Xue Yibing documenting the pantheon in the lantern tent
during our first visit to Liujing over New Year 1989.
Southwest of Beijing, just north of Yixian county-town, the main staging points en route to the Houshan mountain pilgrimage are the villages of Liujing and Matou, both of which have lively ritual associations.
The four leaders of the Liujing ritual association, 1995; left, Zhang Dejin.
Like other local communities throughout China, Liujing enthusiastically revived traditional religious observances in the wake of the Cultural Revolution—with liturgist Zhang Dejin (b. c1936) heading an energetic group of huitou association leaders.
Zhang Dejin (on yunluo gong-frame) leads the procession through the ritual maze,
New Year 1989.
We shouldn’t limit our attentions to the pantheons themselves; in the ritual tent they are surrounded by images of individual deities, and (for both calendrical rituals and funerals) such pantheons often appear with paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld (see e.g. Ritual images: Gaoluo, including a fine pantheon from 1930).
The New Year’s ritual tent, Liujing 1989. From Xue Yibing notes.
Top: paintings of
Tongtian jiaozhu—Dizang pusa—Pantheon—Houtu temporary palace—Taishang laojun;
“civil” and “martial” (melodic–percussion) tables for band on either side of altar table;
lower right: Ghost King painting.
(For another of Xue Yibing’s diagrams of ritual tents, see Ritual groups of Xiongxian, §1).
Liujing’s Ghost King painting is dated 1982, 12th moon 15th, so perhaps we can assume that the pantheon was painted around the same time, soon after the revival. The pantheon depicts 111 figures; while we can often identify the deities shown on such pantheons by consulting with senior villagers, in this case the painter has obligingly given many of them captions.
But such painters were not always highly literate; this one had only a basic grasp of Chinese characters, and not only are many of the captions miswritten but misattributions are common too. Older paintings from a more literate milieu may be desirable, such as those to be admired in museums and galleries; but they are removed from their social context—what is valuable here is that the image is part of a living local tradition (to be sure, ritual practice in south China may preserve a, um, higher level of culture).
Finding the pantheon on display in the ritual tent on our first visit to Liujing during the New Year’s rituals in 1989, Xue Yibing listed the gods depicted.
My photos here are from the 3rd-moon Houtu festival in 1995. With the help of Hannibal Taubes (who also created the composite image above), we can characterise the main deities of each row:
- 1: Ancient culture-heroes/ancestral progenitors, flanked by astral deities (sun, moon, and so on)
- 2: Major deities of the three religions
- 3: The Jade Emperor and his attendants
- 4: Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) flanked by attendants; Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra, plus figures from popular Buddhist myth
- 5: The Three Heavenly Officials, plus deities involved with geomancy, including the directional gods, gods of the earth, and of wealth
- 6: Dragon Gods and other gods involved in precipitation.
Here “Wusheng laomu” (3rd from left) may appear to be a miswritten form of 無生老母, the creator divinity in “White Lotus” sectarian worship, still common in this area (see again The Houshan Daoists). But since it’s quite common for an illiterate artist to draw the figures and someone else to come along and write the labels, Hannibal wonders if some of the minor characters have been mislabeled, as here; this deity is more likely to be another rain god. (I guess it would be too fanciful of me to suggest that Wusheng laomu, then perhaps still too sensitive a figure to be publicly proclaimed, is being smuggled in with an ingenious disguise?! We need to go back and ask!)
6th row, centre: “Wusheng laomu”—miswritten, and bearded!
- 7: Goddesses presiding over health: Houtu, and the Goddess of Taishan (Bixia yuanjun); the goddesses of fertility and eyesight, and so on
- 8: The Medicine King and other deities
- 9: Lord Guan, Zhou Cang, and Guan Ping (from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms), plus sundry other deities
- 10: Deities of the underworld, centred around Dizang (Kṣitigarbha), flanked by the Yama Kings of the Ten Courts, as well as the City God and Earth God who report on the deeds of the living; guarded by Ox-head and Horse-face.
For comments on the pantheons of village ritual associations in the region, see Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.282–5 (his list for Liujing apparently documenting another pantheon from Liujing that I didn’t see).
The pantheon clearly serves as a spiritual focus during rituals. But while it seems fruitful to have a conspectus of the sacred world for such a village, my caveat about such work is that we can’t simply list these gods as some abstract quorum for religious faith. For worshippers, only the major figures among these gods are of great practical significance—and that perhaps applies as much to imperial times as to today. They are mainly concerned to gain the blessings of Houtu; they have recourse to deities like the major Daoist and Buddhist gods, along with Tudi, Songsheng, and Yanguang; but the others are bit-players. So I prefer to anchor our studies in religious practice. Perhaps the list best reflects the realm of spirit mediums, who occupy this world—see here (also with a vignette from Houshan), as well as the main post on Houshan, and under Women of Yanggao 2.
We didn’t ask, but I assume that the Liujing pantheon was based on the memory of an earlier painting, with village elders inviting the artist to depict the deities on the basis of their recollections. People’s allegiance and recourse to deities may change over history—in the case of spirit mediums, over a single generation; I wonder if we have any indications of this for one particular locale, with pantheons from different eras.
Of course, the study of Chinese religions is, um, a broad church: some scholars focus on ancient manuals, some approach the topic as anthropologists, while others attempt to combine ethnography and history. We are all “blind people groping at the elephant“. With my own perspective, the relation of such deities to rituals performed by the Hebei associations remains distant; while Houtu, Guanyin, Dizang, and so on are among the gods whose stories are recited in “precious scrolls” (see under The Houshan Daoists, and The Houtu scroll), few of the other deities depicted play any liturgical role. We shouldn’t allow our fascination with iconography [speak for yourself—Ed.] to detract from people’s actual religious observances.
For elsewhere in north China, note Hannibal Taubes’s remarkable website, including the pantheons of spirit mediums in Wutai county, Shanxi (cf. my 1992 visit). Pantheons are among the extensive collection of Li Yuanguo 李遠國 in Sichuan (click here). See also Ritual paintings of north China.
With thanks to Hannibal Taubes
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