Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua family shawm band, village funeral 2001.

Even now, all this time after the years I spent immersing myself in the wild shawm and percussion playing of the Hua family band in Yanggao (“Ming-dynasty bebop”), I still regularly find myself tapping out the slow 8-beat drum pattern that accompanies the opening sequence of melodies in their ritual suites.

Within a slow 8/4 metre, the recurring pattern on the drum is punctuated by one gong stroke and four cymbal clashes every measure. The drum pattern may be considered as beginning on the 3rd beat of the bar, with a little syncopated motif “calling for the beat” (jiaoban 叫板) alerting the gong player to sound the coming downbeat. Hua Jinshan often varies the first two beats of the bar. I’ve only attempted a rough rhythmic depiction of the drum part, refraining from an exhaustive notation of all the varied techniques, with rim-shots, single- and double-stick notes, and damped notes—here the slur sign denotes a roll before the beat:


The pattern is quite fixed, with only occasional minor variants—though there is a certain variation between different drummers.

An easily-followed instance is the opening of the Da Yanluo suite, whose melodies I analyse in detail—with video—in Dissolving boundaries. For the gradual accelerando and the cumulative effect of the pattern, do get to know the two versions of Shuilongyin on the CD Walking shrill (one of them also on the playlist in the sidebar, #5, with commentary here). Once you have the metrical framework in your bones, you can admire the long melodic phrases and the way their own syncopated rhythms constantly tug at the metre. This is AMAZING music—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

* * *

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, Golden Noble, village funeral 2011.

Meanwhile household Daoists take part in the same rituals; and though their instrumental repertoire is quite different, their use of percussion has certain similarities. As the first beat of the bar approaches (here it is the cymbal player who sounds the downbeat), drummers like Li Manshan play a syncopated motif similar to that of the shawm bands—and then tends to leave the downbeat to the cymbals (for the subtleties of the variants, see here). This example, from the slow, mournful hymn Diverse And Nameless Are The Bitter Roots, shows both the drum patterns and the yaoshuan syncopation on cymbals at cadences:zzwm-perc-ex

In my film (from 22.04) you can find clear examples in the Hymn to the Three Treasures, with the late Yuan Gaoshan on drum.

Along with memorizing the vocal texts and melodies of the liturgy, such unwritten rules are a substantial aspect of the nitty-gritty of what household Daoists have to learn in performing ritual.

LMS drumming

See also Tambourin chinois.



Religion in Chinese society

My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:

  • C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).

The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.

Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.

This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?

Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuanprecious scrolls”:

During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.

Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”


South Gaoluo liturgists performing the Houtu scroll, 1993.

However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.

While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.

Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.

In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.

In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.

Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.

As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Former monk Daguang with village disciples, North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959. For more images of Maoism, see here.

Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.

In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:

C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.

Yang’s chapter concludes:

The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.

See also the festschrift

  • Wenfang Tang and Burkart Holzner (eds), Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).

In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.

In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:

On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.

Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.

Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):

It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.

Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.

Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that

it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.

His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:

Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.

* * *

Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.

But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.






A festival of ethnographic film


For anyone who happens to be in Shanghai in late August, the ever-enterprising Centre for Ritual Music at the Shanghai Conservatoire is holding a five-day festival of films on music ethnography, in collaboration with the Shanghai National Museum of Ethnology, from 26th to 30th August. More on FacebookWeChat, and douban, as well as clips here.

The festival is based on Chinese-language films, with further guest items including Anthony Seeger’s Why Suya sing. Ritual is a major theme, with Daoist ritual featuring in films from Guangdong and Zhejiang, as well as my own Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (which is narrated by Li Manshan himself, with English subtitles for which Chinese audiences have been grateful!).


The accomplished Cheng Qiaoqiao 程俏俏 gives a thoughtful perspective on the New Year songs of the Kam people in Guizhou. A short film by Liu Guiteng evokes the rituals of spirit mediums in Qinghai, and “Big nose” and Body music explores the fieldwork of the late Jack Body among ethnic groups of southwest China—also a theme of briefer student presentations.

When thoughtfully made, films about music are always about social life, and often about ritual. As I keep stressing, it is an unfortunate trait of academia that the study of Chinese religion is still dominated by representations in silent immobile text, thereby downplaying the soundscape, actions, and “red-hot sociality” of ritual events.

Fine as the festival lineup is, there still seem to be few such films (edited, with research-led commentary) in the public domain (see e.g. here, under “Film”). The event is devised by Xiao Mei 萧梅, herself a distinguished music-anthropologist whose short films on spirit-mediums in Guangxi and rain rituals in Shaanbei are remarkable. For more films, see here.

Heritage: a roundup


This recent Guardian headline encapsulates my feelings about the whole heritage shtick. The heritage tag on this blog is voluminous, covering many local genres in China and elsewhere.


The starter, citing thoughtful research on the Intangible Cultural Heritage system around the world, is

John Butt offers useful perspectives in

Also basic is this page on the Li family Daoists:

Another relevant post is

More broadly, I list some posts on the friction between traditional and conservatoire styles here. The ICH also crops up in several field reports under local ritual, including

While some scholars observe how local dwellers mould the state programme to their own agendas, I often note that its effects are either negative or inconsequential. And I’m not alone.



Chau on “doing religion” in China


I’ve long been inspired by the work of Adam Yuet Chau on religion in China. His recent book

distils his wisdom, based both on his own fieldwork (notably in Shaanbei) and on his readings of a wide literature, along with his experience of editing volumes on the topic—notably Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008).

As he explains in his opening salvo “Why are you reading this book?”, Religion in China is aimed at a broad audience, including students taking courses on Chinese and East Asian religions, or on religious studies; seekers of spiritual wisdom, tourists, missionaries; and China-watchers concerned about human rights and politics.

Chau seeks to change the way we understand religion in China and the wider world, disputing the confessional model that produces so much misunderstanding, both in China and abroad.

Another equally prevalent approach is to view religion in China primarily in terms of philosophical and religious ideas, as sources of “Oriental spiritual wisdom”, useful antidotes to an allegedly overly materialist and rationalist West.

Instead, he advocates study of ways of “doing religion”, and a “relational approach”.

There is no need for us to identify and share the beliefs informing these religious practices. […] Having a personal religious or spiritual orientation in whatever form might potentially aid one’s understanding of other people’s religious practices […]. But it could equally well hinder one’s understanding because one might too easily identify the familiar and overlook the radically different, or one might feel threatened by practices that are radically different from one’s own, bringing into doubt the validity of one’s faith or spiritual pursuit. On the other hand, being an atheist also has its advantages and disadvantages in the cross-cultural study of religion.

He takes material primarily from mainland China, but also from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He reminds us of the dangers of statistics that are modeled on a confessional-affiliational understanding of mutually exclusive religious membership.

He discusses the different approaches to religion in China. By contrast with religious studies, which tend to focus on texts, doctrines, concepts, religious thinkers, and schools of thought, he stresses social interaction, history, sociology, political science, and anthropology offer alternative models.

In Chapter 1 Chau presents his “five modalities of doing religion”, expounded in his previous work—a most useful framework, sidestepping the “conceptual fetishes” of “Buddhism”, “Daoism”, and “Confucianism”:


As he observes, such “internal diversity” is actually common to Christianity and the other major world religions.

A further question that is worth bearing in mind is whether or not you believe that religious diversity is intrinsically a good thing.

Whereas a religious-pluralist position

treats religion not just as an empirical fact but as a policy goal, Christian missionaries and other kinds of believers in any ultimate religious Truth would prefer to see their own religion triumph over all the others. And staunch atheists would want to see a completely secularized world with no religions at all.
However, religious diversity as a concept is alien to most Chinese people because their approach to religion is primarily instrumental and occasion-based (what can be called an efficacity-based religiosity) rather than confessionally-based, and their experience of religious diversity is embodied in the employment of different religious service providers on various occasions rather than abstract systems of religious doctrines and teachings.


what happens on the ground “religiously” is very much a congruence of local customs, historical accidents, social environment, personal temperaments, configurations of modalities of doing religion, and the makeup of the local ritual market.

He goes on to give instance of the five modalities in turn, noting that they may overlap.

At any one time in any locale of the vast late imperial Chinese empire—and to some extent today as well as in the larger Chinese world—all of these modalities of doing religion were in most probability available to be adopted by individuals or social groups, though factors such as class, gender, literacy level, accidents of birth and residence, position within different social networks, temperament, local convention, and the configuration of various modalities might channel some people towards certain modalities and not others. Most peasants in China have traditionally adopted a combination of the relational and the immediate-practical modalities into their religiosity; sometimes they adopt the liturgical modality and hire religious specialists when the occasion requires them, such as funerals and communal exorcisms. Illiteracy and lack of leisure would preclude them from most of the discursive and personal-cultivational modalities. The traditional educated elite tended to adopt a combination of the discursive and the personal-cultivational modalities, but they, too, often needed the services of the liturgical specialists.

However, it is the discursive/scriptural modality, with its high level of literacy and its penchant for philosophical and “theological” thinking, that holds a particular allure for many in the West (and indeed for the Chinese state), at the expense of the other forms.

The vast majority of the world’s population who “do” religion in other ways are thus silenced.

My own work focuses on the liturgical modality, while taking into account those further down the list (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.1).

Chapter 2, “Interacting with gods, ghosts, and ancestors” opens with a cross-cultural reminder about deities:

We have to ignore the saint cults in Catholicism, the Sufi saint cults in Islam, the belief in angles and holy persons, etc., in order to preserve the monotheism illusion.

Chau points out that new deities have constantly been produced, at both elite and popular levels. He highlights the importance of ling “spiritual efficacity”, and the gods’ response to the problems of worshippers—which gave him the title for his book Miraculous response. As ever, he stresses

Whether or not we accept the possibility of real divine power, we need to understand ling as a sociocultural construct.


Many Chinese people have a practical approach to deity belief. […] One should not not believe, nor should one believe everything”; “If you worship him, the deity will be there; if you don’t worship him, he won’t mind”.

After listing the basic ways of worshipping deities, including offering incense, divination, and so on, he discusses appeasing “hungry ghosts” and ancestor worship. He considers the household as the basic unit of religious engagement (by contrast with Christianity), and stresses “hosting”—for both humans and deities—and “red-hot sociality”.

Chapter 3 discusses festivals and pilgrimages, with examples from both north and south China. Far from the dry portrayals of scholars who focus narrowly on the discursive meanings of ritual texts, Chau stresses the sensory stimulation of such “red and fiery” events—noises, sights, smells, tastes, and ambient sensations. He explains the temple associations that organize festivals, again stressing social relationships. On pilgrimages such as those of Mazu in Taiwan and southeast China, networks are consolidated as deities visit other deities. He broadens the scope by introducing New Age spirit mediumism in Taiwan, as well as the Hajj of Chinese Muslims, and ends by offering the concept of “mutual capturing” through cultural forms.

Chapter 4 unpacks the variety of ritual service providers and their clients. The former—again, engaged with a view to efficacy—include geomancers, occupational household Daoist and Buddhist groups, devotional sects, and spirit mediums. Different types of specialists may be invited for the same event: “ritual polytrophy”. He gives vignettes of a yinyang master in Shaanbei, a group of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanxi (none other than the Li family!) serving the funeral market, and a Daoist jiao Offering ritual in Taiwan. He introduces the handling of troublesome spirit ties by means of exorcism. He’s ever alert to the social context—I like his description of the spirit medium’s home as

the rural equivalent of a hair salon, where people gather, information and gossip is spread, and there is plenty of red-hot sociality.

Chau contrasts this whole “efficacy-based” tradition with the more “dharma-based” religiosity common elsewhere in Asia.

He goes on to unpack the common lament of “rampant commodification”, revealing its long history.

Many people (including many Chinese) might think that the commodification of religion is somehow not right and therefore is a deplorable trend. However, this value judgment is out of place for observers who wish to understand the cultural logic behind native practices rather than passing judgment on these practices. The view that religion should somehow be a pure, spiritual pursuit freed from such “ugliness” as monetary transactions and “vile” desires is a fundamentalist, elitist, and/or modernist/reformist position that itself needs critical deconstruction.

Given that many fieldworkers may have their minds on higher pursuits, he goes on to prescribe a fine questionnaire pertaining to price-lists for all kinds of religious expenditure, from temple renovation and sponsoring opera performances to fees for minor domestic rituals, the costs of incense and paper money, and banqetting (pp.130–31). Finally he returns to the close relationship between providers and consumers of ritual services, and the benefits of the household idiom.

Having stressed the general paucity of confessional religious identities, Chapter 5, “Communities and networks”, gives some instances where they do indeed come into play. Notwithstanding all the instances that Chau has given to show the enduring vitality of communal and household ritual life,

In many locales in contemporary China there is a definite trend towards the atomization of society, where few people are organizing any collective or communal activities and people spend a large amount of time watching television in the comfort of increasingly nuclearized homes. People seem to be happy that they are no longer being forced to participate in collective labor, collective political study [discuss…], or mass campaign rallies, all prevalent features of Maoist collectivist life. Yet there is also ample evidence to suggest that people in many parts of China have revived pre-Maoist forms of communal social life, sometimes even borrowing techniques of Maoist mobilization and social organization to good effect. […]


both historically and in today’s China, there are a significant number of people who do have a strong and definite religious identity (e.g. being a Buddhist, Daoist, or Christian; belonging to a sect). Even though small in numerical terms (but still in the millions), they are very important in the Chinese religious landscape.

He gives examples of monastic communities and networks, the remarkably resilient Christian congregational communities, qigong groups (including Falungong), and lay Buddhist confessional groups like Foguangshan and Ciji. He ends by considering the impact of new technologies on religious transmission.

Chapter 6, “State-religion relations” unpacks issues in a popular theme. Chau observes that the Maoist antipathy towards religious institutions was part of a general intolerance of any social institution outside the orbit of the party-state, as well as an assault on their status as property owners. While household-based ritual specialists were also persecuted, the attacks on them were far less thorough when compared to those on temples, lineages, and major cult centres. Again, the “household idiom” of religious service provision was a key to survival.

He outlines the official regulatory framework, noting the further complexities of the recent Intangible Cultural Heritage and the fuzzy “religion sphere”. He chooses this translation rather than “religious sphere” to avoid any misunderstanding:

Not only is the religion sphere not religious in nature, its existence is constitutive of the overall construction of secularity.

Returning to the discursive-scriptural modality, Chau observes that its rise is also propounded by the secular state—by contrast with the vast majority of providers and consumers of religious services. And after observing a broad local tolerance towards the practice of “superstition”, he outlines recent reforms in funerary and burial practices.

In “Conclusions” he surveys the major theme: the religious revival, once again debunking a reified approach to tradition.

It would be easier to understand this continuity if we understood religious traditions as complex, dynamic, ever-changing clusters of institutions, practitioners, and consumers, knowledge and practices, sociopolitical relations and hierarchies, fully amenable to innovations, inventions, and reinventions all the time. Religious traditions are not static.

Finally Chau stresses the centrality of relationality in doing religion, far beyond mere texts. University courses on Buddhism and Daoism

are often presented as “Oriental thought”, emphasizing ideas at the expense of practice. Presenting a non-Abrahamic religious tradition “systematically” might seem a respectful thing to do, as if granting equal dignity to these traditions that only a century ago were considered unworthy pagan superstitions. This kind of scholarly and pedagogical systemizing owes its inspiration to the Christian tradition of systematic theology, which attempts to formulate Christian doctrines as a coherent whole (but of course ordinary Christians do not necessarily practice their Christianity “coherently”). We might not be able to readily throw off this intellectual baggage, but we must always be aware of such epistemological habits (or “habits of the mind”) when we try to understand any religious tradition.

In a succinct three-page list of basic sources in English, Chau includes John Lagerwey’s China: a religious state, a largely historical overview, and The religious question of modern China edited by Goossaert and Palmer. I might also mention C.K. Yang’s Religion in Chinese society (1961), a fine early study written at an exceptionally traumatic time for the PRC. And Chau might be sympathetic to my suggestion to include some ethnographic films in this list—always a more engaging medium than discursive, silent, immobile representations on the page.

* * *

Like Ian Johnson’s The souls of China (2017), this book should appeal to a rather broad readership. Some of the issues in reaching a wide audience are in presentation, such as in-text references and footnotes—both inimical to more populist publishers. But Chau’s book has sixteen photos, whereas Ian’s, curiously, has none.

The two books are very different. While also giving fine personal vignettes, Chau’s main aim is to illuminate social structures; whereas Johnson’s book, while also well-informed, revolves around portraits of a few figures (again including the Li family Daoists!), and may speak more vividly to non-specialist China-watchers. So The souls of China (“a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise”—James Miller) makes more welcome fodder for the Western Seekers of Truth, as well as for advocates of religious freedom and the triumph of spirituality over secularism. But I hope all those who admire Johnson’s book will also learn from Chau’s work.








New work on sectarian ritual

Hou Chong

I look forward to reading a recent book collecting promising articles on the role of sectarian religious scriptures in folk ritual over a wide area:

  • Hou Chong 侯沖 (ed.), Jingdian, yishi yu minjian xinyang 经典, 仪式与民间信仰 [Classics, ritual, and folk worship] (Shanghai guji cbs, 2018),

continuing a long tradition of such research in China.

The contributors pay attention not only to texts but to performed rituals; and while some articles discuss early history, the focus is on the modern era. Themes include “precious scriptures” (baojuan), the Luo and Xiantian sects, and Zhenwu worship, with contributors such as Wang Jianchuan, Cao Xinyu on White Lotus scriptures, Rostislav Berezkin on funerary baojuan in Changshu (see also n.1 here), Xiao Jihong on North Dipper rituals of the Bai minority in Jianchuan, Yunnan, and Lü Pengzhi on Five Thunder registers (Wulei lu 五雷錄) in west Jiangxi.

Excuse these crappy screenshots—you can view the contents more clearly on sites such as douban:

mulu 1

mulu 2

Many of my posts under Local ritual bear on sectarian worship in north China, both among devotional groups and, before the 1950s, among temple priests. See also here, and here.



Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu


Here’s a roundup of a series of recent posts on ritual life and musicking in south Jiangsu.

For vignettes from before Liberation:

In this post I reflect on amateur entertainment and ritual connections in urban and rural Shanghai:

And here I introduce the fine work of Yang Der-ruey on the conflict in Shanghai of the state programme for training Daoists with the traditional values of their masters and the real world of the ritual economy:

ritual 2

On Daoism around Suzhou, following this introduction to a remarkable project under Maoism

I surveyed the broad field of research in

And to illustrate the challenges of adapting ritual to the concert stage:

XMG 93

For a very different take on musicking in Shanghai, see