God images old and new, 1

1 A village artisan
This is the first of two articles (sequel here) that together might be called

Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

I relish the way this blog allows me to update my film and book with further details on the Li family Daoists. My stay with Li Manshan last month prompted me to make some little excursions into visual culture, part of the whole rich ritual world that was so impoverished after Liberation until the revival of tradition from the late 1970s.

In both rural and urban China, paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld (Shiwang xiang 十王像, or Shidian Yanjun 十殿阎君) were commonly displayed for funerals—and in some places they still are (see under Gaoluo). In Yanggao the only surviving set that I know of was handed down by the great Daoist Li Peisen (complete images here).

Ritual painting (detail), 1940s

The Ten Kinds of Orphan Souls, detail.

LHJ 456 Kings detail

The 4th, 5th, and 6th Kings, detail.

Inspecting the Orphan Souls painting, with its shawm band dressed in what look like Eighth Route Army costumes and hats, I used to assume that it was painted just before 1948 when Yanggao was “liberated”. But last month at home with Li Manshan, he finally * explained that both the Orphan Souls and Ten Kings were painted by Artisan the Sixth (Liu huajiang, surnamed Wei 魏) from Tianjiatun village—the very same who made the long cloth pennant for Li Qing around 1985, that they still use for the Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my book, pp.88, 147; film, from 44.20)!

On one side of the pennant are, from the top, the three officers (sanguan: heaven, earth, water) and the twelve animals of the zodiac. The other side shows a curling image of Our Lady Earthworm (Qushan niangniang 曲蟮娘娘), with the head of a woman and body of a snake, as in the popular legend Tale of the White Snake.

pennant top

Detail of front, at top: the Heavenly Officer. (These photos: 2011)

Moreover, Li Manshan was sure that Li Peisen had only commissioned the paintings after the 1980s’ revival—not around Liberation as I had assumed. Li Manshan remembers him well, and (with his usual arcane calculations) works out his dates: c1913–89. So he must have done the paintings in the early 1980s, since Li Peisen died in 1985. Li Peisen clearly commissioned the set with the expectation that they would display them for funerals, but in the end (unlike the pennant) they were never used.

Artisan the Sixth was the sixth sibling, of course, not the sixth artisan. All I could learn about his other siblings is that one had migrated “outside the pass” (kouwai, pronounced kiouwei!) to Inner Mongolia, like so many Yanggao dwellers.

Li Manshan observes that while such artisans “didn’t have much culture” (sic), Li Peisen wouldn’t have directed him closely or chosen the texts himself. At least he had a modicum of literacy—more than the great majority of those who viewed his work, including all women.

There’s also scope to explore the little captions in the paintings of underworld tortures. Li Manshan knows these stories well, since they’re part of local culture—in opera, and even in his ritual vocabulary.

I wonder why only two paintings in the set (the Orphan Souls and the fourth to sixth Kings) show scenes from modern history. To me, the truck and execution scene in the latter painting suggest the early CCP campaigns against landlords and reactionaries, or even (since the paintings are about ritual) the 1950–51 sectarian repressions; so they might almost be like a stark record of the people’s recent sufferings under Maoism, linked directly with the tortures of the underworld. But Li Manshan doesn’t make such a specific connection.

Kang murals
By now I’m curious to learn more about Artisan the Sixth. Li Manshan tells me that he had also painted murals around the kang brick-beds of many village households in the area—some of them surely still survive (for such murals from nearby—far better preserved—see Hannibal Taubes’s site, sidebar).

SLY guada


home duilian
An exceptionally spiritual duilian couplet,
at the peasant gateway in the rear of the above photo;
for translation and comments, click here.

So in the Sunday morning fog we go off to the southwest of the village, where Li Manshan thinks a couple of households must still have some of Artisan the Sixth’s murals—but after a leisurely chat it seems they’ve all been demolished in the process of refurbishing. We stroll back home, where a guy awaits Li Manshan for a quick “determining the date” session.

His son Li Bin shows up bearing comfy new cloth shoes for me (as well as an Adele CD from his own son Bingchang, as thanks for my gift of UK chocolate!). We drive over to Pan Temple (Pansi 潘寺) village—which I now learn is a combo of the hamlets Pan Family Caves (Panjiayao 潘家窑) and Four-Ox Gulch (Siniugou 四牛沟). Li Bin phones the sweet semi-blind gujiang shawm player Zhang Quan (b.1959), and we collect him.

As I found when we met at a funeral in 2011, Zhang Quan is exceptional in being able to speak pretty passable standard Chinese. He takes us to the former cave-house in which he grew up, and sure enough, the murals of Artisan the Sixth are still visible.

ZQ mural

Zhang Quan’s former house, east wall.

ZQ mural W wall

West wall.

Various more recent posters had been pasted over the murals, including this numinous Shanghai-style belle, with hat—itself something of a period-piece.

ZQ meinv

Zhang Quan told me the murals were painted “after 1970”, which I took as meaning the early 70s. But when we go over to another disused house nearby, the murals there bear a firm date of 1979—just as ritual culture was reviving, indeed. I surmise that Artisan the Sixth is most unlikely to have painted any such murals before 1976—so “after 1970” seems a strange way of saying “after the downfall of the Gang of Four”. The family paid him about 3 kuai!

In the second house Artisan the Sixth has painted murals in both east and west rooms, but I only took photos of the former, as the latter was too dark and the murals too decrepit.

Pansi 2 E wall

West wall, above the stove.

Pansi 2 mural date

Stove mural, panel dated 1979 (五月立油 “applied paint in the 5th moon”).

Pansi 2 train

Stove mural, top section, with trains—on which few villagers would yet have travelled.

Pansi 2 E wall

East wall.

Pansi 2 W wall

West wall.

In 2022, while Li Bin was visiting the village yet again to “determine the date” for a funeral, he found another house adorned with murals depicted by Artisan the Sixth. He was paid 4 kuai for the whole set, dating from autumn 1978—here’s an example:

Mural new 1

Photo: Li Bin.

We didn’t have time to seek more murals in nearby villages—perhaps one day that might be another little task for the intrepid Hannibal Taubes.

The work of Artisan the Sixth reminds us that ritual life is one “whole long dragon” stretching from imperial times through the Maoist decades right down to today: the gods have kept on living among a changing society of trains, warfare, campaigns, and so on. In the context of a poor local society, Artisan the Sixth’s taste for perspective, and scenes juxtaposing imperial and modern history, are evident. How rewarding it is to be able to put a name to an artisan who negotiated the old society, Maoism, and the early reform era.

It’s great to see Zhang Quan again. He’s also involved in providing the cuisine for weddings and funerals, and today he’s doing so for the wedding banquet of one of his own relatives. We go to their house, with a large tent set up in the courtyard—they’re busy preparing, and Zhang takes me to greet them. I manage to decline their enthusiastic invitation to the party. I have no suitable gift to offer them; I vehemently reject the many packets of fags that they try to give me, but they do manage to stuff my pockets full of candies. Meanwhile Li Bin gets an urgent call to go and determine the date after a death in a village to the southwest, and we zoom off there.

Here’s a typical exchange:
Me: “Gosh… (thinks back. Apprehensively:) Have you told me that before?!”
Li Manshan (taking a long drag on his cigarette): “Um, probably…”