Ritual and masked drama in Hunan

nuoxi 2

From the nuo drama Da pandong, and the she tanshen ritual.

Adding to the extensive research on ritual in Hunan (note also Yang Yinliu’s 1956 field survey) is a recent case-study of ritual and sacred drama there:

  • Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).

Nanyue shenxi cover

The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).

While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).

Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.

Tan lineage

Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.

The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.

The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).

hexiao sequence

Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.

Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.

chuantan sequence

Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.

The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).

Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan). 

Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.

A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.

Hunan Fava

Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.

Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.

So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.

 

With thanks to Patrice Fava

 

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