Thanking the Earth, and words of blessing

Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ ritual work is for funerals. As to rituals for the living, they now rarely perform for temple fairs, and the Thanking the Earth ritual, once commissioned by families for domestic blessing, has not been required since 1953 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, chapter 12).

Ritual business

The Yanggao Daoists now perform almost solely for funerals, but before Liberation the ritual they did most often was Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). [1] Held over two days during the winter, it was a domestic ritual for an individual household of certain means. The head of such a household might pledge a vow (xuyuan 許願) in the summer, and fulfil it (huanyuan 還願) by commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual in the winter. The request was commonly prompted by illness or crisis, or in thanks for a good harvest or success in business. It could be held in the family household, or in a temple.

In 1991 the great Li Qing, oblivious to the Party line, recalled the Japanese occupation in the 1940s:

Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals! The local bandits didn’t interfere either.

Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (1925–2010) recalled performing Thanking the Earth rituals forty to fifty times every winter from the age of 15 sui (when he “graduated” as a Daoist) until he was 30 sui in 1954. Given the poverty of the area, this sounded a lot to me. Just west of Kang Ren’s house, poor peasant Li Cunren (1915–2013) recalled that only people with money could afford to commission the ritual—and even before the 1950s there were few of them. But Li Manshan believes Kang Ren’s account: even two or three moderately affluent household patrons for twenty or so villages would suffice to keep the Daoists busy. Forty to fifty such rituals meant eighty to a hundred days work each winter, not counting funerals, which were also most frequent then; they must have been busy virtually every day.

Even after the Communists took control in 1948 some households were still able to commission a Thanking the Earth ritual until 1953; but as the economy was levelled, beleaguered former “landlord” and “rich peasant” families could no longer afford to do so. Previously the ritual had involved making vows for prosperity and the health of their livestock, but now prosperity was unimaginable, and livestock collectivised.

By the 1990s, following the liberalisations after the collapse of the commune system, plenty of relatively affluent households began to re-emerge. But now that they could afford to hold Thanking the Earth rituals again, they were no longer inclined to do so. Whereas families still dutifully invite Daoists to perform funeral rituals, and still believe strongly in fengshui and determining the date, a lesser faith in divine aid to protect their crops and livestock has now rendered the Thanking the Earth ritual obsolete. So documenting it requires considerable reconstruction.

The Memorial
The memorial for Thanking the Earth doesn’t get burned, as it is for the living; the family keeps it after the ritual.

Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen made a copy of one such memorial in 1981, for a ritual commissioned by his father Li Tang in the late 1920s, entitled “Document for good fortune, with genealogy, recopied” (Jixiang ruyi wen jiapu chongchao 吉祥如意文家譜重抄). Such genealogies often contain a genealogy, a useful resource (cf. Customs of naming):

LPS jiapu detail

Li family genealogy, detail from Li Tang’s memorial.

Li Qing himself wrote a Thanking the Earth memorial over New Year 1989, again including a detailed genealogy:

IMG_20151221_105009

Thanking the Earth memorial with genealogy, Li Qing 1989.

I was also lucky to be shown another memorial preserved by the Ren family in Apricot Orchard village nearby, with the more formal title of “Memorial for supplementing and thanking the five earths” (Buxie wutu yiwen 補謝五土意文), dated 1942—the very year that the Li family Daoists’ participation in the Zhouguantun temple fair is documented:

IMG_2258_2

Thanking the Earth memorial, Xingyuan village 1942.

Comparing the three memorials reveals a basic standard format. It opens with the date, the place, the purpose of the ritual (to fulfill a vow and guarantee well-being, expressed in a standard formula), and the name of the male head of household commissioning it. It then lists the names and birthdates of the family taking part. There follows a general description of the ritual, including titles of some of the ritual segments to be performed. Finally, after another request for well-being that includes the orphan souls, there comes a list of deceased kin—minimally the three generations of ancestors (sandai zongqin).

Among the ritual documents that LI Qing copied in In the early 1980s is this placard for Thanking the Earth:

On separate occasions, both Li Manshan and I asked the elderly Kang Ren to describe the former sequence for Thanking the Earth. The older generation, who recalled the “old rules” of ritual life before Liberation, had steered the group through the revival of the early 1980s (see my film, from 40.22), but in turn they passed away; after the death of Li Qing (1999) and Li Zengguang (2000), Kang Ren was the sole survivor, and he still continued “responding for household rituals” with Li Manshan’s band.

Li vocals 2001

Kang Ren (left) with Li Manshan and junior Daoists, 2001;
right middle, Golden Noble.

Apart from the vocal liturgy, note how Kang Ren detailed the instrumental pieces, both the long suites and the shorter melodies accompanying particular segments:

Thanking the Earth

Day 1
am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): recite scripture Yuhuang jing
  •      shengguan suite 1 Shuihonghua
  • recite scriptures Laojun jing and Bafang zhou

pm:

  • Fetching Water (qushui)
  •      shengguan suite 2 Zhuma ting
  • sing “words of blessing” (zhuyan)
  •      shengguan suite 3 Yaozhang
  • recite litany Yansheng chan

eve:

  • Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) to Bestow Blessing (cifu).

Day 2
4–7am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): rising at the fifth watch (qi wujing);
    then “seven litanies”, including six-line hymn; “words of blessing” such as Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong; and scriptures including Yuhuang jing and Bafang zhou
  • exit the yard and play shengguan piece Qiansheng fo
  • enter yard and sing “words of blessing”: Huangdiye wansui
  • Parading the Streets (shangjie) to each temple, burning incense and paper, reciting mantra for offering paper and playing dizi flute
  •      shengguan suite 4 Puanzhou
  • Shenwen Announcing Text
  •      shengguan suite 5 Da Zouma
  • exit the yard playing shengguan piece Sizi zhenyan
  • on return, burn yellow paper (huangbiao) in the house

noon:

  • recite Noon Thanksgiving Ritual (Xiewu ke)
  • shengguan piece Langtaosha

pm:

  • recite scripture Zhenwu chan
  •      shengguan suite 6 Ma yulang
  • depict the earth altar and recite Thanking the Earth Manual (Xietu ke), including scripture Bafang zhou and Erlang zhou; do Yubu cosmic steps

eve:

  • Offering to the Stove (jizao)
  • Bestowing Food (shishi) and Spreading Fowers (sanhua)
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls (songgu); Settling the Gods (anshen).

Xietu duilian

The first six of fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth in Li Qing’s Couplet volume.

First the chief Daoist had to write couplets from the series of fifty for this purpose within the Couplet Volume, to be pasted up around the site, as well as all the “god places” to the Three Pure Ones (sanqing) and Three Officers (sanguan), Lord Lao, the Heavenly Masters (tianshi), and Elder Emperor (Huangdiye).

As in the three-day funeral, the two major nocturnal rituals were Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food. But whereas for funerals most ritual segments (including the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures) feature sung “hymns of mourning,” the Thanking the Earth sequence included instead a repertoire of “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言), sung a cappella with percussion accompaniment, as well as a sequence of fast chanted scriptures. Note also the lengthy “rising at the fifth watch” on the second morning, and the six long shengguan suites in fixed sequence.

This is yet another case of the gulf between textual study and practical accounts. If we relied only on manuals, we might suppose the ritual consisted only of the Xietu ke, apparently the only relevant manual. And even once we learn which manuals were used, they describe neither the ritual business (like how to use the earth, or the mandala), nor how the texts are delivered.

LMS xietu mandala

Template for the mandala for Thanking the Earth
in Li Manshan’s blue notebook, 1990s.

The Earth Citadel
The core procedure of Thanking the Earth, on the second afternoon, is “depicting the earth citadel” (hua tucheng 畫土城, or just “depicting the citadel” huacheng; or “depicting the earth altar” hua tutan 畫土壇), on the floor of the central room before the god images. The texts performed here are those in the Xietu ke, a long manual of 17 double pages, apparently mostly for fast chanting on symbolic visits to the five quarters.

According to Li Manshan, the “Diverse rituals for joyous scriptures” (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) manual was for earth scriptures rather than temple fairs. At 27 double pages it is quite long, and its title suggests a compendium containing various optional sub-segments (like the funeral manual), not a manual to be performed complete. It contains some of the “words of blessing” mentioned in Kang Ren’s account (see below); a long sequence for Fetching Water, similar to that in the hymn volume; a series of eulogies (zan, not hymns here); and it concludes with a long series of thirty-five hymns in the classic six-line structure. As with the funerary manuals, there are lengthy sections here that even the senior generation seem not to have performed. There are several mentions of the Divine Empyrean (shenxiao 神宵), but Buddhist as well as Daoist elements look prominent.

The words of blessing
When Kang Ren talked me through the Thanking the Earth ritual in 2001, I mechanically wrote the term “words of blessing”, without querying it further. Only later did I find that these words of blessing were the equivalent for earth and temple scriptures of the funerary “hymns of mourning” (for vocal liturgy, see under Pacing the Void 2). From the late 1980s, when Li Qing taught his disciples, including his nephew Golden Noble (see film, from 53.15), he included the words of blessing in their training, but by the 1990s the rituals that required them were hardly needed, so that later the young recruits could barely recall them.

Not long before Kang Ren died in 2010, Golden Noble went to see him, using his mobile to record him singing a series of words of blessing, which Kang Ren recalled well despite hardly having occasion to sing them for over half a century.

zhuyan tapes contents

Golden Noble’s list of contents for his recordings of Kang Ren, 2010.

Li Qing didn’t include any of these “words of blessing” in his cipher-notation score in the 1980s, but later Golden Noble found some loose pages that Li Qing wrote just before his stroke in 1996.

Huangdiye score

Huangdiye wansui, opening.

Golden Noble did all this purely out of his own curiosity, before my own increasing attention to the ritual repertoire. For the recording Kang Ren marked the main beats with a woodblock, including the syncopated cadences, though making sense of them was doubtless easier for the Daoists than for us. Still, at our hotel in Beijing in 2013 we tried to record the songs with the aid of Kang Ren’s tapes, but it didn’t work out. (For Golden Noble’s exquisite leading of the Invitation ritual, see here, with my film, from 58.15.)

Here are Kang Ren’s recordings of the two “words of blessing” Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong [2] and Huangdiye wansui:

 

Though the texts are quite few, they make a precious addition to our impression of ritual as once performed. In melodic style they seem similar to the funerary hymns—although being sung a cappella, they would be sung rather faster. Golden Noble noted that their sections (gu 股) are punctuated by interludes on nao and bo cymbals.

This labour of love impresses me, even if it illustrates the tenuity of transmission; for more on ritual impoverishment, see Recreation. As usual, scholars of Daoist ritual will be content to have the texts, unencumbered by the messy realities of modern social change; but becoming a Daoist priest depends on learning how to perform the texts. 

Apart from the compendium, the manuals for Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food (the yankou), and the chanted scriptures, we have Li Qing’s manuals for three more of the ritual segments specified: Announcing Text, the Noon Thanksgiving, and the Offering to the Stove. Note that we need to consult a range of manuals even in order to gain a full picture of the texts used in the Thanking the Earth ritual; and even this is no substitute for witnessing it in performance.


[1] For Shanxi, I gave a bare outline in In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.77–9. In Shuozhou just south of Yanggao, Daoists still perform jiao rituals pledged by individual families. For a description from a temple Daoist, see Ren Zongquan 任宗權, Daojiao keyi gailan 道教科儀概覽 (2012), pp.13–16. In south China there are many common terms for such domestic rituals, such as Settling the Dragon (anlong 安龍), and they are still commonly performed; for Thanking the Earth in Hunan (in the text-based style common in scholarship on religion in south China, free of modern social change), see the recent MA thesis by Tian Zeren 田泽人, Sheshu rudao: Hunan Xinhua xian minjian daotan xietu yu xiefen keyi yanjiu 摄术入道: 湖南新化县民间道坛谢土与谢坟科仪研究 (2021).

[2] Yet another text used in the daily services of Complete Perfection temples: Xuanmen risong pp.11–15, Quanzhen zhengyun puji pp.17–18.

2 thoughts on “Thanking the Earth, and words of blessing

  1. Pingback: Daoist ritual: the Pardon | Stephen Jones: a blog – Dinesh Chandra China Story

  2. Pingback: Grave charts 2 | Stephen Jones: a blog – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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