To follow my earlier posts on Coronavirus (1, 2, 3), I’ve been catching up, remotely, with the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao county of north Shanxi, 300 km west of Beijing on the way to the city of Datong—in normal times, ever more accessible. Whereas my previous posts on the crisis have concerned responses online and behind the closed doors of temples, here we find how ritual activity is still being maintained for routine burials.
In recent years, as the wonderful Li Manshan has begun to take things easier in his eighth decade, his son Li Bin, working since 2007 from the base of his funeral shop in the county-town, has been worked off his feet (for their busy diaries, see here and here; and for the tough life of the household Daoist, here). Not only does he book and lead a band to perform funeral rituals throughout the villages, but he has to organise every stage of the mortuary procedure from death to burial—as well as making routine individual consultations to “determine the date” for weddings, health, journeys, selecting auspicious sites for new buildings, and so on.
Since the Coronavirus scare, strict measures have been in place in north Shanxi, though no cases seem to have been reported there. Many neighbourhoods in Datong city were sealed; in Yanggao town the gated communities monitored all activity. Restaurants and schools have been closed. For a change, there are no traffic jams at the crossroads just north of Li Bin’s funeral shop (my film, from 4.17).
Wedding festivities are on hold, and bereaved families are not currently allowed to invite Daoists or shawm bands to perform group funeral rituals (known as “opening the drum” kaigu 开鼓), as is normally de rigueur. So regular members of the Daoist sextet like Wu Mei and Li Sheng, normally busy reciting the scriptures with wind and percussion for the sequence of rituals they perform for funerals over two (sometimes three) days, now find themselves temporarily unemployed. Golden Noble, another core member of the band who leads the vocal liturgy, can perform the solo mortuary procedures like determining the date, siting graves, and supervising the burial, so he has picked up a bit of work in the immediate vicinity of his home township Houying.
One accomplished Daoist who has only rarely been able to appear with the ritual group since seeking work as a migrant labourer in 2004 is Li Qing’s nephew Erqing. Whereas the other Daoists are active over a small radius, his work has taken him over a large area of north and south China. He has been an important member of our foreign tours. Like Gansu singer Zhang Gasong and countless others, since returning home for New Year he has found himself exiled there.
Despite the crisis, Yanggao didn’t go into total lockdown. Remarkably, Li Bin is still in considerable demand, individually, to meet people’s routine needs for mortuary procedures; indeed, he is just as busy as ever—the boss continuing to prosper as the workers are laid off?! Few customers have been venturing out to his funeral shop, but he fields constant messages on his smartphone. So he is still called out constantly, driving throughout the countryside but now having to pass through a laborious series of checkpoints on the main roads and at the entrance to every village, where temperatures are taken and all movements registered. Li Bin’s work is considered a legitimate cause for such journeys.
Checkpoints in Yanggao, February 2020. Photos: Li Bin.
In these poor villages that are depleted yearly by urban migration, with the population ageing, conditions of hygiene may have improved since around 2000, but remain far from ideal. Routine burials still need to be held—though currently by the immediate family alone, with one single Daoist carrying out the necessary procedures (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.185–200).
After a death, the immediate task is to summon Li Bin to use his almanacs to determine the date for the burial—which may vary, as usual, from around five days to over a month. Then he has to write the placard announcing the death (yangzhuang 殃狀), supervise the encoffinment, and provide mourning clothes for the kin as well as the paper artefacts (which he and his wife make at their shop) to be displayed and eventually burned at the grave; he has to decorate the coffin, write the tomb tile, depict talismans to be pasted up at the house of the deceased, and choose an auspicious fengshui site for the grave, using his luopan compass to determine its position and alignment. All these tasks are shown in my film, and even over this stressful period Li Bin still continues to perform them constantly.
Left: reverse side of tomb tile; right, talismans. My photos, 2011.
Even in normal times some very poor families, unable to afford the elaborate funerary rituals of the full band, have long requested a single Daoist to preside over a simplified burial ritual (known as “settling the burial” anzang 安葬). During the current crisis this has become routine. Mostly it only takes an hour or two, though even now some families expect a rather longer ritual.
Li Manshan: decorating a coffin (2015), and exorcising the house (2013).
Just before the coffin is raised out of the central room of the deceased’s home (my film, from 1.16.31), the Daoist—now wearing a face-mask in addition to his red costume (fayi 法衣) and yinyang hat (riyue guan 日月冠)—exorcises the rooms (qiyang 起殃) by wielding a sheaf of gaoliang stalks and a cleaver, knocking them against the lintels and silently reciting the mantra Qiyang zhou 起殃咒. Then, as the coffin-bearers raise the coffin out of the house, the Daoist uses his cleaver to smash a food-bowl on the floor at the entrance to the room, marking the end of the son’s duties to feed his parent; indeed, “smashing the bowl” (dawan 打碗, more graphically “decapitating the bowl” zhanwan 斬碗) is the term commonly used to describe the whole simplified burial ritual. As he does so, the Daoist silently recites another mantra, the Zhanpen zhou 斩盆咒. These two mantras for dangerous liminal moments serve to protect the Daoist himself.*
Li Bin then accompanies the coffin through the fields to the grave he has chosen, and fine-tunes its alignment in the grave. After returning to the house he performs a further brief exorcism there. He then hurries off to other villages help more bereaved families.
Again, I note the adaptability of the “old rules”; in times of crisis, rituals can be simplified, yet a proper commemoration of grief is still needed. In Li Bin’s notebook he keeps a careful record of all his daily work, noting the precise date and time of death, details of the birth dates of the deceased and their sons and grandsons, the location of the grave, and the date that he determined for the burial.
Li Bin’s father Li Manshan too has to respond to the requests of his local clients, zooming round on his motorbike to determine the date, choose burial plots, and smash bowls. Sure, all this is their livelihood; but like their forebears right back to the 18th century, they are like parish priests, “serving the people”—a cliché now commonly used with a rather satirical edge, but in this case true. Meanwhile elsewhere in Yanggao, in neighbouring counties (see my other posts on Shanxi under local ritual), and doubtless further afield, other Daoists too will be continuing to meet the needs of their rural clients.
By 23rd February, with no new cases of the virus reported in Yanggao, roadside checks were easing and officials were only monitoring travellers’ temperatures, not registering their details. I wonder how long it will take for the more elaborate funeral rituals to be restored, with the other Daoists joining Li Bin in performing the full sequence of vocal liturgy, accompanied by wind and percussion.
Indeed, since March the full ritual sequence, with the whole Daoist group performing funerals, has now been restored; on 5th April Li Bin led his group for the first time since the lockdown “opening the drum” at a funeral in Upper Liangyuan.
* Though the texts of these two silent mantras don’t appear in any of the Li family’s surviving ritual manuals, Li Manshan eventually found them for me in his little blue pocket-book, which he copied in the 1980s from a similar notebook of his late great father Li Qing (for whom, see e.g. here, and, for his ritual manuals, here).
Seeking instruction with Li Manshan one day, I joked that I had learned them, “reciting” them for him, lips firmly closed—providing us with another creative topos (e.g. in France).