Translating Daoist ritual texts

Zhaoqing screenshot

Dunno about anyone else, but I enjoy watching my film again!

I can’t now imagine all the work that went into this. Apart from the filming itself, and working with Michele to do all the editing, it was good to match up Li Qing’s ritual texts to the hymn singing, and fun showing how the cymbal patterns work, captioning the guangcha mnemonics—first as Daoist percussion karaoke (from 24.03) and later as they whizz past in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (from 1.11.07).

Translating all those ancient Daoist texts was no picnic, but they’re really beautiful—like the Invitation sequence at the edge of the village towards dusk, with Golden Noble’s solo rendition of the “Vowing with Hearts at One” verses:

Vowing with Hearts at One we Invite:
Emperors and lords of successive dynasties,
Empresses and concubines of epochs immemorial,
Bedecked in twelve-gemmed crowns,
Countenance outranking three thousand rouge-and-kohl belles.
All under heaven their remit, all under heaven their family,
Ultimately ascending.
Singing within the palace, dancing within the palace,
At the final moment they can only perish and fall.
Alas! Have you not heard?
Once astride the dragon of Yu they cannot return,
In vain to deploy the Pipes of Shao within the Department of Caverns,
Fluttering the shadows and echoes, imperceptibly approaching!

But once rendered in exquisite solo melody, such textual beauty is multiplied.

Having consulted the exegeses of wise abbot Min Zhiting (no less) in the White Cloud Temple on the meaning of the hymns, I still had some doubts. I recall the months of email ping-pong with Li Bin as I sought his advice. The Li family never discuss the “meaning” of the texts, nor did their elders ever “explain” them as they were learning, so I was really impressed when Li Bin clarified points phrase by phrase. The process of singing them, molto adagio, almost daily over more than thirty years, does seem to give them the occasion to reflect on their meaning. Of course they’re not “educated” interpretations, but the Daoists do clearly have their own “understanding” of the texts they sing.

I also relish the language of Thanking the Earth memorials (my book, pp.230–33):

At the Numinous Treasure Court of the Great Ritual it is hereby declared: upholding the Orthodox Unity Teachings, resident in that place named Upper Liangyuan village in the southeast district beyond the city gates of Yanggao county in Shanxi province; responding to heaven and rewarding the gods, beseeching blessings and fulfilling the vow, to avert calamity and assure well-being; I, Li Tang, with faithful heart, on this day do kowtow.
[…]
Reciting the auspicious texts of the Eleven Great Luminary stellar lords of the Sombre Capital of Upper Clarity, Li Tang and others, resident in the Central Kingdom, favored among mankind, invariably moved by the great virtue of dragon heaven, ever reliant on the Earth Court to engender thorough understanding of the high and the broad, repaying sincerity unretained. Hereby having augured the auspicious period, the retreat is to be held as follows. This day we invite the Daoist acolytes to set up a Daoist arena for well-being in our courtyard over two whole days in the hall, kneeling and reciting the Diverse true scriptures and holy mantras for the Great Supreme, facing the Heavenly Worthies in homage; the precious litanies for the Great Ritual, Lighting Lanterns, and Bestowing Food, burning paper and presenting up offerings for the holy gods of the seven originals and the true lords of the nine thearchs. Our wish is that the whole family will be tranquil, its members in well-being, livestock thriving, our fields fertile, relying entirely on the protection of holy benevolence in the lustre of our daily business.

There are some fine translations of such numinous ritual texts in the works of Ken Dean and John Lagerwey—and indeed in David Hawkes’s translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber.

Yet another village funeral

ZJYT lingtang
On my recent trip to Yanggao I spent most of my time at home with Li Manshan, making little trips to nearby villages with him or his son Li Bin. But of course I had to check out a funeral and catch up with the other Daoists, so Li Bin came to collect me to drive to Zhu Family Cavetop.

The village population, 749 “mouths” in 1990, has now declined to only a couple of hundred at most. By the time we arrive, the other Daoists have already Opened the Scriptures at the soul hall, singing the Hymn to the Three Treasures as prescribed. After Li Bin delivers the paper couplets and diaolian inscriptions, we go to the scripture hall, which today is conveniently the little room on the south side of the funeral family courtyard, right by the soul hall—so no need for the usual long procession.

I catch up with my old mates Golden Noble and Wu Mei, whom I haven’t seen since our French tour last May. Golden Noble has high blood pressure and is off the fags and booze; Wu Mei is sweet as ever. They check out my blog on their phones.

ZJYT jingtang

The cosy atmosphere of the scripture hall.

Li Sheng

Li Sheng makes repairs to his sheng.

Li Sheng, another regular member of the band and a dedicated chain-smoker (my nickname for him is Fag Devil 烟鬼 Yangui—the gui in falling 4th tone!), is as hyper as ever. His manic energy reflects both in his quickfire dialect and in his fine sheng playing—he struggles to conform to the solemn immovable posture of the Daoists of which Li Bin is a master. He comes from a renowned gujiang shawm-band family from the nearby township of Shizitun. He didn’t know what year he was born; chatting in 2013, he only knew that he was 60 sui, so I translated that to 1954. He is twelve years younger than his brother, a wonderful cultured gujiang also called Li Bin. They learned with their distinguished blind father Li Zhonghe (1908–88), who was still playing in his eightieth year. Again, these two Li families have long been on good terms—the great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s. Li Sheng’s older brother went off to work as a cadre in the mines in Datong around 1970, and Li Sheng did some work there too, as well as doing petty trade in Datong, returning around 2000. He has four daughters and one son.

To make up the numbers for the Daoist personnel today, Li Bin has booked two yinyang I haven’t met before, both from hereditary traditions. They’re nice, but turn out to be of somewhat limited abilities. While the gujiang shawm bands have a reputation for smoking dope, some Daoists do too, crushing annaka amphetamine pills into their cigarettes to give them energy (cf. my book, p.325). In the scripture hall my new mates use tinfoil to smoke annaka through a rolled-up 1-kuai note.

As I soon learn when I take a session on small cymbals, the new drummer “calls the beat” arbitrarily, so I keep getting confused about where to place the down-beat. This is just as irritating as an old Daoist I met a few years ago who kept beating out the syncopations on small cymbals, no matter whether we were anywhere near a cadence—”unruly” (bu guiju), as Li Manshan tuts.

The band makes up for the time saved on procession by playing “little pieces” and popular errentai melodies as they arrive at the soul hall. But no-one here cares anyway, and it’s the latest in a long line of funerals where they merely need to go through the motions, with the simplest ritual sequence possible. None of the kin, returning from the big cities for the funeral, kneels or kowtows. No-one pays attention to the Daoists even when they launch into a showy errentai sequence (except in the afternoon, when they even applaud).

Along with the kin we have a good communal lunch in the big tent set up outside, with disposable (yicixing) plastic crockery—I never miss an opportunity to use the expression yicixing (“one-off”), corpsing the Daoists. Meals at Yanggao funerals have improved as ritual practice has declined.

I take a siesta along with three other yinyang in a heap on the little kang brick-bed. The pop band on the truck outside starts up around 3pm, but there’s only a tiny audience even for this, and they soon drift off too. After the Daoists’ first visit of the afternoon, a group of travelling beggars shows up—the usual personnel, with head-mikes, an erhu, fan, and clappers.

ZJYT beggars

Funeral beggars.

 

ZJYT LB on daguan

Li Bin on large guanzi, flanked by Golden Noble (left) and Li Sheng.

For the Daoists’ second visit of the afternoon they only play a popular errentai medley. For the third session Li Bin (who usually plays sheng mouth-organ) leads the hymn Diverse and Nameless on large guanzi—good, in tune, with a fine new instrument he’s found. For a change Wu Mei plays drum, but he’s somewhat distracted by using his mobile at the same time… The beggars return, and then the Daoists play another errentai sequence. I’m bloody cold and less than riveted (as we say in the orchestral biz, “Of all the funerals I’ve attended in Yanggao… this is one of them”), so I get Li Bin to take me back to Upper Liangyuan before the Invitation ritual. As I get home Li Manshan and his wife are busy making paper artefacts together.

As Li Manshan observes at the end of my film,

Things ain’t what they used to be
今非昔比

Funerals in Hebei

*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual)

GL procession 95

Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two, as in this composite funeral sequence for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region south of Beijing.

Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. While we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves. In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.

A gradual dilution of ritual practice has  undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone.

More Daoists of Yanggao

** Link to this page!**

Following my pages on local Daoist traditions scattered around north Shanxi (ShuozhouTianzhen,Guangling, and Datong county!), I return to my base of Yanggao.

From my film and book on the Li family Daoists of Upper Liangyuan (and indeed throughout this site) you can already see that Yanggao is a hive of Daoist activity. Until the 1950s over twenty Daoist groups performed ritual around Yanggao; this page gives brief sketches of three more lineages with a long Daoist history, who are also still active today.

The Pardon, 1991

Daoists of Tianzhen, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Click above for the latest in my surveys of household Daoist groups in north Shanxi, including Shuozhou and Guangling (not to mention Yanggao, main subject of this blog), as well as Changwu in Shaanxi. They’re now grouped in a sub-menu “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu.

Here I outline the history and ritual practices of three families of Complete Perfection Daoists in Tianzhen county—a tradition derived from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an just northeast.

Ning statuette

 

Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen: an update

I’ve just added to my page on Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen, but it’s worth highlighting my new reflections here.

I began exploring the false dichotomy between Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi)  and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) branches in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (note especially pp.17–18). Now that we have more instances, let’s revisit the scene.

In areas of north China for which I have information (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China), household Daoists may nominally belong to either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection branches. But such simplistic pigeonholing may distract us from the details of their ritual practice.

In their rituals and ritual manuals I can discern no significant distinction. When the Complete Perfection branch evolved in the 12th century, its priests (both temple and household) took over Orthodox Unity ritual practice: as John Lagerwey once observed to me, “that was the only show in town”. And while a distinct Complete Perfection literature did evolve (see my book, pp.203–207), their ritual practice never developed into a separate corpus of Complete Perfection ritual texts.

That explains why such an august Complete Perfection temple priest as Min Zhiting (see above) was constantly citing Orthodox Unity ritual manuals from the Daoist Canon; and why the best mainstream source for the manuals of the Orthodox Unity Li family household priests in Yanggao is the repertoire of modern “Complete Perfection” temple practice like the Xuanmen risong.

On the evidence to hand, household Complete Perfection Daoists seem rather more likely to recall their place in their particular lineage poem. They may have a clearer family tradition of earlier ancestors having spent time as temple priests. But household Orthodox Unity priests may also possess both these features. Of course the histories of such groups need documenting, but when we come to performance (which, after all, is the heart of ritual) it may be less germane.

And in some places now—since around 2000—the picture is further confused by a certain “centripetal” tendency. With wider access (such as the internet), some groups that have always been Orthodox Unity may be exploring ways of “legitimizing” themselves by seeking manuals from prestigious central sites like the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, and having costumes and hats made which make them appear to be Complete Perfection Daoists. They may even reform their “local” ritual practice by adopting elements from the “national” White Cloud Temple.

The scene is further obfuscated by a tendency among some scholars (both local and central) to assume that if a group is household-based, then they must be Orthodox Unity—a problem I have already queried. We really must debunk this assumption. In my recent posts, the Changwu Daoists turn out to belong to the Huashan branch of Complete Perfection, and the Guangling Daoists appear to come from a Longmen tradition. Actually, this is not so clear-cut—even non-Quanzhen priests might adopt Longmen titles (note sources by Vincent Goossaert cited in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.18 n.34).

So while the ritual texts and ritual sequences of the two notional branches are rather similar, what always makes local traditions distinctive is the way in which the texts are performed.

vocal trio 2001

Vocal trio, 2001: Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Li Bin.

Even here there’s another erroneous cliché that needs debunking. Generations of scholars of Daoist music have parroted the notion that in style the “music” of Orthodox Unity (conceived narrowly as “household” or folk) Daoists is more popular and lively, whereas that of Complete Perfection (again, conceived narrowly as austere monastic) Daoists is solemn, slow and restrained. It derives entirely from an unfounded theory about household and temple practice. We only need to watch my film about the Li family band to realize this simply won’t do. Orthodox Unity Daoists, their basic style (exemplified by the zantan hymns that permeate all their rituals) is extremely slow and solemn—but as you can hear, it is indeed punctuated by exhilarating moments. The style of (household!) Complete Perfection Daoists is certainly no more “solemn”. Both branches may use melodic shengguan instrumental ensemble—and if anything, that of the Orthodox Unity groups tends to be more slow and solemn.

Indeed, when I showed Li Manshan my videos of funeral segments by the Complete Perfection Daoists in Shuozhou, he found their performance “chaotic” (luan). Orthodox Unity groups in Yanggao like that of Li Manshan pride themselves on the “order” (guiju) of their performance.

My only ongoing note on this is that several household Complete Perfection groups (such as in Shuozhou and Guangling) may have preserved the element of fast tutti a cappella recitation of the jing scriptures better than in some Orthodox Unity traditions like those of Yanggao. But that doesn’t bear on the false stylistic dichotomy. Like Life, It’s Complicated… We always need to expand our database and use our critical faculties.

Daoists of Guangling, Shanxi

*For main page, click here*

Following my articles on the household Daoists of Shuozhou and Changwu, I’ve now added another page to the “Themes” menu, on a group in Guangling, north Shanxi.

Guangling kaiguang

Apart from my work on the Li family Daoists of Yanggao, Chen Yu 陈瑜 led me towards other Daoist ritual groups in north Shanxi. We had leads to most other counties in the region, but Guangling was a blank area on our map of Daoist ritual activity. So Chen Yu’s visit there in May 2015 made a valuable addition to our surveys.