• I’ve just added a few more photos to the gallery in the sidebar, as is my wont. And now I’ve linked them to particular posts/pages so you can follow them up. Like so:
  • There are many more photos of the Li family Daoists here, and throughout my posts.
  • And DO listen to the ear-scouring audio playlist too, consulting my comments here.

Ritual life around Xi’an

Xi'an miaohui lowres

A new page (under Themes in Menu) introduces changing ritual life around Xi’an, setting forth from my visits since 1986 and the work of the late great Li Shigen.

It accompanies the new track 11 on the audio playlist, with comments here.

As so often for north China, all the musicological studies are very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.

The heritage schtick

Just added a convenient new tag (in the sidebar) for “heritage”:

collating my observations on the troubling effects of the Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut on north Chinese ritual—also taking in Stella Gibbons, “Mediterranean diet”, the deep-fried Mars bar, and the Lake District…

I once attended a conference on the ICH at which a wry Chinese scholar asked, “So are we going to inscribe Spring Festival, then?!” I hereby nominate Breathing, indeed Life. Beat that.

Taxonomy eh—dontcha just love it.


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.

The Daoists of Guangling, Shanxi

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: see

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.

Edible, intangible, dodgy

One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed:

Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:

Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet:
Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.

I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.

And what of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry?

I was reminded of all this on my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.

While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.

Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on [1] wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvania has nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.

Thanks to Helen Rees (herself a great authority on the ICH) for alerting me to this article, succinctly broaching such issues:

  • Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.


The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically).

Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit
 the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.

Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.

Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.

Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:

The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.


Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.

Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.

The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.

There are many lessons for China here. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanguan chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.

I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalization and commodification.

In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research. Where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese) stand here—they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status?


[1] As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”