Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era

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Ritual procession entering the outskirts of Zhangzhou, 1985.
This, and photos below, from Ken Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.

In mainland China from the late 1970s, as the commune system crumbled, a vast revival of traditional culture got under way (for the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see Testing the waters and Recopying ritual manuals). This energy was reflected in the excited discoveries of fieldworkers in the 1980s, as shown in the early reports of Kenneth Dean from Fujian province:

See also his short overview

  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall 1985”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken 1993 cover

Along with C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Patrice Fava, Ken Dean built on experience of Daoist ritual in Taiwan and the classic portrayals by Kristofer Schipper and others; by the early 1980s, as mainland China became accessible at last, they began pursuing the Hokkien traditions back to their homeland across the strait to south Fujian—an eye-opening revelation.

Ken’s stay in Fujian from 1985 to 1987 led to the publication of his 1993 book Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China. And among the results of his later focus on the Putian region was the fine documentary Bored in heaven.

Ken film

Wang and Lagerwey soon expanded their regional studies, recruiting local scholars as they initiated major projects; a vast series of monographs soon proliferated, and later fieldworkers became accustomed to finding vibrant ritual traditions throughout south China. But in the first flush of discovery, the early reports by Lagerwey and Dean on ritual cultures of Fujian are especially vivid.

I ended my recent post on Pacing the Void hymns like this:

Our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society.

And Ken’s work is a fine example of the latter: by contrast with most salvage-based accounts of southern Daoist ritual traditions, he not only followed the classical bent of Daoist studies, but integrated thoughtful social ethnography on this period of rapid change. 

“Funerals in Fujian” opens thus:

Unknown to most outside observers of modern China who believe it to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its traditions, an enormous resurgence of traditional rituals, local cults, and popular culture has been gathering force since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed its controls on the practice of religion.

Visiting scores of temples, Ken attended over fifty rituals—

week-long god processions involving tens of thousands of villagers, five-day community festivals centering around Taoist jiao Offering rituals, five-day funerals complete with theatrical rituals such as the “Smashing of Hell”, and several exorcisms featuring mediums in trance.

As he observes,

Economic activity boomed, and the first thing that people who had made money did was not to buy televisions and refrigerators but to rebuild temples to their local cult god that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

In Tong’an county alone, cultural authorities estimated there were 3,000 temples.

Manuscripts that had miraculously survived were copied back and forth. Paintings were taken out of their hiding places in pigsties and latrines. Gods were unearthed and returned to their temples.

Lineage organisations revived, and folk theatrical groups struggled to meet demand in performing for god birthdays and temple consecrations, weddings and funerals. The boom in house-building required inviting ritual specialists to perform house-settling exorcisms. Community jiao Offering rituals were held for the first time in several decades. Donations from overseas Chinese, encouraged by local cadres, played a major role in this restoration. While some cadres, angered by their loss of power in the economic sector, still resisted the observing of religious celebrations, most identified with the revival. Ken also notes ritual inflation.

In “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”. he describes three-day Pure Offerings (santian qingjiao 三天清醮). Ken notes how the local communities organised and funded the rituals.

jiao altar 1

Jiao altar 2

The first Offering was held in a rather small temple in an outlying neighbourhood of Zhangzhou city (see photo above), with Daoists officiating who were still not fully equipped to perform the rituals, such as the Division of the Lamps (fendeng 分燈). As Ken comments most pertinently,

possession of a liturgical manuscript does not necessarily imply the ability to perform the corresponding ritual. The actual performance depends in large measure on oral transmission.

 

Zhangzhou jiao 1.1

Zhangzhou jiao 1.2

Building on his experience in Taiwan, he describes the ritual segments in some detail.

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Community procession bearing King boat, rural Zhangzhou 1985.

Two days later Ken attended the second half of another three-day Offering in a nearby village. What distinguished it from the previous ritual was the inclusion of a Pestilence King Offering (Wangye jiao 王爺醮). Traditionally held here every seven years, it had still been performed under Maoism, the last time being 1961. The article ends with an Appendix detailing altar hangings and documents, lu 籙 registers, and total listed costs.

* * *

Whereas much of the ritual activity that I find in north China consists of funerals, scholars in the south tend to focus on community rituals for the living. So Ken’s detailed fieldnotes in “Funerals in Fujian” are all the more valuable.

He discusses mortuary rituals in the natural sequence, from encoffinment to burial, the first brief funeral service, and the more elaborate third-anniversary rituals. He notes regional variation, whereby some areas call for Buddhist rather than Daoist ritual specialists to perform funerals; in Nan’an and Jinjiang counties, “either group may do them, but most people agree the Taoists do a better show”.

Encoffining
In Dongshan a Daoist officiated in a set of procedures (cf. my Li Manshan film, from 14.58), including the maishui 買水 procession to fetch water to wash the corpse, and a series of recitations. Ken compares the more elaborate rituals described in a local manuscript.

Burial
Near Anhai, he follows a long and elaborate procession to the grave (again, cf. my film, from 1.18.59).

A Western brass band played several incongruous tunes rather poorly. A traditional band played excellent nanyin.

Initial funeral service
Back in Dongshan, Ken attended a brief funeral ritual, its simplicity perhaps related to the fact that the deceased was only around 50 years old. Still, altars with paintings were on display (cf. Ritual paintings of north China). The ritual sequence (here and below I’ve slightly modified some of these translations) was

  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) and Opening Drumroll (qigu 起鼓)
  • Announcement of the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingfo 請佛, fo referring generally to gods)
  • Visiting the Soul (guoling 過靈)
  • Worshipping the Soul (bailing 拜靈)
  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫) (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.111–12)
  • Bathing the Soul (muyu 沐浴)
  • Settling the Soul (anling 安靈)
  • Seeing Off the Gods (cifo 辭佛)

Ken describes all these segments in detail. Like John Lagerwey, he pays attention to the “heat and noise” of ritual performance, including the varied soundscape.

A three-day funeral
This gongde 功德 ritual in Shishan, Nan’an county, with fifteen Daoists presiding, was held for the third anniversary of the death of an overseas Chinese relative.

In general, the ritual tradition is very similar to that of southern Taiwan, but one can find elements in Nan’an that have disappeared in Taiwan or perhaps were never completely transmitted there.

Ken notes:

The older Taoists now complain that since the Cultural Revolution and the massive destruction of Taoist manuscripts, many people have taken up work as Taoist priests despite a lack of training or materials. Thus, instead of one Taoist to a county, you can now find twenty. Or so they say.

Here, while Daoists do perform Pure Offerings (see above) for god birthdays, most of their work is for mortuary rituals. The overall effect of the elaborate altars and paintings displayed for this funeral was “beautiful and staggering in complexity”. He documents the ritual sequence in detail with a 20-page account (cf. my composite list for an area south of Beijing).

Day 1, evening

  • Rousing the Hall (naoting 鬧廳) and Purifying the Altar (jingtan 淨壇)

Day 2
morning:

  • Announcing the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神)
  • Reciting the Scripture of Universal Salvation (nian Duren jing 念度人經)
  • Summoning the Soul (zhaoling 召靈)
  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光)
  • Untying the Knots (jiejie 解結)
  • Opening the Litanies (kaichan 開懺)

noon:

  • Giving Offerings (zuogong 作供)

afternoon:

  • Paying Tribute to the Ten Kings (gong Shiwang 貢十王)

evening:

  • Requesting the Writ of Pardon (qingshe 請赦)
  • Destroying the Fortress (pocheng 破城)

Day 3
morning:

  • Rites for the Masters (lishi 禮師)
  • Visiting the Soul (jianling 見靈)

noon:

  • Noon Offering (zuo wugong 作午供)

afternoon:

  • Juggling Gongs and Cymbals (nong luobo 弄鑼鈸)
  • Joining the Tallies (hefu 合符)
  • Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表)
  • Universal Distribution (pushi 普施)

evening:

  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫)
  • Dismantling the Soul Palace (chuling 除靈)
  • Sending Off the Gods (xiefo 謝佛)

Again, supporting musicians played nanyin melodies. Ken gives evocative detail on the theatrical, sometimes comic, Pardon ritual (cf. the Li family in Shanxi: my film from 48.35, and Daoist priests pp.246–50)—followed by the even more dramatic Destroying the Fortress. He translates the cloth displaying the list of rituals to be performed.

A simultaneous Buddhist and Daoist five-day funeral
Again in Shishan, again a gongde ritual for an overseas Chinese family.

The Buddhists’ rituals for the most part matched the Taoists’, but they had some special effects of their own. The music, dancing, patterns, spells, and deities invoked differed, but the structure of the rituals was identical.

Ken notes the fierce competition between the two groups.

Lake of Blood rites
The ritual also included a Lake of Blood (xuehu 血湖) segment. Ken also witnessed a Lüshan version in nearby Nan’an, also serving to save the souls of two women who had hung themselves from the same beam.

Putian: the Smashing of Hell
Having already described the Smashing of Hell for Shishan, Ken now discusses a version in Putian county further north, a rather different cultural area. Nine household Buddhists presided, and spirit mediums played an active role (for the self-mortifying mediums of southeast and northwest China, see n.1 here).

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Mediums in front of the Baosheng dadi temple running with a sedan chair
carrying a visiting god statue, Baijiao 1987.

Zhao’an: a Hakka funeral
To the south, in the Hakka area of Zhao’an, Daoists had a rich tradition of jiao Offerings; but

funerals [there] are performed exclusively by Buddhists—unlike the situation in Quanzhou or Putian, but similar to the tradition in north/central Taiwan.

For the funeral that Ken attended he lists sixteen ritual segments. He focuses on the climactic Smashing of the Sand (dasha 打沙) ritual; and again he notes variations in ritual traditions even within this area.

In conclusion, citing de Groot’s major work in the region in the 1880s, Ken observes:

In general, extraordinary as it may seem, one may say that anything in de Groot is still happening in southeast China, but no longer all in any one place. The immediate qualification of course is that the role of civil mandarins and Confucians is no more.

In a fine formulation he notes:

Any one community brings its own desires to bear on the selection of elements from the regional cultural and ritual repertoire. At the simplest level, these forces select between competing groups of ritual specialists. The relative popularity of Buddhist,, Taoist, and sectarian ritual specialists for the performance of funerals and other rites varies regionally. Factors include the relative strength and historical depth of the various religious traditions in the locale, the range of fees demanded by the different groups, and the closely connected prestige value of the performances. At a deeper level of analysis, every ritual is a unique performance, inevitably opening up new connections and new expressions within the community. The growing force of these reviving traditions will change China.

The same volume of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie also includes a catalogue of 290 ritual manuscripts that Ken copied during his stay in Fujian.

I note differences and similarities with my experience of mortuary rituals in north China. We should beware taking the ritual practices of southeast China as a national template (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Conclusion); indeed, as Ken stresses, considerable variation is evident even within a single region of south Fujian.

* * *

As to local folk musicking, those of us undertaking fieldwork in the heady days of the early reform era felt a similar excitement at discovering traditions hitherto unknown outside their locale. Such early energy is clear in the pages of the CHIME journal, particularly in the fieldwork of Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven in south Jiangsu.

marionettes 86

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. My photo.

Meanwhile in dusty north China, having learned much from accompanying Ken round some temples and rituals around Quanzhou in 1986 (see Fujian, 1961 and onwards, also including a basic map), I benefitted from a similar energy, working closely with the Music Research Institute as we discovered amateur ritual associations and household Daoists in the poor villages south of Beijing (see e.g. A slender but magical clueThree baldies and a mouth-organ, and a whole series of fieldnotes under Local ritual).

Incorporating ethnographic perspectives on a fast-changing society alongside the nuts and bolts of ritual sequences and manuals, Ken Dean’s work in Fujian makes a notable exception to the largely salvage-based template of most such research. While later monographs (notably in the Daojiao yishi congshu series) studied individual Daoist “altars” in great historical depth, the early reports of Dean and Lagerwey laid a foundation for such studies, showing the excitement and energy of the time.

For remarkable film clips from 1930s’ Fujian, see here.

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