Here I expand on a charming vignette in my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (from 35.45), and my book Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.60–61), illustrating how fieldwork can help us not just to observe current activity and collect historical material, but to illuminate earlier practices.
One morning in April 2011, at home in Upper Liangyuan village with Li Manshan, he casually told me that he knew of a stele at a nearby village temple which listed some names of his Daoist forebears. So after lunch we set off to the temple just northwest, known simply as “the Zhouguantun temple,” though it is rather distant in the fields to the north of the village (see maps here and here).
When we arrive, the temple grounds appear to be empty. Finding two weather-beaten stone steles planted on either side of the main entrance, we spend ages trying to make out the names of Li Manshan’s forebears. Eventually we go to disturb the siesta of the solitary temple keeper Zhang Zheng. Most affable, he helps us draw some water from the well so we can smear it over the stone to bring out the engraved characters.
Zhouguantun temple keeper Zhang Zheng.
Slightly lame, Zhang Zheng is a bachelor. Brought up in Zhouguantun, he was attracted to Buddhism, spending time at Wutaishan; his master is now in Datong. As he “roamed the clouds” (yunyou, cf. the Hunyuan Daoist Jiao Lizhong), he came to look after this temple in 1998 (well before it was refurbished), becoming a monk in 2000 with the Buddhist name Shi Zhengci 釋正慈.
As Zhang Zheng tells us, the temple is now formally called Foxian si 佛仙寺; its original name was Zhangdenghe miao 張登河廟, to the deity Zhang laoxian shen 張老仙神. Its three annual temple fairs are on 3rd moon 3rd, 6th moon 6th, and 9th moon 9th.
As we apply water, the steles become easier to decipher. At last we can make out the date: they commemorate donors for the restoration of the temple in 1942, the 31st year of the Republican era—confirming that religious life was still thriving despite the Japanese occupation. If local people were seeking the protection of the deity at a time of crisis, it seemed to work, for today he is considered to have protected them then. Though the temple was destroyed under Maoism, it was refurbished in 2010, and is still considered very efficacious.
And sure enough, in a row near the foot of the right-hand stele, facing the temple, is a heading “Upper Liangyuan” followed by the names of five Lis; unclear at first, they scrub up nicely with plentiful applications of water, and eventually we make out the names of the three brothers Li Peiye, Li Peixing, and Li Peilong, as well as Li Peiye’s son Li Tong (then 33 sui) and Li Peixing’s son, our very own Li Qing (then 17 sui). The brothers’ cousin Li Peisen isn’t listed—he led a separate band. Here’s my genealogy of the nine generations of Daoists in the Li family, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual in the 18th century:
The stele doesn’t list any monetary donations from the Lis; as Li Manshan explains to me, this means that they were not mere donors, but were performing rituals for the temple fair as a “dutiful” (yiwu) offering of scriptures—a devotional act for which they would have been recompensed with donations over the course of the event. At the time, temple fairs were still known by the term jiao 醮 Offering, which is now little known in Yanggao.
Nowadays a band of six Daoists is standard in this area south of the town; but until around 2003 they still commonly used seven (as in my 2007 DVD Doing things, §B6). So the 1942 stele lists only the five adult Daoists; there were probably a couple of unspecified junior recruits too, playing percussion as they learned the ropes (see also here).
This shows how fieldwork with living people can teach us about the past. It’s one thing to document early steles, listing dates and names of donors, but only acquaintance with Daoists like Li Manshan can reveal such clues. Who knows how many names of Daoist bands languish unremarked on old steles? Early artefacts are silent, immobile records of a vibrant ritual life.
Alas, the stele doesn’t record the sequence of rituals that they performed—such lists were commonly made, but on transient paper placards pasted up at the temple (cf. Changing ritual artefacts). Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ work is performing mortuary rituals; they still perform for a few temple fairs in the area (see the DVD with my 2007 book, §B), but the ritual sequence is less elaborate than before the 1950s, and has become quite similar to that of funerals (see my book, chapter 12). Most of the former segments have since become obsolete here, but we can glean clues from the ritual manuals that Li Qing and his uncle Li Peisen recopied upon the revival in the early 1980s (for a list, see Appendix 2 of my book), together with Li Manshan’s comments.
In 1942 the ritual segments would have included not only a cappella hymns and fast chanted scriptures such as Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing 禳災經), but also all six long shengguan suites for the instrumental ensemble. Apart from standard morning, noon, and evening segments, the Yanggao Daoists performed two major nocturnal rituals—temple-fair versions of rituals also used for funerals: the nocturnal “Bestowing Blessings” Communicating the Lanterns (cifu guandeng 賜福觀燈) and yankou 焰口; as well as Announcing Text (shenwen 申文), Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表) and Stepping the Cosmos (tagang 踏罡), Inviting and Sending Off the Gods (qingshen, songshen 請送神); perhaps also Prior and Latter Invocations (qian’gao 前誥, hougao 后誥).
It has been a pleasant, instructive afternoon. Before we leave, Zhang Zheng reads my hands. Bidding him farewell, we call a friendly local cab driver to take us back home to Upper Liangyuan. When we arrive, the main gate of Li Manshan’s house is locked, and his wife is out. We stand outside smoking contentedly in the early evening sunshine, waiting for her to return, until eventually I look at Li Manshan and ask him casually, “Do you, um, have a key?” He takes a leisurely drag on his cigarette and goes “Er… yeah.” We smoke some more, digesting this news. Me: “Ah… right.” Further long pause. “Um… Care to open the gate then?” Li Manshan shrugs nonchalantly: “OK then.”
Though the two main temples of Upper Liangyuan were demolished in the 1950s and never restored, on my 2013 stay in the village, thanks to the elderly Li Xu, we discovered steles lying abandoned and forgotten in ditches—again, see my film (from 8.18) and book (pp.46–9). The stele of the Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) is dated 1880; that of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing dian) is from 1942, like that of the Zhouguantun temple—again suggesting recourse to divine aid in times of crisis.
Li Manshan inspects the abandoned stele of the Temple of the Three Pure Ones,
with Li Bin (left) looking on.
Chinese scholars have been diligent in copying early steles in Shanxi; for me, such historical work merely provided punctuation for a daily schedule following Li Manshan’s band around the area as they performed funerals.
For a sequel, see Thanking the Earth.