Grave charts 2

fenpu

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin is still busy chasing around the Yanggao countryside providing mortuary services for the local villagers, both in his solo consultations and as band leader for the rituals of the funeral proper (cf. his 2017 diary).

While most of his work is in the immediate vicinity just south of Yanggao county-town, as we were discussing this post he was emailing me on his phone during breaks from leading his band to recite funerary scriptures for a family in Jining (Ulanqab region, Inner Mongolia), where the Yanggao Daoists also have longstanding connections based on waves of migration north “beyond the pass”.

Among the many tasks over which the chief Daoist presides soon after a death is siting the grave (see my film, from 16.21). To help him, the host family sometimes produces an old grave chart. Li Bin sent me his photos of two such charts in 2019, and now here’s another one, which he consulted recently while siting the grave for a family in the Eastgate quarter of Yanggao town. It was compiled in the 7th moon of 1945, just as Yanggao was being liberated from Japanese occupation.

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In north China, ritual documents that have survived the ravages of Maoism, such as Thanking the Earth memorials, are rather rare. As with the latter, I surmise that such documents were compiled by the relatively affluent (“landlord” and “rich peasant”) families that suffered after the Communist takeover.

Cf. Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern.

Gaoluo: early history

*For main page, click here!*

dengpeng

My first experience of the New Year’s rituals in the Lantern Tent,
South Gaoluo 1989.

Under the Gaoluo sub-menu (Other publications > Gaoluo) I’ve just added a page on the early history of the village, like so:

GL menu

Apart from those pages in that menu, there are many more posts under the Gaoluo tag in the sidebar; for a basic roundup, see here.

My 2004 book Plucking the winds, an ethnography of Gaoluo and its amateur ritual association, mainly concerns the village’s fortunes under Maoism and since. Since history may seem to have been obliterated by the successive turmoils of the 20th century, I felt glad enough to be able to sketch the story as far back as the Republican era and even the late Qing. And thanks largely to talented village litterateur Shan Fuyi (b.1940), I went on to learn clues to the village’s founding in the Yuan–Ming transition and its fortunes through the Qing dynasty. The new page provides notes on the main lineages, local temples, the “parish” 社, “precious scrolls” 寶卷, and early ritual life.

The story of the Republican era continues with Ritual images: Gaoluo. But first, remarkably, a major trauma in the village in May 1900 is substantially documented in official sources, a story told in my post on the village Catholics.

All this was the background to the ritual associations that I got to know through the 1990s. It’s hard enough to reach definitive conclusions about ritual life today, but in this case at least we can observe, and ask…

Daoism and standup

HS

Hanshan.

Daoist and Zen literature became popular in the West quite early, with works such as R.H. Blyth’s Zen in English literature and Oriental classics (1942); Eastern mysticism is a major theme in the novels of J.D. Salinger, and in the life of Gary Snyder.

Daoism has since been co-opted to various ends by post-beatnik New Age generations, as thoughtfully studied by David Palmer and Elijah Siegler in Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of global spirituality (2017).

While Herrigel’s Zen in the art of archery (1948) was an ethnographic account, this new movement wasn’t confined by academic rigours, tending towards the co-option of Daoism and Zen as memes for our jaded palette—a gradual broadening of themes, shall we say, such as The Tao of Pooh (1983), via the substantial novel Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1974). No topic is now safe, as you can see from my forthcoming bestsellers The Tao of the call centre and Zen in the art of chartered accountancy. But Daoism and Zen are not to be reduced to clickbait—after all,

The dao that can be dao-ed is not the eternal dao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Performance is rarely central to the New Agers, but several disciplines stress spontaneous responses to the moment—or rather, the interplay of technique (based on meticulous practice) with inspiration. Again, Daoism and Zen hardly have a monopoly here. The common instance of this is jazz, closely followed by Indian raga (see Unpacking “improvisation”). 

One may seek Daoism/Zen in the art of conducting. Rozhdestvensky had an exhilarating spontaneity, complemented by an aversion to rehearsal. Conversely, Carlos Kleiber, whose stage presence appears so untrammelled, relied on a vast amount of fastidious rehearsal; as he observed,

With a good technique, you can forget technique.

Celibidache was just as hung-up on rehearsal—despite his study of Zen.

And the theme has been applied to sports such as tennis—a genre initiated by Timothy Gallwey, The inner game of tennis (1974). Again, the balance of experience, repetition, with improvisation.

Now, following Jay Sankey’s book Zen and the art of standup comedy (1998), we have

  • Mark Saltveit, “Comedians as Taoist missionaries”, Journal of Daoist studies 13 (2020; early version here).

As with Zen, the wisdom of the Daoist classics is frequently based on humour.

There is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth, the kinds of thought not taught in school.

Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness.

From Saltveit’s standup:

I’ve actually become a Daoist missionary.  Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business.

Among Daoist jokes here, I also like

What did one Daoist say to the other? Nothing.

I think of Stewart Lee (whose labyrinthine routines, inspired by jazz, are also based on meticulous preparation), or (by contrast) the deadpan one-liners of Steven Wright (here and here).

Other relevant posts include Daoist non-action (“Don’t just do something, stand there!”) and Outside the box, again including a koanesque aperçu by Walt Disney. See also The True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity, n.1 here.

For a suitable soundtrack, how about Gershwin’s I got plenty o’ nuttin’ (from the 1935 folk-opera Porgy and Bess):

As ethnographer, Saltveit does a nice line in observing the US comedy scene:

City comics live in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, maybe Seattle or Austin.  They have day jobs and perform short sets at showcase clubs that don’t pay but offer exposure, as they’re angling for TV appearances.  Their acts have distinctive styles (which road dogs might call gimmicks); think of Steven Wright with his sad sack demeanor and verbal paradoxes, or Mitch Hedburg’s rock star look and cerebral stoner one-liners.  Lesser city comics resort to in-jokes that only friends laugh at, and often despise the audience.

Road dogs often work in comedy full time, piecing together a very low salary from 3 to 5 day “weeks” at smaller clubs and strings of “one-nighters” at bars in small towns, often hundreds of miles apart.  They are not given lodging on their off nights and usually drive around the country, sleeping in their cars between gigs.  Some wrangle “corporates” (higher paid private gigs) or move on to squeaky clean and highly paid cruise ship work.  Lesser road comics steal jokes and premises, pander to popular prejudice, or get lazy and rehash their older material for decades at a time.  One wag said that road comics aren’t really entertainers so much as truckers who deliver jokes to small towns.

City comics look down on road dogs as mindless hacks, repeating ancient stereotypes about men being dogs and women being cats.  Road dogs look down on city comics as unfunny, self-important wimps who couldn’t last half an hour at a “real” gig. Comics of either camp who’ve actually worked together often share a deep, battle-worn camaraderie that transcends this pettiness.

Meanwhile, Tibetan monks have long excelled at punch-lines (see e.g. Michael Lempert, Discipline and debate: the language of violence in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, 2012):

For remarkable 1958–59 footage of the young Dalai Lama taking part in such a session for his Buddhist “graduation”, see the film here, from 5.03.

Daoist ritual: the Pardon

This discussion of the Dispatching the Pardon (fangshe 放赦) ritual sets forth from my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–50, exploring the imperfect match between Daoism as performed and as shown in ritual manuals.

The highlight of my first visit to Yanggao in March 1991 was witnessing the great Li Qing presiding over a funeral at Greater Antan (see my film, from 48.35). I didn’t know how lucky I was. It was as if a Martian happened to land on earth, not at a conference of middle managers in Belgium, nor even at a church fête in Suffolk—but in Leipzig in 1727, filming the premiere of the Matthew Passion on her 3D eye-laser system, and then assuming that this was typical of life on Planet Earth. And then recording an episode of Family Guy over it.

The Pardon ritual was traditionally performed for both funerals and temple fairs, with the words “filial sons” (xiaozi) or “filial kin” (xiaojuan) as alternatives for “master of the retreat” (zhaizhu) or “temple chief” (miaozhu).

For funerals the Pardon is normally only part of the three-day sequence; the 1991 funeral was held over only two days, but Li Qing performed the Pardon at the request of the son of the deceased, a gujiang shawm player who loved the ritual for its lively (honghuo) atmosphere.

Li Qing’s band that day included his senior colleagues Li Yuanmao and Yuan Lishan; the guanzi player for the jocular “catching the tiger” sequence was Wang Chang, from the related Wang family in Baideng township. Li Qing’s son Li Manshan was taking part on drum, and the young Wu Mei was there; the band also featured Li Peisen’s second son Li Hua, as well as Li Yushan, son of Li Peisen’s older son.

As Li Manshan later recalled, this was the third time he had taken part in the ritual; they performed it for the 1987 video project, and did it again around 1993 for a funeral in Wangjiatun. The younger recruits Li Bin and Golden Noble have performed it for temple fairs, but by 2015 they hadn’t done it for nearly ten years—like Crossing the Bridges, kin and villagers now consider it “too much hassle”. It hasn’t been used for temple fairs since the early 1950s.

The Pardon manual
The Li family Daoists distinguish between the routinely used “inner five rituals”,  and the optional “outer five rituals” (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.30–32). Before Liberation Li Peisen copied a lengthy manual including the latter, generously titled

LPS old coverLingbao kaifang shezhao yubao xianzhuan youlian poyu fangshe duqiao zhu baiyu rang huangwen [ke] 靈寶開放[方]攝召 預報獻饌遊蓮破獄放赦渡橋祝白雨禳蝗瘟[科]
Numinous Treasure [Manual] for Opening the Quarters, Summons, Reporting, Offering Viands, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells, Dispatching the Pardon, Crossing the Bridges, Precautions against Hailstones, and Averting Plagues of Locusts.
There was little trace of these “outer” rituals in their practice after the 1980s’ revival.

Finding Li Qing consulting Li Peisen’s early manuscript at the 1991 funeral, I hastily took some photos, rather randomly; by 2011 Li Manshan could no longer find it, so we rely on the faithful copy that Li Qing made in the early 1980s, divided into two volumes, with 42 double pages in all.

The Pardon itself takes up fifteen double pages. It’s one of their most complex, opening with long sequences of zhenyan mantras in four-, five-, and seven-word structures, and containing elaborate fu 符 talismans and jian 简 slips. Whereas most funeral segments are now dominated by the Heavenly Worthy of Grand Unity who Rescues from Suffering (Taiyi jiuku tianzun), this ritual is addressed to the Jade Emperor, in his role as Heavenly Worthy Who Pardons Sins (Yuhuang shezui tianzun). The talismans are addressed to the Three Officers (sanguan). The 108 pardon slips (shetiao, shewen) to be recited are combined into a few long documents.

Some pages from Li Peisen’s copy:

LPS Pardon 1

Slips to Rescue from Suffering.

LPS Pardon 3

Recto: slip for Long Life.
Verso: in the last line, the term jiao (Offering) in “dark yang pure jiao
(mingyang jingjiao 冥陽凈醮) refers to a funeral;
the listing of “Shanxi Datong fu” shows its local origins.

And some pages from Li Qing’s copy of the manual:

LQ Pardon 1

Pp.1b–2a. Third line from right: the Naihe qianchi lang couplet,
followed by 7-, 5-, and 4-word mantras.

LQ Pardon 2

Verso: the talisman for the Heavenly Official.

And we can compare these pages with Li Peisen’s copy above:

LQ Pardon 4

Recto: template for slip to Rescue from Suffering, “in red characters, with white envelope”.

LQ Pardon 5

Slips for Long Life.

The ritual as performed in 1991
We can soon discover that the version performed that day by Li Qing and his colleagues (and again, do watch my film, from 48.35) bears little relation to that given in the manual.

Li Qing copying ritual document, 1991

First, in the scripture hall, Li Qing copies the lengthy series of pardon slips with their talismans, and envelopes to put them in—a lengthy process, for which he consults Li Peisen’s manual.

Meanwhile, in light snow, the other Daoists construct an open-air altar in a large clearing in the middle of the village near the funerary site, using tables, benches, and planks. On this structure are placed in a row five “palaces”—cardboard images mounted on stalks of gaoliang inserted into large rectangular dou bowls filled with grain—for the Jade Emperor Yuhuang, the Three Officers (sanguan, for heaven, earth, and water), and the pole star Purple Tenuity (Ziwei, not mentioned in the manual).

Pardon altar

Just below the central palace to the Jade Emperor is an altar table bearing the soul tablet, and below that, a long table around which the Daoists will stand to make offerings to the five palaces. Further behind, facing the palaces, a long high platform has been built on top of tables, from where the Daoists will later dispatch the writs of Pardon.

Around midday, after the morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, the seven Daoists proceed from their scripture hall, playing percussion with occasional blasts on the conch. After paying a brief visit to the soul hall, they purify the arena by leading the kin on an elaborate winding procession around it. Virtually all the villagers have gathered round—by contrast with their apathy today, gorging instead on the pop music outside the gate.

The ritual is in two large sections: presenting the offerings from the altar table, and announcing the writs of pardon from the ritual platform before handing them down to the kin to be burned.

Pardon x

Acting as intermediary for the kin standing in a row behind him, the chief celebrant Li Qing, wielding his wooden “court placard” (chaoban) and sounding a hand-bell and a qing bowl on the table, now faces the altars and presents offerings to each of the five deities in turn on behalf of the kin. An offerings tray (of red lacquered wood, not like the metal one used now) is at first placed on the altar table before the god palaces.

While the Daoists play an instrumental piece (for this next sequence the two sheng accompany not the guanzi oboe but the dizi flute), Li Qing bids the oldest son to wash his face from water in a bowl and offer one preliminary stick of incense to the palace of the Jade Emperor. After he shakes the bell and strikes the qing bowl, the Daoists sing a sequence of a cappella choral hymns from the “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言) repertoire, accompanied only by the ritual percussion, beginning with Myriad Years to Elder Emperor (Huangdiye wansui). These hymns are punctuated by imposing patterns on nao and bo cymbals.

Li Qing recites a brief shuowen introit while the tray is handed to the oldest son of the deceased. Again accompanied by dizi, he takes the court placard, bows with it, and one by one places five cups of tea, with incense resting on them, on his court placard to transfer them onto a small raised table before the central palace to the Jade Emperor. The sticks of incense are then further placed before the god palaces, accompanied by dizi. After each offering they sing another a cappella hymn from the “words of blessing”.

Li Qing now clambers up onto the table, taking bell and placard with him. He leads the Daoists as they solemnly intone the two couplets “Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return” (Naihe qianchi lang, from p.1b of the manual, also used at the end of the Invitation, my film from 1.03.25). Whereas the first sequence was punctuated by jaunty dizi, for this new sequence the hymns are to be accompanied by solemn shengguan wind ensemble, punctuated with interludes on large cymbals, while Li Qing kneels on the table, bows with the placard, and transfers the remaining offerings (incense, flowers, and so on) in turn before the god images, always placing them on the placard first. He recites another shuowen introit, shakes the bell, and the Daoists play another piece with dizi while Li Qing steps down from the table.

Then, taking all their ritual and musical instruments with them, the Daoists ascend the platform behind, standing in a long line behind a long row of tables to face the altars. As a majestic prelude they play the percussion piece Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body.

The Pardon, 1991

Wang Chang recites a pardon writ from the ritual platform,
with Li Qing and Yuan Lishan further to our left;
to the right are Li Peisen’s grandson Li Yushan and a youthful Wu Mei.

Then the three leading officiants (Li Qing, Wang Chang, and Yuan Lishan) don five-buddhas hats, representing the Three Officers. The group plays The Five Offerings (Wu gongyang 五供養) on shengguan, and then the three officiants, in turn, solemnly read out the large and lengthy pardon slips. The first is read by Yuan Lishan. Li Qing calls out an instruction, folds the document up and places it in a large envelope, folds over the strip of paper to “seal” it, handing it down to the kin, again accompanied by the ensemble with dizi. The documents, envelopes, and seals are all of different colours, as specified in the manual.

Li Qing shakes the bell, recites a shuowen introit, and they sing the hymn Ten Repayments for Kindness (Shi bao’en 十報恩) with shengguan, another item common to several rituals. Li Qing recites a shuowen, and they play the cymbal interlude Sanqi song. Another shuowen leads into the second reading by Li Qing. Then a shuowen leads into a shengguan piece, which segues into a protracted “catching the tiger” clowning sequence.

Wang Chang

Wang Chang, the main guanzi player, standing to the left of Li Qing, plays two guanzi alternately and then at once, blows the mahan small telescopic curved trumpet, dismantles his instruments while playing them, plays a hefty whistle in his mouth, pretends to pluck snot from Li Qing’s nose and smear it over the face of the sheng player on his left, replaces the latter’s cap with a cymbal, puts on false eyes, and makes ribald gestures with the curved trumpet. Li Qing and the others try to keep a straight face throughout, but Wang Chang is having fun, and the villagers are in stitches.

Li Qing now recites a shuowen, followed by a percussion interlude. Then he recites the final pardon document, folds it up, places it in its envelope, and hands it down, accompanied by Sizi zhenyan 四子真言 on dizi. Finally, the Daoists descend from the platform, playing shengguan, and lead the kin on a slow parade around the arena. Li Qing guides the kin in the burning of the memorials in a pile together, while the Daoists stand round playing shengguan. They then retire to their scripture hall to rest and prepare for the next ritual segment.

Manual and practice
In sum, although we didn’t quite film the Pardon complete, they evidently didn’t perform the manual complete either. Li Qing was quite familiar with the text—he had lovingly copied it out a few years earlier. We can only surmise how often the senior Daoists Li Qing, Wang Chang, Yuan Lishan, and Li Yuanmao had performed the ritual before the 1950s with Li Peisen and others from that generation, but whereas they had maintained the “inner five rituals”, by 1991 their recollection of the Pardon may have been hazy, and the younger Daoists were quite unfamiliar with it. So perhaps this explains why the ritual was so transformed. Alas, on my first visits I lacked the background to consult Li Qing about such matters.

It is likely that sections like the Yellow Dragon percussion item and the “catching the tiger” sequence, though not specified in the manual, were traditionally included. But instead of the long series of four-, five-, and seven-word mantras in the manual, they alternated a cappella “words of blessing” from the Diverse Rituals for Joyous Scriptures (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) compendium for “earth scriptures” with an instrumental refrain using dizi, and sang standard “floating” hymns with shengguan. I suspect this was actually a version of the Noon Thanksgiving for temple fairs and Thanking the Earth, though the texts they performed also differed from those in the Xiewu ke 謝午科 manual. Only their final recitations of the Pardon writs appear to have been performed more or less intact as in the Pardon manual.

Anyway, rather as the temple fair sequence since the late 1980s seems to be a revision, this was already an adapted version. The ritual is lengthy and imposing, and its purpose is communicated, but it tallies only occasionally with the manual. With the same diligence that he had preserved the original content of the manuals, Li Qing was now selectively adapting rituals according to changing conditions—as Daoists (and other ritual specialists) have done throughout history; but it marks a substantial break with tradition.

Of course, scholars of Daoism may be more interested in the manual, which undoubtedly preserves early features. But (like the 1940s’ temple fair sequence) we can’t now witness it being performed; there is no demand for it among patrons, and even if we requested it specially, the current Daoists would be hard-put to recreate even Li Qing’s 1991 version, let alone attempting to perform it as shown in the manual. Even the “words of blessing” and the dizi interludes (which themselves may have been a substitute) are no longer part of their repertoire. For continuing ritual change, see A flawed funeral.

The Pardon elsewhere
The Pardon is commonly performed by household Daoists in southeast China, the heartland of research on Daoist ritual. For Taiwan it has been described in detail by John Lagerwey (based on the practice of the great Chen Rongsheng) and Jiang Shoucheng; and Ken Dean has documented it for south Fujian. [1]

While the text of Chen Rongsheng’s version appears different, its themes are similar. Apart from the mystical core of the ritual, Lagerwey draws attention to its dramatic, jocular interlude. In Yanggao such elements are absent from the manual, but an interesting connection seems to be implied in the “catching the tiger” sequence.

Lagerwey cites the 13th-century Daoist priest Wang Qizhen:

This Pardon document does not belong to our method for doing the fast. It is the invention of later people. Given the fact, however, that it has been used far and wide for some time, it would not do to eliminate it.

And he too notes variation between the early manual and modern practice.

For north China I have only a few other instances so far. [2] In Julu, south Hebei, it was performed on the afternoon of the 3rd day of funerals, comprising the segments qingshen 清神, ji lengshui 祭冷水, qing Yuhuang 請玉皇, song wulao 送五老, qing jianzhai 請監齋, and zhuan dagong 轉大供.

And in the jiao Offering around Baiyunshan in Shaanbei, again on the afternoon of the 3rd day, the Pardon is a spectacular (if not highly liturgical) ritual, with large god puppets of the Eight Immortals and the Four Officers of Merit (Sizhi Gongcao 四值功曹) descending on a rope down from the hillside to the bank of the Yellow River—somewhat reminiscent of the guandeng Beholding the Lanterns nocturnal ritual around Beijing (see here, under “A Buddhist and Daoist funeral”), on a far grander scale.

Pardon cover TianzhenBack in north Shanxi, in Tianzhen county just east of Yanggao, the Lü family of household Complete Perfection Daoists, whose tradition derives from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an nearby, have a tradition of performing the Pardon, though it now seems to be defunct. Their lengthy manual, apparently copied in the Republican era, is entitled Taishang shuo Yuhuang shezui 太上玉皇說赦罪 or Yuhuang shezui tianzun shenjing 玉皇赦罪天尊神經. They also have a template for the writs of Pardon (“Pardon slips” shetiao 赦條):

shetiao

Aided by Lagerwey’s discussion, scholars of early Daoism will wish to trace the ancestry of “pardon for sins” (shezui 赦罪) in the Daoist Canon, with many sources following the Yuhuang shezui cifu baochan 玉皇赦罪賜福寶懺. Meanwhile, ethnographers are left to observe modern changes in the ritual adaptations of Daoists and patrons.


[1] See Lagerwey, Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), pp.202–215, Jiang Shoucheng 姜守誠, “Nan Taiwan Lingbaopai fangshe keyi zhi yanjiu” 南台灣靈寶派放赦科儀之研究 (2010); Dean, “Funerals in Fujian” (1988), pp.45, 52–53. Cf. Pregadio, Encyclopedia of Taoism (2008), pp.403–404.

[2] Based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.91 and 99–100. The Julu material is from Yuan Jingfang 袁靜芳, Hebei Julu daojiao fashi yinyue 河北鉅鹿道教法事音樂 (1997), pp.72–4; for Baiyunshan, see e.g. Yuan Jingfang et al., Shaanxi sheng Jiaxian Baiyunguan daojiao yinyue 陝西省佳縣白雲觀道教音樂 (1999), pp.112–13, and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录 (2002), pp.149–50.

Thanking the Earth, and words of blessing

Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ ritual work is for funerals. As to rituals for the living, they now rarely perform for temple fairs, and the Thanking the Earth ritual, once commissioned by families for domestic blessing, has not been required since 1953 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, chapter 12).

Ritual business

The Yanggao Daoists now perform almost solely for funerals, but before Liberation the ritual they did most often was Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). [1] Held over two days during the winter, it was a domestic ritual for an individual household of certain means. The head of such a household might pledge a vow (xuyuan 許願) in the summer, and fulfil it (huanyuan 還願) by commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual in the winter. The request was commonly prompted by illness or crisis, or in thanks for a good harvest or success in business. It could be held in the family household, or in a temple.

In 1991 the great Li Qing, oblivious to the Party line, recalled the Japanese occupation in the 1940s:

Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals! The local bandits didn’t interfere either.

Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (1925–2010) recalled performing Thanking the Earth rituals forty to fifty times every winter from the age of 15 sui (when he “graduated” as a Daoist) until he was 30 sui in 1954. Given the poverty of the area, this sounded a lot to me. Just west of Kang Ren’s house, poor peasant Li Cunren (1915–2013) recalled that only people with money could afford to commission the ritual—and even before the 1950s there were few of them. But Li Manshan believes Kang Ren’s account: even two or three moderately affluent household patrons for twenty or so villages would suffice to keep the Daoists busy. Forty to fifty such rituals meant eighty to a hundred days work each winter, not counting funerals, which were also most frequent then; they must have been busy virtually every day.

Even after the Communists took control in 1948 some households were still able to commission a Thanking the Earth ritual until 1953; but as the economy was levelled, beleaguered former “landlord” and “rich peasant” families could no longer afford to do so. Previously the ritual had involved making vows for prosperity and the health of their livestock, but now prosperity was unimaginable, and livestock collectivised.

By the 1990s, following the liberalisations after the collapse of the commune system, plenty of relatively affluent households began to re-emerge. But now that they could afford to hold Thanking the Earth rituals again, they were no longer inclined to do so. Whereas families still dutifully invite Daoists to perform funeral rituals, and still believe strongly in fengshui and determining the date, a lesser faith in divine aid to protect their crops and livestock has now rendered the Thanking the Earth ritual obsolete. So documenting it requires considerable reconstruction.

The Memorial
The memorial for Thanking the Earth doesn’t get burned, as it is for the living; the family keeps it after the ritual.

Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen made a copy of one such memorial in 1981, for a ritual commissioned by his father Li Tang in the late 1920s, entitled “Document for good fortune, with genealogy, recopied” (Jixiang ruyi wen jiapu chongchao 吉祥如意文家譜重抄). Such genealogies often contain a genealogy, a useful resource (cf. Customs of naming):

LPS jiapu detail

Li family genealogy, detail from Li Tang’s memorial.

Li Qing himself wrote a Thanking the Earth memorial over New Year 1989, again including a detailed genealogy:

IMG_20151221_105009

Thanking the Earth memorial with genealogy, Li Qing 1989.

I was also lucky to be shown another memorial preserved by the Ren family in Apricot Orchard village nearby, with the more formal title of “Memorial for supplementing and thanking the five earths” (Buxie wutu yiwen 補謝五土意文), dated 1942—the very year that the Li family Daoists’ participation in the Zhouguantun temple fair is documented:

IMG_2258_2

Thanking the Earth memorial, Xingyuan village 1942.

Comparing the three memorials reveals a basic standard format. It opens with the date, the place, the purpose of the ritual (to fulfill a vow and guarantee well-being, expressed in a standard formula), and the name of the male head of household commissioning it. It then lists the names and birthdates of the family taking part. There follows a general description of the ritual, including titles of some of the ritual segments to be performed. Finally, after another request for well-being that includes the orphan souls, there comes a list of deceased kin—minimally the three generations of ancestors (sandai zongqin).

Among the ritual documents that LI Qing copied in In the early 1980s is this placard for Thanking the Earth:

On separate occasions, both Li Manshan and I asked the elderly Kang Ren to describe the former sequence for Thanking the Earth. The older generation, who recalled the “old rules” of ritual life before Liberation, had steered the group through the revival of the early 1980s (see my film, from 40.22), but in turn they passed away; after the death of Li Qing (1999) and Li Zengguang (2000), Kang Ren was the sole survivor, and he still continued “responding for household rituals” with Li Manshan’s band.

Li vocals 2001

Kang Ren (left) with Li Manshan and junior Daoists, 2001;
right middle, Golden Noble.

Apart from the vocal liturgy, note how Kang Ren detailed the instrumental pieces, both the long suites and the shorter melodies accompanying particular segments:

Thanking the Earth

Day 1
am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): recite scripture Yuhuang jing
  •      shengguan suite 1 Shuihonghua
  • recite scriptures Laojun jing and Bafang zhou

pm:

  • Fetching Water (qushui)
  •      shengguan suite 2 Zhuma ting
  • sing “words of blessing” (zhuyan)
  •      shengguan suite 3 Yaozhang
  • recite litany Yansheng chan

eve:

  • Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) to Bestow Blessing (cifu).

Day 2
4–7am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): rising at the fifth watch (qi wujing);
    then “seven litanies”, including six-line hymn; “words of blessing” such as Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong; and scriptures including Yuhuang jing and Bafang zhou
  • exit the yard and play shengguan piece Qiansheng fo
  • enter yard and sing “words of blessing”: Huangdiye wansui
  • Parading the Streets (shangjie) to each temple, burning incense and paper, reciting mantra for offering paper and playing dizi flute
  •      shengguan suite 4 Puanzhou
  • Shenwen Announcing Text
  •      shengguan suite 5 Da Zouma
  • exit the yard playing shengguan piece Sizi zhenyan
  • on return, burn yellow paper (huangbiao) in the house

noon:

  • recite Noon Thanksgiving Ritual (Xiewu ke)
  • shengguan piece Langtaosha

pm:

  • recite scripture Zhenwu chan
  •      shengguan suite 6 Ma yulang
  • depict the earth altar and recite Thanking the Earth Manual (Xietu ke), including scripture Bafang zhou and Erlang zhou; do Yubu cosmic steps

eve:

  • Offering to the Stove (jizao)
  • Bestowing Food (shishi) and Spreading Fowers (sanhua)
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls (songgu); Settling the Gods (anshen).

Xietu duilian

The first six of fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth in Li Qing’s Couplet volume.

First the chief Daoist had to write couplets from the series of fifty for this purpose within the Couplet Volume, to be pasted up around the site, as well as all the “god places” to the Three Pure Ones (sanqing) and Three Officers (sanguan), Lord Lao, the Heavenly Masters (tianshi), and Elder Emperor (Huangdiye).

As in the three-day funeral, the two major nocturnal rituals were Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food. But whereas for funerals most ritual segments (including the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures) feature sung “hymns of mourning,” the Thanking the Earth sequence included instead a repertoire of “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言), sung a cappella with percussion accompaniment, as well as a sequence of fast chanted scriptures. Note also the lengthy “rising at the fifth watch” on the second morning, and the six long shengguan suites in fixed sequence.

This is yet another case of the gulf between textual study and practical accounts. If we relied only on manuals, we might suppose the ritual consisted only of the Xietu ke, apparently the only relevant manual. And even once we learn which manuals were used, they describe neither the ritual business (like how to use the earth, or the mandala), nor how the texts are delivered.

LMS xietu mandala

Template for the mandala for Thanking the Earth
in Li Manshan’s blue notebook, 1990s.

The Earth Citadel
The core procedure of Thanking the Earth, on the second afternoon, is “depicting the earth citadel” (hua tucheng 畫土城, or just “depicting the citadel” huacheng; or “depicting the earth altar” hua tutan 畫土壇), on the floor of the central room before the god images. The texts performed here are those in the Xietu ke, a long manual of 17 double pages, apparently mostly for fast chanting on symbolic visits to the five quarters.

According to Li Manshan, the “Diverse rituals for joyous scriptures” (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) manual was for earth scriptures rather than temple fairs. At 27 double pages it is quite long, and its title suggests a compendium containing various optional sub-segments (like the funeral manual), not a manual to be performed complete. It contains some of the “words of blessing” mentioned in Kang Ren’s account (see below); a long sequence for Fetching Water, similar to that in the hymn volume; a series of eulogies (zan, not hymns here); and it concludes with a long series of thirty-five hymns in the classic six-line structure. As with the funerary manuals, there are lengthy sections here that even the senior generation seem not to have performed. There are several mentions of the Divine Empyrean (shenxiao 神宵), but Buddhist as well as Daoist elements look prominent.

The words of blessing
When Kang Ren talked me through the Thanking the Earth ritual in 2001, I mechanically wrote the term “words of blessing”, without querying it further. Only later did I find that these words of blessing were the equivalent for earth and temple scriptures of the funerary “hymns of mourning” (for vocal liturgy, see under Pacing the Void 2). From the late 1980s, when Li Qing taught his disciples, including his nephew Golden Noble (see film, from 53.15), he included the words of blessing in their training, but by the 1990s the rituals that required them were hardly needed, so that later the young recruits could barely recall them.

Not long before Kang Ren died in 2010, Golden Noble went to see him, using his mobile to record him singing a series of words of blessing, which Kang Ren recalled well despite hardly having occasion to sing them for over half a century.

zhuyan tapes contents

Golden Noble’s list of contents for his recordings of Kang Ren, 2010.

Li Qing didn’t include any of these “words of blessing” in his cipher-notation score in the 1980s, but later Golden Noble found some loose pages that Li Qing wrote just before his stroke in 1996.

Huangdiye score

Huangdiye wansui, opening.

Golden Noble did all this purely out of his own curiosity, before my own increasing attention to the ritual repertoire. For the recording Kang Ren marked the main beats with a woodblock, including the syncopated cadences, though making sense of them was doubtless easier for the Daoists than for us. Still, at our hotel in Beijing in 2013 we tried to record the songs with the aid of Kang Ren’s tapes, but it didn’t work out. (For Golden Noble’s exquisite leading of the Invitation ritual, see here, with my film, from 58.15.)

Here are Kang Ren’s recordings of the two “words of blessing” Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong [2] and Huangdiye wansui:

 

Though the texts are quite few, they make a precious addition to our impression of ritual as once performed. In melodic style they seem similar to the funerary hymns—although being sung a cappella, they would be sung rather faster. Golden Noble noted that their sections (gu 股) are punctuated by interludes on nao and bo cymbals.

This labour of love impresses me, even if it illustrates the tenuity of transmission; for more on ritual impoverishment, see Recreation. As usual, scholars of Daoist ritual will be content to have the texts, unencumbered by the messy realities of modern social change; but becoming a Daoist priest depends on learning how to perform the texts. 

Apart from the compendium, the manuals for Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food (the yankou), and the chanted scriptures, we have Li Qing’s manuals for three more of the ritual segments specified: Announcing Text, the Noon Thanksgiving, and the Offering to the Stove. Note that we need to consult a range of manuals even in order to gain a full picture of the texts used in the Thanking the Earth ritual; and even this is no substitute for witnessing it in performance.


[1] For Shanxi, I gave a bare outline in In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.77–9. In Shuozhou just south of Yanggao, Daoists still perform jiao rituals pledged by individual families. For a description from a temple Daoist, see Ren Zongquan 任宗權, Daojiao keyi gailan 道教科儀概覽 (2012), pp.13–16. In south China there are many common terms for such domestic rituals, such as Settling the Dragon (anlong 安龍), and they are still commonly performed; for Thanking the Earth in Hunan (in the text-based style common in scholarship on religion in south China, free of modern social change), see the recent MA thesis by Tian Zeren 田泽人, Sheshu rudao: Hunan Xinhua xian minjian daotan xietu yu xiefen keyi yanjiu 摄术入道: 湖南新化县民间道坛谢土与谢坟科仪研究 (2021).

[2] Yet another text used in the daily services of Complete Perfection temples: Xuanmen risong pp.11–15, Quanzhen zhengyun puji pp.17–18.

A 1942 temple fair

LMS ZGT

Here I expand on a charming vignette in my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (from 35.45), and my book Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.60–61), illustrating how fieldwork can help us not just to observe current activity and collect historical material, but to illuminate earlier practices.

One morning in April 2011, at home in Upper Liangyuan village with Li Manshan, he casually told me that he knew of a stele at a nearby village temple which listed some names of his Daoist forebears. So after lunch we set off to the temple just northwest, known simply as “the Zhouguantun temple,” though it is rather distant in the fields to the north of the village (see maps here and here).

When we arrive, the temple grounds appear to be empty. Finding two weather-beaten stone steles planted on either side of the main entrance, we spend ages trying to make out the names of Li Manshan’s forebears. Eventually we go to disturb the siesta of the solitary temple keeper Zhang Zheng. Most affable, he helps us draw some water from the well so we can smear it over the stone to bring out the engraved characters.

ZGT kanmiaode

Zhouguantun temple keeper Zhang Zheng.

Slightly lame, Zhang Zheng is a bachelor. Brought up in Zhouguantun, he was attracted to Buddhism, spending time at Wutaishan; his master is now in Datong. As he “roamed the clouds” (yunyou, cf. the Hunyuan Daoist Jiao Lizhong), he came to look after this temple in 1998 (well before it was refurbished), becoming a monk in 2000 with the Buddhist name Shi Zhengci 釋正慈.

As Zhang Zheng tells us, the temple is now formally called Foxian si 佛仙寺; its original name was Zhangdenghe miao 張登河廟, to the deity Zhang laoxian shen 張老仙神. Its three annual temple fairs are on 3rd moon 3rd, 6th moon 6th, and 9th moon 9th.

As we apply water, the steles become easier to decipher. At last we can make out the date: they commemorate donors for the restoration of the temple in 1942, the 31st year of the Republican era—confirming that religious life was still thriving despite the Japanese occupation. If local people were seeking the protection of the deity at a time of crisis, it seemed to work, for today he is considered to have protected them then. Though the temple was destroyed under Maoism, it was refurbished in 2010, and is still considered very efficacious.

And sure enough, in a row near the foot of the right-hand stele, facing the temple, is a heading “Upper Liangyuan” followed by the names of five Lis; unclear at first, they scrub up nicely with plentiful applications of water, and eventually we make out the names of the three brothers Li Peiye, Li Peixing, and Li Peilong, as well as Li Peiye’s son Li Tong (then 33 sui) and Li Peixing’s son, our very own Li Qing (then 17 sui). The brothers’ cousin Li Peisen isn’t listed—he led a separate band. Here’s my genealogy of the nine generations of Daoists in the Li family, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual in the 18th century:

Li generations

The stele doesn’t list any monetary donations from the Lis; as Li Manshan explains to me, this means that they were not mere donors, but were performing rituals for the temple fair as a “dutiful” (yiwu) offering of scriptures—a devotional act for which they would have been recompensed with donations over the course of the event. At the time, temple fairs were still known by the term jiao 醮 Offering, which is now little known in Yanggao.

Nowadays a band of six Daoists is standard in this area south of the town; but until around 2003 they still commonly used seven (as in my 2007 DVD Doing things, §B6). So the 1942 stele lists only the five adult Daoists; there were probably a couple of unspecified junior recruits too, playing percussion as they learned the ropes (see also here).

painting-detail-cropped

Ritual painting, detail, commissioned by Li Peisen from Artisan the Sixth, early 1980s.

This shows how fieldwork with living people can teach us about the past. It’s one thing to document early steles, listing dates and names of donors, but only acquaintance with Daoists like Li Manshan can reveal such clues. Who knows how many names of Daoist bands languish unremarked on old steles? Early artefacts are silent, immobile records of a vibrant ritual life.

Alas, the stele doesn’t record the sequence of rituals that they performed—such lists were commonly made, but on transient paper placards pasted up at the temple (cf. Changing ritual artefacts). Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ work is performing mortuary rituals; they still perform for a few temple fairs in the area (see the DVD with my 2007 book, §B), but the ritual sequence is less elaborate than before the 1950s, and has become quite similar to that of funerals (see my book, chapter 12). Most of the former segments have since become obsolete here, but we can glean clues from the ritual manuals that Li Qing and his uncle Li Peisen recopied upon the revival in the early 1980s (for a list, see Appendix 2 of my book), together with Li Manshan’s comments.

In 1942 the ritual segments would have included not only a cappella hymns and fast chanted scriptures such as Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing 禳災經), but also all six long shengguan suites for the instrumental ensemble. Apart from standard morning, noon, and evening segments, the Yanggao Daoists performed two major nocturnal rituals—temple-fair versions of rituals also used for funerals: the nocturnal “Bestowing Blessings” Communicating the Lanterns (cifu guandeng 賜福觀燈) and yankou 焰口; as well as Announcing Text (shenwen 申文), Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表) and Stepping the Cosmos (tagang 踏罡), Inviting and Sending Off the Gods (qingshen, songshen 請送神); perhaps also Prior and Latter Invocations (qian’gao 前誥, hougao 后誥).

Moreover, Willem Grootaers and Li Shiyu were doing fieldwork in the region at the very time—how I would love to discover ciné footage of the 1942 temple fair at Zhouguantun!

It has been a pleasant, instructive afternoon. Before we leave, Zhang Zheng reads my hands. Bidding him farewell, we call a friendly local cab driver to take us back home to Upper Liangyuan. When we arrive, the main gate of Li Manshan’s house is locked, and his wife is out. We stand outside smoking contentedly in the early evening sunshine, waiting for her to return, until eventually I look at Li Manshan and ask him casually, “Do you, um, have a key?” He takes a leisurely drag on his cigarette and goes “Er… yeah.” We smoke some more, digesting this news. Me: “Ah… right.” Further long pause. “Um… Care to open the gate then?” Li Manshan shrugs nonchalantly: “OK then.”

Though the two main temples of Upper Liangyuan were demolished in the 1950s and never restored, on my 2013 stay in the village, thanks to the elderly Li Xu, we discovered steles lying abandoned and forgotten in ditches—again, see my film (from 8.18) and book (pp.46–9). The stele of the Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) is dated 1880; that of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing dian) is from 1942, like that of the Zhouguantun temple—again suggesting recourse to divine aid in times of crisis.

beiwen 2013

Li Manshan inspects the abandoned stele of the Temple of the Three Pure Ones,
with Li Bin (left) looking on.

Chinese scholars have been diligent in copying early steles in Shanxi; for me, such historical work merely provided punctuation for a daily schedule following Li Manshan’s band around the area as they performed funerals.

For a sequel, see Thanking the Earth.

Shaanbei-ology

SB covers

The northwestern province of Shaanbei (see sidebar tag) is a popular venue for the discussion of the interplay of politics and traditional culture, its iconic image as “a revolutionary mecca of modern China with colourful folk cultural traditions and scenic landscape” contrasting with the changing complexities of local reality.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the top menu (under the Other publications sub-menu!) has a page on Shaanbei-ology, introducing splendid studies by David Holm, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ka-ming Wu;

GYH cover

and most notably, the ethnography of Guo Yuhua (must-read page here) on the hill village of Yangjiagou, detailing the peasant’s own views of the periods before, during, and since the coercive Maoist era.

My own work on Shaanbei is mainly presented in my 2009 book, leading to a series of posts on this site, including

For yet more, see Shaanbei tag in the sidebar.

Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, and Golden Noble Delivering the Scriptures at the soul hall, 2011.

To follow my article on Pacing the Void hymns, what I didn’t attempt there was to discuss the musical style of modern renditions of the genre. It’s clearly important to document the soundscape of ritual: the most basic argument for taking it into consideration is that ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed.

However, I find it hard to find clues that might help differentiate styles within vocal repertoires (such as notional “archaic” elements), or to suggest how Pacing the Void hymns may be distinguished from other items—either among temple or household Daoists.

To illustrate the problem, here I’ll outline aspects of the vocal liturgy of the Li family in north Shanxi, based on chapters of my Daoist priests of the Li family, with examples from the complementary film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (for a roundup of many posts, see here).

In Chapter 11, “The ancestry of texts”, I noted:

Scholars of ritual tend to discuss whole segments and whole ritual manuals, rather than the individual elements within them. But it’s not just music scholars who focus on the detail: collections of musical transcriptions from current temple practice reflect the emic views of Daoists themselves (both temple and household) in documenting individual hymns. Since the same text is often used in different rituals, we may call such texts “floating” hymns.

I find more of the Li family’s Orthodox Unity texts in modern Complete Perfection temple practice than in the Daoist Canon or the Daozang jiyao; most come from the daily services and the yankou. At least nine of the texts sung by the Li family today appear in the “Orthodox melodies of Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen zhengyun) (cf. Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen).

In a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ritual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part
  • individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and the nocturnal yankou ritual—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions
  • scriptures (jing 經) and litanies (chan 懺), which the Li family no longer performs: nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

In content, Pacing the Void texts can’t be neatly distinguished from those of other hymns. Many of the same hymns may now be used for several different ritual segments. As I explained in my previous post, the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn is performed at the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡) and just before the coffin is taken out of the house to be buried.

In structure and style there is no clear difference between song types, like hymns (zan 讚) , mantras (zhou 咒), and gāthas (ji 偈) (such as Hymn to the Three Treasures, Mantra to the Three Generations, Gātha to Water), so such titles provide few clues. Here the terms zhou 咒 and zhenyan 真言 (mantra) seem to be used interchangeably; and despite its title, Sanbao zan 三寶讚 isn’t a “hymn” in the classic six-line structure of 4-4-7-5-4-5 words, common to both Daoist and Buddhist ritual (for an extensive collection of such texts in the syncretic tradition of Lesser Huangzhuang village south of Tianjin, see here).

As to textual structure, some hymns are in regular verse with lines of five or seven words—such as Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦, our Pacing the Void hymn Taiji fen gaohou 太極分高厚) and Diverse and Nameless (Zhongzhong wuming 種種無名) respectively—but most are in verses of irregular lines. Some hymns are strophic, with a recurring melody for successive verses, though that of the opening line is usually somewhat different. Two textual structures with several different lyrics are sung to the same two melodies: the six-line hymns, and the Lantern structure. More often, one just has to learn them individually.

For the seven visits to the soul hall over the day to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經) , some hymns are prescribed, others a free choice. The hymns sung at the five poles for the Hoisting the Pennant segment are prescribed, but their texts are not specific to the ritual; and those for Transferring the Offerings (zhuanxian 轉獻) are a free choice, with only the brief shouted instructions to the kin between the sequence of hymns relating to the ritual itself. Such flexibility might seem like an impoverishment, but we find similar versatility in the elite temples, where many of the same texts may be used within different rituals.

Sound
For contrasting reasons, the texts of both hymns and scriptures are barely intelligible to the human ear: whereas the former are sung very slowly with melisma, the latter were chanted very fast, isorhythmically.

In Chapter 14 of my book I went on to discuss the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy in some detail.

What the Daoists learn is not so much ritual manuals to be recited complete, as how to perform rituals—acquiring the building-blocks and learning how to put particular hymns together within the context of the ritual segments required.

Daoist and Buddhist traditions, both temple and household, use a variety of styles of vocal delivery along the continuum from speech to song. The Yanggao Daoists now distinguish only shuowen 說文 solo recited sections and zantan 讚嘆 sung hymns; they are all “recited” (nian 念), though for visiting scholars they may explain that the hymns are “sung” (chang 唱)—a word usually denoting popular secular singing. “Reciting” can mean singing a cappella, accompanied only by the ritual percussion; when a hymn is further accompanied by the shengguan wind instruments, they call it chui 吹 “blowing” (see Unpacking “Daoist music”)—the singing goes without saying. Before focusing on the sung hymns that are now the main content of the Li family’s ritual practice, we should note other vocal styles:

  • short chanted shuowen solo introits (film from 32.19)
  • fast chanted mantras (film from 35.00)
  • reciting documents (solo) (film from 1.02.55)
  • silence (rare!).

As an instance of variety within the seemingly narrow parameters of vocal liturgy, I analysed the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請) segment performed at dusk at the edge of the village.

Focusing on the hymns, most are sung in unison by the whole group—either all six Daoists (formerly seven) when singing a cappella with percussion accompaniment only, or three (formerly four) when accompanied by the shengguan wind ensemble.

Whereas the melodies of the shengguan ensemble are recorded in gongche solfeggio notation, vocal liturgy is not traditionally notated. But as I seek to identify a core melodic style in the latter,  the useful cipher-notation score (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), compiled by Li Manshan’s father Li Qing while he was recopying the ritual manuals upon the revival of the early 1980s, lists a group of several hymns with similar or identical melody. Of these, still performed are A Lantern (Yizhan deng 一盞燈, film from 27.30) and Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts (Guiku zhenyan 鬼哭真言, sung a cappella for Redeeming the Treasuries huanku 還庫, film from 1.03.58), as well as Diverse and Nameless, based on the same melodic material. Li Qing further listed four other hymns to the same melody that have not been performed since the 1950s. Also closely related in melody is the Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言), used to Open the Scriptures in the afternoon (film from 56.08).

Some hymns are only sung a cappella—I haven’t heard a shengguan version of the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan 三寶贊), first hymn to Open the Scriptures in the morning (film from 22.02) though Li Qing notated it. Li Manshan observes that the a cappella versions must be primary; and that “six-line hymns” are hard to sing with shengguan.

Conversely, some other items seem to be performed only with shengguan, like our Pacing the Void hymn Recitation to the Great Supreme; Diverse and Nameless is rarely sung a cappella; and A Lantern could presumably be performed a cappella (as are some other hymns with the same melody and textual structure), but the Daoists never do so.

To the casual listener it’s not at all clear how a cappella and shengguan versions of the “same piece” align. In my score below, the upper stave shows Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, the lower stave A Lantern—they may look quite similar, but note that the latter is performed very much slower than the former!

Li score 1

Today one of few hymns still regularly heard in both a cappella and shengguan versions is Mantra to the Three Generations (Sandai zhou 三代咒). My film shows the contrast between the a cappella rendition sung at the gate on the return from the Invitation (from 1.06.08; cf. Playlist in sidebar, §§2 and 3, with commentary here) and the magnificent slow decorated version with shengguan in Transferring the Offerings (from 1.08.01); again, this is how the openings of the two versions align:

SDZ opening

In Chapter 14 I went on to discuss cadences and melisma; repeated words, text-setting and timbre; vocal contour, register, and tempo progressions. The percussion accompaniment on drums and cymbals follows the same rules across the sung hymns (for the melody and accompaniment of the opening of Diverse and Nameless, see here, and here).

If we listen again to the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn (with the aid of my score), while it contains some phrases from the core melodic repertoire, it also uses phrases not heard there. The patchwork of melodic elements has to be learned hymn by hymn.

* * *

In sum, there are many sonic distinctions to be made within any Daoist ritual corpus: the sung hymns, fast chanted sections, and so on. But I find little to distinguish the Li family Daoists’ Pacing the Void hymn from their other vocal liturgy: it belongs firmly within the general stylistic parameters of their repertoire. Any distinctive melodic, or even textual, identity is elusive. So we should treat it not as some exotic ancient remnant, but rather as a part of a living ritual tradition.

At the same time, a reminder: ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed!

For ritual traditions elsewhere in north Shanxi, see under Local ritual.

Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era

Ken 2

Ritual procession entering the outskirts of Zhangzhou, 1985.
This, and photos below, from Ken Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.

In mainland China from the late 1970s, as the commune system crumbled, a vast revival of traditional culture got under way (for the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see Testing the waters and Recopying ritual manuals). This energy was reflected in the excited discoveries of fieldworkers in the 1980s, as shown in the early reports of Kenneth Dean from Fujian province:

See also his short overview

  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall 1985”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken 1993 cover

Along with C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Patrice Fava, Ken Dean built on experience of Daoist ritual in Taiwan and the classic portrayals by Kristofer Schipper and others; by the early 1980s, as mainland China became accessible at last, they began pursuing the Hokkien traditions back to their homeland across the strait to south Fujian—an eye-opening revelation.

Ken’s stay in Fujian from 1985 to 1987 led to the publication of his 1993 book Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China. And among the results of his later focus on the Putian region was the fine documentary Bored in heaven.

Ken film

Wang and Lagerwey soon expanded their regional studies, recruiting local scholars as they initiated major projects; a vast series of monographs soon proliferated, and later fieldworkers became accustomed to finding vibrant ritual traditions throughout south China. But in the first flush of discovery, the early reports by Lagerwey and Dean on ritual cultures of Fujian are especially vivid.

I ended my recent post on Pacing the Void hymns like this:

Our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society.

And Ken’s work is a fine example of the latter: by contrast with most salvage-based accounts of southern Daoist ritual traditions, he not only followed the classical bent of Daoist studies, but integrated thoughtful social ethnography on this period of rapid change. 

“Funerals in Fujian” opens thus:

Unknown to most outside observers of modern China who believe it to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its traditions, an enormous resurgence of traditional rituals, local cults, and popular culture has been gathering force since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed its controls on the practice of religion.

Visiting scores of temples, Ken attended over fifty rituals—

week-long god processions involving tens of thousands of villagers, five-day community festivals centering around Taoist jiao Offering rituals, five-day funerals complete with theatrical rituals such as the “Smashing of Hell”, and several exorcisms featuring mediums in trance.

As he observes,

Economic activity boomed, and the first thing that people who had made money did was not to buy televisions and refrigerators but to rebuild temples to their local cult god that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

In Tong’an county alone, cultural authorities estimated there were 3,000 temples.

Manuscripts that had miraculously survived were copied back and forth. Paintings were taken out of their hiding places in pigsties and latrines. Gods were unearthed and returned to their temples.

Lineage organisations revived, and folk theatrical groups struggled to meet demand in performing for god birthdays and temple consecrations, weddings and funerals. The boom in house-building required inviting ritual specialists to perform house-settling exorcisms. Community jiao Offering rituals were held for the first time in several decades. Donations from overseas Chinese, encouraged by local cadres, played a major role in this restoration. While some cadres, angered by their loss of power in the economic sector, still resisted the observing of religious celebrations, most identified with the revival. Ken also notes ritual inflation.

In “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”. he describes three-day Pure Offerings (santian qingjiao 三天清醮). Ken notes how the local communities organised and funded the rituals.

jiao altar 1

Jiao altar 2

The first Offering was held in a rather small temple in an outlying neighbourhood of Zhangzhou city (see photo above), with Daoists officiating who were still not fully equipped to perform the rituals, such as the Division of the Lamps (fendeng 分燈). As Ken comments most pertinently,

possession of a liturgical manuscript does not necessarily imply the ability to perform the corresponding ritual. The actual performance depends in large measure on oral transmission.

 

Zhangzhou jiao 1.1

Zhangzhou jiao 1.2

Building on his experience in Taiwan, he describes the ritual segments in some detail.

Ken 1

Community procession bearing King boat, rural Zhangzhou 1985.

Two days later Ken attended the second half of another three-day Offering in a nearby village. What distinguished it from the previous ritual was the inclusion of a Pestilence King Offering (Wangye jiao 王爺醮). Traditionally held here every seven years, it had still been performed under Maoism, the last time being 1961. The article ends with an Appendix detailing altar hangings and documents, lu 籙 registers, and total listed costs.

* * *

Whereas much of the ritual activity that I find in north China consists of funerals, scholars in the south tend to focus on community rituals for the living. So Ken’s detailed fieldnotes in “Funerals in Fujian” are all the more valuable.

He discusses mortuary rituals in the natural sequence, from encoffinment to burial, the first brief funeral service, and the more elaborate third-anniversary rituals. He notes regional variation, whereby some areas call for Buddhist rather than Daoist ritual specialists to perform funerals; in Nan’an and Jinjiang counties, “either group may do them, but most people agree the Taoists do a better show”.

Encoffining
In Dongshan a Daoist officiated in a set of procedures (cf. my Li Manshan film, from 14.58), including the maishui 買水 procession to fetch water to wash the corpse, and a series of recitations. Ken compares the more elaborate rituals described in a local manuscript.

Burial
Near Anhai, he follows a long and elaborate procession to the grave (again, cf. my film, from 1.18.59).

A Western brass band played several incongruous tunes rather poorly. A traditional band played excellent nanyin.

Initial funeral service
Back in Dongshan, Ken attended a brief funeral ritual, its simplicity perhaps related to the fact that the deceased was only around 50 years old. Still, altars with paintings were on display (cf. Ritual paintings of north China). The ritual sequence (here and below I’ve slightly modified some of these translations) was

  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) and Opening Drumroll (qigu 起鼓)
  • Announcement of the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingfo 請佛, fo referring generally to gods)
  • Visiting the Soul (guoling 過靈)
  • Worshipping the Soul (bailing 拜靈)
  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫) (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.111–12)
  • Bathing the Soul (muyu 沐浴)
  • Settling the Soul (anling 安靈)
  • Seeing Off the Gods (cifo 辭佛)

Ken describes all these segments in detail. Like John Lagerwey, he pays attention to the “heat and noise” of ritual performance, including the varied soundscape.

A three-day funeral
This gongde 功德 ritual in Shishan, Nan’an county, with fifteen Daoists presiding, was held for the third anniversary of the death of an overseas Chinese relative.

In general, the ritual tradition is very similar to that of southern Taiwan, but one can find elements in Nan’an that have disappeared in Taiwan or perhaps were never completely transmitted there.

Ken notes:

The older Taoists now complain that since the Cultural Revolution and the massive destruction of Taoist manuscripts, many people have taken up work as Taoist priests despite a lack of training or materials. Thus, instead of one Taoist to a county, you can now find twenty. Or so they say.

Here, while Daoists do perform Pure Offerings (see above) for god birthdays, most of their work is for mortuary rituals. The overall effect of the elaborate altars and paintings displayed for this funeral was “beautiful and staggering in complexity”. He documents the ritual sequence in detail with a 20-page account (cf. my composite list for an area south of Beijing).

Day 1, evening

  • Rousing the Hall (naoting 鬧廳) and Purifying the Altar (jingtan 淨壇)

Day 2
morning:

  • Announcing the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神)
  • Reciting the Scripture of Universal Salvation (nian Duren jing 念度人經)
  • Summoning the Soul (zhaoling 召靈)
  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光)
  • Untying the Knots (jiejie 解結)
  • Opening the Litanies (kaichan 開懺)

noon:

  • Giving Offerings (zuogong 作供)

afternoon:

  • Paying Tribute to the Ten Kings (gong Shiwang 貢十王)

evening:

  • Requesting the Writ of Pardon (qingshe 請赦)
  • Destroying the Fortress (pocheng 破城)

Day 3
morning:

  • Rites for the Masters (lishi 禮師)
  • Visiting the Soul (jianling 見靈)

noon:

  • Noon Offering (zuo wugong 作午供)

afternoon:

  • Juggling Gongs and Cymbals (nong luobo 弄鑼鈸)
  • Joining the Tallies (hefu 合符)
  • Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表)
  • Universal Distribution (pushi 普施)

evening:

  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫)
  • Dismantling the Soul Palace (chuling 除靈)
  • Sending Off the Gods (xiefo 謝佛)

Again, supporting musicians played nanyin melodies. Ken gives evocative detail on the theatrical, sometimes comic, Pardon ritual (cf. the Li family in Shanxi: my film from 48.35, and Daoist priests pp.246–50)—followed by the even more dramatic Destroying the Fortress. He translates the cloth displaying the list of rituals to be performed.

A simultaneous Buddhist and Daoist five-day funeral
Again in Shishan, again a gongde ritual for an overseas Chinese family.

The Buddhists’ rituals for the most part matched the Taoists’, but they had some special effects of their own. The music, dancing, patterns, spells, and deities invoked differed, but the structure of the rituals was identical.

Ken notes the fierce competition between the two groups.

Lake of Blood rites
The ritual also included a Lake of Blood (xuehu 血湖) segment. Ken also witnessed a Lüshan version in nearby Nan’an, also serving to save the souls of two women who had hung themselves from the same beam.

Putian: the Smashing of Hell
Having already described the Smashing of Hell for Shishan, Ken now discusses a version in Putian county further north, a rather different cultural area. Nine household Buddhists presided, and spirit mediums played an active role (for the self-mortifying mediums of southeast and northwest China, see n.1 here).

Ken 3

Mediums in front of the Baosheng dadi temple running with a sedan chair
carrying a visiting god statue, Baijiao 1987.

Zhao’an: a Hakka funeral
To the south, in the Hakka area of Zhao’an, Daoists had a rich tradition of jiao Offerings; but

funerals [there] are performed exclusively by Buddhists—unlike the situation in Quanzhou or Putian, but similar to the tradition in north/central Taiwan.

For the funeral that Ken attended he lists sixteen ritual segments. He focuses on the climactic Smashing of the Sand (dasha 打沙) ritual; and again he notes variations in ritual traditions even within this area.

In conclusion, citing de Groot’s major work in the region in the 1880s, Ken observes:

In general, extraordinary as it may seem, one may say that anything in de Groot is still happening in southeast China, but no longer all in any one place. The immediate qualification of course is that the role of civil mandarins and Confucians is no more.

In a fine formulation he notes:

Any one community brings its own desires to bear on the selection of elements from the regional cultural and ritual repertoire. At the simplest level, these forces select between competing groups of ritual specialists. The relative popularity of Buddhist,, Taoist, and sectarian ritual specialists for the performance of funerals and other rites varies regionally. Factors include the relative strength and historical depth of the various religious traditions in the locale, the range of fees demanded by the different groups, and the closely connected prestige value of the performances. At a deeper level of analysis, every ritual is a unique performance, inevitably opening up new connections and new expressions within the community. The growing force of these reviving traditions will change China.

The same volume of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie also includes a catalogue of 290 ritual manuscripts that Ken copied during his stay in Fujian.

I note differences and similarities with my experience of mortuary rituals in north China. We should beware taking the ritual practices of southeast China as a national template (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Conclusion); indeed, as Ken stresses, considerable variation is evident even within a single region of south Fujian.

* * *

As to local folk musicking, those of us undertaking fieldwork in the heady days of the early reform era felt a similar excitement at discovering traditions hitherto unknown outside their locale. Such early energy is clear in the pages of the CHIME journal, particularly in the fieldwork of Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven in south Jiangsu.

marionettes 86

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. My photo.

Meanwhile in dusty north China, having learned much from accompanying Ken round some temples and rituals around Quanzhou in 1986 (see Fujian, 1961 and onwards, also including a basic map), I benefitted from a similar energy, working closely with the Music Research Institute as we discovered amateur ritual associations and household Daoists in the poor villages south of Beijing (see e.g. A slender but magical clueThree baldies and a mouth-organ, and a whole series of fieldnotes under Local ritual).

Incorporating ethnographic perspectives on a fast-changing society alongside the nuts and bolts of ritual sequences and manuals, Ken Dean’s work in Fujian makes a notable exception to the largely salvage-based template of most such research. While later monographs (notably in the Daojiao yishi congshu series) studied individual Daoist “altars” in great historical depth, the early reports of Dean and Lagerwey laid a foundation for such studies, showing the excitement and energy of the time.

For remarkable film clips from 1930s’ Fujian, see here.

Pacing the void 步虛

yangfan

Li family Daoists sing Taishang song at central pole to open Hoisting the Pennant ritual,
Yanggao 2011.

Following the recent commemorations of the great Kristofer Schipper, I’ve been re-reading his article

  • “A study of Buxu: Taoist liturgical hymn and dance”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989).

The volume was the result of a conference held in Hong Kong, just as the revival of ritual traditions was getting under way, with further contributions by such scholars as Michael Saso, Chen Yaoting, John Lagerwey, Ken Dean, Issei Tanaka, Qing Xitai, John Blacking, and Alan Kagan.

It’s impressive that “Daoist music” was considered to belong with Daoist ritual so early; later, scholars of ritual and those studying ritual soundscapes (a more suitable term) would work separately, to the detriment of both.

Many of the articles in the volume are historical; and most of those discussing “rituals and musics of today” concern southeast China and Taiwan. Indeed, even now, this focus of time and place still dominates the field.

Schipper’s article opens with modern practice in south Taiwan, noting that Buxu 步虛 Pacing the Void hymns are sung there in unison at the opening of jiao Offering rituals, as well as within chao Audience rituals. But the bulk of his article concerns early textual history. He notes that while Buxu hymns already opened jiao Offerings in the Southern Song dynasty, their texts date back as early as the 4th century, soon becoming enshrined in Lingbao liturgy. He also seeks clues about how such hymns were performed in medieval times, noting Buddhist influence. And he finds early associations with meditation, citing the 5th-century Daoist Lu Xiujing:

In the practice of the Lingbao Retreat, when reciting the stanzas of the Empty Cavern Buxu: grind the teeth three times, swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the sun and the moon, in front of one’s face. The rays enter through the nose in the Palace of the Golden Flower. There, after a moment, they change into a nine-coloured halo… Again, grind the teeth three times and swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the Primordial Lord of the Three Simple (pneumata) in the Palace of the Golden Flower, in the likeness of an infant…

Schipper also notes the link with the bugang 步綱 Pacing the Constellation (Yubu 禹步) liturgical dance steps, as well as the Buxu genre in secular literature. He ends by stressing the link between music and meditation in the simultaneous execution of an “interior” and external” ritual:

The way of achieving this, and this is borne out in a way no literary source can provide by today’s rituals, is through music. Only music can integrate the different levels of execution during a ritual, make the meditation and breathing of the Master follow step by step the performance of the outward ritual by the acolytes. Only music can bridge the separation between the two worlds and ensure the harmony of man and his environment and beyond that, of all the spheres of the universe.

I much admire Schipper’s stress here on soundscape; and the high bar that he sets for the “internal” aspects of Daoist ritual was indeed evident in the practices of his own Daoist masters in Taiwan. Yet the fundamental importance of soundscape in ritual practice (hardly pursued by later scholars of Daoism) is far wider than the abstruse arts of cosmic visualisation.

* * *

Schipper set the tone for Daoist ritual studies, which relate modern liturgy firmly to the medieval era. Yet the basis of modern practice is the formation of liturgical traditions since the late imperial period. Throughout China, at the opening of the rituals of both temple clerics and household ritual specialists (Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection alike), Pacing the Void hymns turn out to be widely performed today. Thus modern collections of vocal liturgy and the provincial volumes of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, compiled through the 1980s and early 90s (see e.g. under Suzhou Daoist ritual), contain numerous transcriptions of Pacing the Void hymns from all over China.

For temple practice, Buxu hymns such as Dadao dongxuan xu 大道洞玄虛 are part of the Xuanmen risong 玄們日誦 daily rituals (Min Zhiting 閔智亭 ed., Quanzhen zhengyun puji 全真正韵譜輯, pp.31–2):

And such hymns, sung very slowly with melisma, are just as common among household Daoists. In my chapter on vocal liturgy in Daoist priests of the Li family I gave an example:

Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦) is the main hymn that the Li family sings in the Pacing the Void (Buxu) genre. Its incipit is Taiji fen gaohou (“As the Great Ultimate divided high and broad”); this ancient text, sometimes attributed to the Daoist master Du Guangting (850–933), is often found both in the Daoist Canon and in current temple practice.

It consists of eight five-word lines, plus a final fast seven-word invocation to the Great Heavenly Worthy of Five Dragons who Expels Filth (Wulong danghui da tianzun). As ever, my translation stays rather close to a literal interpretation, though the text (such as the obscure third couplet) has been subjected to highly arcane commentary.

Only performed with shengguan wind ensemble, never a cappella, the hymn is mainly used in three rituals: Fetching Water (qushui 取水); Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡), at the central pole; and at the soul hall before the coffin is taken out (film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38). Until the 1950s it was also sung for Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), and in the Announcing Text (shenwen 申文) ritual for earth and temple scriptures. Buxu is also the title of a percussion item, which they now rarely play—the longest interlude between sections of certain a cappella hymns, a slightly expanded version of Jiuqu (Daoist priests, p.286).

Taishang song

Taishang song score

So while the hymn texts are “in general circulation” (Schipper’s term again), the melodies to which they sung vary widely by locality.

Anyway, Schipper did well to point out the significance of Pacing the Void, even if he could hardly have imagined at the time how very widespread the genre was throughout the PRC. As he wrote, “an entire book could, and perhaps should, be written about Buxu.”

So our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society—further discussed here.

TSS

Coda of Taishang song before the burial procession:
Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Wu Mei, Li Bin.

For a sequel on the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy, see here.

Killer sounds: cadential patterns in Chinese melody

zisha

A drôle recent Languagelog post on “Pineapple suicide” somehow put me in mind of the shasheng 煞聲 in traditional Chinese music. I’m a bit like that.

A useful little item in the 1985 Zhongguo yinyue cidian 中国音乐词典 (pp.335–6) crams in considerable arcane ancient scalar theory, whose practical application remains obscure. Anyway, in the Northern Song dynasty Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031–95), in his Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談, defined shasheng as a final cadential note (biqu suoyong zhiyin 畢曲所用之音, also glossed as jiesheng 結聲). Shen Kuo seems to use 煞 and 殺 interchangeably here, and later folk scores do indeed use homophonous characters quite freely.

Outside WAM the final cadential pitch of a melody is not a very useful guide to its melodic structure, and it’s hardly a concern of most performers. To identify the shasheng of a melody, rural musicians in modern north China sometimes name a pitch in the gongche solfeggio system (such as yi chezi sha 以尺字殺 “cadencing on the pitch che”). More illuminating for us are modern Western techniques like note-weighting, including the cadential notes of individual phrases (cf. my detailed analysis of a shawm-band suite). While neither ancient theorists or modern folk musicians shared such concerns, at least we can identify their use of the term shasheng.

As the great Yang Yinliu explains (Zhongguo  gudai yinyue shigao, pp.554–60), in the zaju drama of the Yuan dynasty the sha 煞 may be a series of final sections within a suite.

qin cadence

Qin melody Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答, end of §4,
from Guqin quji 古琴曲集 (1982).
Among many recordings, this piece opens Lin Youren’s wonderful CD for Nimbus.

Some related topics come to mind. Decorated cadential patterns on the qin zither, with the left thumb repeatedly striking the soundboard to voice the upper note, rather remind me of early baroque cadences in Italy. In ensemble, extended ostinato cadential patterns  are used as punctuation between melodic phrases (see my Folk music of China, pp.126–9). And in the shengguan ensemble of northern temple and folk ritual (see under Three baldies and a mouth-organ), 4-bar ostinatos on two adjacent notes are common:

JZJ

Gongche score, 1947, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian, Hebei.

The gongche score above shows versions of Jinzi jing and Wusheng fo in fandiao scale, a whole tone below the “basic scale”. Ostinato cadential patterns appear in lines 2 (wu wu yi wu wu yi wu) and 3 (che che gong che che gong che) of Jinzi jing; and in the following Wusheng fo, in lines 1 and 2. For more, see my “The Golden-character scripture”, Asian music XX-2 (1989).

One might go on to consider the ostinato-based peiqu 配曲 “supporting pieces” of northern ritual groups, and the “tassels” (suizi 穗子), a more popular style used by northern wind bands (Folk music of China, pp.146–8; cf. #8–9 on the first CD of China: folk instrumental traditions).

suizi

A separate theme is the sha 煞 baneful influences in Daoist exorcistic ritual, which are to be exorcised by means of talismans and visualisation techniques (see e.g. here)—“but”, digressing still further from pineapples, “that’s not important right now” (see under Solfeggio, again).

Daoist sha

Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern

While I generally go for living embodiments of traditional culture, Shanxi province is a rich field for iconography, temples, murals, opera stages, and steles—for all periods of imperial history. Besides the major early sites, neglected little village temples also contain a wealth of murals since the Ming dynasty.

North Shanxi has long been one of my main bases for fieldwork (see under Local ritual). Traces of the Northern Wei dynasty (386­­–534), with its capital at Pingcheng (modern Datong), attract many visitors to the region—most famously, the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang just west of Datong city. The elite Daoist Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365–448) is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

The Shaling site, with mural.

Near Datong, excavations at a major Northern Wei tomb complex outside Shaling village in 2005 yielded impressive results, even though it had been subject to severe looting. Another remarkable tomb has recently been excavated at Qilicun village, revealing a lacquered tomb, murals, silk artefacts, and ceremonial lacquerware.

Qilicun: coffin, and mural.

Such elaborate tombs were made for the elite; while archaeologists still commonly excavate tombs from the period, it can be hard to relate them directly to ritual life today. And even before the modern disappearance of the old elite, the furnishing of tombs changed over more than two millennia.

Still around Datong, many tombs from the Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125) have also been excavated. The Wohuwan site in the northern suburbs of Datong (c1119) was discovered in 1961–62—reminding us of the energy of archaeologists even under the difficult times of Maoism (cf. musicologists). More recent finds in the vicinity are introduced herehere, and here

Liao tomb: left, entrance; right, constellations—again, a living feature of Daoist ritual in
the litanies of stellar lords (xingjun 星君).

The new incarnation of the Datong museum (founded in the dark days of 1959) looks most impressive, with plentiful exhibits of early tomb art and artefacts. The compendium Yicai qiannian: Datong diqu muzang bihua  熠彩千年: 大同地区墓葬壁画 (2019) includes images from the Northern Wei, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties.

* * *

Now, I’m underwhelmed by the fetish for blithely claiming connections between modern and ancient culture, flitting from millennium to millenium, as is popular in Chinese musicology—though I did make an exception for Li Qing and ancient sheng masters. In Daoist (and Buddhist) studies too, ritual archaeology is more popular than living ethnography (see Debunking “living fossils”).

For the wealthy families who had such early tombs built, elaborate mortuary rituals would have been held too—Daoist, Buddhist, perhaps both. The recent Northern Wei excavations naturally remind me of my times following Li Manshan round nearby villages as he determines the date, supervises the encoffinment, chooses the grave site, decorates the coffin, writes the tomb tile, and presides over the burial (all shown in my film, from 13.38). In between all the initial solo activities and the burial come the group rituals of the Daoist band that he leads—with repeated visits to the soul hall, as well as rituals in a more public arena, to a numinous source of water, and to the edge of the village at dusk, in prescribed ritual sequence.

Of course, today the main clientele of household Daoists like the Li family is the ordinary peasantry, by contrast with the imperial elite whose tombs are revealed by archaeologists.

Left, Li Manshan decorating a coffin;
right, an assistant placing the tomb tile over the bow-and-arrows on the coffin.

In modern times graves are only just big enough for the coffin itself, no longer containing any artefacts, apart from the tomb tile covering the little bow-and-arrows placed on top of the coffin—in Li Manshan’s own words (my film, from 1.18.12),

to protect against grave looting, the common people imitating the real bow and arrows used for the tombs of imperial princes of old.

But he and his son Li Bin do decorate the coffin (huacai 畫材), painting it with elaborate motifs such as “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫)—again emulating the culture of the imperial elite.

The Li family’s base of Yanggao county is just east of Datong; even closer to the Northern Wei site at Qilicun is Datong county, where we also found active household Daoist groups.

So artefacts are all very well; but one wants to relate them to people’s lives, and deaths. With finds like Qilicun, what I lack is knowledge of Northern Wei burial practices. Indeed, for folk ritual life in north Shanxi, it’s none too easy to glean firm clues right through from early medieval to late imperial times; for the period since the late Ming it is mainly through fieldwork that we at last begin to find clues to the forebears of the household Daoists practising today.

One fine study is

  • Jeehee Hong, Theater of the dead: a social turn in Chinese funerary art, 1000–1400 (2016),

focusing on a lively period for the evolution of drama—again, still a major aspect of modern expressive culture in Shanxi. With material on Shanxi (though not the Datong region), Hong uses tomb artefacts as evidence of the funerary practices of the day, and paying attention to the artisans who created them.

xuanhua liaomu HT lowest

Mural from Xuanhua tombs, 1116.  Reproduced in Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (ed.),
Zhongguo yinyue shi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 (1988), p.109.
This image ingeniously created by Hannibal Taubes from his own photo.

As to the soundscape of mortuary rituals, tomb murals and statuettes have long provided rich evidence for music historians—such as the above Liao-dynasty mural, a forebear of the shengguan ensemble still used by household Daoist bands in the region today. The pipa lute and paixiao panpipes were perhaps only common in the elite groups of regional courts, and were no longer used as ritual groups distilled the instrumentation to sheng mouth-organ, guanzi (bili) oboe, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with drum and cymbals. For some later murals of musicians from the region, see here. Of course, such images can only furnish scant clues to the vocal liturgy, the main component of ritual. Amidst all the artefacts within an ancient tomb, what is fatally lacking is video footage of the activities surrounding the event.

Anyway, the practices surrounding tombs of the medieval elite are quite remote ancestors of the mortuary rituals of common folk today—it just strikes me with my explorations in the region (“you dig?”), traipsing round gravelands and peering into freshly-dug graves. Fieldwork among living ritual specialists and their clientele can give us concrete images of the kinds of details we would like to learn about early practices—one way of coaxing ancient artefacts from their frozen silence.

See also e.g. Grave charts (and sequel), Changing ritual artefacts, and the funerary headgear of the kin; for Qing-dynasty temple murals in Yanggao, see The cult of Elder Hu.

 

With thanks to Hannibal Taubes.

Kristofer Schipper

portrait

Portrait of Kristofer Schipper,
commissioned for commemorative ritual in Suzhou, 2021 (see below).

Not only in the West but in Taiwan and China, the great influence of the great Daoist scholar Kristofer Schipper (Chinese name Shi Zhouren 施舟人, 1934­–2021) is clear from the many tributes to him that have been appearing. Here’s a selection from the various extensive lists going round.

Perhaps the most accessible starting-point is Ian Johnson’s NYT article (Chinese version here). You can find numerous posts on the websites of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) and the Chengdu-based Centre for the Study of Chinese Religions (CSCR); by subscribing to the European Network for the Study of Religions in China (ENSRC); as well as on douban and Wechat.

The SSCR and CSCR sites include tributes by John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Franciscus Verellen, Brigitte Baptandier, Lee Fong-mao, Lü Pengzhi, Lü Chuikuan, Ye Mingsheng, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and David Palmer. See also e.g. Ken Dean (live), Patrice Fava (forthcoming), Richard Wang, and an online discussion held by the Global Daoist Studies Forum. Doubtless the bibliography will continue to grow.

Several of these sites also give extensive lists of Schipper’s writings—this one looks comprehensive. Just a few of the seminal works that we keep consulting:

  • Le fen-deng (1975)
  • “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”, Journal of Asian studies 45.1 (1986)
  • Le Corps taoïste (1982; English version The Daoist body 1994).

And I’ve reflected on his 1989 article on Pacing the Void hymns.

* * *

Schipper was brought up in Holland, where during the war his parents sheltered Jewish children from the Nazis. As Vincent Goossaert commented, “This really shaped his worldview, both his hatred of nationalism and his deeply humanistic preference for local democracy instead of great national narratives”.

Schipper with Chen Rongsheng, 1960s.

After training with Max Kaltenmark in Paris, in 1962 Schipper went to study in Taiwan; based at the Academia Sinica, he became a disciple of the great household Daoist priest Chen Rongsheng 陳榮盛 (1927–2014) in Tainan (see video tribute in n.1 here), who ordained him in 1968. He returned to Paris in 1970, taking up a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Schipper went on to create a massive project on the Daoist canon; the result, co-edited with Franciscus Verellen, was The Taoist canon: a historical companion to the Daozang (3 vols., 2004), an essential companion to texts found both in libraries and in the manual collections of local ritual specialists. His distinction between texts “in general circulation” and those distinctive to local traditions has been most useful to me in trying to classify collections of ritual manuals among northern household Daoists (see e.g. under Recopying ritual manuals, and Daoists of Hunyuan).

We might almost regard Schipper as a Daoist equivalent of Nadia Boulanger. Paris has been an île sacrée for Daoist studies, with Schipper bridging the lineage from Henri Maspero and Max Kaltenmark to John Lagerwey and Vincent Goossaert; his vast influence is clear from the list of his pupils, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

If his main contribution was in sinology and textual research, his influence extended to anthropology. As Ian Johnson writes:

His ideas contributed to an understanding of how Chinese society has been organized through its history—by local autonomous groups often centred on temples rather than the emperor and his vaunted bureaucracy, as historians have traditionally tended to depict it.

Ken Dean observed:

He was able to show that there was a religion of the people of China that was deeply connected to local forms of self-organization and self-government. It was part of a change in how people described Chinese society.

Schipper and Chen Guofu

Inklings of change in the PRC: meeting Chen Guofu (1914–2000), Tianjin 1981.

While Taiwan had hitherto been the most fruitful fieldsite to study Daoist ritual, by the late 1970s, as a huge revival of tradition got under way in mainland China, it was becoming clear that there too there was now a vast field to explore—and Schipper was among the first to build bridges. Recruiting regional fieldworkers, scholars like C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean now initiated fieldwork projects on local ritual traditions throughout south China, which still continue to yield major results (see e.g. Lü Pengzhi’s massive Daojiao yishi congshu series). Such projects have tended to focus on the “salvage” of early history rather than documenting modern social change (among exceptions, see e.g. Yang Der-ruey on Shanghai, Qi Kun for Hunan); the historiography and ethnography of Daoism remain rather separate fields (see Debunking “living fossils”).

By the 1990s, Schipper’s concern for the history of religious life within local society resulted in another major collaborative project between the EFEO and Chinese scholars on the temples of old Beijing, still ongoing. Despite his focus on south China, he was most supportive of research on northern ritual practice (even my own, such as In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and related articles under Local ritual). After retiring in 2003, he and his wife made their home in Fuzhou, further inspiring Chinese scholars.

* * *

1991: left, as liturgist; right, “rousing the altar” (naotan 鬧壇).

While Schipper’s early training as a Daoist priest was to form the inspiration for his career, one method where later scholars have roundly ignored his example is participant observation—a route very rarely taken in Daoist studies, though de rigueur in ethnomusicology. Even more remarkable was Schipper’s apprenticeship to Chen Rongsheng, which opened up the path for studying the ritual practice of household Daoists. Of course, “becoming a Daoist priest” can only refer to one particular tradition—the ritual practices that Schipper acquired (including its language, melodies, chants, and style of percussion) were particular to one region of Taiwan.

Analysing an ancient ritual manual, or even a modern ritual, in silent, immobile text is not the same as performing it. Sure, few scholars will find the time—though they are happy to devote years to poring over Song-dynasty ritual compendiums in libraries, to collect silent immobile texts in the field, and then to create more such texts themselves. Of course, performing as an occupational Daoist priest, as part of a ritual group, can only be done by living in China or Taiwan; it’s an unlikely career path for academics, yet it has hardly appealed to them even as an interlude. Still, the insights to be gained from even a basic training are most valuable (see e.g. Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual).

Schipper doesn’t seem to have discussed any tensions between textual research and living performance. Though uniquely placed to write a detailed ethnography of Daoists’ lives, that wasn’t his main concern; for him, the lessons gained from learning to perform look to have been more about texts than practice. It was John Lagerwey, in his Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), who provided the most detailed account of Chen Rongsheng’s ritual practice. See also my remarks on documenting ritual in film, and Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

So Schipper’s training as a Daoist priest, while most thorough, was part of his studies within the bounds of academic sinology, rather than a vocational conversion. It can work the other way round too: some practising temple priests, such as Min Zhiting, have undertaken research on historical texts.

Around the same period in Taiwan, Michael Saso learned to perform Daoist ritual, also going on to become a scholar before eventually returning to the Catholic priesthood. More recently, another remarkable exception is Tao Jin 陶金 (an accomplished young architect who writes many profound articles on Daoism), who studied with masters in Beijing and Suzhou and was ordained in Suzhou in 2018 (see under Ritual life around Suzhou). Meanwhile in Taiwan, Stephen Flanigan 馮思明 has learned to perform Daoist ritual to inform his academic studies in Hawaii. While the pull of an academic career is strong, the path that Schipper opened up has brought added depth to the field.

Outside academia, many in the West have espoused individual versions of Daoist meditation (often with a New-Age tinge—see David Palmer, Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality, 2017); but for them, as for scholars, the idea of learning to perform ritual has largely remained alien.

Schipper also had suitable esteem for nanguan, the exquisite chamber ballads so popular in Hokkien communities of south Fujian and Taiwan (see the tribute from Lü Chuikuan), whose melodies were incorporated into Daoist ritual there—even if I’ve suggested that he may have overestimated the importance of a concert in Paris in 1986 for the revival in south Fujian.

* * *

Shanghai gongde

Commemorative ritual for Schipper at the Chenghuang miao, Shanghai.

Notably, several Daoist temples have held commemorative rituals for Schipper (listed here, and here). For the sixth “sevens”, temple priests performed shengdu gonggde daochang 升度功德到場 rituals: at the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou, with some of the most distinctive ritual segments that are performed there, and at Huotongshan, Fujian. For the seventh “sevens”, rituals were held in ShanghaiFuzhouLonghushan, and Beijing.

Kristofer Schipper’s work is a benchmark within a range of disciplines, firmly establishing the study of Daoism—in particular its rituals—as a core element in our understanding of traditional Chinese culture.

The Bach passions

For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—

Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet
Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!

And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:

And then, just as profoundly:

Essential background:

As we embark on the long haul of the Passions, sinking into the opening choruses is a uniquely spine-tingling experience for performers and audiences alike.

John MS

Daoism and local cults

Clart cover

Another recent conference volume offers perspectives on local religious practice in China:

  • Philip Clart, Vincent Goossaert, and Hsieh Shu-wei 謝世維 (eds), Daojiao yu difang zongjiao: dianfan de chongsi (guoji yantaohui lunwenji) 道教與地方宗教─ 典範的重思國際研討會論文集 [Daoism and local cults: rethinking the paradigms] (2020).

Most of the ten chapters are in Chinese; among many other articles on this useful databasethey can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant pdf icon, with abstracts in both Chinese and English shown by clicking on the title.

With the scope largely limited to south China, still the dominant trend in Daoist studies, a common theme of the chapters is the interaction between different kinds of ritual specialists.

  • Hsieh Shu-wei on the Dipper Mother ritual
  • Matsumoto Kōichi 松本浩一 with a historical chapter on the Taiji jilian neifa 太極祭鍊內法 mortuary ritual and the religious thought of Zheng Sixiao.
  • Xie Conghui on Lüshan ordination rituals in central Fujian
  • Lee Fong-mao on pestilence rituals in Taiwan
  • Zhang Xun on the popular theme of Mazu worship in Fujian and Taiwan
  • Pan Junliang on ritual healing in Cangnan county, Zhejiang
  • Paul Katz on rituals of the Miao of west Hunan (cf. next link below).

Three chapters are in English:

  • Mark Meulenbeld continues to explore the rich ritual life of Hunan
  • Adam Yuet Chau again stresses hierarchies of “hosting” at jiao communal festivals
  • Isabelle Ang on a temple cult and pilgrimage associations in Jiangxi.

Ritual and masked drama in Hunan

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From the nuo drama Da pandong, and the she tanshen ritual.

Adding to the extensive research on ritual in Hunan (note also Yang Yinliu’s 1956 field survey) is a recent case-study of ritual and sacred drama there:

  • Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).

Nanyue shenxi cover

The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).

While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).

Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.

Tan lineage

Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.

The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.

The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).

hexiao sequence

Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.

Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.

chuantan sequence

Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.

The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).

Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan). 

Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.

A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.

Hunan Fava

Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.

Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.

So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.

 

With thanks to Patrice Fava

 

A new website on Chinese religions

tongxun 1

A useful new resource in Chinese is the website of the Center for the Study of Chinese Religions at the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, along with its online newsletter Shenzhou studies 神州研究: 中國宗教研究中心通訊.

tongxun 2

It’s masterminded by the dynamic Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志, integrating Chinese research with the international academic milieu, with input from his long-term collaborator John Lagerwey.

Focusing on Daoism, the site also covers Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism; while it reflects the historical, textual bias of scholarship, its remit also includes recent ethnography. With news of publications and academic activities, here we can find updates on the vast Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 series (for the most recent volume, see here). 

A Daoist altar in west Fujian

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Daoist master Dingling (Guanbao, 1929–2013).

In the immense Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 [Anthology of Daoist ritual] series, the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan feature prominently (more on Hunan here). While studies of Fujian culture often focus on the south of the province, the Hakka western region is also rich in ritual traditions.

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The distribution of Daoist groups in Shanghang county.

This latest magnum opus in the series is a detailed study of the Lingying tang 靈應堂, one of fifteen groups (“altars” tan 壇 or “halls” tang 堂) of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanghang county, west Fujian:

Wu Nengchang cover

Born in 1984, Wu Nengchang trained in Xiamen, going on to study in Paris before taking up a post at Fudan university in Shanghai. In French, see his thesis

The main text of this new publication has 336 pages; the following 1,392 pages comprises reproductions of ritual manuals.

In his English introduction to the series, the masterly John Lagerwey highlights some main points, with his unmatched experience of Daoist ritual in south China. He sees Daoist, Buddhist, and exorcistic rituals as a single system. This classification is widely applicable in south China, though not necessarily elsewhere—spirit mediums are important in the north too, but they are not integrated with the liturgical system there. Lagerwey also gives a fine English summary of this volume, again identifying salient themes.

Although the Lingying tang was only founded a century ago, the study is rich in historical evidence. The Lingying Tang inherited the ritual traditions of two older Daoist altars, specializing respectively in Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) liturgies performed by “Daoist priests” (daoshi 道士) and the exorcistic rituals of “ritual masters” (fashi 法師).

While this volume, like the whole series, stresses early history and ritual texts, Wu provides a useful outline of the Lingying tang Daoists under successive periods in the modern era (pp.69–91). As I did for Yanggao in north Shanxi, Wu surveyed all fifteen of the Daoist altars in Shanghang county before focusing on this group. There his main consultant was Guanbao (Daoist name Dingling, 1929–2013), older son of the founder Chen Lintang (Hongxing, 1894–1959).

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Left, Guanbao (Dingling) in 1944; right, his father Chen Lintang (Hongxing).

After giving fine detail on the Republican period, Wu explores transmission under Maoism. This may play a very minor role in the series, but here I’d like to summarise this section of the chapter, as it illustrates common themes (cf. my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists, particularly this); indeed, it’s a fundamental context for the liturgical material presented.

Following Land reform, Hongxing’s family were classified as poor peasants. He was given posts in new state troupes for local opera. His son Guanbao at first retrained as a photographer, but then resumed Daoist activity on a small scale until 1956, eventually desisting after twice being criticised by work teams while performing rituals.

When Hongxing died in the winter of 1959, his sons Guanbao and Xibao, with other Daoist colleagues, surreptitiously “did the lanterns” (zuodeng 做燈) for his funeral. That same year they adapted scenes from the zuoxi 做覡 exorcistic ritual for a “cultural programme” at county and district levels.

When the Socialist Education campaign began in 1963 Guanbao buried the altar’s ritual paintings, instruments, and manuals for safekeeping. Though 1965 the work teams found some such artefacts on a raid of his house in 1965, the team chief, declining to consider them as belonging to the tainted “Four olds”, didn’t have them destroyed. However, as the situation became ever more serious, Guanbao fearfully burned ritual images himself.

In 1963 Guanbao had been appointed head of the new Nanyang amateur opera troupe, and worked away from the town after the violent opening of the Cultural Revolution. Recalled in 1976, he won county awards in 1979 for educative cultural items. As tradition, and ritual, were restoring, that year he was put in charge of the revival of the Nanyang puppet troupe, which was soon in considerable demand over a wide area. Jiao offering rituals were now being gingerly revived too.

Around 1983 Guanbao met the son of another renowned Daoist, who showed him some crucial ritual manuals which he copied, making notes on how to perform them. By this time the restoration of Daoist ritual was in full swing (cf. the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

The group’s sporadic activities under Maoism make the extensive ritual repertoires, texts, and images presented in the book even more remarkable.

And then Wu takes the story on further into the reform era, with detailed descriptions. Guanbao soon found he could make a much better living from performing rituals than from his photography and puppetry—and fees continued to increase. He trained a new generation of young disciples to perform jiao Offering rituals. The two brothers often met demand by leading separate bands.

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Guanbao’s band: annual ritual income from 2003 to 2011.

Again interspersing black-and-white photos, Wu then moves onto his main theme, the ritual repertoire, describing in turn the segments of xi 覡 (read sang in dialect) exorcistic liturgies, Orthodox Unity rituals for jiao Offerings and funerals, and “rites of confinement”.

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Arena for zanghun and other ritual segments.

Always noting wider regional and historical connections, he explores the history of the whole pantheon, including the Three Immortal Masters, earth gods, and female deities such as Queen Mother (Wangmu 王母), the Ladies (Furen 夫人), and Chen Jinggu.

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Ritual paintings by Dingling.

The extensive second part, preceded by detailed catalogues, is an anthology of ritual texts (mainly manuscripts) of the Lingying Tang. Whereas other volumes in the series often contain manuals from the Qing dynasty, most of those presented here look to have been copied by Dingling since the 1980s’ reforms—discussed in more detail in his article “Zhizao keyiben: yi Minxi daotan Lingying tangde duwang keben weili” 制造科仪本:以闽西道坛灵应堂的度亡科本为例Daojiao xuekan 道教学刊 2018.2, cf. his French thesis, pp.90–107 (for my take on the process for the Li family in Shanxi, see here).

The study concludes with an enticing series of colour photos from Wu’s fieldwork.

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From the yingxian ritual.

* * *

My comments on Daoist ritual studies in Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family relate to the dominance of south China in the project, and its salvage-based nature, based on texts rather than performance and social change. I mention these points again here because I would dearly like the monographs in this series to reach a wider audience; yet they are at some remove from the kind of ethnographic fieldwork on local society (including religious behaviour) that has simultaneously become popular (for a sample of coverage for Hunan, see here).

Thus, throughout the series, I’d be interested to learn how ritual practice has changed since the 1940s, along with the changing socio-economic context, such as migration and education. With the Li family in north Shanxi, the basic performing style seems quite constant, but the repertoire has diminished; I also noted changes in the material artefacts deployed, and in the perceptions of their clients.

In line with the brief of the series, the emphasis is on silent text, rather than performance and soundscape; yet these are precisely the means by which such texts are rendered efficacious. A core part of the Daoists’ training, not reflected in ritual manuals, is learning to sing, chant, and recite all the hymns, mantras, and memorials, and how to accompany them on the ritual percussion. Another compelling reason to highlight this soundscape is that it’s the main marker differentiating similar rituals regionally.

So if we can’t experience the sounds and movements of Daoist ritual live, then at least we should be offered edited videos of these traditions; this should be an indispensable part of any funding. If we had access to such films, then all this meticulous textual research would make a valuable complement. That said, the riches of this volume are astounding.

In search of temple murals in north China

HT site

The eye-opening project of Hannibal Taubes documenting village temple murals in north China is presented in his immense, ever-expanding website—material that invites us to revise the whole history of visual culture in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

His work traipsing around his main site of Yuxian, a poor county west of Beijing, is the subject of a recent documentary in Chinese, making a vivid reminder of the kind of intrepid fieldwork required for such detailed studies. The film is the fourth (!) in a CCTV series entitled Yuxian gubu 蔚县古堡 (Ancient ramparts of Yuxian):

We see Hannibal travelling round in search of temples, opera stages, village ramparts, and steles; his persistence in tracking down the custodian of the temple keys (cf. On visiting a hermit, and Alan Bennett’s sermon: “We are all of us looking for the key…”); and working with local scholars.

One common experience of foreigners in China is immortalised in a drôle vignette (from 12.30), as he converses fluently with a villager—whom he has met on previous visits, to boot—only to be asked “Can you speak Chinese?”, prompting a fine WTF response from Hannibal (cf. It’s the only language they understand, and Frances Wood’s experiences).

This is largely a historical salvage project, focusing on material culture rather than current ritual life. Indeed, while some household Daoist groups are active in Yuxian, it’s curious that this abundance of iconography seems to outrank living ritual performance there, whereas in counties of nearby north Shanxi the ratio is reversed.

Some meals with Li Manshan

Here’s yet another vignette to complement my portrait film on Li Manshan (watch here!!!) and his family Daoist tradition in north Shanxi.

Now I don’t want to make him out as some kind of Mystic Sage, but for village ritual clients his focus and integrity are a major aspect of his charisma. His unassuming personality shows itself in all the different contexts where we’ve shared food together over the years. He is far more comfortable with informal gatherings than with formal group banquets.

meal

Most relaxed is eating on the kang brick-bed at home in his village with his wife Yao Xiulian and second daughter Li Min, when I relish their gentle, humorous exchanges.

LMS funeral meal

For much of his life since the 1980s Old Lord Li has been fed during village funerals (brief scene in my film from 48.02), where the Daoists sit round their own table in the communal tent, usually with a couple of old friends, and perhaps a couple of members of a gujiang shawm band. He has written some of the ritual documents in advance (my film, from 10.44), but now, smoking as he dips sparingly into the sumptuous dishes, his mind is on the paperwork he still has to prepare back in the scripture hall (my film, from 19.38).

And on his own, when visiting village clients to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, decorate a coffin, and “smash the bowl” (see under Li Manshan’s latest diary), the host family also feed him.

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Li Manshan, Li Bin, Li Jin, 2018.

Like the rest of his generation, Li Manshan was constantly hungry through his whole youth, from well before the famines caused by the Great Leap Backward right until the 1980s; the variety of dishes now served at funerals contrasts with the meagre fare then available. Along with other rural dwellers he shares an unease at the conspicuous consumption that came into favour in the towns after the reforms. His son Li Bin (also a Daoist), and his (much) younger brother Third Tiger (my film, from 55.23), who became a cadre in the county-town, are much more at ease with the world of banqueting. Even at a family meal in a posh Yanggao town restaurant, hosted by Third Tiger, with Li Bin and our old friend Li Jin, Li Manshan was quiet (see here, under “A trip into town”).

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Venice, 2012: lunch at Il Giardinetto with Mirella Licci, our favourite groupie.

Turning to our foreign tours since 2005, group meals with our hosts were none too formal, and pleasant. And with just the band and me, it’s been fun to find little restaurants free of formalities. We became regulars at Il Giardinetto in Venice, relishing delicious courses; and in Paris we were happy to walk round the corner from our hotel to take lunch at little Chinese restaurants, Li Manshan drumming peacefully away on the table with his chopsticks.

Buffet breakfasts at a succession of hotels were always fun too, as the Daoists kept in practice using the cappuccino machine. And on the train between venues in Italy, Germany, and France we enjoyed sandwiches (“the lunch-pack of Notre Dame”).

Less comfortable for Li Manshan (and for me) are mercifully rare official banquets, such as at a Hong Kong conference in 2011, and with the band after our workshops in Beijing in 2013. He doesn’t drink, or make grandiose speeches—which are the main objects of the exercise—so he just sits quietly before slurping the final bowl of noodles and gaining his freedom to go outside for a smoke, his main pleasures.

On our brief stay together in Beijing following our return from Hong Kong we both enjoyed the tranquility of sharing bowls of noodles in modest little noodle joints together before he took the train back home to Yanggao.

See also under Music and the potato.

Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:

besides

* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

Dharma-drumming associations of Tianjin

*For main page, click here!*

Tianjin huanghui tu

Yet another instance of the variety of ritual performance around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei

Just southeast of Beijing, the municipality of Tianjin is vast, with extensive suburban and rural regions. I’ve only made brief forays there (notably to sectarian groups around rural Jinghai), but it’s a remarkably rich area for fieldwork, both for ritual traditions and for various genres of narrative-singing.

In many villages in the Western and Southern suburbs, large “dharma-drumming associations” (fagu hui 法鼓會), perform for mortuary observances, calendrical rituals for the parish (she 社) temple fairs, and rain prayers; processions for popular entertainment, and formerly the grand ceremonies of the elite.

Tianjin is a major centre for maritime trade, so it has long been a rare northern outpost for the worship of the seafarers’ goddess Mazu, such a pervasive element in the cultures of south Fujian and Taiwan. 

Huanghui 2

Also known as the “Imperial assembly” (huanghui 皇會) since the patronage of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, it is the subject of considerable research—not least on its heyday before Liberation, suddenly a legitimate topic after the 1980s’ reforms. Since 2005 it has become an object for the commodifying agenda of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with the dharma-drumming associations.

So do click here for the main page!

The mantric Shipping forecast

The Shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, whose antecedents date from 1861, is an extraordinary marker of British identity (cf. The Archers and Desert island discs, among many posts under The English, home and abroad). To be fair, Radio 4 listeners may not quite be representative of the whole population (You Heard It Here First), but still…

The forecast is replete with the abstract, poetic litany of

North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, German Bight…

and

southwesterly veering northwesterly five or six, decreasing four. Rain then showers. Moderate with fog patches, becoming good.

In a perceptive chapter on “weather rules” from her brilliant book Watching the English, Kate Fox notes the power of this “arcane, evocative, and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra”:

None of this information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously mesmerised by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas.

Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, attempted to explain its popularity:

It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.

Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader:

To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Like Fran in Black books, perhaps:

Charlie Connelly, in his engagingly nerdy book Attention all shipping: a journey around the Shipping forecast (2004, complementing the 1998 picture-book Rain later, good), notes the subtleties of reading the forecast at different times of day.

The late-night broadcast is particularly evocative (as in the old joke “Drink Horlicks before you go to sleep—otherwise you’ll spill it”). It’s perfectly crowned by the healing aural balm of Sailing by (1963), by the splendidly-named Ronald Binge, creator of Mantovani’s “cascading strings” effect [Persontovani, please!—Ed.]:

In case you’re still mystified as to what the forecast is for, click on the YouTube icon and note the BTL comments there.

As reader Jane Watson comments, the forecast is “comforting for people at home, because they’re tucked up in bed and they’re hearing that it’s absolutely blowing a gale somewhere out at sea”—which might sound rather like Schadenfreude.

As with most ritual traditions, the language is slow to change—how I would love to hear the suave tones of Charlotte Green announcing

Pissing down. Bummer.

Among many parodies, most brilliant are Les Barker’s version as read by Brian Perkins:

and Stephen Fry (1988):

Back at the real script, Alan Bennett (“occasionally moderate”) read it for Radio 4’s Today at the inspired request of Michael Palin—taking on a quite different tone, both sinister and hilarious:

Talking of British identity, the forecast waxes philosophical in the phrase “losing its identity”—precisely the paranoid fear bandied by Brexiteers.

Yansheng chan gods

Stellar lords of the Northern Dipper, from the chanted Litanies for Prolonging Life
(Yansheng chan 延生懺) manual, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s.

SanskritRadio 4 listeners, bless their cotton socks, defend the ritual fiercely: there was a “national outcry when the BBC had the temerity to change the time of the late-night broadcast, moving it back by a mere 15 minutes (‘People went ballistic’, according to a Met. Office spokesman).” When the name of sea area Finisterre was changed to FitzRoy, “Anyone would think they’d tried to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer!”

Needless to say, such formalistic language reminds me of the long litanies of deities and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras that punctuate Daoist ritual (e.g. here, under “20th May”), whose efficacy for the devotee is also unsullied by mere cerebral comprehension.

For further meteorological drôlerie, see Cloudy with showery outbreaks, and More wisdom of the elders.

Gaoluo: vocal liturgists

*For main page, click here!*
(under Other publications > Local ritual > Gaoluo, in main menu)

This is to direct you to yet another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution, with sketches of the vocal liturgists (“civil altar”) of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.

The new page (to be read in conjunction with Two ritual leaders) features the great masters Cai Fuxiang, Cai Yongchun, and Li Wenbin, who steered the vocal liturgy through the early years of the revolution; and their young students from 1961 to 1964, Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, who have represented the “civil altar” in performing for funerals and calendrical rituals since the 1980s.

Do explore the wealth of further material on Gaoluo (as well as its tag) and the many other village ritual associations on the Hebei plain (main page here, articles under Local ritual)!

More films on ritual drama

From Un opéra rituel chinois : Zhang Wenxuan (Anhui).

For the rich local traditions of Chinese ritual—as I never tire of observing—we have ample silent, immobile textual documentation, but much less material in the public domain on film (see this list).

Ritual drama has been a substantial component of this field ever since the projects initiated by C.K. Wang soon after the 1980s’ revival of tradition. But again we rarely have access to the drama itself, with all its actions and soundscape, all the “red and fiery” sensuous pleasures that are an indispensable part of the experience.

The distinguished sinologist Jacques Pimpaneau (b.1934), along with his numerous publications, founded the Musée Kwok On in Paris in 1972, the collection more recently housed in Lisbon (see also here).

And besides documenting textual and material aspects, he avidly recorded local Chinese ritual drama on film—mainly in the early 1990s, before migration, pop music, the lures of material enrichment, and heritagification were too rampant.

The playlist of films (mostly around half an hour, with French voiceovers) on his YouTube channel includes exorcistic drama from south China, such as the nuoxi masked dramas of Jiangxi, Hunan (including Mulian drama; see also here), and Anhui; as well as Nantong near Shanghai, and, again in Hunan, New Year rituals of Hengshan and among the Miao.

Here’s the English version of L’expulsion du petit demon, filmed in Pingxiang on the Jiangxi–Hunan border:

Of two excerpts from shadow-puppetry in Shaanxi (cf. Chinese shadows), the second also including marionettes from Chaozhou and again Shaanxi:

The playlist also ventures to Tibet—a grand monastic festival near Lhasa, and lhamo opera—as well as south and southeast Asia: Kerala, Java and Bali—as well as itinerant story-tellers of Bengal illustrating their religious paintings, part of a rich Asian tradition documented by Victor Mair in Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

Amdo rituals: early and recent films

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from The gods incarnate, 2009; cf. Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.


[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

A new volume for a great Chinese music scholar

Chengde 3

Yuan Jingfang documenting the ritual music of Chengde, 1987. My photo.

At the Central Conservatoire of Music (CCM) in Beijing, Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 is the most influential pedagogue, fieldworker, and theorist of traditional Chinese instrumental music, whose work bears major relevance for the study of ritual.

Having been an errant student of Yuan Jingfang in 1987 (see e.g. Buddhist ritual of Chengde), in May 2016 I attended a major conference at the CCM for her 80th birthday (see here, under “The reform era”). Now a collection of related articles has been published in her honour (nice succinct title—brace yourselves for the subtitle!):

  • Chu Li 褚历 (ed.), Jiwang kailai: Zhongguo chuantong yinyue lilunde jicheng yu chuangxin/Yuan Jingfang jiaoshou 80 huadan xueshu yantaohui lunwenji [Carrying on from the past: transmission and innovation in the theory of traditional Chinese music/Collected articles from the scholarly conference for the 80th birthday of Professor Yuan Jingfang] 继往开来:中国传统音乐理论的继承与创新/袁静芳教授80华诞学术研讨会论文集 (2020, 497 pp.).

Jiwang kailai

The volume includes a detailed interview with her student Chen Yu (first published in Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3—also here), providing material on Yuan Jingfang’s career.

YJF with CY

Yuan Jingfang (right) with Chen Yu.

In 1951, aged 15, Yuan Jingfang joined the Public Security division of the PLA, taking part in musical propaganda work. She studied at the CCM from 1956. Already having a background in the erhu, after studying briefly with Jiang Fengzhi she focused on the yangqin dulcimer. She also studied the shifan luogu ensemble of the Wuxi Daoists with the great Yang Yinliu, and later (before and after the Cultural Revolution) with the Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu.

Yang Yinliu was a major inspiration for Yuan Jingfang—she recalls his laments about conservatoire musicians’ arrangements of folk material. Among the cultured masters teaching at Beijing music schools of the day, she was influenced by Lan Yusong 蓝玉崧 (1925–96)—also a noted calligrapher.

Yuan Jingfang’s research has always been based in musical analysis. In her classic 1987 book Minzu qiyue 民族器乐 [Chinese instrumental music] she expanded her remit from solo genres to folk instrumental ensembles, and thence to ritual music—notably the Buddhist temple music of old Beijing, as well as folk Daoist traditions such as those of Shaanbei and south Hebei, documenting ritual sequences in fine detail, including the texts and melodic contours of vocal liturgy. Her book provided valuable material for my own Folk music of China (1995).

By now Yuan Jingfang was codifying her influential system of “music-genre studies” (yuezhong xue 乐种学), enshrined notably in her 1999 book of that name. Her pervasive methodology includes aspects such as scales, fingerings, notation, form (including suites), material components (instruments, iconography, notation, and so on)—and fieldwork. While stopping short of ethnomusicological “participant observation”, she stresses the importance of instrumental technique.

As a major editor for the instrumental volumes of the Anthology, guiding nationwide fieldwork, her methods were widely adopted (see Chen Yu’s interview, §4). While her main domain is instrumental music, in her book Zhongguo chuantong yinyue gailun 中国传统音乐概论 (2000) she also encompassed vocal genres.

The new volume includes contributions from many of the foremost Chinese musicologists, her cohorts and students. Several authors (including Chen Yingshi, Fan Zuyin, Wang Yaohua, and Wu Guodong) offer paeans to her system of “music-genre studies”; others to her research on Buddhist music (as well as one on Daoist music). Various scholars describe her inspirational teaching, such as the volume’s editor Chu Li, and the sanxian performer Tan Longjian, who reflects on her studies with Yuan Jingfang—including their work on the chamber ensemble of the Manchu-Mongol elite.

Some caveats. Her template can seem rigid if applied without imagination; like the projects of scholars on southern Daoism, it tends to reify, downplaying the changing social context. Thus she refrains from documenting the lives of musicians and ritual specialists through the turbulent times of the 20th century (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.365). Indeed, in interview her own reservation about more anthropologically-minded approaches is merely their considerable difficulty (by which she’s not referring to political sensitivity). Anyway, such methods should incorporate her more technical system: both are indeed challenging.

Indeed, the volume also contains contributions from some scholars whose more social ethnographic bent complements their studies of music and history, like Zhang Zhentao and Xiao Mei; and in my own essay I show Yuan Jingfang’s influence on my analyses of the soundscapes of Gaoluo, the Hua family shawm band, and the Li family Daoists.

So while Yuan Jingfang’s output may have more to offer to musicologists than to anthropologists, her work is essential to our studies, underlining the importance of soundscape in traditional Chinese culture.

Daoist non-action

Han Feizi, Liezi, Martin Gabel, Walt Disney—but not quite Miles Davis

Don’t just do something, stand there!

Ancient Chinese thought is replete with the virtues of Daoist non-action (wuwei 無為)—both personal and political (cf. Confucius and Laozi, as well as Liezi).

However, it took a long time to enter the language of Western, um, philosophy. Thanks to the intrepid researchers of quoteinvestigator.com, we have a drôle list of candidates for the popular expression “Don’t just do something, stand there!”. I might have guessed Miles Davis, whose minimal style prompted him to dispense sage advice like “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there“.

But rather, the site adduces Martin Gabel (1945), Adlai Stevenson citing Dwight D. Eisenhower (1956), Elvis Presley, and Clint Eastwood. A likely vehicle for the popularising of the phrase may have been the White Rabbit in Walt Disney’s Alice in wonderland (1951):

I’ve already cited Disney as a Zen-like source of wisdom (see note here).

As to the ancient Chinese political extension of wuwei, in the words of the wiki page, Han Feizi’s ideal “enlightened ruler strikes terror into his ministers by doing nothing”. Pace Tweety McTangerine, dismantling the entire apparatus of humane democratic government in order to maintain the brute power of an evil kleptocracy really doesn’t count.

See also How to bibleAncient Chinese humour, and The Tao of Pooh.

Ancient Chinese humour—with a moral

rabbit

In The joys of indexing I essayed a rough classification of the many Chinese jokes on this blog; with this one I can now add the subhead “ancient”.

The man of Song (a kingdom during the Warring States era, equivalent to modern Henan) is a niche early butt of many stories, recalling similar jokes around the world targetting out-groups such as the Irish.

A story from chapter 49 of the Han Feizi tells how a man of Song, tilling his fields, sees a rabbit hurtle into a tree-stump and break its neck; whereupon he gives up farming and waits for more rabbits to suffer a similar fate. LOL 😀

With this early experiment in the “Man walks into a bar” trope, it’s no wonder that Han Feizi, despite his speech impediment, was in such demand as a standup on the Warring States Comedy Club circuit. Of course, audience response varied by kingdom, as Ken Dodd later found:

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

But wait, there’s more! Han Feizi’s story has a moral, à la Stewart Lee: it’s a metaphor for “those who attempt to rule people of the current era with the governance of previous kings”:

宋人有耕者。田中有株,兔走觸株,折頸而死。因釋其耒而守株,冀复得兔。兔不可复得,而身为宋國笑。今欲以先王之政,治當世之民,皆守株之類也。

Jacob Rees-Mogg (“Minister for the 18th century”) take note.

The story gave rise to the popular proverb

shouzhu daitu 守株待兔
guarding the stump, waiting for rabbits

Chinese kids’ cartoons are so cute (cf. No silver here, a rather similar theme):

See also A feminist Chinese proverb. For more from Han Feizi, click here.

Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental

whistle

Among the many endangered languages of the world, whistled languages have long been remarkably widespread (see the impressive wiki page).

Used mainly by pastoralists for long-distance communication, their vocabularies remained tied to rural tasks, and so they became more rare with the decline of agriculture, migration, and the advent of the telephone (a cue for “tweeting” jokes in the media). Inevitably, they have come to the attention of UNESCO “safeguarding” projects.

The wiki page gives a comprehensive list of locations around the world, Whistled languages are (were?) common in West Africa; in South America and Mexico; and they’ve been reported among the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the Yupik people of St Lawrence island west of mainland Alaska, and the Hmong in Vietnam; in India and Nepal, and New Guinea.

The videos I’ve been watching come from Europe and Turkey:

  • The silbo of La Gomera in the Canary Islands can be found online, such as this documentary by Francesca Phillips. It may also be used in the local bajadas religious processions—though this clip (see also here) doesn’t feature silbo, I can never resist a calendrical ritual:

  • In the village of Aas in the French Pyrenees it is largely defunct:

  • The sfyria of Antia on the Greek island of Evia:
  • The village of Kuşköy in Turkey is another focus of media attention:

Musical whistling is quite another topic, but I can’t resist featuring Tamás Hacki:

For vaguely related posts, see Music and the potato, and Cowbells

* * *

China: transcendental whistling
At a tangent from the mundane communication of whistled languages, one aid to Daoist transcendence in ancient China was what Victor Mair has called “transcendental whistling”—see the detailed wiki article, and a paper by Su-rui Lung, using research by Sawada Mizuho and Li Fengmao.

ZLQX

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Source: wiki.

Having previously been used to summon the soul, whistling became a means to summon animals, communicate with supernatural beings, and control weather phenomena—and indeed to “express disdain for the vulgar world”. Using the power of qi “breath”, it was all the rage in the 3rd-century CE—noted exponents including Ruan Ji and Xi Kang, [1] qin-zither-playing frontmen of the iconoclastic early punk band Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢 [Behave yourself, Dr Jones—Ed.]. Su-rui Lung comments:

Xiao [whistling] seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, and practitioners included persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, and Daoist priests. In general, poets, hermits, and people of all types in the Six Dynasties utilised whistling to express a sense of untrammeled individual freedom, or an attitude of disobedience to authority or traditional ceremony, or to dispel suppressed feelings and indignation.

Chenggong Sui 成公綏 (231–73; ha, another compound surname!) composed a wonderful Rhapsody on whistling (Xiaofu 嘯賦), which the devotee of early Daoist mysticism will find rewarding (without seeking a reward, of course). As translated by Douglas White (1996), it opens:

The secluded gentleman
In sympathy with the extraordinary
And in love with the strange
Scorns the world and is unmindful of prestige
He breaks away from human endeavour and leaves it behind
He gazes up at the lofty, longing for the days of old
He ponders lengthily, his thoughts wandering afar
He would Climb Mount Chi, in order to maintain his moral integrity
Or float on the blue sea to wander with his ambition
So he invites his trusted friends
Gathering about himself a group of like-minded
He gets at the essence of the ultimate secret of life
He researches the subtle mysteries of Tao and Te
He regrets that the common people are not yet enlightened
He alone, transcending all, has prior awakening
He finds constraining the narrow road of the world
He gazes up at the concourse of heaven, and treads the high vastness
Distancing himself from the exquisite and the common, he abandons his personal concerns
Then, filled with noble emotion, he gives a long-drawn whistle

At this point even I can see that a perky rendition of Always look on the bright side of life (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, Don’t grumble—give a whistle”) may not be quite suitable. While that song doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the spiritual values of the modern West, it does at least make a nice contrast with those of ancient China.

Wiki cites further classics such as Ge Hong’s Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳, as well as the 5th-century Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, referring to Ruan Ji’s meeting with the aged hermit Sun Deng 孫登—a story taken up in the 1990s by avant-garde novelist Ge Fei. Whistling is a common topos in Tang poetry, and is described in some technical detail in the 8th-century Xiaozhi 嘯旨; but thereafter it seems to have gone rather quiet, at least in literary representation—does anyone know if it has persisted as a secret mystical technique down to today?

And all this is a far cry, or whistle, from the more mundane communicative functions that mainly concerned us above. An online mention of the Bai minority in Yunnan is elusive—I don’t want to tempt fate, but can it be that the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut is missing a trick here?

With thanks to Alan Kagan for putting me up to this

[1] For Xi Kang, note the great Robert van Gulik’s Hsi K’ang and his poetical essay on the lute (1941). Note also François Picard, “Chine: le xiao, ou souffle sonorisé”, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 4 (1991)—thickening the plot by considering the xiao 蕭 end-blown flute, which remains almost the only instrument deemed suitable to play with the qin.

Glimpses of Hunan

map

The route of Yang Yinliu’s survey in summer 1956.

This series of posts suggests varying perspectives on changing society and expressive culture in Hunan province:

The extensive field survey led by the great Yang Yinliu over summer 1956:

Hunan 1

Major fieldwork since the 1980s on local Daoist ritual:

Migration and cultural responses to the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward:

mine

The documentaries of Jiang Nengjie on left-behind children and the perils of mining:

As ever, I’d love to see all these perspectives integrated.

How to bible

I don’t wanna get into specifics

—Jacques Derrida, oh no wait, it was none other than Tweety McTangerine

Bible

From Twitter.

Struggling to meet the challenge of identifying particular texts that you consider to encapsulate the deepest Ancient Wisdom of the Daoist and Buddhist canons? Well, doughty sinologists can just take their lead from the Orange Baby-in-Chief (for the brilliant Sarah Cooper, see note here):

I note that the attempt in the late Qing dynasty to condense the cavernous Ming Daoist Canon into the Daozang jiyao, a snappy version containing a mere 218 volumes, was even less succinct than the Bolton Choral Society’s failed fugal contribution to the Summarise Proust competition.

Returning neatly to our opening theme, a fugue well worth practising together is the splendid Handelian pastiche Donald Trump is a wanker.

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:

map

From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

Ritual
While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.

Kinaalda

Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

Similarly, the question “How do you feel when you hear a drum?” was intended to evoke an esthetic response. But the Navajo “fact” is that a drum accompaniment is rarely heard except with the public songs of the Enemy Way, and if you feel queer, especially dizzy, at the ceremonial, it is a clear indication that you, too, need to be a patient at this particular kind of “sing”. What I took to be a somewhat general esthetic question was, for the Navajos, a most specific ceremonial question and was interpreted by the average informant as an enquiry into his state of health.

At the beginning of my work I intended to limit my investigation to secular music, reserving any considerable study in the tremendous field of Navajo religious music for a later time. I soon discovered the Navajo “fact” that all music is religious and that the most nearly secular songs in melody, in textual content, and in the attitudes of the performers were derived from the Enemy Way chant mentioned above, a religious ceremony designed to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghosts of slain outsiders. The dancing which accompanies certain parts of this rite is widely known as the Navajo Squaw Dance, and it is the singing which accompanies this dance, together with certain other kinds of public songs of the Enemy Way, to which I refer.

It was possible, eventually, to construct a hierarchy of different kinds of music according to the degree of secular emphasis. In the value-orientations of the Navajos I could find no music that was believed to be purely secular, but the public Enemy Way songs and certain songs of the Blessing Way were secular as well as religious and could be used in secular contexts.

It was necessary, of course, to try to ascertain, for music, the Navajo definition of “religious”. Questioning revealed little or no native preoccupation with a differentiation between that which is religious and that which is secular. The Navajo has not compartmentalised his life in this respect. […]

When a traditional Navajo is asked how he likes a song, he does not consider the question “How does it sound?” but “What is it for?”. […]

The social aspect of Navajo singing is another important part of the desired. Here too, a change from traditional values is taking place, and a conflict between younger and older generations may be seen. The question, “What do we want?” is in a state of flux, and the question, “What ought we to want?” has come very much to the fore. Sex roles and age roles emerge as important factors in Navajo normative values as regards music. Here too, significant changes are taking place due to the encroachment of white American culture and new religious ideas.

Thus it may take one a while to grasp McAllester’s distinction between “sacred” and “secular” forms—an etic problem that he created for himself. He explains his focus on the public songs, but (as often) our binary concepts may obstruct understanding.

Uses and functions
As we saw above, ritual taxonomy is complex. The Enemy Way is remarkably versatile, its purposes diverse. While it has “martial” origins in alluding to the two great wars in Navajo mythology, its formal intention is

to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghost of an outsider; that of a white man or some other other non-Navajo such as a European, an Asiatic, or a member of some other Asian tribe.

And though McAllester claims that

most of the Enemy Ways performed in the last few years for young men have been directed against the ghosts of enemies slain in World War Two,

he goes on:

But numerous situations in everyday life may expose one to the attentions of an “enemy” ghost: being too near the scene of a fatal automobile accident was cited by one informant. Intimate contact with a non-Navajo who may have died subsequently is another possibility. Women as well as men may be pursued by these ghosts and require the performance of the Enemy Way.

Another instance is when girls coming into contact with white men’s clothes at school. And an Enemy Way may also be performed for someone returning home after a stay in hospital, where they will inevitably have been exposed to the spirits of non-Navajo who have died there. So the ceremony subsumes all kinds of healing.

The ways in which one can tell when the ceremony is needed range from the general, such as a vague feeling that it would be a good thing, to the highly specific, such as a dream that recalled an encounter with the body of a dead outsider. It is frequently used as a last resort when other ceremonies have failed.[…]

One sure symptom is a feeling of faintness or dizziness when one attends an Enemy Way which is being held for someone else.

This was a common occurrence, requiring a further Enemy Way ceremony.

McAllester also notes more mundane underlying motives, such as “the urge to keep up with the neighbours […] and the feeling among poorer families that wealthy families should provide more than the average number of these entertainments” (a rare suggestion of social stratification among the Navajo, generally downplayed); as in Chinese ritual, public reputation matters. Another important function is the “bringing out” of young girls who have reached marriageable age.

The ritual sequence
McAllester goes on to outline the ritual sequence over three days and nights (pp.8–14):

  • the decision: preparatory stages—including the construction of a hogan and cooking arbour, and seeking materials such as herbs, yarn for the rattle [stick], an enemy trophy (scalp or bone) and so on
  • duties of the stick receiver, possessed with some esoteric knowledge
  • ritual preparation of the drum, with singing
  • the journey to stick receiver’s camp, and facial decoration of the patient
  • first night of public singing and dancing, at the patient’s camp
  • gift singing before the stick receiver’s camp (early morning of the second day)
  • return of the patient’s party
  • the moving of the stick receiver’s camp
  • second night of public singing and dancing, at the new camp
  • the move to the patient’s camp soon after dawn, with a sham battle on arrival
  • the return gift singing, after breakfast
  • the Enemy Way rites, to treat the patient, whose face and body are decorated, led by the medicine man. The enemy ghost is slain by strewing ashes on the trophy.
  • third night of public singing, with circle dancing, and walking songs from the stick receiver’s camp to that of the patient, followed by sway songs
  • conclusion, at dawn, with more ceremonial songs and prayers.

Here McAllester notes (cf. the flawed Chinese funeral that I describe here):

When the ceremony had been concluded on the second and third nights of the Pine Valley Enemy Way, September 27 and 28, there were long announcements made by very drunk Navajos. The burden was similar to those of the other announcements mentioned but also included reproaches for the diminished energy of the singing group as the night wore on and for the drinking that had taken place. […] A group of Salcedanos […] said that they used to enjoy coming to the Squaw Dances for the social occasion, the refreshments, and the girls, and they used to feel that it helped to bring rain. Now, they said, they did not enjoy it and they did not feel that the occasion had been holy. They added that their governors (one of whom was present) did not get drunk, and they were sorry to see the Navajo leaders set such a bad example for their young men. The announcer translated this, and the Navajos seemed to take the reproach seriously.

The adverse effects of alcohol features in several of McAllester’s vignettes. In a section on the dangers of misuse, he observes exceptions to the generally muted quality of Navajo public gatherings (p.66),

when formally organized singing takes place, as at Yeibichai Dances, Squaw Dances, or when there has been a great deal of drinking. When fights begin to break out there may be some shouting, but even this is very different from drunken brawling in white-American culture. Much of the kicking and punching is done with silent intensity. The shouting is not prolonged or repetitive, but consists of a few short cries that seem to be forced out. Even in this extreme situation, there is very little sustained noise, nor do the onlooker shout censure or encouragement.

And on p.77 he comments:

Open expressions of hostility are a commonplace at Navajo gatherings if any considerable drinking has gone on.

McAllester suggests in particular that inhibitions may be released in the public singing of the Enemy Way, which provides an outlet for “self-expression, teasing, competition, and even aggression”.

“Music”
As he explains at the outset,

Of all the arts, perhaps music has seemed the hardest to study as social behaviour. Aside from the accompanying poetry in the song texts, the actual substance of the music appears forbiddingly abstract. Melodic line and phrasing, metre, pitch, and scale have been reserved for highly trained musicologists, few of whom have been interested in cultural applications. The unfortunate result of this specialisation and the feeling that one must have “talent” to study music has been a general abdication from this field by social scientists, even to the extent that the most elementary questions about attitudes towards music have remained unasked.

While musicologists soon learned to incorporate culture into their sphere, the social scientists rarely reciprocated; we still find the same “abdication” among scholars of Daoist ritual, for instance. As McAllester wrote, even very modest attention to performance and performers will bear fruit. This applies both to social matters (How are you fed during the ritual? How do you get paid? Where do you find reed to make your oboe mouthpieces?) and to registering basic features of sound (Is this text sung slow or fast? Loud? In unison? What percussion instruments accompany?); even a little more detail is easily learned (Is the text sung with melisma? Is the melody pentatonic? Do you always sing it the same? Did your granddad sing it like that?).

For the musical aspect of his fieldwork, McAllester appends a questionnaire (pp.91–2)—which, as he explains, should be used sensitively (cf. Jackson, Schimmelpenninck):Qs 1Qs 2Transcriptions may look forbidding to the outsider, but audio samples of such songs might be a good test for scholars who disclaim musical expertise: they too should be able to make such simple and useful observations.

Having outlined the overall ceremony, he goes on to focus on the “secular” songs; but he opens this section by discussing songs more generally, listing them in more or less chronological sequence—and again it transpires that most of them (apart from the “secular” items marked with asterisks) are “sacred” (p.15):

  • Bear and snake songs (for protection against danger)
  • Songs used in preparation of the drum
  • Songs used in preparation of the rattle stick
  • The Coyote songs (sung by the medicine man to inaugurate each night of public singing)
  • The Sway songs*
  • The Dance songs* (trotting, skipping, signal for end of dancing)
  • The Gift songs* [the following four items are for the patient:]
  • Emetic songs
  • Unraveling songs
  • Medicine songs (for medicine in gourd, for application of pollen)
  • Blackening songs (referring to the enemy’s country, and to the Navajo country)
  • Circle dance songs* (as the evening of the third day approaches)
  • Walking songs (secret songs sung on the ceremonial walk to the patient’s hogan)
  • Songs to the patient
  • Concluding songs of the ceremonial (Blessing Way songs sung to the patient at dawn, Coyote songs)
  • Songs for depositing the rattle stick (including Twelve-word Blessing Way song),

as well as additional sequences for the longer version of the ceremony (songs of the Tail Dancers and the Black Dancers, songs at the meal of the no-cedar mush).

Ritual events around the world commonly display a sacred–secular continuum. While such an “etic” distinction appears questionable among the Navajo, we should pay just as much attention to the “highly formalized chant-like music of the sacred healing ceremonies”, containing “magical phrases and long, full repetitive lists of Holy People, sacred places, and parts of the body or of plants”—mostly performed solo by the medicine man, I gather, sometimes supported by a group of men. McAllester naturally recognised the importance of studying this art, but postponed it—though his work on the Navajo, later enhanced by his student Charlotte Frisbie, continued (see n.3 below). Anyway, here his focus on melody tends to detract somewhat from the more esoteric, even central, aspect of Navajo ritual (see also under “Changing values” below).

Again, this reminds me of issues in studying Chinese ritual. McAllester’s choice of the secular songs rather resembles that of most Chinese musicologists, who have focused too narrowly on the melodic instrumental component of Daoist and Buddhist ritual. By contrast, scholars of “classical” religion are drawn to the esoteric parts of the ritual (secret formulas, mudras, talismans, and so on), neglecting a more normative ethnography of everything that is going on during the event.

The secular songs
Anyway, it is these secular, public songs (collectively known as Squaw Dance) that McAllester analyses: the sway songs, dance songs, gift songs, and circle dance songs. They are more readily subjected to musical analysis, and “less freighted with the overtones of magic”.

For sonic material he practises the fieldworker’s typical combination of observing ritual performance and recording on request, noting the differences (“Once when I asked an informant why he was not singing ‘naturally’ (loud and high), he replied that he was afraid that my recording machine could not stand it”). He gives brief sketches of his main informants (pp.25–6).

The recording situation was almost always a stimulus to discussions of various aspects of music in Navajo life, and those in turn led to talk in many other fields, particularly that of religion.

So their comments on the songs that he discusses are interesting, such as:

Enemyway 27

I found this approach useful in working on Daoist hymns with Li Manshan too.

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).

score

Circle dance songs sung to vocables—showing exceptional triple metre, with some irregular beats.

Along with his transcriptions of the songs, McAllester analyses each genre—adopting etic concepts while bearing in mind the Navajos’ own ethos, under the headings of

  • texts: meaningful, and vocables (the gift and circle dance songs are usually sung to vocables only)
  • vocal style: “nasal, high, with a wide vibrato and an ornamental use of the falsetto”
  • metre (and rhythm): mostly duple and in even rhythms, with occasional extra beats (largely attributable to the requirements of textual phrasing)—with some exceptions such as frequent triple metre in circle dance songs—e.g. §2 and 16 on the playlist below
  • tempo (quite fast!)
  • pitch
  • melodic line
  • phrasing
  • scales and tonality (mostly pentatonic, to which we should now add “anhemitonic”—as in China and much of the world…).

He concludes this section with a useful summary of musical features of all the public song genres (pp.55–9).

One basic feature of the group songs (not mentioned by McAllester) is that they are monophonic, and sung in unison. Of course, where (as often) his transcriptions are of recordings made with a solo singer on demand, rather than during a live ceremony, naturally the songs look monophonic; one needs to listen attentively to recordings of group singing to try and characterise what McAllester describes as its free, loose nature. Yet the recordings I’ve heard do indeed sound quite close to unison.

For a well-annotated audio survey of global singing styles, see Voices of the world. It might make a good exercise to listen to the dance songs among Paul Bowles’s recordings in Morocco, comparing all these musical parameters.

As fieldworkers know well, by contrast with the individual songs that they have to present on disc, rituals often string them together in lengthy song cycles (cf. Allan Marett’s analyses of Australian Aboriginal dream songs; see also Analysing world music).

Changing values
Part Two, “Values in the study of music as social behaviour”, opens with a discussion of the nature of taboo. Here McAllester has more to say on the sacred songs:

On my first day of recording Navajo songs, I learned that some may be sung by anybody and discussed freely, but that others may be sung only with circumspection, with the right preparation, at the right time, and by the right people. Indeed, some of the latter songs may not be heard except by those who have been properly protected by initiation.

For the dangers of doing fieldwork on Navajo magic, note the disturbing articles of Barre Toelken. [5] McAllester discovers a kind of “scale of danger”. Still, he reminds us:

It is hard to discuss with a Navajo what music is “holy” and what music is not. The first reaction of nearly all of my informants was that all of their songs were sacred. Nor did they respond with categories to such questions as “Are some songs more holy than others?” [cf. Nigel Barley!].

No such hierarchies seem to exist ready-made in the Navajo scheme of values. But when asked directly, nearly every Navajo feels that songs from the great ceremonial chants are more sacred than gambling songs such as those sung with the Gambling Game. The parts of the Night Chant and the Enemy Way Chant which are chanted by the ceremonial practitioner are recognised by everyone as being more sacred than the Yeibichai songs of the masked dancers in the former and the Squaw Dance songs performed in the latter.

He continues by compiling his own list of songs along the “scale of danger”:

  • Prayer ceremonials
  • Songs used in witchcraft, and deer hunting songs
  • Songs from non-Navajo ceremonials. I know that Peyote songs are considered highly dangerous and believe that this may be true for some of the other ceremonials performed by other Indian groups
  • The longer chants: Night Way, Shooting Way, etc. The Evil Way chants are considered more dangerous than the Holy Way chants
  • Chanted parts of the Enemy Way: the four starting songs, the walking songs, the blackening songs, etc., are all very secret
  • Moccasin Game, and perhaps Stick Dance songs, which must be used only in the right season of the year
  • Work songs such as weaving, spinning, and corn grinding songs. Much more needs to be known about these songs. They do not seem to be particularly taboo but they have, nevertheless, become extremely rare
  • Circle dance songs from the Enemy Way
  • Yeibichai songs from Night Way, should only be sung in the winter
  • Dawn songs and other songs from the latter part of the Blessing Way may be used in some social contexts, but still with religious overtones of bringing good luck
  • Sway songs, gift songs, and dance songs from the Enemy Way can be sung at any time.

McAllester continues with a section on the dangers of misuse and forms of protection: through initiation, through timing, and training for a particular singing event, by running hard, fasting, and purification by vomiting—one informant explained the declining quality of the songs of young men by their reluctance to make such preparations. Young men also found the old ceremonial chants “too hard” to learn; yet (again echoing China) while the diminution of expertise that McAllester noted has continued (e.g. this interview with a medicine man—with a comment on treating soldiers returning from Vietnam with PTSD), scholars commonly note that ceremonies are still thriving.

So while McAllester and others were interested in uncovering archaic layers, he was far from merely seeking “living fossils”; and while the Navajo were quite insistent on performing “correctly”, they frequently offered instructive comments on change.

The following section, “Religions from outside”, outlines the Peyote cult and the Galilean mission. The Navajos seem to have learned the Peyote cult, a new religion, from the Utes. They even remained faithful to the less nasal singing style of the latter. But like other outside influences, the cult was considered dangerous. McAllester notes a marked preponderance of women in the Galilean congregation—including the singers—by contrast with their more passive role in Navajo ceremonies.

Under Esthetic values, he reminds us that the Navajos consider music inseparable from function—though again he finds a shift in the values of some younger men. Two contrasting illustrations that he managed to elicit:

I like it better when it goes along level, then I know it’s a holy song. (Helen Chamiso)

Yes, they sing more fancy now. If you use only one tone it sounds kind of plain. (Nat Nez)

This generation gap applies both to choice of songs and to vocal technique.

McAllester ends this section with a brief extrapolation of musical esthetics: tonality, voice production, group singing, rhythm, tempo, and melodic line. He notes the tendency of some singers to cup a hand over their ear—just like Sardinian tenores.

Under “Other cultural values” he outlines features such as competition, self-expression, “Navajo quiet” (a promising theme), the prestige of musical knowledge (which, again, will be in flux); and he notes humour in the songs (punning, an unusual grammatical usage, ribaldry, and so on). In a brief section on the role of women in religion he notes their general exclusion—though here, as other scholars have gone on to observe, they surely play a greater part than the general taboo would suggest (cf. China).

He illustrates individualism, provincialism (the Navajos were “very curious to hear ‘foreign’ music”—of other Indian tribes, Mexican music, “white” music brought home by returning soldiers, and so on—though they were soon forgotten), and formalism; and he ends (with what I consider a *** passage à la Stella Gibbons) by discussing music as an aid to rapport in fieldwork:

There seems to be something more acceptable about a stranger who wants to learn songs than about one who wants to know how long babies are nursed. Among the Navajos, I was accused, jokingly, of wanting to become a ceremonial practitioner, the usual goal of learning songs. [cf. Wei Guoliang at Houshan (here, under “The local ritual network)!]

It seemed to work in my favour that I was there to learn, that I respected an aspect of Navajo life usually ignored or laughed at, and was willing to teach songs in return. […]

From a discussion of music one can move by easy stages into almost any area of cultural investigation. Almost any area of human behaviour is crossed at some point by music. With the Navajos, such seemingly remote subjects as attitudes towards property, propagation of livestock, and the nature of taboo came to the fore in connection with music; sometimes I found informants who were so reserved that it seemed as though no interview at all were going to take place, but who became interested and accessible when the topic was music.

Music has been made unnecessarily a specialist’s field in ethnology. A few songs from almost any culture can be learned by the ethnologist even if he is not a musician [sic]; even very imperfect renderings of native music can do much in establishing rapport.

The monograph ends with a succinct summary of existential and normative values.

* * *

Audio recordings
It’s a shame we can’t follow the songs that McAllester transcribed with specific sound examples, but the stylistic features he analyses can be perceived in many other early recordings.

Following on from the incomprehension of the Navajo themselves that there is something called “music” that can be extracted from ritual (or indeed life), audio compilations of short songs, valuable as they may be to us, may seem incongruous. As scholar-recordists would be the first to recognise, such songs aren’t mere reified sound objects: they can hardly suggest, let alone capture, the living experience of ritual. Yet at the same time it is useful to be able to focus on their sound with McAllester’s guides in mind. Film is not living ritual either, but is a major advance over audio recordings—let alone silent, dry texts (my constant refrain: see e.g. here, §6).

My examples below may seem to suggest nostalgia, but the transformation effected by modern life has long been an important theme: as with Chinese ritual, we should seek to document both early tradition and more visible contemporary manifestations.

A wealth of recordings has been released on disc, such as:

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

  • Navajo Songs, recorded in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester (1992)
  • Indian music of the southwest (1957)

And Willard Rhodes issued ten LPs of the recordings that he had made from 1940 to 1952, such as

  • Music of the Sioux and the Navajo (1949)  (liner notes here)
  • Music of the American Indians of the southwest (1951)
  • Music of the American Indian: Sioux (1954) (liner notes here)

Here’s a good introductory playlist, with tracks from the 1992 Navajo Songs album with Laura Boulton’s early recordings, as well as excerpts from 1975 recordings by Charlotte Heth (more here, including liner notes) and from a Canyon Records album recorded 1952–1963 (for whose own notes, see here, on the useful drumhop site):

Here’s Music of the American Indians of the southwest (for notes, see drumhop again).:

Among the Navajo tracks is a highly distinctive falsetto night chant/Yeibichai dance:

On film
Again I’ll start with early footage. Valuable as it is, many scenes are clearly posed; voiceovers are often patronising and mendacious (“visitors are always welcome”; the paeans to residential schools; copious Injun cultural clichés); and dodgy musical soundtracks evoke Hollywood Westerns. For all these fatal flaws, and more, see e.g. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and film (1999)—note also the BTL comments that appear when you click on “YouTube” for the pages below. Bearing all that in mind…

This quaintly-choreographed short film from 1939 includes a public dance and “wedding ceremony” (from 5.39):

In this 1945 film (from 32.24) a medicine man presides over a healing ritual, including the creation of a sand painting in the hogan, with ritual paraphernalia such as the rattle stick and trophy bundle (and for all the limitations of these films, they do feature the sacred chanting style that McAllester outlines, not heard on the audio recordings above):

Navajo night dances (1957), from the nine-day Mountain Chant Way:

Also from the 1950s (with a kinaalda ceremony from 11.31, including more sand painting—and yet another classic use of the incongruous Hollywoodesque soundtrack!):

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

And an excerpt from Kinaalda: a Navajo rite of passage (Lena Carr, 2000):

Starting again, here’s Between two worlds (1958)—shamelessly whitewashing the impact of government intrusion:

But breaking the mold of happy smiling natives grateful to be admitted to the benefits of civilisation is the documentary Broken rainbow (Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd, 1985)—though not without its critics, it soberingly relates the plight of both Navajo and Hopi, subjected to forced relocation and environmental pollution (cf. Grassy Narrows):

Lastly, following successive historical epidemics visited on Native American peoples by white contact, the Navajo are suffering severely from Coronavirus (yet another danger from outside—see e.g. herehere, here, and here)—here’s a song from quarantine:

* * *

While taking modern change into account, the complex ritual sequences and symbolism of the Navajo remain deeply impressive. And I now see why ethnomusicologists recognise McAllester’s monograph as an important pioneer of the concern to integrate music and culture. As he observes, the public dance songs that are his subject here are only a small part of the overall ceremonial performance, but he makes a compelling case for including their soundscape in ethnographies of ritual.

Of course, change has continued to escalate since the 1950s, inviting both continuing fieldwork and further study of earlier periods. At last I understand why scholars find such rich inspiration in Native American cultures.

My third post in this series is on the Ghost Dance. See also the Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman.

[1] The anthropology of the Navajo began early, and continues to be a vast field. On Navajo history, see e.g. Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: a history of the Navajos (2002); or for a simpler overview, wiki.
In an engaging recent introduction to all kinds of Native American musicking, the Navajo feature prominently in Chapter 2 of Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (see here, n.1); again, the wiki entry for Navajo music makes a succinct hors d’ouevre.

[2] Cf. Tibetan and Han-Chinese mandalas (e.g. Shanghai, Hunyuan); and for various ways of consecrating the sacred space, click here.

[3] On the Blessing Way, see e.g. Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970); and note Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester (eds), Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967 (1st edition 1978, updated paperback 2003), complemented by the story of his wife: Rose Mitchell, Tall woman: the life story of Rose Mitchell, a Navajo woman, c1874–1977 (2001)—both works voluminous, with many useful further references. Indeed, life stories make an illuminating approach—see Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.13, and for China, e.g. Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009) and my work on the Li family Daoists.

For kinaalda, see e.g. Charlotte Frisbie, Kinaalda: a study of the Navaho girl’s puberty ceremony (1967/1993), and Joanne McCloskey, Living through the generations: continuity and change in Navajo women’s lives (2007). Female puberty ceremonies are widely performed by Native American groups: see e.g. Carol A. Markstrom, Empowerment of North American Indian girls: ritual expressions at puberty (2008). Here’s an Apache version:

For the major role of Navajo women during the pandemic, see here.

[4] McAllester uses the spelling “Navaho”; in direct quotes within this post I convert it to the form Navajo, which has since come to predominate—rather as I convert American to English spellings throughout my site.

[5] Notably “Life and death in the Navajo Coyote tales”, in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Recovering the word: essays on Native American literature (1987), and “From entertainment to realization in Navajo fieldwork”, in Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives (eds), The world observed: reflections on the fieldwork process (1996).

Resumé of Daoist film!

Left: Li Manshan doing ritual paperwork for the Lower Liangyuan temple fair, 2003
Right: Li Qing leading the Pardon ritual, funeral 1991.

Just a reminder:

I trust this trailer for my documentary Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist will entice you to watch the whole film (click here!):

While you watch it—as you MUST!—do consult my drôle Franglais resumé A French letter (“Poseur? Moi? Je ne regrette rien!”). While meant as a jeu d’esprit for a screening in Paris (“île sacrée of Daoist studies”), I’ve added handy links to posts on particular themes.

 

Bon appetit!

My work on the Li family Daoists (including the book, complementing the film) was the whole initial raison d’être for this increasingly diverse blog, and I continue to add updates and vignettes. The sidebar category Li family being so very voluminous even with subheads, I compiled a more manageable roundup of some major posts here.

Gender in changing Chinese religious life

In my second post on Women of Yanggao I gave a brief introduction to studies of gender in Chinese religious life. Within this ever-growing scholarly field, here I’d like to introduce two substantial recent discussions, by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi.

Focusing on prescriptive tracts by educated commentators, both authors highlight the “double blindness” between women’s studies and religious studies, revisiting the elite dichotomy between religious reformists and “superstition” in the first half of the 20th century, the influence of Christianity, the May Fourth movement, and Communist rhetoric. Kang further pursues the story into the Maoist and reform eras.

Throughout Chinese history until the 1950s, the vast majority of women were illiterate; the reliance of our portrayals on elite perspectives is an unfortunate limitation in historical scholarship generally, all the more so when we consider gender. While much research focuses on the discursive aspect of religion (canonical texts, and so on), among the fruits of fieldwork since the 1980s is that it reveals the importance of women’s religious activities—a view that appears only dimly for earlier periods.

* * *

As she observes:

Until quite recently, histories of the May Fourth movement (1919) and of the Republican period (1912–1949) generally did not include women/gender issues. More recent histories which include a gender perspective do not discuss religion. There has been substantial research on the birth of feminism in China, on the rise of a female collective consciousness and of the “new woman” and discussion of the methodological hurdles in integrating a gender perspective into the study of the Republican period. However, scholarship about women and modernity does not generally include the powerful connection between women and religion, and certainly not the connection between women and superstition.

Thus

Religion in 20th-century China was reorganised according to new, modern, and scientific paradigms; in this novel definition, which excluded many communal experiences deemed superstitious, religion came to be identified more with personal practice and individual beliefs, understood as self-strengthening and self-improvement, and was to be one of the responses against Western Imperialism and Japanese occupation. Women had always been seen as closely involved with religious practices, but at this time they were identified as intrinsically and powerfully superstitious, and their religiosity was used as a necessary site of symbolic transformation for the nation. Numerous examples of the deleterious effect of superstition on women, their children, the family, and society were described, and modern and scientific education was seen as the antidote to this seemingly intractable problem.

The noble, elusive goal of reformists was to eliminate male Confucian power over women as part of a general attack on religion. Valussi introduces The Woman’s Bell (Nüjie zhong 女界鐘, 1903), an early “feminist manifesto” by the male author Jin Tianhe 金天翮advocating the liberation of women by eliminating “the four great obstructions” for women: foot-binding, decorative clothing, superstition, and restrictions on movement.

But such pundits often gendered “religion” as male and “superstition” as female. As Jin Tianhe commented:

Superstition is an inauspicious thing. Nuns, witches, geomancers, and astrologers are inauspicious people.

Indeed, more generally one finds a similar dilemma facing pundits writing about the reform of (mostly male) folk musical groups: while admiring their music, they fretted that their performing contexts were inseparable from “superstition”.

Valussi goes on to cite newspapers, magazines, gazetteers, and novels from the Republican era—such as Hu Ruilan 胡瑞蘭, a writer from the Gansu female teachers’ academy:

Gentlemen have refined their bodies and corrected their minds, they are intelligent and honest, and cannot be deluded by ghosts and spirits [Yeah, right—SJ]. My female compatriots are ignorant folk. They should strive to be like gentlemen, respect morals, be upright in character and diligent in self-cultivation, establish their hearts on behalf of heaven and earth, set their destiny in service of people and things. (In this way) they would not be deluded by evil talk that would make them lose their true nature.

As Valussi observes:

Younger and more educated women, seeing themselves as part of a modern collective identity, are urging older, rural, and uneducated women to also join this “imagined sisterhood.” Narratives imply or state clearly that peasant/uneducated women are more likely to be superstitious and in need of rescuing. […] However, we do not often hear the voices of the older and rural women, we only see their actions described.

So such lofty exhortations effectively penalised women’s behaviour.

Canons, liturgy, and hierarchical structures, described by Katz as acceptable and non-superstitious elements of religion, as well as Confucian philosophy, also acceptable if not linked to oppressive and restrictive practices, were typically the purview of males. […]

What is progress, modernity, and a secular religiosity is often attached to male behaviours, and what is excluded from it, superstition, often is more directly and strongly attached to women’s own nature, beliefs, spaces, and practices.

But as Chau suggests, this speaks to the dominance of elite perspectives in the discourse, not to the situation on the ground.

Valussi discusses women’s activities in temples (including burning incense, and the harmful economic costs of women’s religious practices), in the family, and in urban and rural religious organisations. Female spirit mediums, often described as tricksters swindling other women, are particular objects of criticism from the reformists. Now, since male and female mediums coexist in some regions (cf. the self-mortifying male mediums of south Fujian and Amdo), while one gender predominates in others, I’d like to learn more about how they are treated differently, then and now—in the literature, by the authorities, and by their local clientele.

In her Conclusion Valussi comments astutely:

But is there an actual shift in the position and role of women? A question that arose in the context of critically engaging with these sources was: are we actually talking about women here? Or rather, are women’s religious practices used, in popular newspapers, as a foil that stands in for the inability of the government and of intellectuals to eradicate practices deemed backwards? Are women, perceived as particularly superstitious because of their lack of education and access to the outside world, only a symbol of the inability of China to rid itself of these practices? A symbol of China’s backwardness and inability to move forward? There is a remarkable continuity in the period that goes from the early to mid-twentieth century in terms of the calls against female superstition. However, nothing much seems to change, except a certain heightened force and violence in the message, inspired by the increase in the forcefulness of the anti-superstition campaigns in general. […]

The calls for change, often from young educated women, could be seen as a genuine attempt at changing women’s lives. On a more metaphorical level, however, we see both male and female educated intellectuals inveighing against practices that mar China’s very essence and its ability to move forward.

While Valussi only takes the story as far as the eve of the Communist revolution, even during the Maoist era the manifestations of “superstition” (both male and female) that had so concerned intellectuals became muted, but were not erased. And from the perspective of women since the 1980s’ reforms, modern education and “superstition” don’t entirely seem mutually exclusive. For both men and women, opportunities are always greater in urban areas; for both, religious (and superstitious) activities remain popular in the countryside. Of course such discourses are never gender-neutral; but while we should detail all the kinds of religious behaviour of both men and women, and refrain from belittling female activity, the rhetoric of idealistic pundits, as Valussi observes, doesn’t tally with grass-roots practice.

* * *

Among the extensive literature that Valussi cites is

which further pursues the story after 1949. Kang’s nine sections examine the challenges and changes brought by the arrival of Christianity the May Fourth movement; rural and urban women, and the early role of left-wing feminists; political uses of religion, women, and gender in the Communist revolution; women and religion in the religious revival since the collapse of Maoism; and thoughts on further integrating women, gender, and religion in a globalizing era.

Like Valussi, Kang notes that

intrinsic elements of Chinese religious practices and rituals, such as incense burning, paper offerings, communal worship, ghost pacification, demon exorcism, fortune-telling and spirit possession, were all denounced as “superstition” and hence a hindrance to modernity.

But as she explains, rejection and suppression don’t tell the whole story.

The century-long mass mobilisation for gender equality and women’s liberation has also brought women out of domestic confinement and empowered women in various realms, including that of religion. Since Republican times, women have participated in public religious life and have assumed leadership in different religious organisations. At times they have also used religion to defy officially-prescribed gender roles, to negotiate with state authorities, and to create social spaces of their own.

Still, the participation of women that we can now find through fieldwork can’t be attributed solely to such official “mobilisation”; rather, it may seem like a belated revelation of a longer-term involvement that was previously hidden to us.

Female mediums https://stephenjones.blog/2018/10/06/lives-of-female-mediums/

Female mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Kang pays attention to women’s role in both institutional and folk religious activity, including the ubiquitous spirit mediums—on whom, apart from the sources that Kang cites (notably, for the Hakka, Xu Xiaoying 徐霄鹰, Gechang yu jingshen 歌唱与敬神, 2006), I’d also mention fine ethnographers such as Xiao Mei and Mayfair Yang.

Indeed, the very informality of the status of such women may have helped them to keep practising under Maoism, as Kang suggests:

First, compared to the male dominated textual and institutional traditions of religion, women’s religious practices are more personal, oral, and informal. This lack of institutional and doctrinal attachment has been a main reason that women’s religious activities have often been condemned as superstition, but it has also made them less threatening targets and more resilient in the Maoist campaigns against religion. “A few old women” here and there kept religions and ritual traditions alive in one way or another during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution. Second, the revolution’s advocacy of economic contribution to society has had the effect of bringing women out of domestic confinement. As women’s employment outside the home in both urban and rural settings has become widely accepted, women face much less constraint and prejudice than their late imperial counterparts did when venturing into the public space of religion. […]Third, the revolution has also effectively destroyed the traditional power structure in local society and eliminated the Confucian gentry elite who once collaborated with state officials and monopolised the ritual life of local communities.

Discussing the age-range of religious women, she observes:

Either as lay believers or spirit mediums, the middle aged and elder women are neither victims of superstition nor obstacles to modernity. For many, religious practices are not simply to revive the pre-revolutionary past. They ingeniously construct female religiosity with the traditional and modern resources—including Maoist teachings—at their disposal. They are well aware of the social and political stigma [risks, I might say] of conducting “superstitious” activities, and they adopt different strategies to legitimise their activities.

Their religious authority is defined by “social skills, marketing strategies, moral qualities, and in certain cases female charisma”.

* * *

Plunging into rural fieldwork as I did in the 1980s without being conditioned by elite discourses, I found the simple public–private dichotomy in religious activity revealed in the male domination among public performers such as ritual specialists and shawm bands; yet I came to realise that while women rarely occupy such formal roles, they do play a major part in religious life—notably as mediums and sectarians. The background provided by Valussi and Kang makes valuable preparation for fieldworkers.

FWIW, among my own sketches of the lives of rural women, see Women of Gaoluo; nuns of rural Hebei; and my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here. In my survey of ethnographic films I cite the documentary Under goddesses’ shelter, about a Hakka nun. These, along with some of my other posts on gender in China and elsewhere, are listed here.

Lastly, a bold, nay revolutionary, idea: I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?! Notwithstanding the role of women in the latter manifestations, such a reversal would also entail a far greater recognition of their fundamental importance in Chinese religious life. One can but dream…

For an important book on mediums in Henan, see here.

 

Precious scrolls: another new volume

baojuan cover

Research on the sectarian “precious scrolls” (baojuan 宝卷) continues apace. I look forward to reading

  • Pu Wenqi 濮文起 and Li Yongping 李永平 (eds), Baojuan yanjiu 宝卷研究 (2019; contents here).

For other related recent volumes, see the work of Cao Xinyu (e.g. here), and a collection edited by Hou Chong. Also on this blog, see under Houshan and Houtu ( for Yixian and Laishui counties in Hebei), and Ritual groups in Jinghai, Tianjin.

The new collection of articles (most of which already published elsewhere) is based both on textual studies and fieldwork (ndeed, many sectarian scriptures continue to be discovered in the course of fieldwork), and also considers performance practice. While it includes reports from south China—south Jiangsu ( cf. here, n.1) south Jiangxi, and chapters on the Luo sect—the earlier sectarian precious scrolls are mainly found in north China. Hence we find chapters on Hebei (Yin Hubin 尹虎彬), Jiexiu in Shanxi (Sun Hongliang  孙鸿亮), Gansu (Li Guisheng 李贵生 and Wang Mingbo 王明博; Cheng Guojun 程国君; Liu Yonghong 刘永红)—and more.

Shanxi sect

Shanxi sect reciting baojuan, 2003. My photo.

I’m glad to learn of the research of Liang Jingzhi 梁景之, furthering studies of the Way of Yellow Heaven (Huangtian dao 黃天道) sect in Hebei and Shanxi, which began with Li Shiyu in the 1940s and have continued with Cao Xinyu (for my own brief encounters, see under Tianzhen, Yanggao, and Xinzhou in Shanxi). Here’s another article by Liang, and his discovery of related temple murals is also fascinating (several links here; cf. the sites of Hannibal Taubes).

The new volume also includes useful overviews of the history of baojuan studies.

 

Navigation: local ritual

To help those interested in ritual to navigate around this labyrinthine site:

apart from the numerous posts (under MY BLOG), the menu at the top also contains pages, of which I’d like to draw attention to the many detailed field reports on local ritual under the Themes menu:

Local ritual menu

and there’s more if you keep scrolling down that sub-menu!

Most of them refer to household ritual groups in particular counties of Shanxi and Hebei, with further notes from elsewhere around north China—outlining their histories, artefacts, and ritual sequences for funerals and temple fairs. You can also explore the sidebar for the various categories (albeit voluminous) and tags. But these field reports under local ritual are a basic resource.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Ritual performers, North Xinzhuang 1959.

Posts on south China, collected under the south China tag (in addition to the south China subhead of the ritual category!), are more diverse.

Also in the menu is the Playlist—with commentary on the tracks contained in the Music player as you scroll down in the sidebar beneath the categories. The other pages to the right of the menu are worth exploring too, like the other material under Themes, and the Other publications and WAM sub-menus. And then, in the sidebar, there’s always the searchbox…

Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public

Flann O’Brien

 

A new handbook on religion in China

cover

In recent years several overviews of the diverse manifestations of religious activity in changing modern China have been published, such as those of Goossaert and Palmer (The religious question in modern China), Adam Yuet Chau, and Ian Johnson. Now we have a substantial collection of essays,

As Feuchtwang observes in his thoughtful introduction, the many expectations raised by the word “religion” are misleading. While there are indeed institutions and “churches”, most religious life takes place in the context of folk life-cycle and calendrical events (“diffused”, by C.K. Yang’s definition), not conforming to any doctrine or any one textual tradition.

Feuchtwang considers the role of religion under the secular state of the PRC:

we have as everywhere to understand how religions and ritual practices and associations have been adapted to the growth of capitalist economy, participation in commercial enterprise, to dwelling in cities, and to different nationalisms, secular governments, and systems of mass schooling and the teaching of history, geography, and mathematized empirical sciences. All entail the new temporality of national narratives and the project of modernization.

Reflecting on rising prosperity and urbanization since the 1980s, he notes:

Urban planning and development, including the urbanization of villages, has transformed most dwellings into apartments, with less space for domestic altars and banquets, and turned most neighbourhood temples into dust under property developments of housing, headquarters, industrial and commercial districts. Banquets for life passage ritual occasions have become more widespread, but in professional catering establishments. Diviners, some using statues of seities, provide services independently. The bigger Daoist or Buddhist temples and their monks and nuns look after lamps for the souls of the dead; churches and mosques outside Xinjiang perform services for their dead. Most ritual services are performed in homes and they have been shortened as the tastes of the young have changed. But the disciplines of self-cultivation brought into the present through transmission of the various ritual traditions in China have flourished, have become global in their reach, alongside academic interest in them, and have been nurtured by new masters.

The nineteen essays are arranged in four sections:

  • State policies, civic society and cultural revival
  • Revitalized and modernizing traditions
  • Daoism, Buddhism, Tibet, the Naxi
  • Islam and Christianity.

Thus the survey deserves to be widely read. It’s designed to be accessible, like the surveys of Johnson and Chau. But whereas the latter volumes appear in affordable paperback editions,  the new handbook’s price of £155 will deter not just individuals but cash-strapped libraries too: one might reasonably expect its 472 pages to be illuminated in gold (cf. The Golden-Character Scripture, a staple of north Chinese ritual ensembles). And it doesn’t even include any photos. Still, it’s another useful introduction to a complex topic.

 

Coronavirus in China: four posts

LWL

To date I’ve published four posts on Coronavirus in China—two featuring songs critical of the official response, and two on local ritual activity. How strange it now seems to reflect that when I wrote these, the virus seemed like a distant problem.

  • Here I feature a song by blind bard Liu Hongquan in Shanxi, mourning whistleblower Li Wenliang—also including a harrowing account of rural poverty
  • and this post has some fine songs by Gansu singer Zhang Gasong, with a note on the traditional morality tales he studied with senior blind bards.

I made a digested version of these two posts into an article for the stimulating online magazine First of the Month, and an edited Italian version appears in the journal Sinosfere, also worth consulting.

  • Moving on to ritual life, here I explore temple activity behind closed doors in Sichuan
  • and this post details the uninterrupted activity of individual household Daoists in north Shanxi, “serving the people” as they meet the constant demand for routine burial services. In a recent update, I note that the full ritual sequence, with the whole Daoist group performing funeral liturgy, has now been restored.

See also under Navajo ritual and musical culture.

 

Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.

Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate

The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the

  • Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]

on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.

Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).

Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui ), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,

China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.

Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:

  • 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 )
  • 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan )
  • 3) Birth (shengzi )
  • 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
  • 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou )
  • 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang )
  • 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
  • 8) Miscellany (zazu 俎),

with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.

But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county [1] Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.

As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes. [2] Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.

* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.

A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kiteevoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.

For Katz’s work on ritual in Hunan, see here; and for his article on temple fairs in Taiwan in a recent book on doing fieldwork in China, here.

[1] On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020) (well reviewed here).

[2] Further to Mayfair Yang’s article “Shamanism & Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity”, I also look forward to reading her Re-enchanting modernity (2020).

Coronavirus 4: household Daoists in Shanxi

 

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Li Bin’s funeral shop in Yanggao town.

To follow my earlier posts on Coronavirus (1, 2, 3), I’ve been catching up, remotely, with the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao county of north Shanxi, 300 km west of Beijing on the way to the city of Datong—in normal times, ever more accessible. Whereas my previous posts on the crisis have concerned responses online and behind the closed doors of temples, here we find how ritual activity is still being maintained for routine burials.

In recent years, as the wonderful Li Manshan has begun to take things easier in his eighth decade, his son Li Bin, working since 2007 from the base of his funeral shop in the county-town, has been worked off his feet (for their busy diaries, see here and here; and for the tough life of the household Daoist, here). Not only does he book and lead a band to perform funeral rituals throughout the villages, but he has to organise every stage of the mortuary procedure from death to burial—as well as making routine individual consultations to “determine the date” for weddings, health, journeys, selecting auspicious sites for new buildings, and so on.

Since the Coronavirus scare, strict measures have been in place in north Shanxi, though no cases seem to have been reported there. Many neighbourhoods in Datong city were sealed; in Yanggao town the gated communities monitored all activity. Restaurants and schools have been closed. For a change, there are no traffic jams at the crossroads just north of Li Bin’s funeral shop (my film, from 4.17).

Wedding festivities are on hold, and bereaved families are not currently allowed to invite Daoists or shawm bands to perform group funeral rituals (known as “opening the drum” kaigu 开鼓), as is normally de rigueur. So regular members of the Daoist sextet like Wu Mei and Li Sheng, normally busy reciting the scriptures with wind and percussion for the sequence of rituals they perform for funerals over two (sometimes three) days, now find themselves temporarily unemployed. Golden Noble, another core member of the band who leads the vocal liturgy, can perform the solo mortuary procedures like determining the date, siting graves, and supervising the burial, so he has picked up a bit of work in the immediate vicinity of his home township Houying.

One accomplished Daoist who has only rarely been able to appear with the ritual group since seeking work as a migrant labourer in 2004 is Li Qing’s nephew Erqing. Whereas the other Daoists are active over a small radius, his work has taken him over a large area of north and south China. He has been an important member of our foreign tours. Like Gansu singer Zhang Gasong and countless others, since returning home for New Year he has found himself exiled there.

Erqing and WM

Erqing (right) with Wu Mei, funeral 2009.

Despite the crisis, Yanggao didn’t go into total lockdown. Remarkably, Li Bin is still in considerable demand, individually, to meet people’s routine needs for mortuary procedures; indeed, he is just as busy as ever—the boss continuing to prosper as the workers are laid off?! Few customers have been venturing out to his funeral shop, but he fields constant messages on his smartphone. So he is still called out constantly, driving throughout the countryside but now having to pass through a laborious series of checkpoints on the main roads and at the entrance to every village, where temperatures are taken and all movements registered. Li Bin’s work is considered a legitimate cause for such journeys.

Checkpoints in Yanggao, February 2020. Photos: Li Bin.

In these poor villages that are depleted yearly by urban migration, with the population ageing, conditions of hygiene may have improved since around 2000, but remain far from ideal (for earlier epidemics in Yanggao, see here). Routine burials still need to be held—though currently by the immediate family alone, with one single Daoist carrying out the necessary procedures (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.185–200).

After a death, the immediate task is to summon Li Bin to use his almanacs to determine the date for the burial—which may vary, as usual, from around five days to over a month. Then he has to write the placard announcing the death (yangzhuang 殃狀), supervise the encoffinment, and provide mourning clothes for the kin as well as the paper artefacts (which he and his wife make at their shop) to be displayed and eventually burned at the grave; he has to decorate the coffin, write the tomb tile, depict talismans to be pasted up at the house of the deceased, and choose an auspicious fengshui site for the grave, using his luopan compass to determine its position and alignment. All these tasks are shown in my film, and even over this stressful period Li Bin still continues to perform them constantly.

Left: reverse side of tomb tile; right, talismans. My photos, 2011.

Even in normal times some very poor families, unable to afford the elaborate funerary rituals of the full band, have long requested a single Daoist to preside over a simplified burial ritual (known as “settling the burial” anzang 安葬). During the current crisis this has become routine. Mostly it only takes an hour or two, though even now some families expect a rather longer ritual.

Li Manshan: decorating a coffin (2015), and exorcising the house (2013).

Just before the coffin is raised out of the central room of the deceased’s home (my film, from 1.16.31), the Daoist—now wearing a face-mask in addition to his red costume (fayi 法衣) and yinyang hat (riyue guan 日月冠)—exorcises the rooms (qiyang 起殃) by wielding a sheaf of gaoliang stalks and a cleaver, knocking them against the lintels and silently reciting the mantra Qiyang zhou 起殃咒. Then, as the coffin-bearers raise the coffin out of the house, the Daoist uses his cleaver to smash a food-bowl on the floor at the entrance to the room, marking the end of the son’s duties to feed his parent; indeed, “smashing the bowl” (dawan 打碗, more graphically “decapitating the bowl” zhanwan 斬碗) is the term commonly used to describe the whole simplified burial ritual. As he does so, the Daoist silently recites another mantra, the Zhanpen zhou 斩盆咒. These two mantras for dangerous liminal moments serve to protect the Daoist himself.*

Li Bin then accompanies the coffin through the fields to the grave he has chosen, and fine-tunes its alignment in the grave. After returning to the house he performs a further brief exorcism there. He then hurries off to other villages help more bereaved families.

Again, I note the adaptability of the “old rules”; in times of crisis, rituals can be simplified, yet a proper commemoration of grief is still needed. In Li Bin’s notebook he keeps a careful record of all his daily work, noting the precise date and time of death, details of the birth dates of the deceased and their sons and grandsons, the location of the grave, and the date that he determined for the burial.

Li Bin’s father Li Manshan too has to respond to the requests of his local clients, zooming round on his motorbike to determine the date, choose burial plots, and smash bowls. Sure, all this is their livelihood; but like their forebears right back to the 18th century, they are like parish priests, “serving the people”—a cliché now commonly used with a rather satirical edge, but in this case true. Meanwhile elsewhere in Yanggao, in neighbouring counties (see my other posts on Shanxi under local ritual), and doubtless further afield, other Daoists too will be continuing to meet the needs of their rural clients.

By 23rd February, with no new cases of the virus reported in Yanggao, roadside checks were easing and officials were only monitoring travellers’ temperatures, not registering their details. I wonder how long it will take for the more elaborate funeral rituals to be restored, with the other Daoists joining Li Bin in performing the full sequence of vocal liturgy, accompanied by wind and percussion.

Update
Indeed, since late February the full ritual sequence has been restored, with Li Bin booking the whole Daoist band to perform funerals; but since he has still been busy doing all the solo mortuary tasks, only on 5th April could he lead his group for the first time since the lockdown, “opening the drum” at a funeral in Upper Liangyuan.

 

silent mantras

 

* Though the texts of these two silent mantras don’t appear in any of the Li family’s surviving ritual manuals, Li Manshan eventually found them for me in his little blue pocket-book, which he copied in the 1980s from a similar notebook of his late great father Li Qing (for whom, see e.g. here, and, for his ritual manuals, here).

Seeking instruction with Li Manshan one day, I joked that I had learned them, “reciting” them for him, lips firmly closed—providing us with another creative topos (e.g. in France).

 

 

 

Coronavirus 3: temples, Sichuan

sdr

Daoist temple ritual, Sichuan, lunar New Year’s Eve, 2020. Photo: Volker Olles.

To follow my first two posts featuring songs commenting on the Coronavirus outbreak (here and here), I now consider how local ritual life has been adapting to the crisis at the grassroots.

* * *

Reflecting the age-old adaptability of ritual practice, much activity has moved to a virtual life on WeChat. I’m grateful to Volker Olles, based at Chengdu in Sichuan for his project on Daoist ritual traditions there, for this vignette. As he wrote on 17th February:

All temples are still locked down, but Daoist clerics in the sanctuaries will occasionally perform rituals or offer incense and candles in the name of adherents (thanks to WeChat!). ​So the temples are still working—behind closed doors. Through Wechat, people can even participate in rituals by having their names added in ritual documents. In this regard, WeChat is a real blessing, allowing communication, payment of liturgical fees (fajin 法金), and feedback by means of video sequences of the rituals posted by the clerics.

I spent the Spring Festival in a remote Quanzhen Daoist temple in Chongzhou, west of Chengdu, just when the lockdown started. The liturgies at Chinese New Year’s Eve and the welcoming of the God of Wealth were properly performed by the Daoists, burning masses of ritual documents (shuwen 疏文), with the help of lay adherents—who were partly stuck at the temple and unable to return home on time. ​

All religious institutions are closed and closely monitored by the authorities. I also had to register with the local government and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. However, I’m back in Chengdu now, and we all hope that spring (in the best sense) finally will arrive.

notice

Public notice [my translation—SJ]

Owing to the severity of the current Coronavirus outbreak, for the health and safety of everyone to pass a secure, auspicious, and blessed New Year, the temple Management Committee has decided after investigation:

From 8am on 24th January 2020 the temple is temporarily closed to outsiders. All activities seeking blessing to greet the New Year will be managed according to the law by the temple priests. Please do your best not to visit the temple, in order not to come into mutual contact, and to prevent the contagion of the virus. All prayers for blessing and the elimination of calamity are to be liased via WeChat. We request the great masses and the faithful to share [this information].

During the current initiative to restore traditional Chinese rites, when you meet, please clasp your hands in greeting and avoid shaking hands!*

Xizhu Daoist Temple Management Committee, Chongzhou
24th January 2020​

Huolei
Note also Ian Johnson’s article on the response to the outbreak from temples, mosques, and churches, covering charitable donations and rituals from all over China—including a Purifying the Land ritual at the Changchun Daoist temple in Wuhan; as well as a new Daoist song Huolei jiangmo lu 火雷降魔錄 by Sichuan dramatist Zhang Shuzhi.

For a Daoist priest’s memorial tablet for victims of the virus, see here.

In my next post on Coronavirus I report on the busy schedule of the household Daoists of the Li family in Shanxi, even through the crisis, as they continue to meet the needs of their rural clients for routine burials.

* I now also see that as the virus spreads around the world, churches in Italy are issuing directives on ritual hygiene and online worship.

Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards

LWL

WeChat: “In this world there are no heroes descended from heaven, there are only ordinary people who come forward”.

Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).

It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.

In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.

1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.
Source: https://chineseposters.net.

Elaborate funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, have also been put on hold. Still, in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing, the Li family Daoists, individually, are still in demand to provide routine burial services, as I describe here.

On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:

slogan

No visits for New Year this year
Those who come to visit you are enemies
Don’t open the door for enemies.

For the response in Tibetan regions, see e.g. here; and for concerns over Xinjiang, here.

* * *

 Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.

I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is

  • Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).

LHQ book

One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.

The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.

ZQ pic

Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.

After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.

Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.

The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.

TQ

Tian Qing (left, in white) with the blind performers of Zuooquan.

The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a documentary filmed over ten years.

Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.

But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.

* * *

And so to Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him (and by April he was officially deemed a martyr), the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.

A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:

The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang adopt the distinctive idiom of Shaanbei folk-song language, hard to render in translation:

At dead of night appeared a star
The whole world weeping in unison, Oh brother, for you

Snowflakes flurrying over three thousand leagues
Sleepless for the first time, Oh brother, and who’s it for?

Semi-translucent like lighting eggshell lanterns
First they sealed your lips, Oh brother, then they sealed the city

All over the world people’s feelings are bitter
When has it become to hard to tell the truth, Oh brother, about one’s feelings?

When you blew the whistle in the twelfth moon no-one listened
Amidst the bustle of the first moon, Oh brother, the sound of your song was silenced

Lighting lanterns at New Year to see you off
But throughout the land, Oh brother, it’s like observing the Feast of the Dead

Bright blue skies of Sovereign heaven
Now that the whole nation has awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away

Now that the whole nation was awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away.

LWL lyrics

The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:

(more here) and this song in the style of Huadengxi opera in Guizhou, filmed to promote awareness of the crisis.

For more songs from north China on the virus, see here; for temple ritual in Sichuan, here; and for continuing activity of household Daoists in Shanxi, here.

Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?


Appendix

A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:

church murals

One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:

The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.

It’s clarified in this interview, but if one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:

  • Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
  • Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
  • Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly?  Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
  • We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
  • And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?

Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.

 

Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian

The film footage of Harry Caldwell

Fujian province in southeast China remains one of the most vibrant regions for folk religious activity (see this introduction, and my post on Ken Dean’s early work there).

Harry Caldwell (1876–1970), a Methodist missionary from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, first travelled to China in 1900, inspired by his brother’s missionary work there, making a base in Fujian with his family until 1944. An avid hunter and naturalist, in his book Blue tiger (1924) he showed how hunting with the locals for man-killing tigers paved the way for effective missionary work [file under fieldwork techniques—SJ], and he discussed the delicate diplomacy required to negotiate peace between soldiers and bandits in his attempts to spare villagers caught amidst the fighting (cf. the Italian Catholic mission in Gaoluo).

Apart from filming agricultural, military, and daily scenes in Fujian, he also paid extensive attention to local religious life there—and now, in an enterprising project (click here) by the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) under the direction of Megan Bryson, ten clips on religious ritual that Caldwell filmed in the 1930s have been restored and made available online, with extensive annotations by UTK students.

The evocative clips (alas silent!) comprise:

  • an opulent deity procession
  • a divination session, with a Buddhist monk presiding
  • a fertility ritual, with Daoist masters wielding ritual swords and horns at an elaborate altar
  • a Daoist healing ritual to protect children (cf. Crossing the Passes, e.g. Gansu and Shaanxi), with exuberant ritual dancing and the burning of a paper boat
  • an apotropaic ritual: pasting a talisman, a fishing net, and cacti at the family lintel
  • a Bathing the Buddha procession, and women offering at small shrines
  • Methodist church activities—including the distribution of baby chicks to the congregation
  • “Hell puppets”
  • plague-dispelling rituals, with paper boats sent off
  • a grand Buddhist funeral at the Yongquan si temple in Gushan.

Watching such footage, one always wonders what became of all these people over the turbulent decades to come. While the project offers precious glimpses of ritual life in Fujian before the 1949 revolution, all such practices still thrive in the region; with the addition of colour and sound, one might almost suppose many of these clips to come from Ken Dean’s wonderful 2010 film Bored in heaven (among many films listed here). I hope to see comments on Caldwell’s footage from scholars working on ritual life in Fujian—perhaps providing some more precise locations.

For Daoist ritual in Fujian and elsewhere in south China, see here; for early and recent films from distant Amdo, here.

Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing

huapencun

Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, maintaining sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:

koujue

Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.

 

[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, following on from the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals (see my post here), we now have a related (and ever evolving) site A Rosary of Walls (formerly called Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor!):

 http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of Chinese religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.

Categories

Focusing on A Rosary of Walls, the wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories and navigation” menu—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

For a CCTV documentary about Hannibal’s fieldwork, see here.

A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

A new volume on Chinese religion

Cover

  • Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Jibian rujiao: jinshi Zhongguode zongjiao rentong 激辩儒教:近世中国的宗教认同 [Provocations to Confucianism: identifying religion in modern China] (2019).

In a recent volume in a series on “New Historiography”, the ever-industrious Cao Xinyu assembles substantial articles by international scholars on a variety of topics on Chinese religion, illuminating broad, long-term trends with detailed studies. In the tradition of Chinese scholarship, it’s based on “salvage” studies of the late imperial and Republican eras, and on texts rather than performance.

Rain ritual《 映旭斋增订北宋三遂平妖全传》 第十七回插图

Cao Xinyu sets the tone with a substantial introduction, setting forth from a Song-dynasty rain ritual to explore the Catholic encounter with Chinese religion through the Qing rites controversy.

The chapters are grouped under four main headings. Philip Clart and Cao Xinyu explore grassroots Confucianism in Taiwan and mainland China. Articles by Vincent Goossaert, Masaru Yamada 山田贤, and Wang Jianchuan discuss spirit-writing and charitable associations, and Zhang Chaoran contributes a substantial essay on Daoist ritual in history. For Shanxi, Yao Chunmin writes on changing village boundaries, and Henrietta Harrison on Catholic and local healing practices. Further afield, Takeuchi Fusaji 武内房司 discusses folk religion among communities of Chinese origin in South Vietnam. Finally Prasenjit Duara outlines the histories of religion and secularism in Europe, China, and Japan.

For recent English-language volumes on Chinese religion, note the surveys of Adam Yuet Chau and Ian Johnson, as well as the classic study of C.K. Yang.

A flawed funeral

qushui

Fetching Water procession, 2011.

Much of the voluminous work on Daoist ritual focuses on recreating the glories of ancient China. While fieldwork since the 1980s has greatly enriched our understanding, the complexities of modern life rarely intrude even in descriptions of rituals observed; the search for “living fossils” dominates research, implying a timeless social cohesion of local communities.

My diachronic ethnography of the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi is partly inspired by the classic studies of Geertz; and for China, Ken Dean paid attention to the tensions involved in the 1980s’ revival of ritual practice in Fujian. This post is based on Chapter 19 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, and in my film you can observe the rituals described here.

* * *

Since my visits from 2003 the “old rules” (lao guiju 老规矩) of ritual practice have been declining rapidly. Nowadays Li Manshan’s band works for patrons, kin, and audiences who have less discrimination, and in some respects the band’s response to this lack of appreciation is to perform less scrupulously. The Daoists are deeply gloomy about the future. They love the exhilarating percussion finale of Transferring Offerings (my film, from 1.11.07) as much as I do, but “within ten years it won’t be heard any more.” They know such repertoire is precious but are helpless to protect it; they make the comment without anguish or sentimentality. Whereas Li Qing’s generation used to wear their thick black costumes underneath their red costumes even in the summer heat, now they merely wear the red costumes over their daily apparel. And for Fetching Water, Call Me Old-Fashioned, but a plastic Sprite bottle just doesn’t do the job (see Changing ritual artefacts).

Yet they still demand basic standards of themselves, maintaining many of the old rules against all the odds. They play on procession all the way out from the scripture hall to the altar, and all the way back. While singing at the altar they may sometimes seem lax (the occasional joke, even answering a mobile), but their basic solemnity shows their perceived need to maintain their reputation. Recently they tend to sing some of the hymns rather too fast in the Invitation (the Song in Praise of the Dipper, and the Mantra to the Three Generations at the gate on the return), but they still perform most of the hymns extremely slowly (notably those for Opening and Delivering the Scriptures), when surely they could go just a tad faster; nor do they abbreviate them. While singing a cappella they keep the large cymbals folded on their chests, maintaining great solemnity. There is still room for further decline.

Like his father Li Qing before him, Li Manshan worried about the stresses of being band boss and choosing suitable personnel—like band leaders in jazz, indeed. But he is far from hands-on; I would like to see this as an embodiment of Daoist wuwei “non-action.” He notes occasional blips in ensemble playing, but he rarely reprimands. The dep Guicheng tends to mime a silent beat between the slow beats on the gong, which is “not good to look at,” but Li Manshan only mildly mentions this to him when he realizes I have noticed it. Back in the scripture hall, by contrast with the way the Daoists fool around now, Li Qing and his colleagues used to “hold a meeting” about how the previous ritual had gone, always maintaining standards. Li Qing would certainly want to retain the “old rules” now, but given the hosts’ apathy he too would be helpless to do so. Even in the 1980s he presided over a radical revision of the temple fair sequence, and the Pardon ritual that he led at a 1991 funeral was very different from the manual (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–9). The decline has taken place gradually in waves over the last century or so.

When performed at all, some of the fashi public rituals have recently been radically simplified, such as Opening the Quarters, Communicating the Lanterns, and Judgment and Alms. Early one morning before a burial, Golden Noble gave me a perceptive summary of the current situation. The cycle goes from ritual (yishi) to form (xingshi) until the latter itself becomes a type of ritual; thus the ritual becomes a token, then the token becomes ossified. Let’s now discuss some instances of decline that I observed in 2011.

Ritual multi-tasking
The Li family has long prided itself on being able to split into several bands for rituals on the same day. But now the same band can even chase round more than one venue on the same day, cramming in a couple of ritual segments alternately. This is possible thanks to both improved modes of transport and the hosts’ lesser demands. Even on his own, Li Manshan can now zoom from smashing a bowl in one village to decorating a coffin in another.

One morning in 2011 while doing a burial at Houying they fitted in a half-day appearance at the new temple outside Lower Liangyuan. Li Manshan, Li Bin, and Wu Mei left at 7.30am to Open Scriptures there, hooking up with three other Daoists; then they hurried back to Houying for the burial procession before returning to Lower Liangyuan again, playing a long shengguan suite seated round a table outside. Later in a smoke-filled room to the side of the temple complex I found a large group of people, mainly women, clustering round a spirit medium who was curing illnesses. I now realized this must be the main reason why the temple was being rebuilt.

Fast food, Daoist style
In May 2011 I was roped in to take part in another perfunctory ritual.

The band is doing a funeral in Golden Noble’s village of Houying. After a fine Invitation ritual and a jovial supper, before the evening Transferring Offerings, they have agreed to cram in another quick Transferring Offerings at Wujiahe village, half an hour’s drive away along winding little roads. So we all cram cordially into Yang Ying’s car—Golden Noble stays behind to attend to the kin, so I dep for him on gongs.

This other funeral is a very minor affair, with paltry altar decorations, and no-one minds when we rush through the offerings at hectic pace—indeed, they expect us to do so. For the three sections we just sing brief excerpts from hymns, far from the long sequences prescribed. This is exceptional, actually, and the Daoists only agreed to do it because the host begged them.

I already hinted at a certain recent simplification of Transferring Offerings. As we pile back into the car back to Houying for our main course, I joke that this is like a ritual version of fast food, a drive-in take-out. Just further north, hosts are already more “careless”—there they no longer even request the Invitation. Even in our area, some patrons now request shorter hymns for Transferring Offerings; Li Bin recalls a funeral recently where the host didn’t want the ritual at all, considering it “too much hassle” (Pah!). Still, on our return to Houying they do a beautiful full sequence, with three long plaintive hymns.

A flawed funeral
During my stay in October 2011 I am looking forward to a three-day funeral in a nearby village; such funerals are no longer common, so I should be able to attend several rare rituals. When the day comes I am in high spirits; it is a beautiful sunny autumn morning, and it is a picturesque little village with a population of only two or three hundred.

Over the next couple of days my hopes are progressively deflated. First I discover that the Daoists now commonly simplify the three-day sequence. But in this village, as they realize the depth of their hosts’ ritual ignorance, they are even more casual. I begin to realize that a crucial factor in the maintenance of ritual is whether or not “the host is cooperative” (dongjia peihe 东家配合). The Daoists are used to having to guide the host family, but here they sense reluctance.

coffin

The deceased woman was 93 sui. Her third son had died seven years ago, aged 52 sui; his coffin was removed from the grave for the purpose of burying them jointly, and it now stands at the roadside under an awning. Li Manshan did the initial determining the date, decorating the new coffin on the third day, and Li Bin decorated the soul hall two days before the funeral. So they may have sensed a certain ignorance in the host family long before they turned up to do the rituals—but work is work.

The scripture hall—as usual at the other end of the village to allow for a suitably lengthy procession—is the house of an affable but poor 50-sui-old bachelor. It is still hot, and his house is full of flies. I gaze admiringly at the wall paintings around the kang brick-bed of our host; their dilapidated charm reminds me of Ming dynasty murals, and I am taken aback to learn that they were painted when the house was built in 1978!

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

Female kin kowtow before the coffin, 2011.

After the first two morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, Wu Mei nips into town on his motorbike to collect his new bank card while the others return to Pansi for the burial procession there (more multi-tasking). I give this a miss, chatting with our host as he busies himself sorting the corn harvest piled up in his courtyard. The Daoists return from the Pansi burial at 11.25am, so there is only time for three of the usual four Delivering the Scriptures this morning. The Opening the Quarters ritual, once prescribed at this stage of a three-day funeral, is no longer performed in Yanggao.

Lunch is followed by a siesta. With Li Manshan still busy writing ritual documents on the kang, there is only space for three of us to rest there; two more Daoists recline in Yang Ying’s car, while Wang Ding nods off perched precariously on a narrow trunk. Then a couple of Li Manshan’s mates from Houguantun turn up to chat with him.

At 3pm the Daoists set off on procession to the soul hall for the afternoon Opening Scriptures. This turns into another Failed Experiment, and this time it’s all my fault. At my request they sing Eternal Homage (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), a very slow hymn that I have never recorded. Only afterwards does it transpire that it is commonly accompanied by shengguan; this is the first time they have tried the a cappella version for over twenty years. On the gong Wang Ding, then still inexperienced, keeps going too fast, and it’s a mess. Back at the scripture hall they rehearse it diligently. At least this shows that the a cappella version can still be performed.

Then the Fetching Water ritual (my film, from 41.06). First to the soul hall to collect the kin, then to the rather distant “river,” and back to the soul hall, ending with a fine sequence of popular errentai melodies and clowning. Again, for this sequence the family is either unaware of the tradition of throwing extra money onto the table or too stingy, and I fail to persuade the Daoists to let me give them some.

After supper we admire the bright stars and rest a while in the scripture hall, watching TV, while Li Manshan writes yet more paper documents for tomorrow’s Hoisting the Pennant. When our bachelor host returns I ask him, “You been watching the opera?” He replies wistfully, “Yeah—watching the women.”

At 8.30pm to the soul hall for the long-awaited Communicating the Lanterns—so-called. Instead of the prescribed ritual, the Daoists merely light ten candles in a row on the altar table, sing the long a cappella hymn Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, then play a quick shengguan sequence, and it’s all over! But the family is oblivious. The Daoists don’t give me any heads-up for this, nor—gratifyingly?!—does it occur to them to perform the proper ritual specially for my benefit. I now begin to realize they are disgruntled because the kin are not “accommodating” and have no understanding of the “rules.” But irrespective of relations with the host, this simplified version of Communicating the Lanterns has become standard in recent years.

So we finish early, before 10pm. The Daoists all live nearby, so we decide against enduring the modest hospitality of our bachelor host; the others zoom off on their motor-bikes while Li Bin drives Li Manshan and me back home to Upper Liangyuan.

Next morning Yuan Xuedong is depping for his cousin Yuan Gaoshan, and Yang Ying for Li Bin, who has gone off to lead another band for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan. In the scripture hall Li Manshan makes the little triangular paper flag to go at the top of the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (my film, from 44.22), and prepares the goodies, wrapping them up carefully in the beautiful long pennant. After the first two sessions Delivering the Scriptures the Daoists prepare the arena, hanging up the paper squares, sticking the red “god place” inscriptions onto the poles, and raising the flag and pennant high on the central pole. The ritual itself they perform in full, with all the hymns at each of the poles, the kin following them around the arena and kowtowing and burning paper on cue. But for the final chase Golden Noble doesn’t bother to don the five-buddhas hat or wield the precious sword. They are going through the motions. Still, this was the first Hoisting the Pennant here for at least thirteen years. While filming I got hit twice by firecrackers, with magnificent symmetry first on my left shoulder and then not long afterwards on my right. No damage done—occupational hazard.

The Daoists then lead the kin back to the soul hall, where they sing a short a cappella version of the brief pseudo-Sanskrit coda that concludes hymns like Diverse and Nameless. Next, on a brief kitchen visit to Invite Offerings they sing the six-line hymn Songjing gongde. Returning to the scripture hall they do a brief “scriptures for well-being” session for our poor host, playing The Five Offerings on shengguan while he kneels and burns paper before the image of the City God of This Earth. Then back to the soul hall again for a perfunctory Presenting the Offerings ritual. Both Inviting and Presenting Offerings were formerly more lengthy, particularly for temple fairs. After lunch the others take a siesta, but Li Manshan has to keep writing away.

For the first Delivering the Scriptures of the afternoon they sing a cappella the long Mantra of the Skeleton. They give me permission to sit out the second Delivering the Scriptures—and sure enough, on their return they tease me that they sang Fanhun xiang, which I’ve never recorded!

Between (and occasionally even during) rituals the Daoists check their mobiles. To wonder if their Ming-dynasty forebears would have behaved like this is as pointless as the debate whether Mozart would have written jingles for TV ads; the kind of conditions that produce mobile phones are related to those that prompt people to check them during rituals.

Towards dusk they do the Invitation at the edge of the village. Li Qing’s prescription for a three-day funeral places the Invitation on the first day and Redeeming the Treasuries on the second day; but since they no longer do the Pardon or Crossing the Bridges on the second day, there is time to do the Invitation and Redeeming the Treasuries in sequence then.

After returning to the soul hall we immediately set off to the public arena for Judgment and Alms. Again, this ritual is now rarely performed, so this should be a rare chance for me. The paper squares hung up around the arena for Hoisting the Pennant are taken down and burned, then the red god inscriptions on the poles, and finally the central pole is pushed over. But again the ritual is a far cry from what it should be. As Wu Mei later confides, “It was a modernized Judgment and Alms!”

Then immediately back to the soul hall to fetch the treasuries for the Redeeming the Treasuries procession. After supper we enjoy the skit outside the gate, laughing along with the village audience, tearing ourselves away to take our places around the altar table for the first installment of Transferring Offerings. As soon as Wu Mei plays the plaintive preludial two notes of Diverse and Nameless, the tone is set for a deeply mournful long slow hymn; at once we are all deep in the groove, our concentration total. But the ritual is rather perfunctory, and Yang Ying drives us back to Upper Liangyuan by 11pm. Tired as we are, Li Manshan is keen to give me a session on how the Judgment and Alms should really go, our chat itself serving as a kind of exorcism.

burial

On the final day, in bright sunshine, we return to the village for the burial. A list of gifts is pasted up at the gate, on red paper: gifts range from 800 down to 100 yuan, with most donors giving 200. Popular opinion is that these amounts are too mean. The preparations for the burial take ages, the kin faffing around endlessly, while Li Manshan mutters expletives under his breath. The burial procession is uneventful. The son’s coffin is to be reburied next to that of his mother. Li Manshan returns to the soul hall to stick up talismans in a brief exorcism. A protracted lunch—a wearisome day altogether. By now Li Manshan and Li Bin are really annoyed with the family. First Li Manshan has to haggle with them over the bill (never normally an issue), then Li Bin, whose gig at Lower Liangyuan ended at 3am last night, arrives to lend his support. While I wait discreetly in Li Bin’s car, a toothless ancient geezer talks at me non-stop and incomprehensibly for twenty minutes. Since I gather he was talking about the funeral, this might have been interesting, but I can only deduce the gist—that it was a crap funeral, and the family was stingy.

Then an impressively ugly peasant woman in a flimsy minidress walks by, grazing two donkeys. I seem to have stumbled onto a Fellini filmset. She takes pity on my verbal bombardment from the ancient codger, and after he wanders off she chats with me for a while in mercifully standard Chinese. She comes from Sichuan, and was sold to a man in this village twenty years ago; she recalls that it took her a couple of years to adapt to Yanggao dialect.

While Li Bin haggles with the family, quarrels and recriminations break out within the family, people red-faced from booze wandering around shouting at each other. It’s just like Christmas in England. After Li Bin drives us back home to Upper Liangyuan, Li Manshan and I recover, consulting the manuals again, clearing up a few more of my incessant queries, joking.

Cohesion and dislocation
In a modest contribution to the fine tradition of learning from failed rituals, let’s reflect on these notes.

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on—the very area that Lagerwey (China: a religious state, pp.153–170) seems to characterize as a kind of rural paradise is one where feuds between lineages, and between villages, have long been brutal.

Shi Shengbao 2018

Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, Yangguantun 2018. Photo: Li Bin.

With his long experience of serving the villages in the area, Li Manshan has a network of guanxi contacts among senior men familiar with ritual proprieties—for instance, he is always happy to work in Pansi and Yangguantun, where the people are friendly and knowledgeable. At a fine funeral in Yangguantun in 2016, the gujiang shawm band was playing “greater opera” on their truck outside the gate, but stopped when we approached, as the “old rules” demand. The fine director Shi Shengbao, then a youthful 69 sui, took the job up in 1981 because he liked it. The family, and our scripture hall hosts, are cultured and respectful. Still, when you look closely, the village is still poor, with decrepit derelict boarded-up old houses. These villages are dying.

The main reason why the funeral described above was so unsatisfactory was because the Li band hadn’t performed there before, and none of the kin—or indeed the village’s ritual director or the plentiful men in their 50s to 70s—seemed to know the most basic “rules,” so Li Manshan had to explain even fundamental proprieties like kowtowing.

While the Daoists were disturbed by the whole ritual ignorance of the village, they and their rituals were not a crucial element in the failure of the event. It was through their irritation that I became aware of the conflicts within the village and the funeral family, which were going to come to a head anyway. The Daoists have routinely been simplifying the three-day sequence even for more discriminating clients; the titles of many ritual segments endure, but their content is diluted and homogenized.

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. It shows that a subtle degree of respect for the “rules,” from some quarter, is still expected. Sure, it is a small village, so they don’t get to put on so many funerals, but still, if they had so little clue about the proper procedures, and balked at the expense, then why did they bother requesting a three-day funeral in the first place—why not just book the Daoists for a minimal sequence? Li Manshan’s group is perfectly accustomed to doing this, and one might suppose that their irritation derived mainly from the final squabble over money. But the Daoists were already feeling disgruntled soon after arriving, long before the bill had to be settled.

The decision to hold a funeral over three days rather than two involves far more than merely the minor expense of asking the Daoists to perform a few more rituals. The pop band and the shawm band, as well as the cooks, have to be hired; the returning kin have to take extra time off their work in distant towns.

In sum, a lot depends on whether the host is “cooperative” or not. On tour in Germany in 2013 we observe that our hosts are all very cooperative—whereas we joke that Milan, scene of our most desultory European gig, should twin up with the village described above. Of course, what they expect of their hosts for domestic and foreign contexts are totally different. Abroad, the host merely has to find a good venue and provide decent hospitability; back home, the host family is expected to work closely with the Daoists in accordance with complex ritual organization.

In the Coda of my book, “Things ain’t what they used to be”, I round up the theme of ritual decline.

Note the recent diaries of Li Manshan and Li Bin. Funerals feature throughout my posts under Local ritual; see also e.g. Funerals in Hebei.