Weather report from north Shanxi

courtyard in snow

Li Manshan’s courtyard.

OOH it’s snowing today in north Shanxi!

After a rather underwhelming funeral in Zhu Family Cavetop* village yesterday (on which more anon), this morning Li Bin has to do the burial with the band there and then go off on his own to “smash the bowl” in two other villages—the solo procedures that poor families sometimes request instead of the usual lengthy liturgical sequence with the whole band (see my book, pp.193–4). But the snow won’t deter him, not being a wimpy Englishman; Li Manshan has just zoomed off on his motor-bike to smash a bowl too.

Traipsing across the slippery courtyard to the latrine in the southwest of the courtyard is even more of an adventure than usual, and I “literally” (as the argot has it) freeze my arse off as I squat there, the wind biting into my buttocks. At least there’s a little roof. And at least I can go back indoors—the family doggie is tethered in its kennel in the courtyard. Here dogs and cats are just animals, not sentimental anthropomorphic consolations.


*Zhujiayaotou: why the final “tou“? Most “cave” villages in Yanggao are just XXX Family Caves (Renjiayao, Sujiayao, Gaojiayao, and so on). This is yet another example of my fatuous etic questions to which Li Manshan gives short shrift…

A stopgap


Stove, with Li Manshan’s precious mug.

Depending on your taste, you will either excuse my recent silence or find it a relief.

I’ve been busy preparing for a little trip to China, so I now find myself at home with the splendid Li Manshan in Upper Liangyuan village, catching up with him and the Daoists. It’s been nearly two years since my last visit, so I feel somewhat out of practice, though I saw them on our tour of France last May (see series under the archive for May 2017). Since publishing my film and book, it’s great to hang out with him, neither of us under such pressure to document the family history—though I can never stop taking notes, filling in some gaps and getting updates on their recent activities.

In due course I’ll leap into action with a series of vignettes on everyday country life away from the hubbub of Beijing, but meanwhile, do check out my numerous posts on the Li family, Yanggao, and so on—such as Li Bin’s diary since they returned from France.


Back into the fray…

The notation of ritual sound


In articles on this site I often stress how soundscape is basic to ritual performance. In north China ritual specialists identify three types of organized ritual sound, “blowing, beating, and reciting” (chuidanian): melodic instrumental music, percussion, and vocal liturgy—in reverse order of importance, with vocal liturgy primary. Some groups accompany their vocal liturgy only with percussion, but where melodic instrumental music is performed, it is an essential component of ritual: “holy pieces” (shenqu), transcending language. Whereas vocal liturgy is not notated—most ritual manuals document only the texts, not the melodies to which they are sung—the outline of the melodic (and indeed percussion) instrumental music that punctuates and accompanies it is recorded in scores of gongche solfeggio. [1]

When the Qujiaying village ritual association, south of Beijing, was “discovered” in 1986 we already knew about the shengguan ensemble and its gongche solfeggio scores (notably those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing) thanks to the ground-breaking work on Yang Yinliu in the early 1950s, later comprehensively studied by Yuan Jingfang. In our project on the Hebei plain, we soon broadened our attention to ritual manuals, but the shengguan wind ensemble and the scores of village ritual associations were always among our major concerns.

In the fine tradition of anthologies that Chinese musicologists do so well, the major new compendium

  • Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 [1]

collects some of the most important scores of gongche solfeggio. It provides rich material on the continuity of early history with modern folk practice.

The anthology is based more on northern shengguan than on southern genres—the distinctive scores of nanyin in Fujian and Taiwan are already collected in many separate anthologies.

The compendium comprises ten volumes to date:

  • General (a fine introduction to historical variants of notation and metrical markers)
  • Beijing (2 vols)
  • Hebei (3 vols)
  • Shaanxi (2 vols, for the major repertoires of ritual groups around Xi’an)
  • Jiangsu (including major early Daoist scores)
  • Liaoning (including scores for both shengguan and the amazing shawm bands there)

The scores of Beijing temples, and those of the related village ritual associations on the Hebei plain just south, take pride of place. The detailed commentaries on the Hebei and Beijing material are the work of Zhang Zhentao, continuing the masterly chapter in his book Yinyuehui.

Hanzhuang XWJ

Most volumes further include useful tables of qupai labelled melodies.

Such scores also often contain precious prefaces bearing dates of transmission, as we saw in Xiongxian.

Hanzhuang xu 1

Gaoluo 1989


Of course, like the Daoist Canon, and like the ritual manuals of living groups, scores are merely silent artefacts. They should be combined with recordings of their transmitters, who have long experience of bringing them to life—first by decorating the skeletal notes of the score by singing in unison, and then in ritual performance, taking the instruments up to play them in heterophony suitable to the different instrument types. While some musicians learn mainly by ear, the score is an important repository representing the tradition.

But just in case you think the silent score is somehow equivalent to “the music”, then don’t just consult my transcription of Hesi pai under West An’gezhuang here (§2), but listen to the shengguan tracks on the playlist in the sidebar (including tracks 8 and 9, showing the progressive decorations)!

I should also add that notation is not a criterion for excellence. Many musicians, and ritual specialists, in the great and small traditions of the world don’t need it at all, and for others it is merely an aide-memoire, as in this case.

Indeed, this isn’t just an issue for music. This is not the place to discuss wider issues of oral and literate cultures, but this radical comment from Plato, no less, is suggestive:

This discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will remember nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As Paul Cooper comments,

I love that when Plato complains about the spread of the written word in 370 BC, he sounds like my granddad complaining about the internet.

Such issues are thoughtfully explored by ethnomusicologists—for leads, see the fine chapters of Ter Ellingson and Richard Widdess in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), and Bruno Nettl, The study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, chs. 20 and 26.

These gongche scores are a major aspect of the study of ritual. But that’s enough writing—wouldn’t want to offend Plato…



[1] See e.g.,,
[2] I gave an overview of gongche notation in my Folk music of China (ch.7); cf. my article “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.375–88.

The art of the sheng repairer

GGZ Fan Huilai 93

Fan Huilai overhauling sheng, 1995.

An important theme in our fieldwork on ritual associations around the Hebei plain is that of the itinerant occupational sheng mouth-organ repairers (dianshengde 点笙的). They make cameo appearances in several pages on Local ritual, so here I’d like to collect some of the material. [1]

While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).

Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.

On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.

When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pin sheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.

So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.

Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.

Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai
Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.

We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.


Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.

Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 7, and here)—the Shang family sheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.

In Xiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.

GGZ sheng stuff 2GGZ sheng stuff 1

Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.

In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.

E. Jiangcun sheng

Sheng parts, East Jiangcun, Renqiu county. Photo: Music Research Institute, 1993.

Xushui and Yixian
In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.

E. Yuzhuang chui

The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, East Yuzhuang 1995.

In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.

Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.

Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.

Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.

A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!

Further south
Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.

In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang, [2] which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.

Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.

I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.


I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.


[1] See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g.
[2] See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.

Ritual groups of Jinghai

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YMK jing

Continuing our surveys of ritual associations on the Hebei plain,  the Jinghai region of Tianjin is an extremely fruitful area for fieldwork. Even by the 1990s Tianjin municipality (like Beijing) was largely rural, way beyond the city itself.

This article introduces two ritual groups in Jinghai, those of Lesser Huangzhuang and Yuanmengkou, both richly deserving more fieldwork than our team could manage in 1994 and 1995.  Through the latter we found a network of Heaven and Earth Teachings sectarian associations—continuing our acquaintance with sectarian groups (Laofomen, Hunyuan, Hongyang, and so on) elsewhere on the Hebei plain.

As ever, such research requires a blend of fieldwork, textual study, local history for both imperial and modern eras, and an understanding of folk religion and the ritual soundscape.


Ritual groups of Langfang

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S. Hancun 1993 heying

Here’s yet another article in my series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing, gradually filling in some of the gaps on the map.

I’ve noted the contrast between the occupational household Daoist bands of north Shanxi and the village-wide amateur ritual associations that are typical of the Hebei plain. Just southeast of the capital, on the way to BazhouLangfang municipality (formerly the county of Anci) is another lively area for ritual. Village associations here seem to feature elements of the ritual scene in suburban Beijing, with some occupational Daoist and Buddhist groups alongside the amateur associations that are common just further south and west. The Langfang region is also famed for its involvement in the 1900 Boxer uprisings.

These groups too had learned from temple clerics. Unlike the particular case we found in Daxing, most ritual associations here, as south and west on the plain, maintained the amateur tradition of “practising good” by performing rituals as a social duty without reward, though some were beginning to accept modest fees. As usual, such amateur groups were active mainly in the home village and a very small radius.

Ritual in The dream of the red chamber

Citing Cao Xueqin’s entrancing novel The story of the stone recently, I was reminded that among the many virtues of the epic tale is its detailed depiction of rituals in 18th-century Beijing[1]

A work of fiction it may be, but what I admire here is the ethnographic thick description—a model for modern fieldworkers. Prompting us to experience such rituals within the far wider context of social life and personal experience, the author not only evokes all the human detail of the family’s behaviour and emotional world, including the priests’ relations with their patrons, but depicts the whole physical setting and itemizes expenses.

Chapters 13 and 14 describe a 49-day observance for the funeral of the family matriarch, with several groups of ritual specialists performing. Chapter 13 gives the text of the placard—similar in style to those used in modern times. [2] In David Hawkes’s brilliant translation (for the whole passage, see vol.1, pp. 255–87):

He also instructed someone to invite an expert from the Board of Astronomy to select dates for the funeral and the ceremonies preceeding it. With the approval of this official it was decided that the lying in state should be for forty-nine days and that the notification of bereavement indicating the family’s readiness to receive official visits of condolence should be made in three days’ time.

A hundred and eight Buddhist monks were engaged to perform a Grand Misericordia for the salvation of all departed souls in the main reception hall of the mansion during these forty-nine days, while at the same time ninety-nine Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect were to perform ceremonies of purification and absolution at a separate altar in the Celestial Fragrance pavilion. These arrangements having been made, the body was moved to a temporary shrine in another pavilion of the All-scents Garden. Fifty high-ranking Buddhist monks and fifty high-ranking Taoist priests took turns in chanting and intoning before it on every seventh day.
Inside the gateway, facing the street, a high staging was constructed on which Buddhist monks and Daoist priests sat on opposite sides of an altar intoning their sacred texts. In front of the staging was a notice on which was written in large characters:

The very Reverend Wan-xu, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all monks and clergy of the Incorporeal, Ever-tranquil Church of the Lord Buddha,

the Venerable Ye-sheng, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all priests and practitioners of the Primordial, All-unifying church of the Heavenly Tao,

with all due reverence and care, prepared offices for the salvation of all departed souls, supplicating Heaven and calling upon the name of the Lord Buddha

earnestly praying and beseeching the Eighteen Guardians of the Sangha, the Warlike Guardians of the Law, and the Twelve Guardians of the Months mercifully to extend their holy compassion towards us, but terribly to blaze forth in divine majesty against the powers of evil, we do solemnly perform for nine and forty days the Great Mass for the purification, deliverance and salvation of all souls on land and on sea…

—and a great deal more on those lines which it would be tedious to repeat [Cao Xueqin’s comment, not mine!].

Chapter 14 goes on to list some of the major ritual segments and activities. The Buddhist Water and Land (shuilu 水陸) ritual included Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), Smashing the Hells (poyu 破狱), Transmitting the Lanterns (chuandeng 傳燈), Illuminating the Deceased (zhaowang 照亡), Opening the Golden Bridge (kai jinqiao 開金橋), and Leading the Panoplied Pennant (yin chuangfan 引幢幡. [3]

Daoists performed the Presenting the Memorial (shen biao 申表) ritual before the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor; Chan Buddhist monks performed Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香), Flaming Mouth (yankou 焰口), and Worshipfully Presenting the Water Litanies (bai shuichan 拜水懺); and thirteen young Buddhist nuns recited mantras.


Rendering the fantastical vocabulary of Daoist ritual into English is always a challenge—also well met by Ken Dean and John Lagerwey. Again, Hawkes makes a brilliant attempt at this passage—with occasional elaborations, and a quite understandable, even attractive, “translation” of titles for ritual segments into specific actions (which, of course, they are!):

The Thirty-fifth had now arrived—an important day in the penitential cycle of seven times seven days preceding the funeral—and the monks in the main hall had reached a particularly dramatic part of their ceremonies. Having opened up a way for the imprisoned souls, the chief celebrant had succeeded by means of spells and incantations in breaking open the gates of hell. He had shone his light (a little hand-mirror) for the souls in darkness. He had confronted Yama, the Judge of the Dead. He had seized the demon torturers who resisted his progress. He had invoked Kṣitigarbha, the Saviour King, to aid him. He had raised up a golden bridge, and now, by means of a little flag which he held aloft in one hand, was conducting over it those souls from the very deepest pit of hell who still remained undelivered.

Meanwhile the ninety-nine Taoists in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion were on their knees offering up a written petition to the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor himself in his heavenly palace. Outside, on their high staging, with swinging of censers and scattering of little cakes for the hungry ghosts to feed on, Zen monks were performing the great Water Penitential. And in the shrine where the coffin stood, six young monks and six young nuns, magnificently attired in scarlet slippers and embroidered copes, sat before the spirit tablet quietly murmuring the dharani that would assist the soul of the dead woman on the most difficult part of its journey into the underworld. Everywhere there was a hum of activity.

Not wishing to quibble over details, my only little comment there would be that the (thirteen!) niseng refers to nuns. And that final comment “Everywhere there was a hum of activity” (re’nao “exciting”, “bustling”, lit. “hot and noisy”, cf. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.147–68) is ironic after the silent mantras of the nuns. (BTW, I almost like the rendition of shifen as “everywhere”, but I’m still inclined to think it carries the modern colloquial sense of “really”—thus “it was really boisterous”.)

Chapter 102 gives a detailed account of a one-day exorcism performed by forty-nine Daoist priests, with god paintings hung out, performing Ambulating Incense, Fetching Water (qushui 取水), Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表) and Inviting the Sages (qingsheng 請聖) rituals, and reciting the Dongyuan jing 洞元經 scripture throughout the day. Three chief liturgists, donning seven-star hats, wielded precious swords, flags, and a whip, as a placard was displayed and exorcistic talismans depicted.

In chapters  28 and 29 (Hawkes vol.2, pp.41–92) the family commissions a three-day Daoist Offering for well-being (ping’an jiao 平安醮) at the Qingxu guan 清虚观 temple:

Aroma continued:
“Her Grace sent that Mr Xia of the Imperial Bedchamber yesterday with a hundred and twenty taels of silver to pay for a three-day Pro Viventibus by the Taoists of the Lunar Queen temple starting on the first of next month. There are to be plays performed as part of the Offering, and Mr Zhen and all the other gentlemen are to go there to offer incense. Oh, and Her Grace’s presents for the Double Fifth have arrived.”

This section offers far less detail on ritual, the opera being the main attraction. We tend to assume that in the Good Old Days people gladly respected the “rules” (guiju 規矩), but like that intriguing re’nao of chapter 14, there is clearly a long ancestry to the common lament since the 1980s that audiences care more about ostentation than correct ritual performance. The account uncannily reflects my observations at Yanggao funerals since 2001 (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.356):

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall.

Imagine if Bach had taken that sabbatical in Beijing, then he might have had patrons like the Jia clan in The dream of the red chamber… They could hardly have appreciated Bach’s genius any less than the Margrave of Brandenburg (“what does that even mean?”).

JPM Daoist painting

Perfected Man Huang sends forth an official document recommending the deceased, c1700: Daoists presiding over the liandu funerary ritual of chapter 66 of the Jin ping mei. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; see Little and Eichman, Taoism and the arts of China, pp.192–3. Note typical northern shengguan ensemble of guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with large cymbals nao and bo.

Earlier still, the Ming novel Jin ping mei offers just as wonderful ethnographic material for rather less elite social strata—set in Shandong, ostensibly in the 12th century, but clearly based on the milieu of the author’s own day. Here too are many vignettes on minor domestic rituals and major exorcistic and mortuary rituals, as well as on the lives of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks.

Of course, these are just two of the most celebrated works of Ming–Qing fiction wherein we can seek such depictions. Just as with contemporary fieldwork, my first thought is to situate such rituals in space and time, rather than giving generic accounts. Thus one would seek to understand the rituals of the Jin ping mei in the context of 16th-century Shandong, and those of The story of the stone in that of 18th-century Beijing—just as we should be clear if our accounts of modern rituals refer specifically to north Shanxi in the 1930s, west Fujian in the 1990s, and so on.

Despite monumental social transformations since imperial times, all the rituals described in these early novels are still performed today—always varying by region and circumstances. [4]

Still, I need hardly reiterate that both texts (novels, ritual manuals, field reports) and images (paintings, photos) are silent and immobile: what we really need is films—which are in short supply even for current ritual practice, and an even taller order for the imperial era (though dramatized adaptations of The story of the stone may be quite educative!). [5]


[1] Within the vast literature on Hongxue 红学 (“Redology”—Dream of the red chamber studies), there are many Chinese studies of its religious and indeed musical components, searchable on databases. A considerable body of research is also available for Jin ping mei.
[2] For a couple of examples in English (for different kinds of rituals), see Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China, pp.53–8, and my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.230–31.
[3] For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
[4] For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
[5] Perhaps I digress, but given the stylized acting culture of China, the “Star of Tomorrow” company’s recent nine-part TV version (beginning with the episode below), using child actors, has been highly praised for its naturalism and conviction—far from merely cute.