The Houshan Daoists

The Houshan Daoists, the Houtu cult, sects, ritual associations, and mediums

So far, most of my pages on local ritual have described traditions in Shanxi. The province of Hebei, surrounding Beijing, may seem “too close to home”, lacking the romantic image of either the ethnic minorities or the barren northwest; but it is a remarkably fruitful site for fieldwork.

You can find background on the Hebei plain south of Beijing by consulting the sources in my introduction here, but one major site in our fieldwork on ritual life there was the Houshan 后山 mountain in Yixian county, centre of the cult to the female deity Houtu 后土, whose temple fair I’ve already outlined.

This new sketch of the Complete Perfection Daoist priests there on the eve of the 1949 Liberation again illustrates their close connection with the ritual life of local villagers. [1] I go on to describe the village ritual associations and sects nearby which continued their ritual tradition; the rich trove of “precious scrolls” in the region; and nearby temples to Houtu.

Wei Guoliang 1993

Wei Guoliang (80 sui?!), heir to the Houshan Daoists, 1993.

The Houshan area

In our project through the 1990s on the Hebei plain south of Beijing we found many amateur village ritual associations, mostly transmitted from Daoist or Buddhist temple priests (both in imperial and modern eras); but among those former temples we heard of rather few with more than a couple of resident priests. The Houshan temple, however, had a dozen priests on the eve of Liberation.

Houshan stands at the easternmost foothills of the Taihangshan range. The area where we found related ritual groups was on the plain just south and east of the mountain. Though our material for this area is relatively detailed, it was only quite a small part of eastern Yixian and southern Laishui, and there is still ample room for further exploration in these counties. Not far west of Yixian county-town are the Western tombs of the Qing emperors from Yongzheng onwards—reminding us of traces of elite imperial culture at local level.

Here I focus on the tradition related to the cult of Houtu, and the temple-dwelling Daoists of Houshan in Yixian before the 1950s, before going on to introduce the many ritual associations in the area of Yixian, Laishui, and Dingxing counties.

Further distinctive features of this area are amateur groups called foshihui 佛事會 “ritual associations”, reciting vocal liturgy with ritual percussion only, without shengguan wind ensemble, along with the complex recitation of “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) in the classic format of 24 pin chapters­—among many clues suggesting ancestry in the sects huddling under the convenient umbrella of “White Lotus”.

In the period just preceding Liberation, intra-village sects with inter-village networks thrived, until they were crushed in campaigns over a long period from the 1940s to the 1960s. The most common ones were Dafojiao, Laofomen, and Yiguandao, none of which adopted the same style of ritual performance as those we meet here—indeed, some of them had no liturgical ritual at all. Public ritual activity in most villages was performed by the ritual specialists of amateur village-wide associations.

For example, many groups on the Hebei plain belong to Hunyuan (cf. Shaanbei) and Hongyang sectarian traditions. Though groups using the term Hunyuan may be a “broad church”, and it is also a branch of mainstream temple Daoism, these lay traditions are clearly sectarian, as with the “precious scrolls”. The ritual association in North Qiaotou is of Hunyuan ancestry, but they didn’t seem to know about the patriarch Piaogao or observe 5th moon 16th. As with other village-wide groups, their ritual specialists performed mainly for funerals and calendrical rituals, on behalf of the whole village. Of course, such groups may have lost their sectarian ideology—not necessarily since the 1940s, but perhaps over a longer period as imperial persecutions took effect.

The Houtu cult
Around Yixian, Laishui, Dingxing, and Xushui counties, the worship of the goddess Houtu is a little-known cult of great antiquity, still thriving today. Its centre is the Houshan mountain (literary name Hongyaishan) just north of Yixian county-town, with its cult to Sovereign Earth Empress (Houtu huangdi), popularly known as Houtu niangniang (Our Lady) or Houtu nainai (Granny). The enduring popularity of the worship of Houtu today, like that of other fertility goddesses, may be related in good measure to the state birth-control policy since the early 1980s.

The Houtu legend widely known in the Houshan area, as told in the Houtu precious scrolls, revolves around her rescue of the young Liu Xiu from the would-be usurper Wang Mang in the Han dynasty; after succeeding to the throne as Guangwu emperor, he is said to have bestowed on her the official title Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝, a title found in ritual manuals, paintings, and inscriptions throughout the area.

In temples in the region there are several shrines to Wusheng laomu 無生老母,[2] the begetting deity for “White Lotus” sects. When we first visited the summit of Houshan in 1993, a small Wusheng laomu shrine had recently been (re-?)built next to the main temple to Houtu.

WSLM miao

Matou villagers at Wusheng laomu temple on Houshan.

WSLM miao beiwen

Sectarian placard at Wusheng laomu temple, Houshan.

“White Lotus” sectarian vocabulary is widely evident in local ritual imagery, such as “returning home” (huanxiang 還鄉), the dragon-flower assembly (longhua hui 龍華會) and the three yang (sanyang 三陽) kalpas.

The Houshan Daoists
Travelling north from Yixian county-town (with a certain relief), one leaves the main road at Lijiafen to turn west, passing through Liujing on the way to Matou at the foot of the Houshan mountain—as Hebei villages go, an unusually idyllic setting. All these villages have their own ritual associations (see below). Ascending from Matou, it’s a pleasant climb of around three hours to reach the temples around the summit.

Locals began repairing some of the many small shrines on the summit and in Matou soon after downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976. Of the many Daoist and Buddhist temples all around the foothills to the south and east, some were quite large, but most were already in ruins before the 1930s. The two main temples occupied by the Houshan Daoist priests were formally named Shouyang yuan or Shouyang guan. Though there was accommodation for the Daoists on the summit, they mostly lived in two temples in the villages at the foot of the mountain: an upper cloister in Liujing, and a lower cloister in Matou.

The Houshan Daoists belonged to the Longmen Complete Perfection lineage. Ritual specialist Wei Guoliang (b. c1914, though he was exceptionally vague about his age), our most knowledgeable local source, life-long resident of Matou and a former disciple and colleague of the Houshan Daoists, told us that they were ordained at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, which oversaw it—although he and others also said the Houshan Daoists were subordinate to the Laoye miao temple in Yixian county-town.

Since we have so little material on local Daoist priests in the north Chinese countryside for this crucial period, and it was they who transmitted their ritual to the nearby amateur associations, it is worth giving some details.

A local pamphlet cites fragmentary and undatable steles on the mountain, one naming two abbots (zhuchi 主持) of the Shouyang yuan temple from the 12th and 13th generations, and another listing three more from the 8th to 10th generations—the 1930s generation being the 18th. At Liujing, villagers said there were over ten Daoist priests in the temple before Liberation. Despite their fine gongche score, by the 1940s few of the priests could play the shengguan wind ensemble music (essential to communicate the ritual properly), so they often made up a band with Daoists from the Laoye miao temple in Yixian town—and they also had recourse to Matou villagers to make up their numbers.

Wei Guoliang began studying with the Houshan Daoists when he was 17 sui, around 1930. Earlier, he and several of his friends in the village had studied with the village schoolteacher for three years, their families all paying for tuition. But he recalls learning many more characters by learning the ritual scriptures. Along with a dozen or so village boys, he studied with the Houshan Daoists Liang Jiaozhong (himself a Matou villager) and his master Lu Jiaorong—note that more boys studied with the Daoists than went to school, not least because their tuition was free. “We worked in the fields all day, then learnt in the temple in the evening. They gave us tea, but not food. You had to kowtow to your master; they expected respect, not material goods. They had one qing of land, they weren’t short of cash. We graduated (chuke 出科) after three years. The wind music is harder than the percussion, so you learn the wind music first.” Wei was the first in his family to learn. After a while only he and a few friends stayed the course; the others were thrown out because they weren’t good enough at it.

Note that the Houshan priests were not ascetic mountain-dwelling recluses, but were based at the foot of the mountain, providing ritual services for their local community—services which (like most household ritual bands, and many other temple groups, both Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection) included not only vocal liturgy and percussion but shengguan wind ensemble.

Matou village already had its own amateur ritual association, also taught by the Houshan Daoists; this group was then a foshihui, performing only the vocal liturgy, not shengguan music. As we often found, the Houshan Daoists got the Matou villagers to learn as there weren’t enough ritual performers among the temple priests to meet the demand for folk ritual. The new recruits then took part in rituals with the Daoists, and also with their own village association.

Here is our list of the Houshan Daoist priests before the 1950s whom we could identify—with surnames, Daoist fahao names, dates, and (in parentheses) ritual competence:

  • Cui 崔 “master” (shifu 師傅)
  • Lu 廬/路 Hekuan 合寬 d.1940s
  • Liang 梁 Jiaozhong 教忠 c1899–1980 (sheng and all)
  • Lu 廬 /路 Jiaorong 教榮 d.1940s (all)
  • Liu 劉 Jiaohai 教海 executed 1945
  • Nan 南 (Cui 崔?) Jiaofang 教方 (?) executed 1940s
  • Zhou 周 Jiaoshun 教順
  • Chen 陳 Jiaolai 教來
  • Zhang 張 Yongqing 永慶 (guanzi)
  • Jiang 姜 Yongfu 永褔 (all)
  • Yu 于 Yonglin 永林
  • Liu 劉 Yong’ao 永遨 b. c1929
  • ? Yongtai 永台
  • ? Yonghui 永徽
  • ? Mimao 米冒/茂 (?) d.1957                         

While Wei Guoliang was learning with the temple priests in the early 1930s, the abbot (dangjia 當家) was called Master Cui. Wei’s own master Liang Jiaozhong (c1899–1980), a Matou villager, knew the Houtu scroll well, and played all the melodic instruments, specializing in the sheng. Liang found it impossible to stay on in the temple around the time of land reform, so he settled back in Matou and got married. Liang kept a copy of the Houshan Daoists’ Houtu scroll, but by the time Matou villagers tried to copy it around 1981, it was so decrepit that they were only able to recopy the first volume. Still, other versions of the scroll were in circulation too.

Liang Jiaozhong had himself learnt the shengguan wind music from the Houshan Daoist Lu Jiaorong. Lu had become a priest at the Xianggong miao temple in Yixian town, but “did something wrong” (the useful term fan cuowu 犯错误, a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed monastic misdemeanours) and was driven off by the gentry families of Yixian, ending up in the Houshan temple. He too could play all the melodic instruments, and made a copy of the temple’s old shengguan score. Lu Jiaorong eventually left the clergy, also marrying and settling in Matou; he died before Liberation, leaving the score to a relative, who handed it on to Wei Guoliang. This was only one of the scores of the Houshan Daoists. Other Daoists from the jiao generation were Zhou Jiaoshun, who died on the mountain, and Chen Jiaolai.

Liang Jiaozhong’s ritual master on Houshan was Lu Hekuan; son of a rich family in Matou, he died before Liberation, and only performed the vocal liturgy. As Wei Guoliang reminded us, the Longmen Complete Perfection generational poem (see e.g. here) for the 16th to 20th generations went he jiao yong yuan ming 合教永圓明, so Lu Hekuan was 16th generation, Liang Jiaozhong 17th, and the Yong generation 18th—Wei himself, though not a priest, was known as Yongliang.

Villagers recalled Zhang Yongqing, who came from Pingshan county quite far south in Hebei, and played the guanzi. He and Jiang Yongfu (who played all the shengguan instruments) often performed rituals with Wei Guoliang and the Matou association. Yongqing, along with the young Yu Yonglin, left the clergy and took a wife some time after the Japanese invasion.

Villagers also mentioned three Daoists from Henan province: Yong’ao (b. c1929, a young Daoist who came to Houshan at the age of 12), Yongtai, and Yonghui. Unlike the grand shifang conglin temples of Beijing and Shanghai, which trained priests from a wide area, most priests from the smaller temples whose origin I could ascertain were local, so it seems unusual for them to come from so far away.

Liang Jiaozhong’s nephew (and a 1991 notice I saw posted on the mountain in 1993) also recalled a priest called Mimao (don’t ask me where the mi came from), who died in 1957.

As Wei Guoliang reminded us, banditry was rife in the Yixian area before the Japanese invaded (cf. Gaoluo). The bandits kidnapped people for ransom: apart from seizing people with money, they extorted cash from the Daoists, driving some of them away. When the Japanese invaded, the bandits were enrolled against them, and some of the temples were damaged in the fighting. In Liujing and several other villages, people pointed out that the Japanese, themselves Buddhists, didn’t interfere with the activities of the foshihui. Still, some Daoists fled the fighting, and fewer returned to Houshan after the Japanese had been defeated.

In 1945 Yongqing carried the soul pennant at the funeral of another Houshan Daoist, Liu Jiaohai. This funeral must have been a tense affair. Jiaohai had been executed by the 8th Route Army; he was a cousin of the Nationalist county magistrate Zhao Yukun, whom they executed the following year. Another Houshan Daoist, Nan Jiaofang, was also executed by the Communists: he “kept talking obstinately”.

The civil war and the increasing power of the Communists exacerbated priests’ anxieties about remaining in the clergy. According to the pamphlet, there were still some Daoists on the mountain after Liberation, but that they soon “left”. To be sure, the pre-Liberation period was also disruptive: the bandits and the Japanese had already done a lot of the Communist regime’s work for them. In 1956 the county government sent a Buddhist monk up the mountain to look after the temples; he died in the Cultural Revolution. Liujing villagers also recalled a Tibeto-Mongolian Lama looking after the temple in the 1950s; he starved to death during the famine around 1960, and was buried on the mountain.

But despite the disappearance of temple-dwelling priests, their ritual practice was perpetuated—now performed only by amateur village associations, bolstered in Matou by former priests like Liang Jiaozhong who had returned to ostensibly lay life.

The local ritual network
Until the 1940s the main temples related to Houshan were around Matou, the village at the foot of the mountain, and Liujing, the next settlement just south on the way towards the county-town. Both had old amateur ritual associations which restored early in the 1980s as the Houtu cult revived.

The fortunes of the Houtu cult centered on Houshan are closely linked to those of the nearest village Matou. Its foshihui, also known as yinyuehui 音樂會 (the usage seemed flexible, whether or not they used vocal liturgy alone or added shengguan too), though now much reduced, has always been closely linked with the temple Daoists.

As we saw above, Matou villager Wei Guoliang (b. c1914: see photo above) was a senior ritual specialist, heir to the tradition of the Houshan Daoists. Having spent some of the Cultural Revolution looking after the mountain, he did so again after the production brigades disbanded early in the 1980s. He read several scriptures in this period, learning ones that he had not previously mastered. In the late 1980s, a friend suggested to Wei that he go to the White Cloud Temple in Beijing to take Daoist examinations there, so that he could become an accredited resident priest at the Houshan temples. Wei passed the exams, and was given Daoist robes, but after returning to Matou he decided not to pursue it—he didn’t have the heart to get involved in all the necessary fawning to the local authorities.

By the 1990s Wei was leading a tranquil life tending sheep from his house in the foothills above the village. It was always edifying and fun to see him. Proud of his Daoist skills, he felt alienated by the corruption lately surrounding the Houshan cult. He patiently fielded our incessant questions, while exclaiming with his infectious chortle, “You can’t collect the scriptures all in one go!” (qujing buneng ququan 取經不能取全).

Only after many visits did Wei Guoliang became anxious that I might be trying to “steal” his ritual in order to perform funerals in England; I tried to reassure him that the Houshan liturgy might not go down so well there, even if I could master it and train up a group…

Wei Guoliang baishi 1995

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

By this time, Wei’s son (b. c1941) and the son of his Daoist “elder brother” (shixiong 師兄) Liang Xiyou were taking part in the village ritual association. Though Wei Guoliang himself often took part too, he was disparaging of the association’s abilities.

Wei had copied from memory many of the funerary texts they now recited, including yankou and Beholding the Lanterns (guandeng) volumes. He recalled that the village scriptures used to include Houtu scroll and Ten Kings scroll. Now they were all gone—the Houshan Daoists’ copy of the Houtu scroll had been taken off by Liang Shuming, he said. Wei had only managed to preserve the old gongche solfeggio score of the Daoists—a valuable source, of which we made a copy.

Houshan score

From score of Houshan Daoists, showing solfeggio for Tan kulou Skeleton mantra and Jinzi jing melodies.

Liang Shuming with XYB 1993

Xue Yibing with Liang Shuming before his Houtu temple at foot of Houshan, 1993.

Liang Shuming was another character in Matou. Keeper of a small (and unauthorized) shrine at the foot of the mountain, he was not a ritual specialist, but in the 1980s he began travelling round villages in the area and buying up their old precious scrolls, often at great expense. Any money he spent had been a shrewd investment, since he was now charging villagers in the area to let them copy the scrolls—he was doing good business since people were keen to revive their ritual traditions. He had at least two copies of the Houtu scroll when we stayed with him in 1995.

Liang Shuming baojuan

Some “precious scrolls” collected and copied by Liang Shuming.

Liang’s whole family was busy making and selling clay fertility dolls, figurines made of sorghum, and paper for curing illness. As an independent operator, he had a troubled relationship with the village brigade and the local police.

LSM Houtu mural

Recently-painted murals telling the story of Houtu, at Liang Shuming’s shrine.

Liujing is properly a township (zhen), capital of the district, and nominally divided into four villages. It is an important stage on the route to Houshan. Older villagers recalled at least ten temples there until the 1950s. Though no-one recalled any “upper cloister” of the Houshan temple there, the three Buddhist monks who staffed the “great temple” Tongquan si were also responsible for a small “temporary palace” (xinggong 行宮) for Houtu next to it.

We first visited Liujing at New Year 1989, and admired the generous and knowledgeable Zhang Dejin (b. c1936), association leader (huitou 會頭) since the restoration. Though quite deaf, he was a fine ritual specialist, having studied with the respected Zhang Guohua, who was also one of Wei Guoliang’s circle of ritual performers.

There were many Buddhist as well as Daoist temples all around Houshan. Unlike the Daoist-transmitted Matou association, that of Liujing (again, they used the names foshihui and yinyuehui interchangeably) claims to be “Buddhist-transmitted”—Wei Guoliang noted that their yankou and other rituals were different from that of Matou. The association represents all four villages that comprise Liujing; each of the four guanshi leaders comes from one of the villages. Their scriptures used to include precious scrolls to the Ten Kings (for funerals), Guanyin, and Foye. Liujing also had its own version of the Houtu scroll, and performed it until the Cultural Revolution. Their liturgists revived activity in the 1980s, recopying ritual manuals from the memory of the senior Gao Changlin. In 1995 Zhang Dejin was hoping to relearn the Houtu scroll, having copied part of it from Liang Shuming, but he had made no progress by 1996.

On 1st moon 8th until the 1950s, the association used to lead the inauguration (kaiyin) of Houtu, making a tour of the village temples. But the centerpiece of the Liujing New Year’s rituals is an unusually fine lantern maze (known as dengzhen 燈陣 or dengchang 燈場) on 1st moon 15th, reminiscent of the Revolving the Nine Bends in Shaanbei. A high central pole (fandeng 幡燈 or tiandeng 天燈) stands in the midst of a maze of small lanterns on poles linked by ropes, through which the association leads a procession. We attended this ritual in 1989, and they were still doing it in 1999. In a nearby “lantern tent” are hung the pantheon and other god paintings. For their observances for the 3rd moon and other dates, see below.

Lijiafen manuals

Ritual manuals of Lijiafen association.

Nearby a cluster of villages had foshihui groups of vocal liturgists reciting precious scrolls and other manuals. At the junction of the road leading to Liujing and on towards Matou and the mountain, Lijiafen had an active foshihui of ten liturgists aged between 73 and 45, whom we visited in 1996. They did not use shengguan wind ensemble music. Mainly performing for funerals, for which they still recited the Ten Kings scroll, they had preserved a range of funerary manuals, as well as the Demon-queller scroll (known as Fumo juan or Laoye juan) and Houtu scroll. (For further details on all these scrolls, and their sectarian connections, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3.)

Lijiafen Fumo juan

Opening of Huguo youmin fumo baojuan scroll, Lijiafen.

They also had some of their old paintings, and had recently had more made. They also used to observe the Houtu festival in the village, reciting the Houtu scroll. They still recited it in the early 1950s, perhaps even after 1955. They later lost it, and it was not necessarily the same as the new incomplete copy they had recently made from Li Yongshu in Baoquan. Four young men had begun learning in 1963, when there was a strong core of senior performers. Until then they also used to do occasional exorcisms (jingzhai 淨宅, anzhai 安宅), reciting the Longhu jing 龍虎經; for large exorcisms they also performed Beholding the Lanterns and yankou.

Another important ritual centre nearby was Baoquan just east of Houshan, where there were several Daoist and Buddhist temples until the 1930s. The Yuquan guan玉泉觀 temple there was large and ancient, but was abandoned by the 1920s. Still, ritual traditions remained strong in the area. In West Baoquan, the fine vocal liturgist Li Yongshu (b. c1926) was a great authority on the recitation of funeral liturgy and precious scrolls.

His teens were eventful. He attended private school (sishu) until the Japanese invasion, and began learning the scriptures in 1939 in the village’s Daoist-transmitted foshihui, studying with Zhang Tai, a priest in one of the village temples. The senior generation then had about eight liturgists, and they knew of at least three generations before them. Li recalled five other performers from his own generation. Next year, as a leading figure in the Communist Youth League, he helped demolish the village temples, but he kept studying the scriptures with his Daoist master Zhang Tai (who lived to the age of 90), and by the time he joined the Communist Party in 1942, aged 17 sui, he had mastered their complex melodic patterns; he had even found time to get married the year before. He intermittently held leading village posts under Maoism, only being suspended once for three months for his ritual activities. Whereas other foshihui in the area are amateur, Li Yongshu was the only ritual specialist we met who plainly made a living from performing vocal liturgy, both under Maoism and since the reforms. Among his scriptures was a collection of hymns entitled Foshi zanben 佛事讚本 (cf. the Li family Daoists and the Hunyuan Daoists in north Shanxi).

Both South Baima and nearby Kuangshan villages had Nainai miao temples to Houtu, and had ritual associations; both performed the Houtu scroll in the village. Before the Cultural Revolution, both villages had foshihui, reciting a complete set of precious scrolls, but only the Baima group had restored, and only with shengguan; they now climbed the mountain on 7th moon 15th.

Laoping nearby (just across the county border in Laishui) consists of four villages. Elders recalled “three Buddhist temples and one Daoist belvedere” (sansi yiguan 三寺一觀), but a shrine to Houtu in the south village was only one of several small shrines. The east and south villages still had active foshihui in 1996. The east village group went back long before living memory, and used to have both liturgists and shengguan. As well as a copy of the Houtu scroll (which they claimed to recite on Houshan, if only in part), they also recited the funerary Demon-queller scroll and Ten Kings scroll, as well as items like The Twenty-four Pious Ones, Greater and Lesser versions of The Song of the Skeleton, and mantras like Guiku zhenyan, but they had all been lost, as had a full set of ritual paintings. They used to accompany villagers to Houshan to pledge vows and burn petitions in the 3rd moon, and also sang hymns there on 7th moon 15th. On these visits to Houshan the group was known as Spring Incense Association (chunxiang hui 春香會)—“burning spring and autumn incense” were common terms for the Houshan pilgrimages in the 3rd and 7th moons.

In another typical tale of tenuous transmission, after Liberation “the authorities didn’t interfere, but life was no good”, so the foshihui and yinyuehui were struggling. Du Jinhe (b. c1934) went off to the army in 1956, and when he came home in 1961 became commander of the village militia. Creatively, he used their drill time to train new recruits for both liturgy and shengguan. Of course, all too soon they had to stop again in the Four Cleanups, but as in many villages, this brief period of activity in the early 1960s laid the foundation for senior members upon the revival in the 1980s. They had now restored enough of their old ritual to perform funerals.

Still in Laoping, the south village also had an active “Daoist-transmitted” foshihui without shengguan. The leading liturgist was known as zhangjiaode 掌教的, a term we also heard in Shanxi. They too once had precious scrolls to Houtu, the Ten Kings, and Demon-queller, and had recopied them recently; they also recited Dizang dajing (for funerals) and Tangsanjing (?). They said the Houtu scroll was to be recited for 1st moon 15th, as in Gaoluo, though they no longer did so, and also for exorcisms (anzhai 安宅), which they still sometimes performed. They too had many god paintings. But their recitation was of a lesser quality than some other associations.

In Yixian county-town, according to Wei Guoliang, the major Daoist temple for folk ritual was the Laoye miao (Guandi miao); Wei said it oversaw the Houshan temple. He recalled that the abbot was called Old Fang 老方; he really understood ritual, played all the wind and percussion instruments, and was a good organizer. Old Fang stayed in the temple until he died in the Cultural Revolution. His disciple Zongyuan, who also lived in the temple, only performed the vocal liturgy; he died before the Cultural Revolution. They used to make up a band together (dabanr 撘班儿) with Wei Guoliang and the other Matou ritual specialists; they were “like one family”.

We found some rare historical clues to the local Daoist network in the grounds of a former temple in the south of Yixian county-town, the Longxing guan, a Heavenly Masters (Tianshi 天師) Orthodox Unity temple founded in the Tang dynasty. Derelict since the 1920s, all that remained of it by the 1990s were some important steles, including one from 1351 (Zhizheng 10th year) giving a genealogy of thirty generations of Heavenly Masters in the area including on Hongyai (Houshan), and another stele from 1443 (Zhengtong 8th year) listing many local Daoist temples. [3] The 1351 stele adduces the Celestial Heart (Tianxin 天心) Orthodox Unity lineage. Thus the Daoist network around Houshan long predated Complete Perfection lineages.

Yixian stele

Stele of Longxing guan temple, Yixian.

Just southeast of Yixian town, there was a popular “great temple” to Houtu at East Yubu 東茹堡 (local pronunciation; bu is common, but yu was new on me) in Qiaotou district. The Mawuzhuang association (see below) used to pay a visit there, as well as to Houshan in the 3rd moon; Yubu had its own ritual association.

Still further east, though we heard of no ritual specialists in Laishui county-town before 1949, many temples in the Laishui countryside had a small staff of resident priests. The Houtu miao temple in Situ village was a “lower cloister” of the Houshan temple; when Daoist priests from the Situ temple died, they were buried on the mountain. Wei Guoliang told us that the Houshan Daoist Chen Jiaolai served as abbot (dangjiade 當家的) there. Villagers in nearby North Ruhe recalled that their predecessors in the assocation performed for the Situ temple fair on 2nd moon 2nd; but by the 1940s the temple was disused and Situ’s own ritual association had ceased activity.

Of course, temples to Houtu were only in a small minority of all the temples in the area; and while few of them were able to muster a band to perform folk rituals, there were many old amateur ritual associations in the villages which did so, and which worshipped Houtu. Some villages had a Houtu temple, a Houtu painting, or a Houtu scroll, but didn’t make the Houshan pilgrimage.

Houshan before and after Liberation
Most villages making the Houshan pilgrimage before 1937 were represented by performing associations. Among a hundred or so recalled by elderly villagers, we listed at least forty ritual associations (yinyuehui, foshihui). Liujing villagers recalled eight to ten yinyuehui usually coming for 3rd moon 15th. While only the prestigious ritual groups were allowed to pay homage at the temples on the mountain itself, many villages were also represented by other more secular associations (huahui 花會) that performed at the foot of the mountain. The associations were busy making ritual greetings to each other (baihui 拜會).

In the 3rd moon, apart from going to Houshan, village associations took their Houtu palanqins on tour all around their parishes on a territorial tour called Receiving the Palanquin (jiejia 接駕). Last observed in 1958, it has not been restored. Our notes suggest that every parish (she 社), a group of several villages around a central “great temple” (dasi 大寺), had its own set of “eight great associations” to accompany the palanquin. Every village along the route set up tea tents and hung out paintings of Houtu to receive them. Among these groups were those for bamboo poles great drums, lion dancing, and yangge. Only “old associations” counted; groups named for their pitchforks, stilts, and small carts might attend, but didn’t count among the eight. Several opera troupes also performed on stages around the foot of the mountain.

In Liujing almost every family had to host an association (not necessarily a yinyuehui); the Liujing yinyuehui made formal exchanges with other yinyuehui mainly after the 15th when they were less busy. No-one mentioned any major liturgy/ritual being held either on the mountain or below, though Wei Guoliang said that the Daoists used to perform the yankou (shishi ke 施食科) on 7th moon 15th.

After Liberation, despite the disappearance of the Houshan priests, the ritual practice of the Daoists was perpetuated, and the Houshan pilgrimage also continued under the noses of commune cadres right until the eve of the Cultural Revolution, though large-scale mobilizations with ritual groups were impossible. Several villagers recalled that small groups of pilgrims continued to visit the mountain throughout the hardships of the Great Leap Forward, the famine, and even the Cultural Revolution. One elderly Matou villager recalled, amazingly, that there were more people climbing the mountain in 1958 than in 1995, praying for sons or to be cured of illness. He didn’t recall anyone dying in the famine of 1960, but many were swollen with hunger. They managed to plant vegetables on the mountain despite the state policies down below, and pilgrims still used to offer grain to Houtu, filling the temple on the mountain.

Despite the political climate, belief in Houtu remained unshakable. Several villagers in the area know—and believe—the story that Houtu rescued a brigade of the Chinese army during the Korean War. A Laishui couple told us that during the Vietnam war, a brigade was in trouble when an old lady, an incarnation of Houtu, appeared before them, giving them each a mantou steamed bun, after which they were never again hungry, and the danger disappeared.

But Houshan was not immune from vandalization. On 20th July 1966, Red Guards from the First and Second Secondary Schools in Yixian town climbed the mountain to pull down the statues. Local cadre Gong Li tells the story of a statue of Houtu. Having smashed up the main temple, the revolutionaries wanted to knock down the statue of Houtu, but a dozen strong men were unable to topple it with ropes all day. At first this was attributed to the miraculous power of the goddess, but later it was discovered that the builders had ingeniously used a sturdy old cypress tree as its foundation. All over China, modern folktales are common of religious artefacts miraculously resisting the destruction of the Red Guards, or of terrible consequences befalling those who attack the gods (e.g. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.69–72), but this one has a nicely rationalistic denouement. I hate to spoil the story further, but they came back next day and used dynamite, destroying the buildings too.

During the 3rd-moon temple fair, Red Guards and troops blocked off the main track up the mountain to stop people going to offer incense, but pilgrims still climbed by minor paths. Most pilgrims brought grain for Houtu, and when they were stopped, they left it in the riverbed, which had dried up in 1963, reckoning that it would count as an offering to Houtu. Later in the Cultural Revolution the Matou authorities sent Wei Guoliang to look after the mountain and its forests.

Houshan since the 1980s
Worshippers began coming to Houshan more openly after the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976. The Matou and Liujing associations started making the climb again in 1981. Apart from the 3rd moon, other major days are the 15th of the 1st, 7th, and 10th moons, as well as 7th moon 1st; on the 1st and 15th of every moon, mediums attend with their disciples whom they have healed, and pilgrims pledge and fulfil vows. The mediums, with their disciples, also climb the mountain on 12th moon 29th, staying there till 1st moon 3rd; on 1st moon 3rd and 8th, local ritual associations make the climb, or used to. The Liujing association also climbs the mountain on 10th moon 15th.

Most villages in the region hold quite small-scale calendrical rituals (for a thick description of New Year in Gaoluo, see my Plucking the winds, 270–306). A huge temple fair like that of Houshan is of a very different order; over 100,000 people were said to have attended the 3rd-moon fair in 1993, though numbers fell somewhat thereafter. It is worth describing the Houshan temple fair, just to illustrate the paucity of liturgy/ritual in north China temple fairs, by contrast with the southeast. The main festival takes place around 3rd moon 15th; pilgrims begin to arrive from the 1st, but the busiest time is from the 13th to the 18th—Houtu’s main day is actually the 18th.

The 3rd moon is a busy time for agriculture, when one might suppose that villagers should hardly be able to afford to spend time on pilgrimage. Indeed, this (along with urban migration) may be one reason why fewer associations attend today, and why old people and women are most often to be seen there. It also shows the strength of religious devotion in the old society, that so many associations could abandon the fields for over two weeks in April in the hope of divine blessing. Indeed, it is also around Easter time, when many of the Catholic villages in the area are busy with their own rituals and pilgrimages—and the police busy in trying to restrict them. Since the 1980s, many pilgrim groups once again attend Houshan, but, in keeping with the loss of community spirit that has accompanied economic privatization, they are smaller—rarely large groups representing the whole village and led by an association; thus association leaders lament that it is no longer possible to mobilize a suitably large-scale visit.

Zhang Dejin and XYB 1993

Xue Yibing consults Zhang Dejin, 1993.

Pantheon, Liujing 1995

Pantheon, Liujing 1995.

In place of the major rituals for Receiving the Palanquin mentioned above, Liujing now only holds a small ceremony within the village for Houtu on the evening of 3rd moon 1st, which we witnessed in 1995. The four guanshi 管事 association leaders met at the house of kindly Zhang Dejin. He had written petitions, which they placed in large yellow envelopes. They then hung out their beautiful pantheon and before it burned incense, kowtowed in turn, and burned the petitions.
Liujing petition

Liujing village, north of Yizhou town in Baoding fu, Zhili
faithful disciples, the combined leaders of the four Liujing villages
all bow before thee
and respectfully request
the god place of Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi
the combined leaders of the whole village having specially prepared
lanterns, currency,
offerings of pure tea and fruit
as we kneel and kowtow
[date in old calendar equivalent to] 1995, 3rd moon 1st day

The Liujing association didn’t, and doesn’t, climb Houshan on 3rd moon 15th because all the other associations went, so there was no room. Perhaps a more important reason is because other associations and pilgrims needed to “rest their feet” and so they were busy renting out rooms and looking after them.

In 1995 we spent the period from the 11th to the 15th of the 3rd moon on Houshan. [4]

Once we turn left off the main road north and set off towards Liujing, the whole route is bustling and chaotic. Buses and minibuses jam the roads, and stalls line the roadsides. Liujing is already jampacked. An acrobatic troupe is performing, with its brass band, in a marquee in the square. The PA system broadcasts pop songs relentlessly. Zhang Dejin has set up a tea tent with the Houtu painting, but this is a rare reminder of formal religion. Continuing towards Houshan, a vast car-park has been created in Matou in the disused riverbed. People wear red ribbons with Houtu inscriptions hoping to be cured or blessed. Everywhere tea, food, incense, ribbons, clay dolls (for fertility), human or animal images made of gaoliang stalks and paper (for curing illness), cloth, ritual paper, and so on, are on sale; there is even a stall selling books and pamphlets about local myths and customs, run by our friend Gong Li. Beggars, mostly disabled, line the whole route, and are very persistent, even intimidating bus drivers by lying in the road until they pay up; people climbing the first stage up the mountain run a gauntlet of beggars clinging imploringly to their legs.

The avarice and corruption of Matou and county officials are widely resented. Matou villagers sell admission tickets at the entrance to the mountain for 3 yuan, which is quite a lot for a poor peasant. Despite the crush, all agree that this year there are more stalls but fewer visitors. The consensus is that the Matou villagers are driving people away by demanding too much money, both for admission to the mountain and for the inflated prices of goods on sale during the fair. Some rival temples nearby are attracting some pilgrims too.

Spirit mediums (known in this area as mingren or xiangxiang) are the protagonists of worship on Houshan. Most of the regular mediums seem to have a deal with the Matou village committee. There was a big fuss on the 7th or 8th, when 103 mediums (!) arrived en masse and refused to pay the admission price, pointing out, reasonably, that they were attracting donations to the temple. When the people on the gate were adamant, the mediums all went off in a mediumistic huff, and in front of Liang Shuming’s little shrine at the foot of the mountain, they ostentatiously burnt the new costumes that had been destined for the Houtu images on the summit, making a huge bonfire, singing ritual songs as they did so.

Profits from the entrance fees are divided between the Yixian Tourist Board and Religious Affairs Bureau, the Matou village brigade, and the temple caretakers. [5] The temples on the mountain are being repaired by Matou villagers, supervised by the brigade. They complain there is not enough money to repair temples as well as before, but Wei Guoliang is scathing about the venial unscrupulous types in Matou:

“Now they climb the mountain not to revere the gods, but to fish for profit. They have a deal to look after the temples in exchange for some of the takings. There’s quite enough money in donations to repair the temples, but it’s all syphoned off by types like that.”

The Matou people are not entirely inflexible (or rational). During the 1995 fair a man tried to get in for free by claiming he was one of the Eight Immortals. Rather than exclaiming, “Oh yeah, and I’m Chairman Mao! On yer bike matey!”, they gave him a fair hearing, and he offered to reveal important events in the life of the Matou Party Secretary (himself son of the former Houshan Daoist Liang Jiaozhong!) by inspecting his footprint. When he did this most accurately, they not only let him onto the mountain for free, but treated him to a banquet at the brigade’s expense on his return.

Apart from setting up stalls with drinks and snacks, many Matou villagers sell red cloth ribbons to bring good luck; some pilgrims tie the ribbon around an afflicted part of their body. Wei Guoliang’s son and his wife had made 3,000 of these ribbons in 1994, bearing an image of Houtu and an auspicious inscription. They hawked them up and down the mountain, and sold out almost at once, quickly getting another batch made.

While we are at the central temple, sixteen members of the Mawuzhuang association arrive, playing a fine shengguan suite in a side hall. Five yinyuehui made brief visits to the mountain in 1995; in 1996 we only heard of three. Apart from their own internal problems of mobilization, their dealings with the Matou mafia were uncomfortable, and they felt discouraged.

Other calendrical observances on Houshan are smaller in scale. The Matou and East Laoping associations climb the mountain on 7th moon 15th. On 7th moon 1st, the Liujing association is one of several which pay a visit to to the mountain temples. They make the climb on 6th moon 30th, taking provisions, staying in the dilapidated former quarters of the Daoists on the mountain, and returning on the afternoon of 7th moon 2nd. In 1993 we joined them on the summit early in the morning of the 1st.

The main temple and its courtyard are occupied by female mediums and their disciples. We meet many mediums that day. A renowned 70-sui-old local medium known as Older Sister Kang has brought over thirty of her disciples, who come from quite a wide area: they, or their parents, have all been cured by her—or rather, as she points out, by “Granny” (Houtu). As they kneel piously in the courtyard before the temple, Granny, embodied by medium Kang, who is seated inside to the right of the Houtu statue (which is laden with clay doll effigies), sobs a series of songs, complaining that her temple is a wreck, so they must repair it and make new statues. As she tells us later, “It’s not me singing, it’s Granny talking.”
Kang and disciples 1993
Meanwhile the Liujing group has taken up position around the shanmen gateway that leads from the steps up into the courtyard, and squatting informally, they begin to play their fine percussion suite. While they are playing, seven members of the Matou ritual association (without Wei Guoliang, and with only percussion, not shengguan, to accompany their hymns) arrive to pay homage to Houtu. They sing a fast hymn outside in front of the temple, and then go inside to make offerings. The mediums burn yellow costumes for Houtu in the incense burner before the temple. The Matou liturgists then sing another more solemn hymn inside the temple before the Houtu statue, with medium Kang now seated in silent anguished contemplation to its right.
Matou Foshihui 1993
The Liujing association then plays a lengthy classic shengguan suite. Later the Matou liturgists play a percussion suite inside the temple, squatting to the left of the Houtu statue while a constant stream of pilgrims offer incense, and then they sing another hymn before the statue while the mediums and their disciples kneel. They then squat to the left, joining with the Liujing association to play a popular medley of pieces in a folk-song style, while the mediums burn petitions, wooden doll effigies, and large bundles of incense before the statue. Moving outside to the gateway, the musicians continue in this style.

Later, back in Matou, when I showed Wei Guoliang my video, he was, erm, somewhat critical of his fellow villagers’ choice of repertoire, coming out with a choice string of expletives surely not to be found in the Daoist Canon. They should first have sung the Three Homages (San guiyi, cf. Yanggao) from the Houtu scroll; and instead of singing the hymn Foci guangda, they sang The Greater Three Treasures (Da Sanbao), and only the first of three verses at that—they don’t know the rest, he said contemptuously. Their shengguan medley, needless to say, was totally wrong, both in style and repertoire. We might adduce this as just one of innumerable instances of the decline of ritual expertise and the “old rules” (lao guiju) in modern times.

Back on the mountain, the mediums’ disciples have paid for the preparation of a large paper boat, with a god image inside. Around midday, putting the finishing touches in the Daoists’ former dwelling, the mediums animate the god image by smearing its eyes and body with egg yolk on a needle and five-colour thread.

doll effigy 1993

Animating a doll effigy, Houshan 1995.

Medium Kang leads her disciples to the nearby temple of the Great Yang (Taiyang dian) to Burn the Boat (shaochuan)—later Wei Guoliang points out that you shouldn’t burn the boat on 7th moon 1st, only on the 15th! The boat is for “all the gods”; the Great Yang God (Taiyang fo, god of the sun) is “the first great Buddha”, and indispensable, since the sun illuminates all. Medium Kang had requested the Liujing ritual association to play for this ritual, and given them a sack of flour; when the Matou association plays too, she gives both groups four cartons of cigarettes. They play shengguan and percussion interludes on procession as the boat is carried to the open space before the temple; while the boat is burnt, the liturgists sing a hymn, the disciples kneeling.


Far more ritual associations (as opposed to mere pilgrim groups with more secular huahui performing associations) formerly attended Houshan than at many Hebei temple fairs (like those of Miaofengshan, Fanzhuang, or Qingxushan); however, the liturgical/ritual dimension on Houshan was probably hardly more complex before the 1930s than in the 1990s. These notes may suggest that an unholy alliance between county authorities, Matou villagers, and spirit mediums left little room for the ritual associations or large-scale liturgy. Ironically, the more that local authorities sought to legitimize a temple as a recognized “site for religious activities”, the less likely they were to cede part of their power to Daoist priests; the necessary accommodation with local government often seems to engender only the less “classical”, more “superstitious” practices of popular religion. This may be a common pattern explaining the apparent scarcity of formal liturgy/ritual at many northern temple fairs today. Such temple fairs are dominated by pilgrim groups whose only trace of liturgy will be to sing a few hymns before the main god statues; even the ritual groups that used to make the Houshan pilgrimage did little more than that.

Notionally, the temple committee could invite one or two groups of Daoists to perform a jiao Offering ritual, as in south Hebei; or a suitably complex sequence of rituals, as for the smaller-scale temple fairs in north Shanxi, where occupational household Daoists and shawm bands are always hired, as for funerals. Or in the absence of occupational Daoists, they could invite a local amateur ritual association to perform a sequence of rituals, as they do for calendrical rituals in their home village. But for such large-scale temple fairs they don’t; there is no central ritual focus. Mediums take part, and local village groups of pilgrims, but the latter don’t bring any complex liturgy of their own.

Mediums on Houshan and elsewhere doubtless have a long history too, presumably long predating any Daoist activity on the mountain, and their activities are eminently worthy of study. Formal liturgy and mediums coexist happily in southeast China. Mediums in north China work largely independently of any liturgists; on Houshan the only improvised contact came when the mediums requested the host ritual association to play a shengguan piece for their own rituals. It is not that mediums come to replace liturgists: they are (and were) widely active, irrespective of whether there are ritual specialists available in an area. They work the temple fairs in north Shanxi, independently of the household Daoists there; and in Shaanbei, where liturgists are largely absent.

Other local ritual groups
If Houshan may sound like a rather typical Hebei temple fair with sparse liturgical content, the main liturgical activities in the area were smaller-scale practices within the villages, both calendrical and funerary. Having already noted the ritual groups in the immediate vicinity of Houshan, we can fill out our picture by listing some more associations a little further afield, while keeping the Houshan connection in mind.

They were all “old associations”, transmitted “long ago”—either from temple priests, or else from other nearby village associations that had done so. Some had long since stopped making the pilgrimage to Houshan, but observed the Houtu festival on 3rd moon 15th within their own village. Most groups had a collection of ritual manuals, notably early “precious scrolls”, among which those to Houtu were only one component.

Most lively of these in the 1990s was perhaps Shenshizhuang southwest of Yixian county-town, a large village with three separate yinyuehui, serving the south, west, and east sections of the village, all setting up altars to Houtu. The current older generation had never made a formal pilgrimage to Houshan, but the previous generation had done so. They used to have many scriptures, including a Houtu scroll, but by 1999 they had only restored their shengguan wind ensemble.

SSZ nanhui 1996

South association performs shengguan for 3rd-moon rituals, Shenshizhuang, 1996.

SSZ xihui 1996

West association, Shenshizhuang, 3rd moon 1996.

We attended the Shenshizhuang ceremonies for 3rd moon 15th in 1996. The three ritual associations there have all set up altars to Houtu, with veils donated by villagers fulfilling vows; though only two of them had Houtu paintings, they all have inscriptions to Chifeng chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi. The shengguan ensemble played to the side of the altar, while worshippers (mainly middle-aged and old women) offered incense, pledging and fulfilling vows at the burner in the courtyard in front of the altar, to the sound of the big gong.

We didn’t see any ritual manuals at Shenshizhuang, but remarkably on Houshan we met a spirit medium from there who had an old copy of the Tudi baojuan.

SSZ baojuan

Xiantian yuanshi tudi baojuan, from Shenshizhuang, dated 1799.

Nearby, the East Baijian association also performed vocal liturgy for funerals and recited precious scrolls. We first met them on Houshan in 1995. The previous year the association had taken part in a rain ceremony for the village, rather than paying the county authorities’ exorbitant irrigation tax; villagers recalled more furtive rain ceremonies in 1962 and 1964, without the association.

N. Qiaotou Yang Chun'an

Yang Chun’an.

Just east of Houshan, the North Qiaotou association—a group of Hunyuan sectarian ancestry—was active until the Cultural Revolution, and restored keenly in 1992, led by senior liturgist Yang Chun’an (b. c1921). Their ritual activities had not been affected by the presence of an army barracks in the district. They used to make the visit to Houshan in the 3rd moon for the palanquin rituals. On 3rd moon 16th the association of nearby Shanbei village came to Qiaotou and they went together to Putou in Laishui, where there was a big temple to Houtu’s sisters. The Shanbei and Qiaotou associations carried the palanquin together, and the Qiaotou ritual specialists used to recite the Houtu scroll at the Foye dian temple in Shanbei. Until the early 1960s the Qiaotou association also climbed Houshan on the 15th of the 7th and 10th moons. Liang Shuming was now letting them copy his Houtu scroll, but it is not the same as their old one. They also used to perform the Guanyin (Baiyi) scroll and Demon-queller scroll (Fumo juan).
N. Qiaotou painting
The North Qiaotou association used to have paintings of Houtu, Dizang, the Ten Kings, the four great Jin’gang, and the eight immortals, as well as coloured lanterns and two large tent cloths. On our first visit in 1995 they had just had a new Houtu painting made, as usual entitled Chifeng chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi; they were now performing rituals for the 15th of the 1st, 3rd, and 10th moons, and were keen to go as an association to Houshan again—though, like other associations, they were disturbed by the Matou villagers’ insistence on the full admission charge.

Their funeral liturgy was quite elaborate, with a yankou manual, and a manual including many hymns and other texts, entitled Kaitan, Xinjing, Erfo[zhou] and Pu’an zhou 開壇心經二佛[咒]普安咒—standard ritual texts in the area.
Qiaotou FoshuoQiaotou GDM inscriptionQiaotou Guangxu date
They also preserved a Foshuo taishang hunyuan dengke 佛說太上混元燈科 volume from 1906 (Guangxu 32nd year), bearing the name of the village Guandi miao temple. The association used to do exorcisms (jingzhai), and Yang Chun’an was still sometimes invited to do a simple ritual on his own, singing a hymn and the long mantra Pu’an zhou.

While I’m about it, I should just observe that while we copied a large corpus of ritual manuals in Hebei, what is still more significant is that most of the associations in whose hands they had been preserved were still performing them for rituals. So our project consisted not merely in collecting silent ancient texts, but in documenting the way they were used in the ritual life of local society.

Still in Qiaotou district, the Mawuzhuang ritual association had learnt from a Buddhist monk in the temple at Qiliting nearby. In 1946 they had a group of a dozen senior members when they trained seventy (!) teenage boys; they managed to learn the shengguan wind ensemble (an exceptionally well-preserved classical repertoire), and were about to start learning the scriptures, but were prevented by the outbreak of warfare. The association was still making the Houshan pilgrimage in the 1990s.

Moving further southeast into Laishui county, we visited the Kongcun association in 1993. They were originally a foshihui with vocal liturgists only, adding shengguan later. They used to recite the Houtu scroll for 3rd moon 15th, but when they went to Houshan they were represented only by the shengguan musicians. The association had tried to make the Houshan pilgrimage during the Japanese occupation, but failed. They went soon after ritual life resumed openly in the 1980s, but had not been as an association recently; indeed, the group was now barely active. Villagers recalled the New Year’s rituals, when they hung out paintings of Dizang, Rulaifo, the three worthies (sanzun 三尊), the eighteen arhats, the twenty-eight stellar mansions, the two generals Heng and Ha, and the Ten Kings. They had even commissioned new Ten Kings paintings during the Japanese occupation. They used to perform Beholding the Lanterns and yankou rituals for 7th moon 15th.

Nearby, the ritual association of Zhaogezhuang (Wangcun district) was “Buddhist-transmitted”, with both vocal liturgists and shengguan; for funerals they used to shave their heads and wear Buddhist robes, and had many god paintings. The liturgists didn’t recite precious scrolls, though they tried to have a copy of the Houtu scroll made during the Japanese occupation. For the New Year’s rituals they performed a yankou on the 15th and Beholding the Lanterns on the 16th, as well as the crucial long mantra Pu’an zhou. They made the trip to Houshan every two or three years until the early 1960s—though there were no admission charges in those days, it was expensive and complex for a village to organize such a major ritual expedition. Among the village’s former temples was a Nainai miao, with statues to the sanxiao sisters and murals of the story of Houtu. They did Crossing the Bridges, Chasing Round the Quarters, Beholding the Lanterns, and yankou rituals for funerals until the 1960s, and were still performing some liturgy when we met them in 1993; but as elsewhere, they now did only a simple version of the yankou.

The East Mingyi association was Daoist-transmitted, from the same tradition as the association at nearby Situ; they used to make the Houshan pilgrimage together. They once had a full set of precious scrolls, and Ren Wenquan (b. c1916) had a collection of scriptures recently copied. Some of these came from Jijiagou nearby, whose association was no longer active, but which was part of a network of four nearby villages whose foshihui had recited the scriptures since the 18th century. Like many peasants we met in the area, Ji Lianqin was another committed liturgist in Jijiagou who had joined the Party in 1948 and served as long-term Party Secretary, all the while reciting the scriptures.

Jijiagou Shiwang juan

Opening of precious scroll to the Ten Kings, most common of precious scrolls performed for funerals. Jijiagou.

In several villages the Demon-queller scroll was performed for male deaths, the Ten Kings scroll for female deaths. As funerary scriptures, performances should have been more common than the rare calendrical renditions of the Houtu scroll. After Liberation, as funerals became simplified, they just recited the first chapter, and by the 1990s they were rarely reciting them at all.

In the southeast corner of Laishui, the adjacent North and South villages of Gaoluo are the subject of my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. North and South villages each had two ritual associations (two yinyuehui and two nanyuehui (“Southern Music Associations”), each representing an area based on a former temple; they are also called “lantern association” (denghui 燈會). The yinyuehui of the South village is also known as “southern lantern association”; their 1930 donors’ list and 1983 instrumental score are inscribed thus. The two Guanyin tang 觀音堂 ritual associations, in the northeast of the south village and the southeast of the north village, are called “eastern lantern association”. All these groups had a stock of ritual paintings such as a pantheon, the Ten Kings, and the Four Officers of Merit, as well as a series of diaogua paintings to hang along the village lanes during rituals (another common feature in these villages) .

GL Baiyi juan

Xiaoshi Baiyi guanyin pusa song ying’er xiasheng baojuan, South Gaoluo, 1745.

GL Zaowang juan

Fuguo zhenzhai lingying Zaowang baojuan, North Gaoluo, 1720.

In addition to their funeral liturgy, the four village ritual associations also preserve fine “precious scrolls”. The Guanyin tang associations of both South and North Gaoluo have several printed scrolls inscribed with early-18th-century dates, even bearing the name of the village. These scrolls deal with the major preoccupations of Chinese villagers: birth (to Houtu and Baiyi), and death (to Dizang and the Ten Kings). The Gaoluo ritual specialists say they were much more familiar with the Ten Kings scroll, since it was used for funerals, but it was lost in the Cultural Revolution.

By the 1980s all four groups in Gaoluo were still performing shengguan wind ensemble music for rituals, but only the southern association of the south village, main subject of my book Plucking the winds, preserved its vocal liturgy in performance. Under Maoism they had a fine group of senior liturgists, mostly leading village cadres, and there was an important transmission in the early 1960s, when a group of teenagers studied with their elders. Though they were only able to study the liturgy for three winters before the Four Cleanups, and their master Cai Fuxiang and some of his colleagues died before the full restoration, the senior Cai Yongchun and Li Wenbin at least were able to guide them throughout the 1980s. By 1995 the present group had been free to practise again for at least fifteen years.

The funeral manuals of the four associations of North and South Gaoluo are virtually identical. The combined associations of north and south villages had made the pilgrimage to Houshan since about the 1920s, but had stopped going in the 1940s. The south village yinyuehui recited the Houtu scroll in the village for 1st moon 15th and 3rd moon 15th (playlist track 6, with notes here, and my In search of the folk Daoists, Appendix 3).

In Dingxing county just south, Yishangying village had only acquired its ritual a couple of generations earlier, first from neighbouring Yishangzhuang and then from North Qiaotou, whose Guandi miao temple had a relationship with their own. When the Dafojiao sect was crushed in 1952 campaigns, 80% of households in the village belonged to it, but this had no effect on the public rituals of the village association, known as Great Tent Association (dapenghui 大棚會). They used to recite the Houtu scroll, as well as the Ten Kings scroll. The association was renowned on Houshan for its fine shengguan wind playing; smaller ensembles like this were invariably more accomplished. Though they were too busy during the Great Leap, they had enough energy to go to Houshan even during the famine of 1960, and continued until 1964. Since restoring in the 1980s, they observed the 3rd-moon Houtu festival for five days in the brigade office of their own village, decked out as a temple. But they no longer recited vocal liturgy.

Zangguanying costumes

Old ritual costumes, Zangguanying.

The association of Zangguanying was Daoist-transmitted. When we visited in 1995, ritual specialist Han Yongzhen (b. c1909) claimed that a Daoist from the White Cloud Temple had come to look after their village temple. They converted to the “southern” style of shengguan by about 1940. They had lost their paintings of the Ten Kings, Medicine King (Yaowang), and Laozu, and most of their ritual manuals (including a Houtu scroll), but had managed to preserve a funerary manual that they used for Chasing Round the Quarters, Crossing the Bridges, and yankou rituals. They used to go to Houshan occasionally, but always paid an annual visit to the nearer Houtu temple at Zhoujiazhuang near Dingxing county-town, and had started going there again for 3rd moon 15th since the temple there was rebuilt in 1991.

We learned a bit more about the Houtu temple at Zhoujiazhuang from Zhang Mingxiang (b. c1912), a renowned former Daoist priest in Dingxing county-town, a former colleague of Han Yongzhen. One of many brothers, Zhang had been given to the Donglin si temple in the town when 7 sui. In his early twenties he had spent three winters at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing; he also served for a time in charge of the Chenghuang miao temple in Dingxing town. For what we may call a parish priest, he had an unusually keen grasp of Daoist philosophy. He was not only a vocal liturgist but a fine instrumentalist, having learned the large guanzi oboe of the “southern” style from the age of 18 sui. The Donglin si, like most temples in the area, had always played the solemn “northern” style with small guanzi; but around the 1920s they had changed to the new fashionable southern style to attract more funeral business. Indeed, Zhang recalled “facing platforms” (duitai 對台, cf. “facing in the tent” duipeng 對棚) at funerals with the renowned Buddhist monk Haibo, who transmitted the style in several Laishui villages.

Zhang Mingxiang told us how the notorious Wang Fenggang, commander of the Nationalist army in the area, had ransacked the Donglin si temple in the late 1920s. He had also partly destroyed the Houtu temple of nearby Zhoujiazhuang village; but by 1930, with his armies suffering repeated defeats, he returned to rebuild it. The temple was totally destroyed in 1947, presumably by the Communists; it was formally re-opened again in 1993.

Around the time of land reform, Zhang was “mobilized” to leave the clergy by a cadre from the county Political department—“How could I refuse?” Keeping an eye on the way the political winds were blowing, he kept his long hair in a Daoist topknot for three years, but eventually he saw “it was really out of step with the times” and cut his hair. “How could I be willing to leave the clergy? I was just afraid—I had no choice.” The death of his master around this time removed only one of his deep bonds to the Daoist life. Still, like many former priests, with their literate education, he became a respected cadre under Maoism, though after 1970 he had a job as a cleaner. All the while he continued to do folk ritual; having learnt the guanzi when 18 sui, he kept on playing till he was 80. He now had a comfortable house in Dingxing town, and was happy to see his grandchildren running around.

As we saw, while temples to Houtu were quite common in villages around Yixian, Laishui, and Dingxing counties before the 1950s, they were only a tiny minority of temples in the area. But the Houtu temples in Dingxing are more independent of Houshan, and more of them have been built or rebuilt there since around 1990 than in the other counties. Perhaps as the most distant county from Houshan within the immediate environs of the Houtu cult, alternative sites are more in demand there.

The main Houtu temple in Dingxing with an early history is the Houtu huangdi miao in West Xin’gao village. Restored in 1993, it has competed with Houshan for pilgrims since at least the 18th century. The old temple and opera stage were destroyed in 1958, but two steles survive. One is dated 1790 (Qianlong 55th year), and gives further dates for recent temple repairs. The other stele commemorates the rebuilding of the temple a few decades later; it also claims Xin’gao itself as Houtu’s old home—not Upper Fangcun in Xingtang county, as most other traditions have it. The restoration of the temple had been approved at provincial level, and they had even established links with the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. Its 3rd-moon temple fair is very popular.

We visited several other smaller Houtu temples in Yixian and Dingxing, as well as one in Zhuozhou further east. At least one temple had been built recently for a celebrated elderly local medium whose healing was inspired by Houtu. But since these temples had no apparent connection with local liturgical/ritual groups, I shall resist telling their interesting stories here (Zhang Zhentao 2002: 309–13).

That seems to be the main catchment area of Houshan, but the Houtu cult may be more widespread than my evidence so far suggests—it is common in southwest Shanxi, for instance (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.184 n.33).

These were just a few of the ritual groups we visited in Yixian, Laishui, and Dingxing counties. Ch.9 of In search of the folk Daoists of north China continues with related groups in Xushui county just south, as well as details of funerary practices in the region.

All this activity may seem impressive, but the long decline since the 1930s was only temporarily arrested by the revival of the 1980s, since when the associations have perhaps been threatened more by the new capitalism than they had been by warfare and political repression. Still, my point is to show that even in such a seemingly barren area for Daoist ritual, it was deeply rooted in local culture. And as ever their most complex ritual performance consisted in performing funerals.

In this area (by contrast with north Shanxi) we found plenty of former temple Daoists, but few occupational groups; moreover, no-one seems to have suggested any lay household traditions, even in the imperial period. Some practitioners we met were former temple Daoists who had become leading members of their amateur ritual association after being laicized around 1950; but many more such groups had learnt from temple Daoist priests long before that. Perhaps the ubiquity of long-established amateur associations and sects made it hard for occupational groups of household Daoists to do business—though that still doesn’t explain why the devotional groups thrived here more than elsewhere.

So until the 1950s there was an extensive network of temple Daoists south of Beijing who performed folk ritual; and since then some of these Daoists, and their rituals, were absorbed into pre-existing local amateur village-wide ritual associations. But the folk borrowing of temple ritual was much older than that: amateur village ritual specialists already had plenty of ritual knowledge, and through the late imperial period many amateur village-wide associations were already performing similar rituals to those of the temple priests. Thus the laicizations of the 1950s merely acted as a reinvigoration of their expertise (albeit just as ritual activity was becoming circumscribed). Moreover, while a few groups reviving since the 1980s were occupational (but not household-based), the great majority maintained the local tradition of performing as an amateur social duty on behalf of their home village—and this, along with the difficulty of learning the vocal liturgy and instrumental music, made it hard for them to maintain themselves in an ever-more mercenary society. In north Shanxi, by contrast, lay household occupational traditions of household Daoists were active—and there, no amateur village-wide associations were active, only a few voluntary intra- and inter-village sects.


[1] This article, based on many visits from 1989 to 1996 along with my trusty colleagues Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao, is an edited version of ch.9 of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China, where you can find further refs. For a detailed study of one local village ritual association, see my book Plucking the winds.
[2] For a recent study, see Kong Qingmao 孔庆茂, Zhongguo minjian zongjiao yishu: Wusheng laomu shenxiang yanjiu 中国民间宗教艺术:无生老母神像研究.
[3] Both painstakingly copied by Zhang Zhentao and reproduced in his Yinyuehui: Jizhong xiangcun lisuzhongde guchuiyueshe, pp.289–93. A better-known stele in the grounds bears a rare copy of the Daode jing from 738 CE, with annotations by the Xuanzong emperor. For the Houshan temples, few of the steles lying around the mountain were legible by the 1990s; the local pamphlet mentions a stele for the repair of the Shouyang yuan dated 1503 (Hongzhi 16th year).
[4] Cf. Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui: Jizhong xiangcun lisuzhongde guchuiyueshe, pp.288–309.
[5] There is a fine literature on the modern involvement of the state in local temple fairs; see e.g. articles in Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁.