Daoists of Changwu, Shaanxi

As I continue to explore little-known local traditions of household Daoist ritual, this article is based on a brief section of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (pp.101–105). I haven’t been to Changwu, so (as with several sites in the book) this is more of an invitation for people to go and do some serious fieldwork there. Here I supplement material from my book with some more recent online sources.

The Anthology
The brief account in my book is itself largely based on a report in the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minzu minjian yinyue jicheng, henceforth “the Anthology”). I assessed this monumental work documenting and transcribing local genres of traditional music in a lengthy article:

“Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337;

Chinese translation “Zili hangjian du jicheng: ping hongwei juance Zhongguo minzu minjian yinyue jicheng”, Zhongguo yinyuexue [Musicology in China] 2003/3: 103–28.

It is all to easy to criticize the limitations of the Anthology. But if one learns to read between the lines, the amount of local material for a broad spectrum of music-making is truly amazing—bearing in mind the discomforts and limitations fieldworkers suffered, and the problems of studying folk and especially ritual music in modern China. Given the ideological heritage, and despite the Anthology’s many shortcomings, it contains far more data on local customs than we have a right to expect. it contains a vast amount of material otherwise unavailable, offering outside scholars a unique entry-point into regional traditions: consulting it (along with the xianzhi county gazetteers) will be indispensable preparation for our own fieldwork.

The Changwu Daoists
Among the separate Anthology volumes for folksong, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance, “religious music” is usually allocated a section in the volumes on instrumental music, but in this case it is in the Shaanxi volumes of the Anthology of narrative-singing music that we find an exceptionally detailed section on the funeral liturgy of household Daoist ritual specialists in Changwu 长武 county (in west-central Shaanxi, at the border with eastern Gansu). [1] As with Shanxi province just east, little material has surfaced from the central regions of Shaanxi—so these clues are all the more valuable.


The material on the Changwu Daoists is based on the Wen lineage, notably Wen Jixiang 文吉祥 (1903–98) and Wen Donglai 文東來 (b. c1930), from Fangzhuang 方庄 village of Penggong district. Working in a group of around seven, they are described as belonging to the Heavenly Masters Orthodox Unity (Tianshi Zhengyi) tradition.

But from their costumes, hats, and the style of their ritual manuals, I now suspect this may be another household Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) tradition, as in Shuozhou. Though I have suggested (there, and in my book) that nominal affiliation may not be so significant, could this be another case where scholars have glossed “household” as “Orthodox Unity”? This begins to look like a worrying trend. Indeed, tucked away in Zhang Xingyun’s book (see n.1 below: p.176) is a tiny mention that they belong to the Huashan branch (of Complete Perfection Daoism)!

Anyway, the Wen lineage claimed a family tradition dating back to the 18th century. As we found in Shuozhou, there were close links between temple and household priests: twice, in Qianlong and Daoguang eras, their ancestors had passed examinations for official Daoist rank (kaoqu daoguan zhixian 考取道官職銜), later setting up as a household group.

Another Daoist consulted by Anthology collectors, Wang Zhixi 王志壐 (1903–89), was a disciple of Wen Huanzhang 文煥章 (1905–34), Wen Donglai’s father, though he is said to have taken part in the latter’s group only from the 1950s. By 2007, when local cultural authorities promoted the “genre” as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project for Shaanxi, they claimed that only one group was still working; as ever, this claim may serve to justify the urgency of the project, and indeed may derive from a lack of more recent fieldwork.

The Daoists distinguish two types of jiao Offering rituals: “pure jiao” ( qingjiao 清醮, or “jiao for well-being” pingan jiao 平安醮, for the living) and “mortuary jiao” (jianwang jiao 荐亡醮 or mingyang daochang 冥陽道場).

In addition to recently-copied texts, they were using some old manuals from the late Qing and Republican eras, including Taishang lingbao baojing 太上靈寶寶經 volumes (for yingjia 迎駕 Welcoming the Palanquin, jingtan–danghui 淨壇蕩穢 Purifying the Altar and Cleansing Filth, and fendeng 分燈 Distributing the Lanterns rituals), and the litanies Shiwang jieyuan bazui baochan 十王解寃拔罪寶懺 and Yuhuang cifu baochan 玉皇賜褔寶懺. [2]

A “scripture hall” (song)jingtang (誦)經堂 is set up—apparently like we found in Yanggao (my book, pp.27–8), a room in which the Daoists prepare and rest, well away from the soul hall. In north Shanxi the ritual aspects of this room have become much simplified since the 1980s, but here it is elaborately decorated with ritual hangings and is a site of ritual activity. It consists of front and rear altars (qiantan 前壇, houtan 後壇). At the front altar are hung images of Yuhuang, Guanyin, and Dizang; at the rear altar, the Santian jiaozhu 三天教主 (Yuqing yuanshi tianzun, Shangqing lingbao tianzun, and Taiqing daode tianzun).

In the courtyard of the mortuary site, or in a suitably large space outside, heavenly and yin underworld altars (tiantan 天壇, yintan 陰壇) are set up. The heavenly altar is either a star altar (xingtan 星壇, or civil altar wentan 文壇) for qingjiao rituals, or a thunder altar (leitan 雷壇, or martial altar wutan 武壇) for mortuary rituals (for which the star altar may also be constructed). The yin altar is a platform for Dispensing Food (shishi tai 施食台) or ritual platform (fatai 法台).

This very rough-and-ready video gives an impression.

Their jiao are further classified by length: chenggui 成規 jiao lasting four days and three nights, qiluo 起落 jiao over three days and two nights, and zhanling 站靈 jiao lasting one and a half days. Though it may be that only the latter has been common in recent decades, the account lists the full version (see Table)—as long as we don’t confuse prescription with description.

Unusually (and admirably), the Anthology material concentrates on the vocal liturgy, but melodic instrumental music is also played: guan oboe and di flute are mentioned, so one supposes it was a branch of the northern shengguan ritual tradition.


Throughout Shaanxi, apart from vocal liturgy and ritual percussion, most ritual groups have added a “small suona” shawm to the classic shengguan ensemble.

As an interim measure, we may compare some of the ritual segments below with those of the Daoists in YanggaoShuozhou, and further afield.

Mortuary jiao, Changwu county
Day 1

  • qingshen 請神 Inviting the Gods: procession outside.
  • anshen 安神 Settling the Gods: at front and rear altars of scripture hall.
  • zhaohun 招魂 Summoning the Soul: at Shanshen miao or Tudi miao temples, or at crossroads.


  • baidou 拜斗 Worshipful Reciting of the Northern Dipper Scripture: recite Beidou jing 北斗經 (cf. my book, p.243).

Day 2

  • recite Sanguan jing 三官經 (cf. my book, p.380) at front altar.
  • yingshui 迎水 Welcoming Water: procession to well; sing Shieryuan 十二愿.
  • yangfan 揚幡 Hoisting the Pennant
  • yinggong 迎供 Welcoming Offerings
  • ying xianfan 迎獻飯 Welcoming the Offering Food, including Xiaojing 孝經 and Ershisi xiao 二十四孝.
  • wei tiantan 圍天壇Surrounding the Heavenly Altar (kaitian danghui 開天蕩穢Opening the Heavens and Cleansing Filth): recite Jingtan jing 淨壇經; celebrant wields qixing baojian 七星寶劍 sword and sprinkles water from well. Guoguan 過關 Crossing the Passes [3] is often performed here, celebrant dotting children with red while singing Shibaoguan 十保關.
  • yemiao 謁廟 Paying a Visit to the Temples: tour of temples.
  • guo naiheqiao 過奈河橋Crossing the Bridge of No Return. The naihe bridge (yinqiao, silver bridge) is made of carts. Celebrant leads kin across bridge, reciting Shidian jing 十殿經.
  • du tianqiao 渡天橋Crossing the Heavenly Bridge. The heavenly bridge (jinqiao, golden bridge) is adorned with blue cloth; muyu 沐浴, zhaojing 照鏡, shuzhuang 梳妝; celebrant sprinkles grain and water to sides of bridge thrice.
  • san dianjiu 三奠酒 Triple Libations of Wine: before coffin, singing Xiaojing 孝經 and Dianjiu ge 奠酒歌.
  • jiejia 接駕 Receiving the Palanquin. Kin kneel before golden bridge, celebrant recites and burns biao 表 memorial. Triple inviting of Sanqing paintings at rear altar, officiant (zhishi 執事) climbs bridge, celebrant sings Sanjiao zan 三教讚, another recites sanjiao text.
  • chaofan 朝幡 Audience of the Pennant
  • jianwang 荐亡 Visits to the Deceased (to the coffin?) interspersed in these sequences.
  • fendeng 分燈 Distributing the Lanterns (pao liandeng 跑蓮燈Chasing Round the Lotus Lanterns; cf. Shuozhou?) (fendeng, a basic part of many southern and temple traditions, seems less common in the north). Illuminating the gates of the hells with precious lanterns of the Sanqing heavenly realms. Emerging from the rear altar, one Daoist dressed as fawang 法王, two as daotong 道童, and 2–4 others, perform paowufang 跑五方, jianziguang 剪子桄, and daobazi 倒八字 spatial dispositions, and display the lanterns at the altar in three sequences. Then they lead the kin in a fast tour around the heavenly altar, and make a hectic crossing of the naihe bridge—this time for their own benefit, not that of the deceased. With caps and shoes going astray and people falling off, this also provides comic relief.

Day 3

  • guabang 挂榜 Hanging the Placard: the two announcements of the deceased’s details are posted on a wall, the celebrant sings the Ten Repayments for Kindness Shi bao’en 十報恩 (my book, p.275) and recites the placard (bangwen 榜文).
  • jin wuchao 進午朝 Presenting the [memorial at the] Noon Audience. At an altar table placed before the jingtang, kin present offerings as Daoists sing, and two Daoists dance with rare percussion instruments yugu 魚鼓 and jianban 簡板.
  • baibiao 拜表 Worshipfully Presenting the Memorials. Celebrant places die and biao 牒表 memorials on a tray on the head of the oldest son, and leads him to kneel before the fan pennant outside the gateway, where the memorials are burnt.
  • jiebang 揭榜 Tearing Down the Placard. The placard is taken down from the wall and placed on a tray, ready to be burnt in the evening.


  • po tiantan 破天壇 Smashing the Heavenly Altar (daotan 倒壇 Overturning the Altar, cishen 辞神 Farewell to the Gods). On a table outside the heavenly altar are placed the holy water and a thunder rule (leichi 雷尺). The celebrant wields the precious sword on a tour of the four quarters of the altar, escorting all the gods in turn, chopping off a talisman with his sword each time, finally taking the god placard from the central dou bowl and burning them all. He shakes the poles to indicate the closing of the altar, and they go to outside the jingtang. After singing the Songshen jing 送神經, the pennant, poles, and god placards are burnt.


  • shishi 施食 Dispensing Food (my book, index “yankou”)   performed at the yin altar. First they escort the Ten Kings back to the hells, upturning their pennants and reciting the Jianwang jing 荐亡經. Ascending the platform, three celebrants sing the Shisa ge 十洒歌, sprinkling food and water for the hungry ghosts. Then they sing the Daobing zan 刀兵讚, Xiaojing, Shi bao’en, Shidian ge, and Jianwang jing.
  • sanxianli 三獻禮 Triple Offerings of Rites. Triple offerings at the coffin: chuxian 初獻, yaxian 亞獻, zhongxian 終獻, accompanied by shengguan and shawm band, with Xiaojing and Jianwang jing sung after each offering.

Day 4 (am)

  • cizao 辞灶 Farewell to the Stove: recite the Zaojing 灶經.
  • songbin fayin 送殯發引 Burial Procession: Daoists, unusually, attend at the grave, and sing Song to Seal the Earth Fengtu ge 封土歌.

Ritual life like this cries out for detailed fieldwork. One would hope to learn more about any other groups in the vicinity, not to mention documenting change over a lifetime. With so much of our knowledge based on research in south China, such spadework also augments our ritual vocabulary for the north. These clues should lead us westward towards Gansu, perhaps the most fertile ground for household Daoist ritual in north China (In search of the folk Daoists, ch.6).

[1] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan, Appendix pp.1559–1684 (text 1559–65, transcriptions 1566–1683, biographies 1684). The textual material (apparently by Hui Xinsheng 惠新升 and Zhang Xingyun 张兴运) is brief but useful, and is illuminated by well-annotated transcriptions of vocal liturgy. Zhang Xingyun et al., Zongjiao yinyue zonglan (Shaanxi lüyou chubanshe, c2001) is a revised edition in book form, with additional notes on the vocal passages, as well as further sections on other lay genres of vocal liturgy in Xianyang and Xingping. The Shaanxi vols. of the Anthology of folk instrumental music of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng) also mention nearby Binxian and Xunyi counties as having ritual traditions (1327–8, 961–1201). Recent online sources such as https://kknews.cc/culture/p5rz68.html, https://freewechat.com/a/MzIyOTA5MzEyOA==/2653293971/3/?rss are still less than ideal.

[2] For such jing and chan scriptures, widely distributed, see my book, pp.211–14, 218–19, 375–82.

[3] guoguan: for child-protection rituals including baosuo Hanging the Locket, cf. my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, Part Two, and the DVD Chinese Shadows.