Doing things

Doing Things cover

My 2015 film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (which complements my book Daoist priests of the Li family) is an intimate evocation of the Li family Daoists (next London screening here!).

In a field where silent inanimate publications vastly outnumber audio-visual documentation, for further background on ritual life in Yanggao it’s also worth watching my earlier DVD Doing things (办事, widespread parlance for “performing rituals”), which comes with my 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.

Apart from the shawm bands (notably the Hua family band: the magnificent suite in §C of the DVD is analysed here), this film also contains many interesting scenes of funerals and temple fairs in Yanggao from as far back as 1991, including not only the Li family Daoists but also

  • Li Yuan‘s Daoist band
  • Rituals such as Fetching Water (for both funerals and temple fairs), Burning the Treasuries, Transferring Offerings, and the burial procession
  • Raising the Pennant, and Judgment and Alms, at the 2003 Lower Liangyuan temple fair
  • A nocturnal yankou ritual performed by Buddhist monks
  • The Gushan temple fair, with Daoists and sectarians
  • pop music at funerals and temple fairs (cf. here, and here).

XLY yangfan 03

And while I’m here, don’t forget the DVD Notes from the yellow earth with my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei—a vivid complement to the book and my various posts on Shaanbei!

Both volumes are now in paperback

 

London film screening!

I’ve just added details of the next London screening of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist to the Upcoming events in the sidebar. Do come along if you can—it’s always good to watch it in company, and the post-match discussions can be lively…

The free event is hosted by the SOAS China Institute—details here.

Slapping the coffin, and headgear

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin.

Apart from the liturgy of the Daoists that is my main topic, many other concomitant mortuary observances tend to fall under the domain of “folklore”.

After a death in rural Yanggao, among all the complex arrangements shown in my film, there’s a tiny exchange (from 14.11) where the son of the deceased reads out Li Manshan’s prescription for the funeral arrangements.

I’ve never witnessed Slapping the Coffin (yicai 移材, my book, pp.186–7), [1] but I now find a little description in Wu Fan’s notes from our 2003 fieldwork in Yanggao:

According to the “old rules”, Slapping the Coffin follows the nocturnal Escorting Away the Orphan Souls ritual segment and the lengthy Crossing the Soul [aka Sitting Through the Night] instrumental sequence from the shawm band or Daoists (my book, p.128). Around half an hour after the band has fallen silent, when all is quiet, the oldest son and oldest daughter slap the coffin with their palms, crying out “Go, then” (Zouba, zouba 走吧,走吧). Then the son leads the way, sweeping the path while the daughter takes the paper cart (now often a car) from the funeral artefacts, kowtowing all the way to a crossroads, where the cart is burned.

By 2003 this procedure had commonly been simplified for some time, and even Sitting Through the Night was optional. But it’s an instance of all the minutiae formerly observed by the kin, beyond the more public rituals of the Daoist band—”customary” rather than “religious”.

The kin still observe elaborate, ancient distinctions in their funerary headgear—these are just the appendages for the female kin:

IMG_3250.JPG

Headgear appendages for female kin. Left to right: 1–2 daughters, wife; 3–7 sisters’ daughters, wives of sisters’ sons; 8–9 granddaughters, wives of grandsons; 10–11 maternal granddaughters, wives of maternal grandsons. Made by Li Manshan’s wife.

Left, sister; right, granddaughters.

But as ever, “customs differ every 10 li“. We should document both religious and customary rituals. Neither is timeless: we need to show how they change within local societies.

 

[1] For a thorough account of the Old Rules for mortuary rituals in nearby Yuxian county (alas not featuring the Daoists!), see the first section of this post—Slapping the Coffin appears under §3, fasang 发丧.

 

 

The art of the voiceover

Talking of media voices, how David Tennant must delight in doing his deadpan voiceovers for BBC TV’s brilliant spoof W1A, successor to the equally fine Twenty Twelve.

My current favourite line (here, from 3.58) is

… the Department of Culture, Media, And Also For Some Reason Sport…

which cracks me up every time he says it, even in the more subtle version

Department of Culture, Media, And Also Sport.

He slips in gems like

Reaction on social media has been almost universally divided.

The choice of theme tune is perfect too.

Further to my paltry comments on filming techniques, I did the voiceovers for my first two films (DVDs with my books Ritual and music of north China) myself, much to the amusement of my friends—who, used to my imp–p-pediment, couldn’t imagine a budget vast enough to allow for all the editing. In the end I recorded both voiceovers over a single morning, doing only a few retakes, and it didn’t take the editors too long.

Still, for my portrait film about Li Manshan, it was much more personal for him to do the voiceovers himself, with English subtitles. After lengthy discussion of the script, we eventually recorded them deep in the night at his home—Chinese villages can be noisy places, with dogs barking, donkeys braying, and tractors making those tractor noises…

Kulture

 

joke

As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.

LB joke

Li Bin’s brilliant joke (keep watching after the final credits of my film) subtly satirizes the gulf between peasants and intellectuals. Here’s a fuller English version (my book, p.ix):

So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.

He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant,

“I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?”

The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”

The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks,

“OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”

The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.

The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”

The peasant scratches his head and goes,

“Hmm… nope, I dunno. OK then, I can’t answer your question either—here’s 100 kuai!”

LMS Rome

It’s even better in Yanggao dialect—Li Manshan tells it hilariously too.

As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres, with limited success.

The whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, locals—in China and elsewhere—are all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism.