Meditation: update with translation!


Hardly had I published this series of links to posts on the Shunzhi emperor’s Buddhist meditation on impermanence, and what it’s doing in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, when I realized that I would be churlish not to provide a rough translation, for those readers less than fluent in classical Chinese—of whom I hope there are many!

So I’ve now added it under the original post, here. Help welcome…

A meditation on impermanence


In several posts I refer to the beautiful Buddhist meditation on impermanence Kangxi yun 康熙云, actually composed not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61).

A variant of the poem forms part of the hymn volume of the Li family Daoists, the very first ritual manual that Li Qing recopied in 1980. This volume is not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts—I explain in some detail the process of recopying the manuals in this post (for the hymn volume, see under “Manuals and ritual practice”).


Here I noted Li Manshan’s attachment to the text of the Kangxi yun (with a very rough translation), and began to wonder what it is doing in the hymn volume. And on my stay with Li Manshan last year (see my diary, under “Pacing the Void”) we sought further clues, speculating about how, and when, the text might have entered the Li family manuals.

But ritual manuals are never merely silent texts; it’s also important to document the function of such texts in ritual performance. The Li family Daoists no longer perform the Kangxi yun, but as Li Manshan explains, it was one of several long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be recited in the shuowen solo introit style used for funerary segments like shanggong 上供 Presenting Offerings—discussed here.


From my film: a shuowen introit from the shanggong ritual.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



Li family Daoists, Beijing 1990

BJ 1990

The recent Beijing visit of a sectarian group from north Shanxi reminds me of the Li family Daoists’ performance at the 1990 Festival of religious music (for such festivals, see here)—the occasion that gave rise to their misleading media title (“calling Li Manshan’s band the Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe is like calling a group of Calabrian folk exorcists the Sistine Chapel Choral Society”).

I discussed here the gradual revival of Daoist ritual (now mainly funerals) in Yanggao after the collapse of the commune system; even by 1990, rural conditions there were still terribly poor, and memories of the Maoist era still fresh. For the dubious concept of “religious music”, see here.

Here’s how I described the festival in my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.175–6):

Meanwhile my friend Tian Qing, later to become the pre-eminent pundit on Chinese music, was planning a major festival of Buddhist and Daoist music in Beijing for June that year, with groups from all over China invited to perform on stage. This was unfortunate timing, as everything was disrupted by the student demonstrations and their subsequent suppression, so the festival had to be postponed. With Tian Qing now indisposed, his colleagues at the Music Research Institute managed to put on the festival the following June—not in public, but with considerable publicity in the musicological world. To hold a festival of religious music was still controversial: some apparatchiks were opposed, but influential senior ideologues like He Jingzhi and Zhao Puchu supported it.

Li Qing had a difficult task to perform when it came to choosing the personnel to go to Beijing. Of his three Daoist sons, he ended up taking not Li Manshan or Yushan, but his third son Yunshan (Third Tiger), then 22 sui. Though Third Tiger was soon to take a different path, he remains nostalgic about his teenage years studying and the trip to Beijing with the great masters. Nine Daoists made the trip: the trusty core group of seniors Li Qing, Li Yuanmao, Kang Ren, Liu Zhong, Li Zengguang, and Wang Xide, along with Li Yunshan, Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, and Li Yuanmao’s son Li Hou. They stayed in the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) along with several other Daoist groups from elsewhere in China invited for the festival, doing five performances (not rituals) for privately invited audiences over fifteen days in the temple and at the Heavenly Altar. The Music Research Institute also made studio recordings—which now sound rather harsh to me.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

The 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer includes a proud mention of the Beijing trip in its brief account of the Li family band. Valuable as the gazetteer is otherwise, Daoism is not its strong suit. Li Manshan and I giggle over its quaint description:

the average age of the members is 62.5. The instruments are even older than the people.

Still, even now, religious groups that have been legitimized by official recognition are in a tiny minority compared to all those that have never been “discovered”. Even in Yanggao and nearby, many other groups are active that have never enjoyed even such minor celebrity. And while it lent Li Qing’s group confidence, offering a potential buffer against any future ill winds, it brought them no tangible benefit, and no new audiences—at least until 2005 when I began taking them on foreign tours. They continued to scrape a living by performing for local funerals, and they still do.


For Third Tiger’s fine interpretation of my SOAS T-shirt, see here.

A justly neglected composer

Somewhat less well known than Haydn and Beethoven is a composer immortalized in yet another Monty Python classic:

The final “of Ulm” is brilliantly chosen, the place-name both niche and monosyllabic (unlike “monosyllabic”).

Good to see Johann rescued from the obscurity that he so richly deserves (contrast Vernon Handley). His absence from the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians urgently needs correcting.

His name is reminiscent of a ritual title for a Daoist priest—like that of Zhang Daoling, handed down in the Li family (my book, pp.11–12; film, from 2.48):

IMG_1031 - Version 2

Ancestral Master,
Heavenly Worthy of the Grand Ritual
who Supports the Teachings of the Three Heavens,
Assists the Numinous,
and Embodies the Way.

Actually, that’s quite a succinct one: appellations to the Daoist gods, recited (mercifully fast, by contrast with the slow hymns) in the course of rituals, are lengthy (see.e.g. here), and ritual titles still handed down today to household Daoist priests in south China upon their ordination may be a mouthful too.

John Cleese’s interview technique is perhaps a less probing model for the fieldworker than that of Peter Cook.

All this long before Stewart Lee made a whole art form out of trying the audience’s patience.

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 series of posts on Shaanbei!

Both volumes are now in paperback

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), 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.

See also Allan Marett’s comment below on a Song-dynasty Zen collection.

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:


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.

While we’re talking headgear, I’m very fond of this image from my film, of Daoist hats hanging out to dry after being washed—a reminder that ritual equipment has to be maintained:

yinyang hats




Translating Daoist ritual texts

Zhaoqing screenshot

Dunno about anyone else, but I enjoy watching my film again in the company of an audience!

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.

Note also that all these texts are conveyed at quite different tempi: the choral hymns before the coffin extremely slowly, the solo recitations in parlando style, the choral mantras at such speed that the subtitles can hardly keep up. This important aspect of ritual performance is rarely reflected in translations on the page.

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.

Another beautiful text in their manuals, for reciting, is the Shunzhi emperor’s meditation on impermanence.

xietu yiwen

I also relish the language of Thanking the Earth memorials (my book, ch.12). Soon after the revival of religious life following the collapse of the commune system, along with recopying the family ritual manuals, in 1981 Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen (see here, and here) copied a memorial for a domestic Thanking the Earth ritual held by his father Li Tang in the late 1920, with its detailed genealogy.

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. […]
xietu yiwen detailReciting 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.
On 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

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.

The Invitation ritual

At the heart of the funeral sequence of the Li family Daoists today is the Invitation ritual (zhaoqing 召請). This introduction is adapted from my book, pp.109–12, 298–307—and do watch the film from 58.14. For audio segments, click on ##1–3 of the playlist in the sidebar (commentary here). See also Translating Daoist ritual texts.

This is another illustration that ritual manuals don’t tell the whole story—performance is primary.

1 Li Manshan

Fig. 1: Li Manshan performs the Invitation,  2009

I have two reasons to focus on the Invitation—one about simplification, one about complexity. This is one of the few ritual segments for which the Daoists still have a manual, although as usual they don’t need it in performance. It is among the longest in their collection, but they now perform only a small part of its nineteen double pages; as with Fetching Water, a comparison of their present performance practice with the manual shows a significant simplification. Perhaps the term “complete” in the title Zhaoqing quanbu suggests that it was commonly abbreviated. But only rarely can we speculate how long it may be since they used more of its text.

As to complexity, whereas today the bulk of their performance of funerary texts consists of slow choral hymns, for this Invitation sequence the a cappella rendition over a mere fifteen minutes or so is now perhaps their most densely-packed, complex, and varied segment of ritual performance, full of dramatic contrasts in tempo and dynamics—with both slow and fast choral singing and chanting, free-tempo solo singing, and a variety of styles of percussion interludes and accompaniment.

The Invitation was also a major section within the lengthy nocturnal yankou ritual, both here and in the great temples. For two-day funerals now, with the yankou anyway obsolete, the Invitation has evolved into a public ritual at dusk before the evening session of Transferring Offerings. Whereas even in the early 1990s many village onlookers accompanied the kin, creating more bustle, now it is largely a private ritual for the kin.

The sequence
First, as the Daoists arrive at the soul hall, Golden Noble faces the coffin to recite a seven-word quatrain solo.

The manual opens with the quatrain “Sandai zongqin ting fayan 三代宗親聽法言”:

Let the three generations of ancestors hear the dharma speech,
Paying homage to the previous souls by burning paper money.
May the dharma speech open up the road to the heavenly hall,
To invite the deceased souls to attend the jasper altar.


Fig. 2

But instead Golden Noble recites another shuowen introit—which appears on the last page of the manual. That is how he learned from Li Qing, and it does the job just as well:

May the deceased souls come to the Bathing Hall, [1]
Transforming their shape and countenance to return to the immortal realm.
Now dipping into the bowl to bathe their bodies,
For an audience with the Three Treasures on the way to the Western Quarter.

Golden Noble then calls out “Proceed together, led by the Dao” (tongxing daoyin 同行道引), as shown at the end of the opening quatrain of the manual. If we didn’t know by observation, that would be a clue that while the preceding quatrain was performed at the soul hall, the remainder of the manual is to be performed on arrival at the site on the edge of the village.

Hereby Shaking the Bell
The next section in the manual, no longer performed, is Hereby Shaking the Bell (Yici zhenling 以此振鈴). One of several Yici zhenling texts that are a common part of the temple yankou, this slow sung hymn may also be used for other rituals, such as Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings—although the Yanggao Daoists no longer use it there either.

Song in Praise of the Dipper
Once they reach the site at the edge of the village, the altar table is set down, and the kin kneel in two rows in front of it while the Daoists stand in two rows behind it. Golden Noble presides, wielding flag, bell, and conch as he stands facing the kin. After a short percussion prelude with blasts on the conch, the first text now performed is Golden Noble’s solo chanting from the section of seven-word couplets opening Xinzhi jiguo 心知己過. Now he usually only chants the last two of the six couplets in the manual:


Fig. 3

I am the one to report the declaration of the procedures at the Jade Capital,
Vowing to save all beings and emerge from the web,
So the deceased soul may be born in the upper realms,
We sing in unison the Song in Praise of the Dipper.

This indeed serves to introduce the Song in Praise of the Dipper (Gedou zhang), a slow choral hymn sung tutti a cappella. The title is to the Northern Dipper, otherwise not prominent in their funerary texts, explaining the respective responsibility of the five quarters for the salvation of the soul. Its seven-word couplets are each sung to the same melody; the short strophic melody has all the hallmarks of other hymns.


As each sung couplet ends, Golden Noble shakes the bell, waves the flag, and bows, as the other Daoists play a cymbal interlude—a variant of the pattern Qisheng 七聲 as notated by Li Qing, as you can see below from the tiny differences in the first and penultimate bars between the naobo line in practice and the Qisheng mnemonics. As ever, the line for the drumming, ever flexible, shows a typical version as played by Li Manshan.


In recent years they tend to sing the hymn rather faster than they know it should go (you can hear a more majestic version in concert on track 1 of the audio playlist, and on the 2014 DVD). Anyway, with a very gradual accelerando over the verses, as they reach the seventh and eighth couplets they launch into fast isorhythmic chanting. They now play the fast cymbal interlude Gui jiao men (“Ghosts calling at the door”)—a pattern the same length as the processional Tianxia tong but differing subtly.


This leads into the five-word quatrain Jishou wufang zhu, sung tutti isorhythmically to a simple descending melody, without percussion, now slightly less hectic:

Bowing to the lords of the five quarters,
The masters of the lads of the five spirits
Open up the roads of the five quarters,
Receive and guide all the ghostly souls.

GDZ 2.jpg

Fig. 4

Then two sections summoning a roster of gods of the local territory—now accompanied by percussion, and punctuated twice by the Gui jiao men cymbal pattern—are chanted tutti, most hectically. Prepared by the instruction at the end of the Song in Praise of the Dipper (Great Supreme, in haste like the Northern Dipper!), and in extreme contrast with the long slow melismatic hymns that now dominate most rituals, this transitional sequence flies past as black clouds swirl, purple mists coil, with complex adjustments of style, tempo, and instrumentation. This too is a rare instance in Yanggao today of the kind of fast chanting commonly heard in south China.

The Invitation verses (playlist #1)
In abrupt contrast to this rousing climax, time now stands still as Golden Noble gently begins to sing a sequence of solo verses in free tempo, accompanied only by his shaking of the bell, with Li Manshan punctuating the phrases with a brief subdued pattern on drum. Li Manshan has let Golden Noble lead this ritual since about 2003; his solo melody is modeled on the way that Li Qing sung it. Even the way he repeats words in the opening phrase (Zhiyixin zhaoqing, yixin zhaoqing, zhaoqing) is distinctive, setting a contemplative mood. We are in the middle of barren countryside, far from the bustle of the village; as night falls, the main light comes only from the little piles of paper money burned by the kin. Notwithstanding interruptions at the end of each verse by a fast loud chorus with percussion, and periodic deafening explosions of firecrackers, this exquisite solo plaint perfectly reflects the desolation of the surrounding countryside where the ancestors are to assemble.

The twenty verses in the manual, each beginning “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” (Zhiyixin zhaoqing), describe all kinds of occupations of the lost souls: emperors, ministers, generals, literati, sing-song girls, beggars, and so on. These verses are also found in the Li family’s Buddhist (not their Daoist) yankou manual—a sequence sometimes attributed to the great poet Su Dongpo (1037–1101). The twenty verses are now never sung complete; the chief Daoist chooses no more than six or seven of them. Both Li Manshan and Golden Noble agree that they should be performed complete, and were “in the past,” but even Li Manshan never heard the elders recite the whole sequence. To give an idea of the literary beauty of these texts, here is the opening verse (recto, lines 3–6):


Fig. 5

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,
(tutti) 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.

For the last two seven-word couplets at the end of each verse (last line of recto and first line of verso), the first is still sung solo, while for the second the whole group interjects to chant the text fast. But, then, instead of the manual’s elegant and long refrain (opening “And thus from time immemorial” Rushi guwang jinlai, 5th–3rd lines from end of verso above) confirming the invitation, they now substitute a single phrase “Fluttering the shadows and echoes, gradually approaching” (Piaopiao yingxiang ranran lailin 飄飄影響冉冉來臨), again sung tutti. This phrase is borrowed from the shorter sequence of a mere three Invitation texts from their other (“Daoist”) shishi manual.[2] It leads into another burst of the cymbal interlude Gui jiao men.

That is how Li Qing taught them, but they know that the two versions were once alternatives: when the older generation used the longer refrain, it was still sung solo, and they didn’t use a cymbal interlude. So using the Piaopiao phrase with cymbal interludes wasn’t Li Qing’s invention in the 1980s; but already by then, deciding that the full refrain was too long, they were generally adopting the shorter version.

Some other adaptations also have to be learned orally. In the Jinwu sijian section about the sun and moon, and again in the following verse “Gazing from afar on mountain hues” (Yuanguan shan youse), the name of the deceased has to be inserted, and another text replaces the tutti coda of the manual.

The Invitation verses in Beijing Buddhist ritual
I have to take it on trust that all twenty sections were once performed complete, including the longer refrain. The substitution of the “Fluttering the shadows and echoes, gradually approaching” phrase with cymbal interlude for the longer final refrain shortens the ritual a little; and the more recent practice of reciting only selected sections shortens it further.

Actually, the version as sung by the Li family in Yanggao is remarkably similar to that of Buddhist temples in old Beijing. In a fine initiative from the mid-1980s, the performance of the Buddhist yankou by former monks from popular temples in Beijing was recorded; later it was also transcribed and notated.[3] The Invitation sequence, virtually identical in text, is interesting.[4] All twenty sections were indeed performed for the recording. The text is divided between main and assistant cantors, both singing in free tempo with impressive beauty, accompanied only by the bell, the refrain of each section fast choral with drum. So again, it is worth pursuing temple links.

The Invitation memorial
When Golden Noble has finished singing the Invitation verses, first the short section Chenwen dadao 臣聞大道 (see Fig. 7 below) should be recited fast, either solo or tutti, with percussion, confirming the efficacity of the ritual in saving the deceased. This text is commonly omitted today.

Then (as specified in the manual, in red ink) Golden Noble presents the memorial. Having handed the bell to a colleague, who sounds it continuously, he takes out the folded document from his pocket, singing it solo in the same melodic style as the preceding “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” verses, only more exuberantly, with muffled accompaniment on drum and small cymbals and occasional fast tutti choruses repeating a phrase. He unfolds each new section as he folds up the previous one—though he hardly needs to consult it except to check the names of the kin. In recent years, if the others start accompanying too fast on percussion then Golden Noble sometimes likes to corpse the others (especially his mate Wu Mei) by reading faster and faster, rolling his eyes rapidly up and down over the text.

The manual doesn’t contain the text of the memorial; it is not among the templates in Li Qing’s collection of ritual documents, and Li Manshan and Golden Noble write it from memory. Sometimes entitled Memorial of Rites and Litanies to Escort the Deceased (Songzhong lichan yiwen), it is addressed to the Court of Sombre Mystery for Rescuing from Suffering (Qingxuan jiuku si), and announces the details of the deceased and lists of the preceding three generations of kin. Generally Li Manshan writes the text first and fills in the names of the ancestors later when a member of the kin brings them to him. Dates, as always, are written in the traditional calendar.


Fig. 6: Invitation memorial, written by Li Manshan, Pansi 2011

Having sung the memorial complete, Golden Noble opens it out and hands it over to be burned by the kin, while the Daoists slowly and solemnly declaim a final five-word quatrain “Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return” (Naihe qianchilang), another common temple text:


Fig. 7

Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return,
Bitter sea myriad leagues deep.
If the soul is to evade the cycle of rebirth and suffering,
The Daoists are to recite the names of the Heavenly Worthies.

The return procession
So now after the document has been burned, if Redeeming the Treasuries is combined then the two treasuries are burned. The Daoists then lead the kin on procession back to the soul hall. Whereas the whole of the previous sequence has been performed a cappella, they now play shengguan all the way back while the kin burn paper to illuminate the way for the ancestors; on procession on the way out, they only use percussion because there is no-one to escort yet.

However, in Li Qing’s manual there follow thirteen verses for Triple Libations of Tea (san diancha). Li Manshan recalled these verses being recited on the route back, accompanied by Langtaosha on shengguan, but later they only played Qiansheng Fo without vocal liturgy. They still sometimes use a three-verse version for the solo introits in Presenting Offerings before lunch, and as a slow accompanied hymn for Transferring Offerings.

Even after the Libations of Tea were omitted, villagers used to “impede the way” (lanlu) on the return to demand popular “little pieces” from the Daoists, but by the late 1990s no longer did so—they now had plenty of other opportunities to hear pop music. Since around 2011 the kin often just stop occasionally to burn paper, not all along the route as they should. Altogether, the impetus towards simplification derives from the changing needs of the patrons.

The hymn at the gate (playlist ##2 and 3)
On the return to the soul hall, the Daoists now stand informally around the gateway to sing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella, as the kin again kneel and burn paper. This is the “Jiuku cizun” text in the manual. As usual, this a cappella version is sung faster than that with shengguan, though they retain the cymbal interludes. They round off the hymn with the fast percussion coda Lesser Hexi, and then lead the kin into the courtyard with a short burst of the pattern Tianxia tong. That is the end of the Invitation as performed today.

But in the manual, before the Mantra to the Three Generations, a further text Lijia quyuan 離家去遠 appears—also apparently a hymn, but unknown today. The volume then concludes with the solo recited quatrain that in current practice they recite at the initial visit to the soul hall; and then a final six-line hymn Qinghua jiaozhu, which should be sung (again, surely a cappella) while the oldest son kowtows.

One wonders how there was ever time for all the extra material in the manual, within what was once an even more busy ritual sequence throughout the day. The ritual in its present condensed form may have taken shape gradually, and it still makes a cogent and moving sequence that meets the needs of patrons.

Beyond just documenting which sections of text are performed today and which have been lost, we need to know how the texts are performed, and how Daoists adapt the material. It’s always hard to imagine the performance of ritual texts from the page, but here is a fine instance of variety. The text is rendered efficacious, and its drama heightened, through a varied yet cohesive sequence of slow solemn choral singing, hectic mantric choral chanting interspersed with percussion interludes, and exquisite free-tempo solo singing accompanied by conch and bell. Such a cappella rendition is of a different kind of complexity from the slow melismatic hymns that now form the bulk of their performance. Despite ritual simplification in modern times, the Daoists need to internalize complex rules—orally—in order to deliver the text efficaciously, animating it into a magical sequence.

[1] By the way, the Yanggao Daoists now have no separate Bathing (muyu) ritual, though it is part of the obsolete shezhao muyu ritual in Li Peisen’s funeral manual.
[2] It is used in the Summons (shezhao) ritual of the temples: Min Zhiting, Daojiao yifan 道教儀範 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng 2004 edn), p. 179.
[3] Ling Haicheng, Yuqie yankou yinyue foshi 瑜珈焰口音乐佛事 cassettes, with booklet (1986); Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo hanchuan fojiao yinyue wenhua 中国汉传佛教音乐文化 (2003), pp.301–451, Yuan Jingfang Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu 中国佛教京音乐研究 (2012), pp.228–439. Cf. Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi 红白喜事 (1993), pp.324–6.
[4] Yuqie yankou yinyue foshi, cassette 4b; Yuan Jingfang Zhongguo hanchuan fojiao yinyue wenhua, pp.389–395, Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu, pp.386–391.

Mind the Gap: The Three Homages

Chapter 10 of my book is called Mind the Gap. My use of this classic London underground warning, I gladly concede, may well be less effective in Daoist ritual studies than that of the wonderful Bridget Christie for feminist comedy.

Anyway, I explore how rituals as performed don’t make a close fit with ritual manuals—apart from the fact that the latter are silent. Here’s an instance. [1]

The Li family makes four visits to the soul hall in the morning to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經). The final one of these sessions is Presenting Offerings (shanggong 上供), parts of which are shown in my film, from 32.12.

The Three Homages hymn (San guiyi, also known as Zan sanbao) is part of an unusual sequence in their current practice. This is another instance of the importance of using ritual performance rather than relying merely on ritual manuals. Finding the short text of The Three Homages in Li Qing’s hymn volume (and I haven’t yet found it elsewhere), we couldn’t know that each of its three verses (accompanied by shengguan) is preceded by a choice of solo shuowen recited introit (now commonly based on the Triple Libations of Tea). The first one commonly goes like this:

I hereby declare:
The lustre of time soon passes, life and death are hard to evade.
Don’t ask of the three sovereigns and five emperors, or cultivate the search of Qin and Han emperors most high.
Coveting Pengzu’s eight hundred years, or cultivating Yan Hui’s four hundred years.
Although old and young differ, they can’t help being equal in rank.
Burning incense in the golden incense-burner, jade cups full of tea,
With filial kin raising up the cups, the first libation of tea pouring.

Nor could we know that the hymn is followed by the fast tutti a cappella chanted Mantra to Smash the Hells (which appears not in the hymn volume but in the Bestowing Food manual):


In boundless Fengdu hell, the vastness of Mount Vajra.
Immeasurable light of the Numinous Treasure
thoroughly illuminating the woes of Scorching Pool.
The Seven Ancestors and all the netherworld souls
Bearing incense-cloud pennants,
Blue lotus flowers of meditation and wisdom,
Life-giving gods eternally in peace.

Nor yet could we imagine that the whole sequence then concludes with any short hymn from elsewhere in the hymn volume, like The Ten Redemptions of Sin (Shi miezui) or the Five Offerings (Wu gongyang), again with shengguan.

With its short verses, the tempo of The Three Homages is not as slow as most of the Li family’s hymns, so one might think it would be an easy-learning item, but it is still none too easy for the outsider to learn. Indeed, they don’t grade their learning like this—they just plunge in, picking up the hymns as they occur in ritual practice.


San guiyi text.jpg

The text illustrates a system found in some other hymns, where the last words of each line are repeated to open the following line—as here, the first of three verses:

Homage to the Dao,
The Dao residing on Jade Capital Mountain. [2]
On Jade Capital Mountain preaching the dharma,
Preaching the dharma to deliver humans to heaven.

By the way: fa, commonly equated with the Buddhist “dharma”, is just as common in Daoism. I usually render it as “ritual,” only retaining “dharma” in a couple of binomes—like shuo fa here, and fayan “dharma speech”.

In sum, useful as it is to have collections of texts on the page, none of the efficacy of ritual in performance is contained there. All the segments of this Presenting Offerings ritual differ in style. To read them on the page, as ever, is quite inadequate.

For another instance, see the Invitation ritual.

[1] Adapted from my book, pp.208–9, 264.
[2] Li Qing’s manual gives Yuqing shan 玉清山, which I have (unusually) revised to the standard Yujing shan 玉京山.


Household Daoists tend to know about performance, not doctrine. I focus on practical knowledge—right down to which cymbal patterns to use as interludes for which hymns, and when to use them, or not. What the Li family don’t know, or do, is things like secret cosmic visualizations.

They don’t necessarily know how to write the texts, or if they do so (for me) they may write some characters a bit approximately because they already know how to recite them.

They know nothing of Laozi’s Daode jing, so central to Western images of Daoism. When I quote the pithy, nay gnomic, opening two lines to Li Manshan and Li Bin:

道可道非常道    The way you can follow is not the eternal way;
名可名非常名    The name you can name is not the eternal name.

they don’t quite get it, and I have to translate it into colloquial Chinese for them! Hmm…

We have a bit of fun playing with feichang, which in modern Chinese is “very”, rather than the classical “not eternal”. Actually, in their local dialect they don’t use feichang at all, though of course they know it. In Yanggao the usual way of saying “very” is just ke 可, pronounced ka—thus “dao kedao feichang dao” might seem to be “The way is soooo waylike, I mean it’s just amazingly waylike”…

Still, Daoists like Li Manshan will have picked up a broad understanding of the texts they sing every day, even if they have never been taught their “meaning”. They know Laozi not as the author of the Daode jing but as a god.

As I wrestled with translating the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan), used for Opening Scriptures in the morning (book pp.262–3, and film), Li Manshan explained it to me.


Sanbao zan, from Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980


The subject of the first verse to the dao, “We bow in homage to the worthy of the dao treasure, Perfected One without Superior” (Jishou guiyi daobaozun, Wushang zhenren) is Laozi himself, so it is he who is the subject of the remainder of the verse: “He descended from the heavenly palace” (xialiao tiangong) refers to Laozi descending from the heavenly palace after beholding the sufferings of the deceased spirit (guanjian wangling shou kuqing)—it’s all about Laozi! So you see, Li Manshan gets the texts…

As for any ritual tradition, where does the “meaning” reside, when texts are unintelligible to their audience? When we translate and explain ritual texts, we are radically altering them as experienced by their audience. True, the performers, the priests, certainly “understand” them, to various degrees, if not in the same way as scholars translating them. I don’t suggest limiting ourselves to the consideration of how people experience rituals, but that should surely be a major part of our studies. Experience lies beyond textual exegesis, consisting largely in sound and vision.

I am reminded of Byron Rogers on an American version of the New Testament (Me: the authorized biography, p.268):

Pilate: “You the King of the Jews?”
“You said it.” said Christ.

There’s another one for the Matthew Passion (cf. Textual scholarship, OMG). “What is truth?”, indeed…

Mercifully, there is no movement to translate the ancient texts of Daoist ritual into colloquial modern Chinese. Of course, for northern Daoist ritual a modern translation wouldn’t make the texts any more intelligible anyway, given the slow tempo and melisma.

Laozi does appear in one of our favourite couplets for the scripture hall (my book pp.194–5; not easily translated!):

穩如太山盤腿座     Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
貫定乾坤李老君     Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves male and female aspects.