The Buddhists of Ekou, Shanxi

In my post on our 1992 trip through north Shanxi I mentioned our brief visit to the household Buddhist ritual specialists of Ekou township in Daixian, near Wutaishan. Here are some further notes, which though sketchy may augment our understanding of ritual and society in the region. [1] I’ve now added a prequel here.

Around Wutaishan
I had already visited Wutaishan in 1986 in one of my very first forays outside Beijing—when it was only just opening up, and was still largely free of its later tourist commercialisation. The focus of most Chinese and foreign interest in the Wutaishan range is the Buddhism of its great temples, amidst the “five terraces” of the mountain proper. As one of the most important sites for Buddhist ritual (including shengguan wind ensemble) and pilgrimage in north China, this is indeed a major topic, studied by Chinese music scholars since 1947. In both scholarship and official public discourse, the history of the major temples tend to obscure the practice of folk religion in a constantly changing society.

The 1988 Wutai county gazetteer reminds us again that temples were a breeding-ground for sectarian groups. Several of the sects listed around Wutai were organized from the base of Wutaishan temples (see here).

Former Wutaishan monks visit the UK, 1992
Anyway, Wutai county alone consists of over three hundred villages and townships, and the inhabitants of “lower Wutai” have little contact with “upper Wutai”, feeling remote from the grand temples there with their austere monks. Although folk religion is very strong throughout the county (with a truly amazing number of female spirit mediums in every village we visited), funerals and temple fairs seem largely to be practised without liturgy.

We attended several impressive funerals in the Dongye area, but the only vestige of ritual specialists there seemed to be fine occupational shengguan instrumental ensembles whose paraliturgical suite repertory, quite distinct from that of the local shawm bands, was closely related to that of the monks on Wutaishan.

But we did find some clues to folk ritual practice in the area just northwest of the mountain. In 1990 a “Wutaishan Buddhist music troupe” had performed at a festival of religious music in Beijing, mainly featuring shengguan wind ensemble music, as was typical for such concert performances—indeed, it was as a complement to this name that the Li family Daoists in Yanggao were lumbered with the erroneous title “Hengshan Daoist music troupe” at the same time. They were among several temple groups then being showcased for the concert platform.

In 1992 I was able to invite the Wutaishan ensemble for a tour of England under the aegis of a major world music festival sponsored by BBC Radio 3. Their “group leaders” from the provincial Bureau of Culture presented them as real monks, and they gladly played the part, wearing their robes for the whole tour—which suited their UK hosts. I didn’t (then) feel like arguing. And we used their former clerical names throughout.

WTS percWTS shengguan
Left to right: Liaochong (b.1920), Yunrui (b.1932), Yunzhi (b.1925), Liaoman (b.1923), Yungui (b.1928), Xuanping (b.1942), Chengde (b.1936), Renliang (b.1927). (Leading up to the tour, these names gave rise to a brilliant story, which you must read!)

WTS monks and me

My first experience of taking Chinese ritual specialists on tour, it was a happy time for us all. We visited the British Museum, where I was delighted to show them the wonderful Liao-dynasty arhat that had inspired me to take up Chinese in my teens—only later did I realise that it comes from Yixian county, where we were soon to do some of our most fascinating fieldwork.

WTS monks and luohan

The group consisted of former monks, long laicized; they had all been given to temples between the ages of 6 and 10 sui, but none of them had lived on Wutaishan since the 1950s. Most of them came from Fanshi and Daixian counties around the northern foothills of Wutaishan, and had been pledged to nearby temples between the ages of 7 and 12 sui; after being ordained at Wutaishan, they had mainly continued practising in their home temples, such as the Gongzhu si 公主寺 of Gongzhu village in Fanshi, and the Wenshu si 文殊寺 (Xisi 西寺) in Ekou township, Daixian.

Ren Liang recalled his masters at the Gongzhu temple, Neng Xiu 能秀 and Ren Hua 仁華; at the Wenshu temple, the master of Chengde and Yunrui was Jiebao 界寶. Xuanping had lived at the Mimo si 秘魔寺 (Mimo yan 秘魔岩) temple near Yantou town in Fanshi, as well as the Guangji maopeng 廣濟茅篷 on Wutaishan. Liaochong was given to the Qifo si 七佛寺 temple on Wutaishan aged 9 sui. He and Liaoman had spent time with Xuanping at the Mimo yan, moving in the 1950s to the Xuanzhong si 玄中寺 temple in Jiaocheng county southwest of Taiyuan; after being laicized they were based in Jiaocheng.

RL and CD

Chengde (sheng) accompanying Ren Liang (guanzi). Chengde’s posture and closed eyes were typical of former monks who had learned the shengguan ritual music from young.

The lovely (Du 杜) Chengde 成德 was now based in Ekou, and was part of an occupational household Buddhist group still regularly performing folk ritual. We didn’t find him at home on a brief visit at Ekou very soon after the UK tour—but we did have a long chat with his older brother Du Guichang 杜貴長 (b.1933), himself a devout and knowledgeable lay Buddhist.

Du Guichang

Du Guichang at home, 1992.

For the previous three generations, one male in every generation of the Du family had been pledged to the Wenshu temple in Ekou—generally one suffering from illness—partly in the hope of curing him, and presumably because they could better afford to lose him. A Pure Land temple, the Wenshu temple used to have over twenty monks, most of whom were ordained at Wutaishan.

Ekou painting 2ekou-painting-1

Amazingly, in 1947, the intrepid Ya Xin did three months’ fieldwork on “Buddhist music” on Wutaishan, in the midst of land reform. Meanwhile from 1946 Chengde and Yunrui spent a year at the Upper Huayan si 上華嚴寺 temple in Datong. This was a major temple (cf. Zuoyun just west)—but they, and one older master at the temple, were apparently the only monks there at the time who could play the shengguan wind instruments.

After land reform and escalating collectivization, there were fewer monks, rituals were simplified, and fewer people could hire them. But the remaining monks of the Wenshu temple maintained ritual activity largely undisturbed right until the Four Cleanups campaign in 1964, and were only forced to return to the laity at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when Chengde was 31 sui. The temple was finally destroyed in 1973.

Since the revival after 1979, Du Guichang (like many) observed that patrons were more interested in a lively spectacle, and thus the shengguan wind ensemble music was more popular than vocal liturgy. Whereas the shengguan ensemble ideally requires six to eight players, the instrumentation was now simpler: if pushed, one guanzi, two sheng, a drum, and the small cymbals would suffice.

I also learned that household Daoists were active around Fanshi county—there’s another area to explore!

Like Daoists further north in Shanxi, this Buddhist group did business by “responding to ritual” (yingshi 應事). Again commonly, they distinguished three types of activity: funerals (dafa wangren 打發亡人); calendrical temple fairs, which they call guo huichang 過會場 Traversing the Assembly Arena, or pao simiao 跑寺廟 Chasing Round the Temples if invited to take part in the festival of another temple; and Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). They might also perform for the animation of new god-statues in temples (kaiguang 開光); for longevity celebrations (zuoshou 做壽); for illness (yansheng 延生 “extending life”); and for household misfortune, when they performed “scriptures for well-being” (pingan jing 平安經) for three days.

Before Liberation, funeral rituals lasted three days—including, before the yankou 焰口, Crossing the Bridges (duqiao 渡橋)—for which they constructed the bridges out of tables and paper, but didn’t actually cross them. On return from the burial, they used to perform a brief “scripture for well-being”.

Here is Du Guichang’s prescription for a simpler two-day Buddhist funeral (erzhou yiye 二晝一夜) as performed since the 1980s:

Day 1

  • qushui 取水 Fetching Water.


  • daochang 道場 Arena of the Way. Scripture-reciting (Guanyin jing 觀音經, Jin’gang jing 金剛經, and Yaoshi jing 藥師經) and shengguan wind ensemble alternate; sometimes shengguan accompanies the singing of the text (genian 合念, see my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.24–5).


  • zhaohun 招魂 Summoning the Soul, or zhaowang 招亡 Summoning the Deceased [Ancestors]. Scripture: Mituo jing 彌陀經. The kin wail to summon the ancestors. In the old days, the door was closed and a bowl of water and a towel were placed for the ancestors’ souls to purify themselves: this is the muyu 沐浴 Bathing ritual. The latter segment appears in the same position in the shezhao ritual in Li Qing’s manual in Yanggao (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.252, 300). As to “standard” versions of the yankou, the Smashing Hells segment of the Daoist yankou, after the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請), also ends with a muyu, but it is not apparently part of the Buddhist version. More usually in north China, muyu is an unspecified segment of Crossing the Bridges, but is rarely mentioned.
  • songxing 送行 Escorting the Procession. The Buddhists escort the ancestors outside the village to a crossroads, only reciting the scriptures, without shengguan.
  • yankou 焰口. The nocturnal yankou (performed by both Buddhists and Daoists), a crucial part of northern temple practice, is quite common in folk ritual too. It lasts at least three hours, beginning after dusk or sometimes at midnight. Du observed that since this is the most frightening part of a funeral, when the vengeful ghosts are summoned to be appeased by a feast, many onlookers retreat to the safety of their own homes—forgive me for being so mundane, but I think they may also get a bit tired (the pre-burial vigil being rare in north China).

Day 2

  • daochang 道場 Arena of the Way. The proper scriptures are Guanyin jing and Jin’gang jing, but now they only recite the Dacheng jing 大乘經. The term daochang is not heard so often in north China, but when it is used, it is more often as an umbrella term for rituals. In Xinzhou it was one specific segment within a funeral, as here. The term Dacheng jing 大乘經 can be hard to unpick—if Buddhist, it in general means the whole corpus of Mahayana sutras; but Dacheng jiao 大乘教 was also the name of a sect, and specific texts were also so named (my In search of the folk Daoists, p.63, and index).


  • fayin 發引 Burial Procession. As the coffin is taken to the burial ground, like Daoists elsewhere, the Buddhists stop at the edge of the village.

As ever (my book, pp.26–8), the scripture hall (jingtang 經堂) is placed at some remove from the soul hall (lingtang 靈堂). Given that this was 1992, they were well paid for their services: current rates for the whole group were 500 yuan, or 700 if outside a 30 li (15 km) limit, plus cigarettes and three metres of white cloth. As in north Shanxi and elsewhere, a lowly shawm band plays an important part throughout the funeral, alternating with the ritual specialists.

Du Guichang also mentioned Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). For the building of a new house, Daoists and Buddhists might be invited; the Buddhists recited the Wutu jing 五土經. The ritual still performed for the building of a new opera stage was also said to be a form of Thanking the Earth. It preceded the “opera inaugurating the stage” (datai xi 打台戲). The village must give all the actors a new set of (everyday) clothes. After the instrumental overture, the lead player, acting the Tang general Yuchi Gong 尉遲恭, killed a red rooster and sprinkled its blood at the four corners of the stage.

It’s always worth seeking beyond the major temples to explore household ritual groups. Today such household Buddhist bands are formed from laicized temple monks (cf. Yangxian)—as are some Daoist bands (e.g. Xinzhou, made up of former temple priests and their scions). But whether Daoist or Buddhist, such lineages did not suddenly become household-based under Maoism: there was a long history of interchange between temple and household (cf. Shuozhou).

[1] Based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.72–6 and 78, and (for an early attempt at surveying the overall scene) my Folk music of China, p.31 and pp.213–17—where you can find further refs., including to the five-cassette series Wutaishan foyue (1989). Note also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries: social and ritual contexts. Chinese research on the “music” of the major Wutaishan temples has continued, mainly under the auspices of the dreaded ICH—where as usual the shengguan looms larger than any social enquiry.