Funerals in Hebei

GL procession 95

Procession to the grave, Gaoluo 1995.

Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. [1] Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two—as in my work on the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi (see my book Daoist priests of the Li family, e.g. pp.29–34).

As I noted on p.25 there,

In early Daoist texts, rituals are classified as zhai 齋 “retreats” (or “fasts”) and jiao 醮 Offerings, with a rich system of subheads. This won’t always mesh closely with the concepts of modern Daoists. In Yanggao there are clues to the jiao, but it has not been a functional category there for some decades. A common binary classification now current for temple and household practice in China is between yin mortuary rituals and yang rituals to bless the living (also equivalent to “white” and “red” rituals).

The Yanggao Daoists classify rituals under three headings: funeral scriptures, earth scriptures, and temple scriptures (baijing, tujing, miaojing). Earth scriptures refers to the Thanking the Earth ritual (xietu), performed in the winter for the well-being of a family in fulfillment of a vow. Until 1953 this was the most frequently performed of rituals, but since then it has become virtually obsolete. As to temple scriptures, most temples were decrepit by the late 1940s, and were then destroyed, converted, or abandoned through the 1950s; despite a certain revival since the late 1980s, temple fairs now only provide a very small subsidiary amount of work for the Daoists over the summer months. So the tripartite classification is prescriptive rather than descriptive: since the mid-20th century the great majority of their work consists of funerals.

Similarly, on the Hebei plain south of Beijing, where calendrical rituals were rather few, funeral services were the main duty of the former Daoist and Buddhist clerics, and the amateur ritual associations that learned from them.

By the 1980s, as in north Shanxi and elsewhere, funeral rituals of “one day and one night” had commonly replaced those of “three days and [two] nights”. We found some prescriptions for more elaborate sequences elsewhere on the plain, such as that of Li Duqi in Bazhou, and others under Local ritual, but this composite account for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region may be of interest (that link also gives a map).

Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, [2] it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. This provides us with a more detailed, account than is available from their ritual manuals alone (for north Shanxi, see e.g. the Invitation and Presenting Offerings). In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.

Still, even in this small area, practice varies somewhat from village to village, so this is a general outline, in which individual accounts may not always tally precisely.

Unlike in north Shanxi, where the coffin is lodged inside the main entrance of the house, with an awning outside shielding the altar table, on the Hebei plain (space permitting) the coffin is placed beneath an awning in the south of the courtyard, facing the house.

The absence from all these Hebei rituals of Fetching Water (qushui 取水), such a basic aspect of funerals and temple fairs elsewhere in north China, is curious—only Li Duqi mentioned it.

  • After the death, the kin Report to the Temple (baomiao 報廟) and make preliminary triple Libations of Tea (diancha 奠茶). The family representative goes to kowtow to the funeral manager (zongli) and (often the same person) the leader of the ritual association (xiangtou, huitou), formally inviting the association (qinghui 請會); the leader then contacts the association members, while the family invites cooks (qingchu 請廚), gets food for the feasts, and makes preparations.

Day 1

  • The association attends the funeral site and prepares. The liturgists prepare the soul tablet and god places, and an altar is set up before the soul hall. For Hanging out the Paintings (guaxiang 掛像 or xuanxiang 懸像: Dizang, King of Ghosts, the pantheon, and when still extant, the Ten Kings) in the room where the death occurred, an incense burner and offerings are placed on the altar table, and incense offered.
GL Dizang

Dizang and underworld hierarchy, Shan Fuyi c1983. South Gaoluo funeral, 1995.

  • Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神) inside the house, Settling the Dwelling (anzhai 安宅, or Cleansing the Dwelling jingzhai 淨宅): Opening the Altar (kaitan 開壇), including Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸, Kaitan Hexi 開壇合息), Hymn for Opening the Altar (Kaitan zan) with shengguan wind ensemble, concluding with the percussion piece Changsan pai, then more shengguan.
    [He Qing: Formerly one had to make a scripture tent (jingpeng 經棚) where the paintings were hung; nowadays one hangs them in the room where the death occurred. The liturgists sit on the kang brick-bed; the shengguan ensemble sits around the altar table before the Dizang painting.]
    [Wei Guoliang: this is to invite the Myriad Gods to Arouse the Soul (wanshen qiling 萬神起靈), as the liturgists sing the Tang Litanies (Tangchan 唐懺) in the slow vocal styles zuyun, Taishan yun and laozu yunAfter the gods have been invited down, play the rousing Fendiezi 粉蝶子 percussion suite, [3] followed by the shengguan melodies Ku changcheng and Liuhangyan.]
  • Settling the Stove (anzao 安灶) at the temporary kitchen in the courtyard, with a hymn, percussion, and shengguan. [Then the percussion suite and a long shengguan suite may be played seated in the courtyard.]

after (early) supper:

  • Report to the Temple (baomiao), this time with the ritual performers. Procession to the site of the former Wudao miao, with percussion and shengguan; on arrival, while the family offers incense and burns paper, the liturgists sing hymns.
    [He Qing: one should go to the Wudao miao, but the funeral of his mother in 1964 was the last time they observed the ritual properly in Gaoluo.]
    [Zhang Dejin: first sing the accompanied Hymn Before the Soul (Lingqian zan 靈前讚) for Inviting the Soul (qingling) at the soul hall. While waving the pennant to lead the soul (yinhun fan 引魂幡)], sing The Road Back Home (Guijia lu 歸家路) and Hymn Before the Temple (Miaoqian zan 廟前讚], interspersed with the percussion standard Tianxia tong 天下同 and “miscellaneous pieces” for shengguan. On the procession back, the incense head lights lamps for Illuminating the Road (zhaolu 照路) back to the soul hall, to more percussion and shengguan.]
    [Lijiafen: on the return, sing the Menshen zan 門神讚 hymn at the gateway. Then enter the room to sing the Tiandi sanjie zhufo 天地三界諸佛 hymns before the god paintings, and then further hymns before the coffin. Back in the room, sing another hymn, with repeats interspersed with percussion. Then rest.]
    [Ren Wenquan: items from the Yuzhi 御旨 manual, including several zhou mantras.]

Opening pages of South Gaoluo funeral manual (as ever, both Daoist and Buddhist elements are fused in such sectarian traditions):

GL manual 1

GL manual 2


  • Entering the Altar (rutan 入壇), also called Sitting at the Altar (zuotan 坐壇) or Visiting/Seeing the Soul (jianling 荐/見靈); the general term jiesan 接三 may refer specifically to this section. This is the main part of the whole ritual sequence, before the soul hall, for Summoning the Soul (zhaohun 招魂) back from the temple to its body in the coffin, and includes the triple Libations of Tea (diancha), for which the liturgy may alternate with a shawm band.
    After the Hymn Before the Soul, the liturgists perform the triple Libations of Tea and further vocal liturgy, punctuated by shengguan and percussion interludes, while the kin kowtow before the coffin and paper money is burned. Apart from the liturgy in the main funeral manual, vocal items may be included such as Song of the Skeleton, The Twenty-four Pious Ones, and the long mantra Pu’an zhou (see my In search of the folk Daoists, Appendix 1).
    [He Qing: for the jianling, the liturgists sit to the east, instrumentalists to the west (wendong wuxi 文東武西).]

GL wentan

GL shengguan 95

[South Gaoluo: each of the Three Libations of Tea consists of a four-phrase recited text (yaozi 么子) followed by a sung text. The main texts for male deaths are the Greater or Lesser Three Treasures (Da sanbao, Xiao sanbao 大小三寶), according to age (each song beginning Jishou guiyi 稽首皈依); for female deaths they are Greater or Lesser Four Dreams (Da simeng, Xiao simeng 大小四夢, each text beginning Shoupeng qingcha 手捧清茶 or Yidian meng 一奠夢). Vocal melodies for these texts include Langtaosha and Jinzi jing.]

GL Yimeng

South Gaoluo funeral manual, first dream: verso, Shoupeng qingcha text.

[Wei Guoliang: formerly, parts of the Ten Kings scroll were also performed. One recites the Dizang jing, singing a different hymn for each of the god places, and alternating with a free choice of miscellaneous shengguan melodies; one may sing the Song of the Skeletons.]
[Yang Chun’an: the Libations of Tea are sung to the melody
Gua jinsuo (with shengguan); other songs include the Greater Three Treasures, Langtaosha, and Song of the Skeleton.]
[Ren Wenquan: use texts from the Yuzhi manual again. After a six-phrase hymn and the percussion Kaitan bo, one may sing The Twenty-four Pious Ones and the Beideng ji 悲燈記; then optional mantra Erfo zhou 二佛咒, a section of the Ten Kings scroll, Jinzi jing, Pu’an zhou.]
[Lijiafen: one sings nine sections of Longwang (zan?] 龍王 讚, including items such as Song of the Skeleton, The Twenty-four Pious Ones, Gua jinsuo, Langtaosha, Cui huanghua (the latter to Guanyin), and the Baxian zan 八仙讚. One may also recite a chapter or more of the Ten Kings scroll or Demon-queller scroll.]
[Zhang Dejin: at the end, the liturgists sing accompanied hymns for the Household God (Jiazhai shen 家宅神), Stove God (Zaowang 竈王), and King of Ghosts.]

  • Crossing the Bridges, Beholding the Lanterns, yankou (cf. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.225–6, 245–6, 250.) Crossing the Bridges would belong in the afternoon, the latter two rituals in the evening.
    [Wei Guoliang: Before the Cultural Revolution or earlier, we also performed Crossing the Bridges and the yankou (shishi ke 施食科).]
    [Zhang Dejin: in my youth, for a three-day-and-night funeral Crossing the Bridges, Beholding the Lanterns, and yankou were also performed.]

Opening section of Crossing the Bridges, from South Gaoluo funeral manual:

GL duqiao 1

GL duqiao 2

Towards midnight:

  • Escorting the Gods Away (songshen), or Farewell to the Soul (ciling 辭靈). The kin kowtow to the soul tablet before going out on procession for Escorting to the Road (songlu 送路) and Burning the Cart (shaoche 燒車) at a crossroads. A long baiwen text is recited, a hymn for Burning the Cart is sung [Ren Wenquan: to the melody Langtaosha] with shengguan, and the paper horse and cart are burned.

GL mache 95

GL shaoche 95

Wei Guoliang baishi 1995

Wei Guoliang (centre, in blue, wielding hand-bell and pennant) leading a hymn, Matou 1995.

[Wei Guoliang: finally, recite a scripture, sing the Appellation to the Western Quarter (Xifang hao 西方號), and play a free choice of shengguan.]

Day 2, morning:

  • Escorting the Soul (songling 送靈), Visiting the Soul (canling 參靈), or Offering to the Soul (jiling 祭靈).
    [Wei Guoliang: the gaogong chief liturgist recites the Mantra to Escort the Soul Away (Songling zhou 送靈咒)—solo, under his breath, dragging out the last line. Then the group sings Daode zhenxiang 道德真香, Jingjiang diyi juan 經江第一卷 (again, the incipit of a sung text), and Cibei chan 慈悲懺, followed by shengguan.]
  • Burial Procession (fayin, chubin): the association (alternating percussion and shengguan) and mourners go only as far as the entrance to the village, leaving the close kin to escort the coffin to the grave, burning all the other paper artefacts.

GL grave 98

Again, such accounts offer us ritual vocabularies quite different from those of south China. Following the template of Yuan Jingfang, they show the need to document vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental items within individual ritual segments. Moreover, while we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves.

Practice changes both from village to village and over time. Moreover, even within the village, at any one time, the scale of funerals is always variable—determined by the number of kin and their means and tastes, as well as on the space available. A gradual dilution of ritual practice has  undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone. Though dilution has continued over the last two decades, all this is a far cry from the reified secular image of the Hebei associations later offered by the Intangible Cultural Heritage.


[1] Susan Naquin’s early overview “Funerals in north China: uniformity and variation”, in Watson and Rawski, eds, Death ritual in late imperial and early modern China (1988) is based on Republican county gazetteers, before fieldwork reports became common. Though reports from south China tend to focus on temple rituals rather than funerals, one of my favourite articles ever, based on observation, is Kenneth Dean, “Funerals in Fujian”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988).

[2] The main commentators were the South Gaoluo ritual association, notably the former leader He Qing (1933–95) (see my book Plucking the winds); Wei Guoliang (b. c1914) in Matou, heir to the Houshan Daoists; Zhang Dejin (b. c1936), leader of the nearby association of Liujing; Yang Chun’an (b. c1921), leader of the North Qiaotou association; the elderly ritual specialists of Lijiafen; and Ren Wenquan (b. c1916) in East Mingyi. My book In search of the folk Daoists of north China gives many such accounts; this is adapted from pp.191–4.

[3] Fendiezi, a lengthy and magnificently complex piece in seven sections, speciality of ritual groups in this area, is analyzed in my Plucking the winds, pp.378–81, and heard on the accompanying CD.