senior priests in Shanghai, who were once the most passionate supporters of the endeavor, became its bitterest critics, and did not hesitate to voice their disillusionment publicly. Although their disaffection towards their pupils may have been caused by many other reasons, including the generation gap, unfair rates of salary and benefits that discriminates the aged priests, and so on, it is nevertheless based on an apparent fact: the training of young priests today is very different from that in their own youth. Many senior priests considered the College to be an appalling failure, putting the blame either on the personal qualities of the students and the leadership of the College, or on the very idea of setting up a modern priest training school.
The disaffection and accusations of those senior priests surely have certain grounds, and it is unquestionably true that the general qualities of the youngsters’ ritual skills are much lower than that of the elders. However, it should also be acknowledged that, while many aged priests are illiterate or barely literate, all the younger priests are literate and some are actually quite well versed in history, philosophy, and even IT skills, as they all have gone through nine to twelve years of public schooling. Therefore, it would be unfair to conclude that the younger generation priests are inferior to their predecessors and that the College is a failure. So, where do all the squabbles come from? The real problem here is a huge gap between the majority of senior priests and the leadership/faculty of the College on what should be taught to novice priests or what they should be learning through the College. Learning and teaching activities are embedded in, and structured by, the surrounding social and/or institutional contexts; to thoroughly explain the above-mentioned gap would require us to examine not just the knowledge to be taught/learnt but also the context in which the transmission of knowledge takes place.
Yang discusses in detail the types of knowledge transmitted through the local apprenticeship tradition and through the College, highlighting the contrast between them.
Before Liberation mastery of ritual practice was central to the local apprenticeship tradition, and was structurally embedded within the kinship network. Daoists commonly have mottos for the various kinds of ritual skills to be learned, like “blowing, beating, writing, reciting, and looking” chui da xie nian kan 吹打寫念看) in Yanggao (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.15). In Shanghai the list comprises eight skills:
- chui qiao xie nian pu pai zha zhuo 吹敲寫念鋪排紮著
wind playing, percussion, writing ritual documents, vocal liturgy, setting up altars (pu and pai), making paper artefacts, decoration.
But further, the more advanced ritual masters are expected to acquire magical power (fali 法力) by mastery of fu 符 (talismans), zhou 咒 (incantations), jue 訣 (mudras), and bu 步 (magical steps). Yang describes the cunxiang 存想 (“indulge in contemplation”) and chushen 出神(“bringing out the gods”) esoteric techniques of such masters.
He contrasts the degree certificates granted by modern educational institutions (merely an abstract confirmation of a past reality—“X has studied X subject for X years and passed the final examination”) with the Daoist lu 籙 registers, which contain much more information. Although both modern degree certificate and lu registers empower the holders, the “efficacy” of the former depends finally upon its being recognized by the secular establishment and/or the general public, whereas the latter is supposed to be efficacious in its own right because it is warranted by the heavenly bureaucracy.
A nice story from a young graduate of the College, about an encounter at an exhibition on the “religious sector”, shows both the delusion of the modern secular mindset and students’ own awareness of the conflict:
The head of the Bureau of Religious Affairs came to our stands accompanied by a load of bigshots. At first, they seemed surprised that Daoism had also founded a college. Then one of them started to tease me: “What have you learned in this Daoist College, then? Drawing talismans? Reciting spells? Being a medium? Dancing as a shaman?” While he was asking, some onlookers burst into laughter. I did my best to suppress my anger and calmly told the bastard what kind of curriculum we have in the Daoist College. In the end, I really felt I was going to blow my top if I couldn’t put up a bit of a counter-attack, because there was always someone sniggering at me when I was talking to the bastard. So I concluded my explanation like this: “If someone wants to learn Daoist magic like drawing talismans or casting spells, they must have a certain talent and then spend many years on strictly disciplined practices and meditation. It’s not a simple job like reading books. So, a “good student” valued by normal standards, even a PhD, is probably not qualified for learning Daoist magic.” Those who had laughed at me shut their mouths immediately. They could sense that there was a sting in my words.
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Whereas a conservatoire education is broadly in line with later careers in state music troupes, official Daoist training programmes are soon rendered irrelevant when graduates have to make their way in the ritual market.
Of course, conservatoires and state programmes are the tip of the iceberg: most folk musicians, and the majority of household Daoists in rural China, never set foot within the state educational apparatus for either music or ritual. Even in cases where the Intangible Cultural Heritage authorities seek to impose such procedures on household Daoists, the attempt is incongruous and impotent, as with the Li family.
But whereas the ritual market in south Jiangsu continues to thrive along with its population, in rural north China both are dwindling.
 For more on the Shanghai mediums, and their relations with temples and Daoists, see e.g. Long Feijun龙飞俊, “Shanghai Longwangmiaode ‘taitai’ men: dangdai Shanghai Longwang miao daojiao difang jisi tixi diaocha” 上海龙王庙的“太太”们——当代上海龙王庙道教地方祭祀体系调查, Zongjiaoxue yanjiu 2014.3, and her ongoing work.