Layers of fieldwork

SLY map - Version 2

Map of Upper Liangyuan village, Li Manshan 2012, showing former temples and the houses of Daoists.

As you may notice in my series of reports on local ritual, fieldwork often oscillates between various geographical levels, all mutually beneficial—zooming in with thick description, or out to sketch the wider picture.

Dong Xiaoping reflected on this issue in a thoughtful review of field reports on west Fujian (in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.347–50), commenting again on the old “unity and diversity” theme in Chinese culture.

We need a balance between “making a base” (dundian) and “surveys” (pucha). My two detailed long-term projects on Gaoluo village and the Li family Daoists have both benefitted from surveys of the wider regional culture of which they are part.

Thus, in my writings as in the wider literature, one can find studies of

  • A whole province, like Ningxia
  • One region, like Shaanbeisouth Shaanxi, or southwest Shanxi
  • One county, like Yanggao (for other Daoist groups there besides the Li family, see here; for a wide range of personalities, see here); or Shuozhou (and most pages under Local ritual)
  • One village, like Gaoluo
  • One individual or family, like Li Manshan and the Li family (main subject of this blog).

My posts on local ritual illustrate all this with many maps. The more we zoom in, the more satisfying the results; but the broader picture is necessary too.

Notes from Beijing, 2

Further to my post on the Beishida ethnographers, and my seemingly underwhelming maxim that

If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

in between my lectures at Beishida in March I sallied forth (cf. Cheeseshop sketch) to show my film at People’s University and Peking University for two fine scholars from whom I also have much to learn: Cao Xinyu (left) and Wang Mingming.

Cao Xinyu
I’ve already mentioned Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (b.1973) in a previous post (just updated). Professor of the Qing History Research Institute in the History department of People’s University (Renda), he’s a most supportive teacher—and for me he has the added cachet of being a scion of Yanggao, home of my Daoist master Li Manshan! Talking of Renda, I was happy to tell Cao Xinyu of Li Manshan’s ingenuous repunctuation of 中国人大代表 (here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Sectarian activity is an important aspect of the picture of religious life in China, both in imperial and modern times—indeed right now. Cao Xinyu combines detailed textual research on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups and fieldwork on their modern fortunes. In addition to his series of books on sectarian history, notably the Way of Yellow Heaven, you can also read astute articles such as this survey.

1958 fanguan

In a salient reminder of Maoist history, we had lunch at the Russian restaurant “1958” on the People’s University campus, opened in 2013 (with how much irony, I can’t fathom) to commemorate the Russian experts then at the university—shortly before they were all expelled.

Wang Mingming
Just up the road at Peking University is the eminent anthropologist Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (b.1962). [1] He’s a native of Quanzhou in Minnan (south Fujian), whose ever-vibrant ritual culture (temple fairs, Daoist ritualnanyin, and so on) has always informed his research.

From 1981 he studied archaeology in Xiamen University, going on to embrace anthropology as it was incorporated into the department there. He came to London in 1987 to study for a PhD in anthropology at SOAS; this was also the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with the great Stephan Feuchtwang. He returned to China in 1994 to make his base at Peking University, becoming a full professor there in 1997.

With Stephan he wrote the fine book Grassroots charisma: four local leaders in China (2002) on the linking of religion and politics in two villages in Quanzhou and north Taiwan. Wang’s historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou, Empire and Local Worlds, was published in English in 2009.

His article on the Fazhugong festival makes an introduction to the tenor of his work:

  • “Lingyande ‘yichan’ ” 灵验的“遗产” [Efficacious “heritage”], in Guo Yuhua (ed.) Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs, 1999).

Like Guo Yuhua (his fellow anthropologist at Tsinghua next door), he combines detailed ethnography with a thorough grasp of theory. As Stephan writes:

Through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology.

His theoretical mission to re-historicize anthropology over a long time-frame, and in a global context, may be seen in

  • “To learn from the ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners: China’s self-identity as a modern civilization”, Critique of anthropology 34.4 (2014).

as well as

  • “Minzuzhi: yizhong guangyi renwen guanxixuede jieding” 民族志:一种广义人文关系学的界定 [Ethnography: a redefinition from the perspective of extended human relations], Xueshu yuekan 47.3 (2015).

Among his recent projects, he has directed analytical fieldwork on the ritual life of Hui’an county in Minnan:

  • Wang Mingming et al., “Dili yu shehui shiyezhongde minjian wenhua: Huidong Xiaozuo kaocha” 地理与社会视野中的民间文化——惠东小岞考察 [Folk culture from the viewpoint of geography and society: survey of Xiaozuo, east Hui’an], Minsu yanjiu 2017.2,

as well as a study of towns of the “Tibetan–Yi corridor” (藏彝走廊):

  • Wang Mingming and Zhai Shuping 翟淑平, “Songpan, Batang, Zhongdian: ji sange xibu chengzhende yanjiu” 松潘、巴塘、中甸——记三个西部城镇的研究 [Songpan, Batang, and Zhongdian: studies of three towns in southwest China], Xibei minzu yanjiu 2017.2.

Wang’s diachronic approach has much to teach us (including scholars of ritual and music) about changing local societies through imperial, Maoist, and reform eras, not least on their relations with the state and “cultural” authorities. In utter contrast with the reified salvage-based “living fossil” flapdoodle of the “heritage” authorities, such study is based both on thorough fieldwork and on detailed research into sources since the late imperial era.

I can’t help noticing that Peking University has changed somewhat since my last sojourn there thirty-two years ago. In Wang Mingming’s interaction with his students he has a wonderful informal style; he clearly makes a fine fieldworker. Both he and Cao Xinyu encourage their students to think; at both events—and in the pub afterwards—I relished their lively exchanges.


[1] Many of Wang Mingming’s articles are collected on the aisixiang site here. For an English introduction, watch this 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane, transcribed here; and Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, “Some Chinese directions in anthropology”, Anthropological quarterly 83.4 (2010).





The corpse walker

Corpse walker

Always interested in alternative, local accounts of modern Chinese history, I much admire The corpse walker by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 (English translation 2008, from originals published in 2002).

Subtitled Real-life stories, China from the bottom up, it contains over two dozen vignettes of lives neglected in the official history (subaltern studies, on which more soon). As the Foreword says, “hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped”—but more than that, ordinary peasants, cadres, labourers, all kinds of people whose lives have been serially buffeted by the adversities of a capricious system. [1]

Their life stories are micro-histories shedding light on the abuses of Maoism (campaigns, famine) and the corruption and immorality of the reforms. The book makes salient reading for those interested not only in modern history, but in ritual and music.

Building on Liao’s early experience as a collector of folk music, the interviews (mostly based around Liao’s home of Chengdu) make valuable material for scholars of religion. Many folk ritual specialists appear—an elderly fengshui master, an ancient abbot, a mortician.

Supernatural beliefs also play a role in the distressing story of a leper and his wife, as well as that of a peasant who—in 1985!—declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom in his Sichuan hometown. The latter story, with rich historical antecedents, also relates to the birth-control policy.

Musicians also feature prominently, like ritual singers and wind players, a blind erhu player and a street pop singer. Visiting composer Wang Xilin, Liao learns of his tribulations under Maoism and more recently in trying to commemorate its victims. And he chats with a father who lost his son in the 1989 protests, as well as a fellow-inmate imprisoned (like Liao himself) in the aftermath.

Tiananmen inmates

Liao Yiwu (front row, 2nd from right) with fellow inmates imprisoned after 1989 protests. Sichuan 1992.

The vignettes are also effective because they are genuine dialogues—Liao is very much a “participant observer“. He doesn’t merely ask questions, his own comments are perceptive too, sometimes disputing conservative views. Among several prison interviews is one with a trafficker, guilty of selling women from his home province of Sichuan to desperate men in Gansu. As he defends himself with a series of shocking justifications like “rebalancing the yin and yang“, Liao’s ability to empathize is thankfully limited.

This is just such a cast as the fieldworker meets in the course of documenting society, and the stories have much to tell us about both Maoist and reform eras.

So far I’ve only read it in translation, though some details make me curious to read the Chinese version. For instance, in the very opening vignette a shawm player who migrated from Henan to Sichuan also takes on the role of funeral wailing—a combination that I hadn’t heard of in either province. Again, his recollections make a salient history of ritual change.

The manuscript was smuggled out by exiled author Kang Zhengguo, whose own memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China is an important ethnography of subaltern life in Shaanxi under Maoism and since.

Since going into exile himself, Liao Yiwu is prolific both in documenting his own former tribulations within the system and in speaking out on behalf of those still enduring discrimination in China (Twitter: @liaoyiwu1 ). For Ian Johnson’s 2011 interview, see here; for a 2016 interview, here.


[1] Such collections of interviews have a noble history since the 1980s, such as Chinese Lives (Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, 1987), China candid: the people on the People’s Republic (Sang Ye, 2006), China witness (Xinran, 2009), and Chinese characters: profiles of fast-changing lives in a fast-changing land (ed. Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, 2012). For scholarly discussion, see Guo Yuhua.

Hokkien culture: nanyin

Nanyin 1986

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.

Nanyin 1986:2

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)

Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.

Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 610 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.

This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:

And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social context:

One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristoffer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.

Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!

Daoist ritual in south China


From 2011 Hong Kong conference volume.

I go to some lengths to show how Daoist ritual and religious practice are important topics in the local cultures of north as well as south China (for a succinct encapsulation of the chasm, see here!). But every time I feel I’m establishing some kind of parity for the north (heartland of ancient Chinese culture!), yet more research materializes to remind us just how amazing local ritual traditions are in the south—in terms of both the range and complexity of rituals performed, and the sheer volume of artefacts preserved there.

As I commented in Appendix 1 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family (where you can find further references),

With the noble exception of studies by Chinese music scholars from the 1930s, fieldwork on local Daoist ritual began in earnest in the 1960s with Kristofer Schipper’s groundbreaking studies in Taiwan. As mainland China began opening up in the 1980s, such work was able to expand first into Fujian and then further afield in south China—Jiangxi, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, and so on. Major projects (largely in Chinese), led by the indefatigable holy trinity of C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and latterly Lü Pengzhi, recruited local cultural workers who went on to develop considerable familiarity with the ritual specialists who were their subjects.

  • Wang, C.K. [Wang Ch’iu-kuei 王秋貴] ed., Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書. Taipei: Shi Ho-cheng Folk Culture Foundation, 86 vols (building on an extensive series of articles in the journal Minsu quyi).
    See also “The collecting and editing of Taoist ritual texts.” Chinoperl Papers 23 (2000), pp.1–32, and Studies in Chinese ritual, theatre and folklore series: abstracts of the first sixty volumes (1997).
  • Wang, C.K. ed., Zhongguo chuantong keyiben huibian 中國傳統科儀本彙編 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng), 17 vols.

For useful reviews in English of the early projects, see

  • Daniel L. Overmyer, ed., with the assistance of Shin-Yi Chao, Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of achievements and results. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Company (2002),

and for a fine overview of such work within the wider context of Daoist studies,

  • Vincent Goossaert, “L’histoire moderne du taoïsme: État des lieux et perspectives.” Études chinoises XXXII-2 (2013), pp.7–40.

These vast series continue to yield further discoveries. The latest project, from Xinwenfeng in Taiwan (long an industrious publisher of major works on Daoism) is initially (!) planned to comprise fifteen lengthy monographs:

The southern bias of Daoist studies has a long ancestry: from very early in Chinese history, southern Daoists have dominated the picture. The ritual vocabulary that I provide in my writings on north China is partly an attempt to rebalance a picture largely conditioned by southern Daoism (see also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp. 15–21, 211–213). As I note there,

It is rather as if our knowledge of Christianity in the whole of Europe were based almost entirely on Sicily and Puglia, with the odd footnote on the Vatican and Westminster Abbey. We may like what we find in those places, perhaps considering it more exalted, mystical, and ancient—but that is another issue.

Still, the material here is overwhelming. So far three volumes (each consisting of around 1,500 pages!) have been published in this new series, on local Daoist altars in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Fujian respectively:

  • Dai Lihui 戴禮輝 and Lan Songyan 藍松炎, Jiangxi sheng Tonggu xian Qiping zhen Xianyingtan daojiao keyi 江西省銅鼓縣棋坪鎮顯應雷壇道教科儀
  • Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇and Li Xinwu 李新吾, Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一:湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承 (for Hunan Daoism, see my overview here)
  • Ye Mingsheng 葉明生, Minxinan Yongfu Lüshanjiao chuandu yishi yanjiu 閩西南永福閭山教傳度儀式研究

Ye Mingsheng is one of the most distinguished collaborators of the project, having worked for decades on Lüshan household Daoists of Fujian. This new publication focuses on the ordination rituals in Yongfu in the southwest of the province. As John Lagerwey writes in his Abstract:

The present book begins with an investigation of the histories of the Daoist altars of four lineages […] in Yongfu. It systematically examines the origins of the local Lüshan school, the structures of their altars, and their rituals, manuscripts, talismans, and registers. It also describes in detail two actual Flag-Raising Transmissions in the years 1999 and 2011, discussing all aspects of the transmission ritual from a variety of disciplinary angles so as to provide students of religion with as complete an understanding as possible.

Volume 2 provides a wealth of ritual texts. Among the many photos is a substantial section in colour, including beautiful god paintings.

Yongfu picsStill, even photos of ritual practice remain silent and immobile. Given that ritual is noisy and vibrant, part of “red-hot” social performance, the whole project seems to cry out to be accompanied by films. Since the scholars working on these projects have rich archives of fieldwork videos, how very valuable it would be to accompany each topic with an edited film of, say, two or three hours, with voiceovers and/or captions.

As I observed here, all these series (like the “music-genre” system of Yuan Jingfang), while documenting particular rituals in detail, focus on the salvage of texts—at the expense of ethnographic study, performance practice, and social change. Now, faced by such a wealth of precious manuscripts it’s no simple task to incorporate the topic into wider discourses on a society in constant change. But many students of religion, for whom social and political changes over the past century are a major topic, may find that “variety of disciplinary angles” elusive. They may miss even succinct discussion of how local ritual traditions have been affected by such mundane issues as migration, successive political campaigns, and changing economic circumstances—all the more since the subject of this new volume is transmission, utilizing field material from 1999 and 2011, through yet another period of change. [1]

Still, none of this detracts from the value of the project. This vast body of work on local ritual in south China continues to form the vanguard of Daoist ritual studies—essential material on Chinese religion.


[1] For basic biographical accounts of the Yongfu Daoists, see pp.79–103.

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.

Singing from a different hymn-sheet

vocal trio 2001

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

That’s the zippy title of Part One of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China.

There I observe that nationally, Daoist ritual is far from standardised. Our picture (still misleadingly reinforced in encyclopaedias and media coverage) has previously been based on southeastern Orthodox Unity Daoists performing jiao Offering rituals, using manuals from the Daoist Canon; to be sure, scholars note a wide variety of practice even in south China, both within a region like Fujian and between regions like Jiangxi, Sichuan, or Jiangsu.

But to include in our picture the vast area of north China—always wrongly assumed to have no household Daoists at all, merely celibate temple-dwelling Complete Perfection priests—suggests a still more complex taxonomy. Household ritual specialists may be either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection; and at least until the 1940s,  temple-dwelling priests too might belong to either branch. Moreover, the very distinction doesn’t explain nearly as much as has been assumed: rituals, and ritual texts, of the two branches overlap to a great extent.

“Singing from a different hymn-sheet” also seems a suitable metaphor to challenge the reified conformity of many reports by both scholars of Daoist ritual and Chinese musicologists—their dry, silent, timeless lists often relegating thick ethnographic description and accounts of society and lives in change (my book, pp.364–6).

So just as ritual is itself diverse, I’m seeking a more varied spectrum of our areas of enquiry.

En passant, I note that Daoists rarely sing from hymn-sheets at all! They may possess ritual manuals, but in performance they are seldom needed (my book, pp.203–14). Oral transmission is a major element in both training and ritual practice. Often the only manuals they place before them on the table are the jing scriptures—lengthy discursive texts, chanted very fast, isorhythmically. Anyway, the efficacy of a ritual lies more in its performance than in its written text: ritual is conveyed by means of sound.