Daoists of Datong county, Shanxi

The trouble with doing a detailed long-term study of the history and ritual practice of one single Daoist family (my book, and film) is that my notes from “hit-and-run” visits to other groups look absurdly superficial. But it’s important to do this kind of regional survey in order to see the wider picture. [1]

In my work on household Daoist ritual specialists in north China, I often stress that the notional difference between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection branches is largely academic at the village level. Still, so far it looks as if the received portrayal of household Daoist ritual in north Shanxi as being dominated by Orthodox Unity is mistaken. With household Complete Perfection groups active in Tianzhen, Guangling, Shuozhou, and Yingxian counties, the Yanggao Daoists (such as our Li family in Upper Liangyuan) may now seem to be an exception.

But in Datong county (just southwest of Yanggao, and east of the vast and ever-expanding Datong city), the Daoist groups are also Orthodox Unity—and what’s more, here we have a clear connection with former temple priests! Household Daoists here are commonly called erzhai—which may also just mean a solo practitioner who performs no group rituals, only determining the date and choosing auspicious sites for the dead and the living.

Dangliuzhuang: a cautionary tale
First, one of the most frustrating stories in my three decades of fieldwork!

As we passed through Datong county in August 1992, an old melon-seller by the roadside kindly led us to the house of Yang Quan 楊全 (b.1923), a renowned sixth-generation household Daoist in Dangliuzhuang 党留庄 village. His second son was also a Daoist; the oldest son was the village Party Secretary.

We spent a wonderfully instructive afternoon with Yang Quan. Like so many lineages in north China (including Li Manshan’s ancestors), they had been part of the mass migrations from the transfer centre at Hongtong further south in Shanxi around 1400. Yang Quan believed that their vocal liturgy was originally performed with percussion only, until his great-grandfather learned the shengguan ritual wind ensemble music from someone called Ding 丁 in Baijiazhuang 白家庄 nearby. Unable to find this village (or close variants) on the map, I eventually worked out that he meant Beijiazao (see below). He said Ding was the main teacher for the Daoist groups in the area.

We clearly weren’t quite tuned into his accent, because he went on to tell us of his colleague Li Sheng 李胜 in Jiebu 介堡 village, whose grandfather was also a Daoist, though he himself worked mainly as a shawm player. And again, I now fail to identify the village…

Yang Quan also described the jiao Offering ritual (performed both for calendrical temple fairs and praying for rain), and Thanking the Earth. In those early days after the liberalizations, the county authorities seemed to control ritual activity rather strictly—they had bought new ritual instruments at New Year 1988 but were forbidden to play. There have been no such fears when we have returned since 2009.

Though Yang’s family used to have many ritual manuals, the authorities forced them to destroy them in the Cultural Revolution. But, wonder of wonders, they had managed to preserve an old gongche solfeggio score of shengguan ritual ensemble music. When he brought it out to show it to us, it turned out to be one of the most amazing scores that I have ever seen, with the complete sequences of classic ritual suites written in an ancient form of gongche resembling the style of the Zhihua temple in Beijing. It was a thick and delicate volume, and our time was short; I resolved to come back another time and take complete photos.

Fast-forward to 2011, and I can’t wait to return in order to photograph the score and learn more. In the company of the splendid Li Jin, we drive to Dangliuzhuang, and over lunch at a friendly transport caff on the main road we ask the cool waitress if she known any erzhai nearby; sure enough, she gives us directions to Yang’s house. So far so good…

We learn that Yang Quan died in 2008, but we wait outside his son’s house, and eventually he shows up—pissed out of his tree after a convivial lunch. I mean, I’ve seen some pissed people in my time (both on orchestral tours and notably in restaurants in China where cadres or police are holding banquets), but this is something else—he can hardly stand up. Conversation is out of the question.

The family women help find a few printed almanacs, and one recently-copied manual, but there’s no sign of the precious old score. When I ask, they say they sold it after Yang Quan died. F-U-U-CK. There’s nothing more to be done here. Life’s like that sometimes… We drive on in search of Daoists in Hunyuan county.

In our studies, the ritual repertoire of suites for shengguan wind ensemble (shenqu 神曲 “holy pieces”, remember) was formerly the main focus of Chinese scholars. It may have come to take a suitably subsidiary role behind vocal liturgy in my own work, but the material remains important. [2]

The Zhang lineage of Beijiazao

BJZ ad and pennant

Zhang Fengwu’s advertisement for funeral business, with pennant for Hoisting the Pennant ritual in front.

We returned later to explore other leads in Datong county. The village of Beijiazao 倍加皂 lies north off the road leading east towards Yanggao. Remarkably, it is among the villages where Willem Grootaers collected data on temple artefacts in the 1940s. [3] As always, systematic as his work was, I wish he had paid attention to ritual specialists too!

In Beijiazao we visited Zhang Fengcheng 张凤城 (known as Zhang Laowu 老五, b. 1966), a fourth-generation household Orthodox Unity Daoist whose band is most esteemed in the area. Already accustomed to the questions of Chen Yu, he was most welcoming when we visited him in 2011.

The first to learn ritual in the family was his great-grandfather Zhang Jinming 张锦明, who copied the manuals which are now in his possession. Zhang Laowu’s grandfather Zhang Lingui 张林桂 spent some time as resident priest of a temple in Chang’an 长安 village just south, and Laowu’s father Zhang Ding 张鼎 (1930–2003) was also accomplished at all aspects of ritual.

The elusive Mr Ding, mentioned by the late lamented Yang Quan in 1992, had apparently moved to Xiezhuang 解庄 (there’s another little trick that north Chinese accents often play: 解 is often read xie, not jie. Someone tell Google maps—and while they’re about it, 堡 is pronounced bu, not pu or even bao!).


Beijiazao band, 2009. Photo: Chen Yu.

The current pool of ritual specialists is a close-knit family, all pupils of Zhang Ding (sui ages in 2011):

Zhang Fengcheng (Laowu) 张凤成 (46)
Zhang Fengrui 张凤瑞 (64) cousin
Zhang Fengqi 张凤岐 (57)
Zhang Fengping 张凤平 (54)
Zhang Fengtai 张凤太 (48)
Zhang Fenglin 张凤林 (48)
Zhang Zhencai 张镇财 (25) son of Zhang Fenglin
Zhang Wenlian 张文连 (25) cousin

They describe funerals here now as lasting two days—what would be called three days in most parts of north China, including the final day of the burial. Occasionally for rich families, as in Nanzhuang in 2010 (for an erzhai geomancer’s funeral), they do a six-day sequence.

The “two-day” funeral sequence that Zhang Laowu described closely resembles those of Yanggao (see my book) and Tianzhen, though as usual some of the public fashi rituals are likely to represent an ideal version:

Day 1

  • Opening Scriptures kaijing 開經; total of three litanies in the morning (sanchan jing 三懺經, also called shuichan jing 水懺經)


  • Fetching Water qushui 取水; on return, Offering Scriptures xianjing 獻經 before the coffin


  • three further litanies


  • Bestowing Food shishi 施食
  • yankou 焰口
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls songgu 送孤

Day 2

  • Hoisting the Pennant yangfan 揚幡


  • Chasing the Five Quarters pao wufang 跑五方 (Opening the Quarters kaifang 開方)


  • Crossing the Bridges guoqiao 過橋
  • Sacrifice for the Treasuries jiku 祭庫 (as in Yanggao huanku)
  • Invitation zhaoqing 召請
  • Judgment and Alms panhu 盼斛
  • Roaming the Lotuses youlian 遊蓮

Day 3, am: burial

Temple fairs now appear rare. They used to perform rituals for the Didangsi 地黨寺 temple at Shiya 石崖 (?) whose Nainai miao 奶奶廟 temple also held a popular fair on 4th moon 8th; and they performed for the temple fair at Jule 聚乐 just north.

Zhang Laowu

Zhang Fengcheng (Laowu), 2011.

They wear red fayi costumes in the morning, and blue daopao in the afternoon; their hats are pingding guan 平顶冠 flat hats (!), in the Complete Perfection style that we’ve seen in Shuozhou and elsewhere; and for particular ritual segments they don “five-Buddha hats” wufo guan. Zhang Laowu had recently had a long pennant made for the Hoisting the Pennant ritual.

Ritual manuals

Beijiazao manuals

Some of Zhang family’s ritual manuals, Beijiazao.

Zhang Laowu says their ritual manuals were copied by his great-grandfather Zhang Jinming—the original cover pages have not survived, so new titles have been written more recently on blue cardboard covers. As usual, he has copied many further texts into several small notebooks.

He also has a printed copy of the Xuanmen risong zaoke from the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. He shows us how it is the same as their own Taishang laojun daode tianzun zao gongke. He may be a bit too keen to link their tradition to the White Cloud Temple, but he’s quite right that their manuals overlap strongly with those of temples. For most of these manuals and scriptures, see my book, pp.375–82 and Part Four.

  • Taishang Zhenwu shiyiyao shenzhou jing juan 太上真武十一曜神咒經卷, including Yuanshi tianzun shuo beifang Zhenwu miaojing 元始天尊說北方真武妙經 and Yuanshi tianzun shuo shiyi yao da xiaozai shenzhou jing 元始天尊說十一曜大消災神咒經.
  • Yinjiao wangong ke jingchan juan 陰教晚功科經懺卷 (beginning from other end of same volume)
  • Taishang Zhengyi wuchao shixian kewen juan 太上正乙午朝十獻科文卷 and
  • Taishang yuanshi baotan wufu guandeng jing ke 太上元始寶壇五福觀燈經科 (beginning from other end of same volume)
  • Taishang yuanshi laojun xingzhu baochan kewen juan 太上元始老君星主寶懺科文卷and
  • Taishang yuanshi tuhuang dadi diangong ke 太上元始土皇大帝奠工[功]科 (beginning from other end of same volume)
Zhenwu Shiyiyao

From Taishang Zhenwu shiyiyao shenzhou jing juan manual.

In a more formal script:

  • Taishang laojun daode tianzun zao gongke 太上老君道德天尊早功科 (includes several scriptures)
  • Taishang cibei daochang miezui shuichan fa 太上慈悲道场滅罪水懺法.
from Laojun zao gongke

From Taishang laojun daode tianzun zao gongke manual.

They also had a copy of an old gongche score for the ritual shengguan ensemble, including the suites—which, as usual, they now hardly need to play.

BJZ Zhang faqi

Old gongs and hand-bell, Beijiazao.

The Li lineage of Xingzhuang
Chen Yu (pp.65–6) also visited the Li lineage of Xingzhuang 邢庄 in Dangliuzhuang district, whose current Daoists are fourth generation.

Li Qingye 李清業
Li Ai 李艾 (1885–1968)
Li Xilin 李西林
Li Pu 李蒲 (b.c1950) is one of four brothers, all ritual specialists. But no-one has learned in the next generation.

Li Pu has preserved two gongche solfeggio scores, one copied by Li Ai in 1924 (13th year of the Republic), and another by his father Li Xilin.

We also mean to explore Upper Yujian 上榆涧, just northeast of Beijiazao, though the erzhai mentioned there may turn out to be only a solo practitioner who determines the date and chooses auspicious sites.

For me, the most interesting clue from Datong county is that household Orthodox Unity Daoists too might come from a temple origin. In Yanggao we found no suggestion that the household Orthodox Unity Daoists there had ever had a connection with temple priests, whereas in Tianzhen and Shuozhou the household Daoists with temple origins were Complete Perfection.

But the case of Beijiazao shows that the exchange between temple and household could also apply to Orthodox Unity Daoists (for other instances, notably for Hebei and Gansu, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China). And of course, before the 1950s there were plenty of temple-dwelling priests of Orthodox Unity as well as Complete Perfection branches. You note that Zhang Laowu’s great-grandfather was not a temple priest, so he had presumably learned from other local household Daoists, and practised as one; his own son spent some time as a temple priest, but that was not a defining aspect of the family ritual history.

My only doubt now comes from the slender clue provided by the shape of their hats. The household Daoists in nearby Yanggao unambiguously belong to an Orthodox Unity tradition, but so far I can only describe the Daoists of Datong county as Orthodox Unity from their own characterization. In Guangling we saw how Daoists have recently converted their hats and costumes; we didn’t query this in Datong county, but their hats may now sow a little seed of doubt. In the end, as I keep saying, it’s not a major issue.

Locals—including ritual specialists—pay no attention to whether a temple was Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection. Before the 1950s, when a poor family with several young sons thought to give one of them to a local temple, they did not consult a directory and then make some choice between Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection, like an English parent choosing a school; they merely sent him to whatever local temple was available. Their ritual sequences, performing styles, and texts are similar; the main difference lies merely in their fahao lineage names, and in their slightly different costumes and hats. Differences in rituals seem to be based on local transmission rather than on notional denomination. For instance, while there is a basic shared ritual repertoire in these counties, rituals like the Pardon or Roaming the Lotuses are performed in some areas but not in others.

And we always need to recall that the great majority of these local temples had a staff of only one master, perhaps with one young disciple. Temples with a staff of even three were rare. If the Daoists there were to do ritual among the folk, they needed a pool of local household Daoists to work with—some of whom might themselves have spent some time as young temple priests. The situation was always fluid.


[1] This page is based on my notes from 1992 and 2011. With thanks (yet again) to Xue Yibing, Li Jin, Liu Yan, Ma Hongqi, and Chen Yu—see also the latter’s book, Jinbei minjian daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.65–8.

[2] For more, see Chen Yu, pp.173–84, 267–81; my book, pp.290–97.

[3] Grootaers, Willem A. “Les temples villageois de la region au sud-est de Ta-t’ong (Chansi nord), leurs inscriptions et leur histoire”, Folklore studies (Beijing, 1945) 4: 161–212. Xiezhuang is also on his detailed map of the distribution of temples.