The Houtu precious scroll


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Hot on the heels of my article on the Houshan Daoists, we need a rather more detailed account of the “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) [1] performed by amateur ritual groups on the Hebei plain.

The four ritual associations of South and North Gaoluo all have early copies of precious scrolls on several themes, but what they, and I, consider their most exquisite volume, the Houtu scroll, was copied only in 1943 (see my Plucking the winds).

While the Ten Kings scroll was commonly recited for funerals until the 1964 Four Cleanups campaign, the Houtu scroll was performed for calendrical rituals—notably the New Year and Houtu’s own festival around 3rd moon 15th, either on Houshan or in the home village (playlist, track 6, and commentary).

The whole point of these precious scrolls is that they are performed for rituals—they’re not musty tomes to be read silently in libraries. And their performance practice—in the hands of peasant ritual specialists—transpires to be rather complex. As I always say, one can hardly study ritual without focusing on how it sounds.

Research on the precious scrolls, and of the religious groups to which they belong, is quite extensive, but it has been largely limited to historical work on library texts, long detached from their performers. Indeed, during the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, it seemed that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”. Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.” Scholarship on the precious scrolls, as on sects and indeed Houtu, has tended to be more historical and sinological than contemporary and ethnographic; the few descriptions of performances have largely been limited to scant accounts in historical sources.

It is now clear that the past tense is not adequate for many religious practices in China —sinology without fieldwork will only tell a partial story. Even if one wants to know about performance in the imperial period, no laconic historical text can be as valuable as witnessing performance today. That is not at all to say that context and performance practice have not changed.

The precious scrolls are among diverse types of ritual manuals performed in the Houshan area. The title has been used loosely as a general term for sectarian scriptures, and among the texts confiscated by anti-sectarian inquisitors in the Qing dynasty there were various types of ritual manuals. The term baojuan is also applied generally to popular religious literature of various types; care is needed to distinguish different types of scrolls, performed in different regions by different types of groups.

North Chinese villagers often refer to their ritual texts generally as jingjuan 經卷, “scriptures”. Most of their written volumes are ritual manuals. But in this western area of the Hebei plain, they also have baojuan, of one particular type: volumes specifically titled thus, with 24 chapters, whose main story is dominated by the ten-word form, performed by ritual groups and derived from “White Lotus” sects. Lengthy moral texts printed on rolls of paper and pleated concertina-like into books, [2] often with a wooden cover, they are vernacular scriptures in colloquial language, devotional epics relating popular morality tales about the gods. But, as I shall explain, they are not “books” but librettos for ritual performance.

Apart from their sectarian ideology, in 1957 the great Li Shiyu 李世瑜 identified six formal characteristics of the scrolls:

  • 24 chapters (pin 品 or fen 分)
  • opening hymn (Juxiang zan 舉香讚) and gãtha (Kaijing ji 開經偈); closing hymn, including rituals for burning incense
  • baiwen 白文 prose sections
  • verse of 4 or 8 lines, seven words per line
  • ten-word form—essential
  • labelled melodies (qupai 曲牌) at the end of each chapter.

It is this “classic” early form of the scrolls that we find in the Hebei villages. By the 19th century, more popular and simple forms also called baojuan became common in south China, but they are quite distinct from the northern sectarian scrolls.

As Chinese and Western scholars have observed, the precious scrolls are a type of story-telling, descended from forms of popular religious preaching in the Tang dynasty. According to Li Shiyu, however, the precise term baojuan, and its common structure, seems to date only from the late Ming, at precisely the time when “secret” sects, for whom the worship of the creator goddess Wusheng laomu was central, were spreading through north China. Official sources are biased against “heterodox” sects, so we might see the precious scrolls as “sectarian” rather than “secret”; moreover, in modern times they are performed mainly by ritual associations representing the whole village. References to White Lotus beliefs (including the deity Wusheng laomu, the three yang kalpas, and the Dragon Flower Assembly) are common in the manuals of these villages, but not dominant—and we mustn’t assume rebellious intent. Most of the scrolls we have seen appear to have belonged to Hongyang, Hunyuan and related sects. Thus they are not quite “popular literature”; although ritual story-telling is a major yet little-known aspect of story-telling in China, the scrolls need to be considered quite separately from the stories narrated by solo bards for rituals of well-being throughout north China, for instance. With the scrolls, ritual takes priority over entertainment.

Scholarship on the scrolls perhaps began in the 1830s with the unlikely character of Huang Yupian 黄育楩. A zealous local official campaigning against the “heterodox” sects that transmitted the scrolls around Cangzhou south of Tianjin and Julu in south Hebei, Huang was nonetheless close enough to rural practice to give some clues about performance. He noted the relation of ten-word form in the scrolls and in local opera, and was fond of criticizing the scrolls not only on the grounds of their dubious historical and religious basis, but also for the vulgarity of their language.

In the Republican period, in the new positive climate towards folk literature, Zheng Zhenduo and Lu Xun did valuable work in giving a more appreciative assessment of the literary merits of the scrolls, but I know of no studies of them as performance texts. Remarkably, by the 1950s, when political conditions discouraged the study of folk religion, a few Chinese scholars were aware that the scrolls were living performance manuals, and with considerable bravery transcribed some pieces. Li Shiyu, the senior expert on the sects and their scriptures, also recognized the various formal features of their performance. But from the late 1950s both the practice and its research were highly suspect; it only became possible to perform and research the precious scrolls more openly by the 1980s. But the brief articles on baojuan in Chinese musical dictionaries of the 1980s still discuss them mainly as a historical subject, and they play a minor role in the Anthology.

Central Hebei
Distribution in north China, as ever, is patchy. Even on the Hebei plain, we have only found the classic 24-chapter precious scrolls in this western area around Houshan. When Huang Yupian was confiscating them in the 1830s, most of the same scrolls (except for the regionally unique Houtu scroll) were current in south Hebei and probably throughout the plain and still further afield, but since then they seem to have died out elsewhere on the area of the plain we studied.

Precious scrolls were, and are, recited by amateur ritual associations (or their sectarian forebears) rather than by temple priests; their former rendition by the Houshan Daoists seems exceptional. As we saw, the associations also commonly have other types of ritual manuals. But the vocal styles for the scrolls, especially that of the dominant ten-word form, are quite distinct from their other vocal liturgy.

Piety is still evident: all the liturgists we met would only unwrap the scrolls from their blue cloth after washing their hands and lighting incense before an altar. During rituals, the Hebei scrolls are performed by the “civil altar” (wentan 文壇) (or foshihui 佛事會) ensemble of between five and ten vocal liturgists alone, accompanying themselves on ritual percussion of bangzi or muyu woodblock, qing bowl, pengling bell, dangzi gong-in-frame, small cymbals, and drum; interludes are performed on the larger ritual percussion section with nao and bo large cymbals.

It is exciting to find such living traditions; their vocal performance may be one element that has changed rather little over the centuries. A minor revival was under way in the 1990s, as was evident from the considerable amount of recopying going on between village ritual associations. But we must bear in mind that most surviving scrolls that were not confiscated or destroyed during imperial and modern persecutions are now in the hands of groups that have metamorphosed since the 1940s into more “orthodox” village-wide associations. Though such groups were probably common in imperial times, in some cases they may be of a rather different nature from their imperial forebears.

Performance contexts
Several fine scholars, having noted that the scrolls were meant for ritual performance, go on to focus on their history and early religious affiliations. Naquin and Overmyer mainly discuss the classic form of “White Lotus” scrolls, from a largely text-based historical approach. Necessary as such work is, to me the most significant aspect of our Hebei fieldwork is that living traditions can illuminate the primacy of performance. I have been fortunate to find village ritual groups performing precious scrolls. They are not just musty tomes to read in libraries: they have always been a living ritual performance art.

Cai Yongchun 1989

Cai Yongchun, senior liturgist in South Gaoluo, New Year 1989.

Some precious scrolls are performed during calendrical rituals, notably the New Year’s observances; some are (or were) performed at funerals; and though we found no evidence for this area, a north Shanxi sect still performs its scrolls as part of vow-fulfilling rituals.

Note, however, that these lengthy scrolls are not recited in full, and probably have not been for a long time. If it takes around twenty minutes to recite one of the twenty-four chapters, it might in theory be possible to perform the whole scroll in around eight hours—but this never happened, and was unthinkable. The reciting of even a couple of chapters is punctuated by lengthy percussion and sometimes melodic instrumental interludes; other ritual business may have to be performed, and singers and audience will need breaks. The Lijiafen liturgists said it would take four or five days to recite the Houtu scroll in full, but they didn’t mean that anyone had ever done so. The only hint of former complete renditions was over the New Year period. One senior liturgist in Zangguanying claimed that they used to perform the Houtu scroll day and night from 12th moon 30th to 1st moon 16th; in South Gaoluo too, the accomplished former generation of liturgists was said to have recited the Houtu scroll “the whole of the 1st moon”—again, presumably meaning until the closing of the altar on the 16th.

However rose-tinted these claims may be, I have heard of no complete performances of any of the scrolls in recent decades. The Hunyuan association in North Qiaotou was among several that used to recite the Houtu scroll for 1st moon 14th to 16th, choosing particular chapters at each session. Within their lifetime most senior liturgists had sung no more than a few chapters at a time; Li Yongshu said that even before the 1950s they rarely recited more than two or three chapters of the scrolls, five or six at the most. When people described a venerated former liturgist as “knowing how to recite the whole Houtu scroll”, they didn’t mean at one sitting, or even during one ritual; they meant that he was familiar with the whole text and all its melodies, and could choose to perform any of the chapters for various rituals over the year. There is an obvious analogy with opera or narrative-singing: though the “complete” story is in circulation, episodes generally suffice in performance.

The Houtu scroll should also be performed for Houtu’s birthday on 3rd moon 15th. But by the 1990s none of the few ritual associations still making the 3rd-moon pilgrimage to Houshan were performing it on the mountain.

Not all village groups that made the Houshan pilgrimage had a version of the Houtu scroll—and vice versa. The Houshan Daoists had a version of the Houtu scroll, but did not perform it during the 3rd-moon festival. Wei Guoliang, who trained with the Houshan Daoists, said that they only recited it when things were quiet and they had nothing to do, as things were too busy at the temple around 3rd moon 15th. He said that the Matou ritual association used to perform it on 7th moon 15th, being far too busy on 3rd moon 15th. Some of the village pilgrim associations were said to perform it on the mountain for the 3rd-moon festival, but again they can only have performed it in part.

But some village associations which observe the Houtu festival in their own village around 3th moon 15th may still perform it then; we were told that the Shenshizhuang associations used to do so. Lijiafen, very near Houshan, used to observe 3rd moon 15th for Houtu in their own village, reciting the Houtu scroll; they had not recited it since the mid-1950s, and I doubt if they recited it in full even then. Kongcun and South Gaoluo also used to perform it in their respective villages on 3rd moon 15th, but since at least the 1980s Gaoluo has performed it, in part, only on 1st moon 15th.

Ritual practice has of course been simplified in modern times; while ritual performance is still valued in village society, obligations to the gods may now be fulfilled by a shorter ritual performed with diminishing strictness, partially a result of a gradual secularization of society. But such ritual impoverishment is not the main reason why only selected chapters of the scrolls are performed.

So evidence for complete performance in modern times is rather scant, and I can’t quite imagine a scenario before the unrest of the 20th century whereby the scrolls were performed complete.

So were they really ritual manuals, then? In this area I certainly don’t believe they were ever read like a book, for individuals to read silently from cover to cover; I can’t be sure this didn’t happen in some more literate urban sectarian circles, but it seems an impossible scenario in the villages I have visited. That is not to suggest that the scrolls were not valued for their overall storyline; again, the analogy with opera or narrative-singing is instructive.

Several scholars have shown more gradations of literacy in late imperial China than I will in the following account, but I think this is the basic outline. In most of the north China countryside, literacy was very low indeed until the 1960s—making it hard to recruit cadres able to read out official documents from the county. No women were literate, and few households were able to send their sons to a private school. Anyway, there was very little to read—apart from the village’s ritual artefacts. This was still so in the 1990s; though since the 1950s, political slogans painted on the walls of the village lanes offered a public veneer of literacy, very few households I visited had any books.

So how did village ritual specialists learn to read ritual manuals? They were not recruited from the village élite; some that we met had attended private school for a couple of years, but most were poor peasants. Young boys who were given to temples learned to read with the ritual manuals as their exclusive texts.

The elderly former monk Benxing, whom I used to visit in Beijing through the 1990s, knew his way around the lengthy yankou volume, and while I was taking notes, whenever I queried how to write any character (however common, not necessarily one limited to ritual), if he couldn’t think of it, his only recourse was to think through the yankou and look it up there!

So I imagine a rather similar learning process in the villages, with teenage boys learning to read the manuals by imitating their elders as they recited them, until the characters sunk in.

In north England I once met an illiterate traveller, whose friends had only managed to teach him to recognize headlines from the tabloid The Sun—whose recurring themes, ironically, were either “Gypos and spongers go home” (what Chinese would call “negative teaching material“) or rather arcane puns.

But the scrolls were not used as silent reading matter. They were (and are) kept wrapped up in their blue cloth in the association trunk until they needed to be taken out for a ritual performance. So if a lengthy tome like the Ten Kings scroll was neither read silently for edification nor performed complete, what was the point of such a magnificent verbal elaboration of the courts of the underworld? Perhaps we also have to incorporate a symbolic function into our view of such scrolls: they might also function as silent protective artefacts.

Such material also suggests a slight adjustment of our terminology describing ritual groups. Naquin makes a useful distinction between “meditational” and “scripture-recitation” sects in the 18th century. Here we are dealing with the latter, but the term may mislead. Reciting the scrolls was not a raison d’etre, like some kind of book club or Sunday school, it was a means to an end: sects met to perform rituals—calendrical and vow-fulfilling rituals, funerals and exorcisms—for which they used ritual manuals, including the scrolls. And the “central role of sutra recitation” did not necessarily mean that the sects “attracted relatively literate followers”.

The Houtu scrolls of central Hebei
Within this area where precious scrolls are common, Gaoluo was a treasure trove. Here I discuss versions of the important Houtu scroll from Gaoluo and other villages. We listed at least seventeen villages in the area that recited versions of the Houtu scroll within living memory. We have seen at least part of several different versions.

Li Shiyu kindly directed me towards the only Houtu scroll known in library collections—also the only known printed edition. [3] The second volume (chapters 13–24) survives of a version believed to date from the Ming dynasty. Its full title is Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi daoyuan dusheng baojuan 承天效法后土皇帝道源度生寶卷. Remarkably, it comes from Yixian county! At the end, four names are listed of “charitable gentlemen of Yanshan printing scriptures to convert the masses” (Yanshan huazhong kanjing shanshi 燕山化眾刊經善士); the final page lists two men with “merit for printing and images in Hanjiazhuang in Yizhou” (Yizhou Hanjiazhuang kanxiang gongde 易州韓家庄刊像功德).

Although it gives no dates, Li Shiyu told me he believed this version to date to the late Ming. While concerned more with esoteric sectarian teachings than with narrative, in chapter 16 it features the story of Houtu granting a son to a high official and his wife from Luoyang in Henan, which we also meet in other versions. This “Ming” edition is not known to have remained in circulation in modern times, and the Houtu scrolls current around Houshan today (all hand-copied) are in a more popular style, though their origins may be almost as early.

Several versions originating from the Houshan Daoists were still circulating in the 1990s, including one held by Liang Shuming, and new copies held by Liang Shuming and Li Yongshu. Wei Guoliang said that Liang had taken off the old Matou village copy of the Houtu scroll, apparently belonging to the Houshan Daoists. Wei well remembers the story of the Houtu scroll, but not having access to a copy, he no longer performs it.

Liang Shuming, indeed, had at least two copies. On the table before his new shrine in Matou in 1993 we saw a recent copy of a Lingyan cibei Houtu niangniang yuanliu baojuan. The nephew of the former Houshan Daoist Liang Jiaozhong had a fragmentary copy with this title, which he said was copied from his uncle’s version; but it seems unrelated to other versions we have seen. Liang Shuming also had a copy of an old manuscript of a Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangling dizhi baojuan; opening with a series of “holy mantras” (shenzhou), in 4, 8, or 12 lines of four words, [4] this version appears to be of great interest, but I was only able to look at it briefly, and he didn’t tell us its origin.

In nearby Liujing, another main centre of Houtu worship, the ritual association also performed the Houtu scroll until the Cultural Revolution. In 1995 the ritual specialist Zhang Dejin was hoping to relearn it, having copied part of it from Liang Shuming, but he had made no progress by 1996. Ritual specialist Li Yongshu in West Baoquan claimed to have rescued some scriptures from Houshan after Liberation, including the Houtu scroll, but they were burnt in the Cultural Revolution. After the end of the Cultural Revolution he had recopied from memory the first section of the scroll, which, like the fragmentary Houshan copies, was called Lingyan cibei Houtu niangniang yuanliu baojuan. In nearby Lijiafen, Zhang Yong (b. c1935) borrowed it to make a copy for their foshihui, dated 1994 12th moon 1st. Around this time the foshihui of South Laoping also made a copy. These associations are all in contact with each other.

Most of the copies in other nearby villages seem to have been lost at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. In Dingxing, the Zangguanying village ritual association had a version; the older generation we met couldn’t recite it, but their seniors could. The old copy was gnawed away by mice, but now they had recopied some of it. Zang Maorong (c1925–1994) had claimed to know it all from memory. Han Yongzhen (b. c1909) used to know it well, but was seriously out of practice. He recalls that their copy was printed, with two dragons on the front cover. An important detail is that they used to recite it day and night from 12th moon 30th right through until 1st moon 16th; this tells us both that it was used at New Year and suggests the kind of time-span needed to perform it complete.

Still in Dingxing, the Yishangying association had a copy made from the Hunyuan association of North Qiaotou in Yixian. In Laishui just east, East Mingyi and Situ made the Houshan pilgrimage before Liberation, but didn’t perform the scripture—not then, anyway. The leader of the Zhaogezhuang association remembered they were going to copy the Houtu scroll in 1937, but shelved the plan during the chaos following the 7th July incident. For 3rd moon 15th the Kongcun foshihui recited the Houtu scroll. East Laoping preserved their copy until the Four Cleanups in 1965. South Laoping also lost their copy, but had a new copy made in the early 1990s; they still read the Houtu scroll in part for exorcisms (anzhai), but mainly for the New Year’s rituals on 1st moon 15th in the lantern tent.

The Houtu scroll of South Gaoluo
The Houtu scroll that we know best, and which seems most beautiful to us all, is that of South Gaoluo. This hand-copied version is called Houtu niangniang cibei lingying yuanliu baojuan 后土娘娘慈悲靈應源流包卷 “Precious scroll on the origins of the merciful efficacity of Our Lady Houtu”.

Though the copies that we know of in the area are not ancient, the texts may be early; the latest date mentioned in the Gaoluo version seems to be the Chenghua reign period (1465–87) in chapter 12. Like other versions of the scroll common in this area, it describes the young Houtu’s early attainment of divinity, her rescue of Liu Xiu, the young prince of the Han dynasty whose throne has been usurped, and Houtu’s later ennobling when he is restored to the throne; in the second volume Houtu grants a talented son to a childless high official and his wife, who are not local but from Luoyang in Henan—a story also briefly featured in the “Ming” edition.

This latter story resembles Overmyer’s fourth type of precious scroll, wherein a childless high official and his wife are miraculously granted a child, who then goes on to be successful and filial. Overmyer adduces many late versions of this theme that “do not appear to be sectarian in origin or content”, but there are early sectarian examples too, like a Baiyi scroll from the Ming dynasty. We might even see the Houtu scroll as a local variant of the Baiyi scroll.

This is a beautiful folk tale, distinctive to the region, belonging to the local people, intelligible and entertaining, quite unlike the more arcane Daoist and Buddhist ritual texts. In literary style it is highly vernacular, simple, oral. Indeed, we may see it as a fixed version of folk legend circulating in the region; that is, the stories collected together in the scroll are but one variant of the Houtu legend in folk memory. Nonetheless, such scrolls are performed only in ritual contexts.

Ma Xiantu (1902–85), a schoolteacher from Hubenyi village just east of Gaoluo, started copying it in the 6th moon of 1942, and completed it on the 1st day of New Year 1943, adding the punctuation in vermilion as he formally handed it over to South Gaoluo in time for the New Year’s rituals. He states that his reason for copying it was fear of the superstition campaign and the Japanese occupation. Ma had originally borrowed it from South Gaoluo to make a copy for his own village “to supplement the deficiency of my village Hongyang holy association”. His brother-in-law Shan Hongfu, a South Gaoluo man, saw him copying it and bought paper from Beijing to make another copy for South Gaoluo.
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In 1995 we went to Hubenyi to visit Ma Xiantu’s widow and their only daughter Ma Shujuan. Ma Xiantu’s son-in-law, a physical-education teacher in the village, told us that the former village association there had “Daoist scriptures” (laodaojing); it was a Hunyuan association, reciting the scriptures for funerals. Before Ma copied the Houtu scroll, the Hubenyi association, like Gaoluo, had precious scrolls to the Ten Kings, Guanyin, and Dizang.

Before the Japanese invasion, the Gaoluo ritual associations used to go to Houshan for the 3rd moon pilgrimage. Later they observed the Houtu festival in the village: the late lamented ritual leader He Qing recalled that the Japanese troops had once entered the village on 3rd moon 15th, kowtowing in the ritual tent. Did the Gaoluo ritual specialists once perform the Houtu scroll at Houshan, or in the village, or both? And did they always perform it at New Year?

Although the copy itself is not old, it is exquisite; indeed, villagers say the older version (from earlier in the Republican period) used by Ma Xiantu to make the copies, and which was destroyed in 1966, was less beautiful. The surviving copy is in two volumes, with wood-cut cover, hand-copied with punctuation in red, 235 pages in all, with colour illustrations between the 24 chapters and at beginning and end—an unusual feature.
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In South Gaoluo the Houtu scroll survived by a whisker: six teenagers (who went on to form the “civil altar” after the 1980s revival) only studied it with Cai Fuxiang for one winter in 1962–63 before the campaigns broke out presaging the Cultural Revolution, and Cai Ran was barely able to rescue it. By the 1990s the performers of the Houtu scroll in South Gaoluo were part of a lively ritual association, and were only middle-aged, so there was hope for the continuity of performance of the scroll. They treasured their beautiful copy of the scroll, and they were still performing it in part on the evening of 1st moon 15th. However, all were aware that their vocal skills were undistinguished. Whereas in the 1950s people used to listen with rapt attention as soon as Cai Fuxiang and Li Baoyu (again, “old revolutionaries”, as we found so often) started to sing the scroll, by the 1990s New Year worshippers drifted away as the next generation of ritual specialists fudged their way through the opening chapter. This was not just because their performance was mediocre; under the influence of urban pop culture, the whole climate was by now much less receptive to such renditions. The ritual specialists say they were much more familiar with the Ten Kings scroll, since it is used for funerals, but alas it has been lost.

Houtu tent

Tent for Houtu with petitions, South Gaoluo New Year 1998.

The scrolls in performance
Though the Houtu scroll cannot have been performed complete in the area for many decades, its vocal music is full of variety and appeal. As we saw above, Li Shiyu pointed out six basic structural features of the precious scrolls. Apart from recited sections, they have three main melodic components:

  • hymns, ten-word form, and labelled melodies.

Hymns (zan) in the same lyric structure (4–4–7–5–4–5 words, common to hymns throughout China), with diverse texts, are sung to one basic slow melody, finishing with an unwritten refrain “All Hail to the Buddha”.

The main musical element, distinctive to the scrolls, is the catchy ten-word form of 3–3–4 words per line, for which they sing a complex structure alternating solo and choral phrases and adding unwritten melismatic invocations of “All hail to Amitabha Buddha” at the end of every group of two, three, or four lines. Between chapters, a more popular repertoire of ‘labelled melodies’ (qupai) with several stanzas is sung to various texts. [5]

In the 1830s, the inquisitor Huang Yupian knew enough about music to make acute, if typically derogatory, comments on the various forms used in the scrolls. He noted the use of labelled melodies, similar to that of local Kunqu troupes, and the resemblance of ten-word form to that sung by bangzi opera troupes. He found the recited sections (baiwen) “unspeakably lowly and vulgar”, like those of opera and narrative-singing (gurci). He goes on, his righteous indignation clouding his judgement still further:

If we investigate the melodies (qiangdiao) and characters of the heterodox scriptures, we can deduce that their fabricators were evil people (yaoren) of the late Ming, who first learnt to perform opera and then practised the heterodox teachings. Fabricating heterodox scriptures with the techniques of performing opera, and even poisoning later generations, despite strict attempts at suppression, the contamination has been profound, and it has been impossible to avoid extreme perils, this is deeply revolting. All one can hope is that the heterodox scriptures can make us mindful of the heterodox brigands, so that we all can be aware that they can absolutely not be trusted.

Like police chiefs since 1949, he was no cultural historian.

As we saw, the scrolls are sung by a vocal ensemble—the foshihui or the ritual specialists (“civil altar”) of the yinyuehui, generally between five and ten men, accompanying themselves on ritual percussion including muyu woodblock and ling bell. In some villages, solo and choral singing alternate in the ten-word form, in others one singer leads; the qupai labelled melodies are sung in chorus throughout; recited passages are performed solo. The performance is punctuated by percussion ensemble and, optionally, by shengguan melodic instrumental music. Moreover, the text does not include the invocations to the Buddha that punctuate the ten-word sections in every chapter. As always, there is a lot more to performance than meets the eye.

Note that while the texts are written, the melodies to which they are sung are entirely unnotated, like those of all vocal liturgy and narrative-singing; only shengguan instrumental melodies are notated in gongche solfeggio. The contours of “labelled melodies” are commonly notated in the scores of opera and instrumental music, but not in ritual manuals.

As in most Chinese liturgy, the precious scrolls open with sections inviting the gods and explaining the purpose of the ritual: the hymn and gãtha (common to most Chinese liturgy), and the first ten-word “Buddha” section, before the story proper begins. This invocatory material for the opening of the altar is common to many rituals. After this introductory material, each chapter runs as follows:

  • a long prose section (baiwen), at the start of each chapter, parlando.
  • verse, a seven-word quatrain, recited
  • ten-word section, long, sung
  • short sung prose section, known as Buddha coda (fowei)
  • untitled gãtha quatrain (generally five-word), recited
  • labelled melody (qupai, known as qur or paizi) in several verses (in the South Gaoluo Houtu scroll this precedes the quatrain)

This is the sequence that I deduce to be logical, each chapter ending with a labelled melody. In the Houtu scrolls from the “Ming dynasty” and South Gaoluo, the chapter headings appears thus, before the long prose section. But in most other scrolls we have seen, confusingly, the chapter heading is given only before the labelled melody; some performers also say that the labelled melody comes first, then the long recited section, then the ten-word section. In the South Gaoluo copy, the sequence is prose—ten-word narrative—melody—gãtha; the following illustration is like an advertisement for the following chapter.

By the way, it is no use guessing the length of any performance from the number of words in a text. If recited, a section of, say, 28 words will occupy roughly the same time as it would to read aloud; but if sung, it may last several minutes, with copious melisma, and with percussion interludes between each line—not to mention that the effect (and efficacity) of reciting a text is totally different from that of singing it with accompaniment of percussion and melodic instruments. In the scrolls, there are some recited sections, but the great majority is sung—and singing any text is very different. Handel’s setting of the bland text “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king” is not melismatic, but that first section not only takes a lot longer to perform than to recite, but creates an unimaginably majestic effect; and a classical “Allejuyah” can occupy a whole movement, taking several minutes.

The ten-word form
Of the three main melodic forms used in the precious scrolls, both hymns and labelled melodies are also used in funeral liturgy, but the ten-word form is distinctive to the scrolls. While the written text on the page is a simple sequence of lines of 3–3–4 words, the overall structure of these long sections in performance is complex: it is somewhat reminiscent of pseudo-Sanskrit mantras like the common Pu’an zhou.

HTJ shiziti

Houtu scroll, opening ten-word passage.

Note also that the written text of the ten-word sections does not include one of the most substantial parts of the performance, the long melismatic refrains invoking the Buddha. Indeed, the singing of unwritten invocations is rather common in ritual manuals generally, such as hymns and the Tan wangling 嘆亡靈 section of Crossing the Bridges. Again, we cannot simply take the text as it stands, but must work from the primacy of performance.

Even from a superficial survey of ritual singing in the area, it is clear that there is a certain variation of performance practice within a generally homogeneous style, just as with the melodic instrumental music. What is constant among groups we have visited is the singing of long complex melodies for the first two lines, both ending in long melismatic invocations to Amitabha Buddha. Upper and lower melodic contours (shangyun 上韵, xiayun 下韵, or “upper and lower Buddhas” shangfo 上佛, xiafo 下佛, or gaofo 高佛, difo 低佛) are distinguished. The upper yun is a ten-word line of 3–3–4 followed by the unwritten refrain Omituofo; the lower yun is a ten-word line followed by the unwritten refrain Namo Omituofo. After these first two lines, each group of four lines ends with another invocation. These refrains are unwritten, and so melismatic that each refrain may last up to a minute; thus over a typical ten-word passage of around thirty lines, there will be at least eight such refrains.

After the ten-word form, the scrolls continue with a short sung section called (by the liturgists, not marked thus in the text) “Buddha coda” (fowei 佛尾), also ending with the Buddha refrain.

In an apparently unusual variation, according to the Gaoluo and East Mingyi ritual specialists, three, not four, lines make up a unit called “one Buddha” (yifenfo 一分佛). The structure of the opening ten-word section is further complicated by the fact that the text is in couplets, each called “a stick of incense”, beginning yizhuxiang 一柱香, erzhuxiang 二柱香, and so on (a measure-word for time, I now learn!). Moreover, the liturgists have an imaginative deployment of solo and chorus to match this.

Only Li Yongshu and the Lijiafen ritual specialists were very aware of an important aspect of ten-word form, that there are “four great vocal styles” (sibu dayun 四部大韵): Old and Young (lao/shao 老/少) Taishan yun 泰山韵, and Old and Young huanxiang yun 還鄉韵. Taishan may refer to funerals; huanxiang “return to the district” seems to allude to White Lotus imagery. Some liturgists also mentioned a laozu yun 老祖韵.

Ji Lianqin claimed that the melodies for the ten-word sections of each chapter may be different, and Li Yongshu said the choice of yun within a scroll is free, the leader choosing for each chapter. However, competence with these different styles is minimal today in villages we have visited, and few liturgists discussed these different yun; nor are they specified in the scrolls themselves, unlike the named labelled melodies. In Lijiafen they said that you can choose any [appropriate] yun for any scroll, but in practice they were only still singing the Young huanxiang yun—the others “didn’t sound good”, so they fell out of use.

This melodic impoverishment may seem like a purely aesthetic choice. One might surmise that social control incidentally circumscribed people’s tastes—but what remains is no more accessible than the styles that became obsolete. More precisely, fewer styles were doubtless needed, as rituals became simplified and manuals performed only in much abbreviated versions.

Still, further west in north Shanxi the distinguished leader of a sect was also able to explain similar details about the various melodic styles within ten-word form.

Ten-word structures, though rare in vocal liturgy, are common in many more secular Chinese vocal genres. As we saw above, Huang Yupian pointed out that the 3–3–4 structure of the ten-word form is related to bangzi opera, and it is indeed used in various vocal genres in Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanxi.

Labelled melodies
Labelled melodies (qupai) are commonly used in instrumental music (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp. 130–38), and also in vocal liturgy (not only in precious scrolls), but the repertoires of labelled melodies used in vocal and instrumental ritual genres do not overlap much. The repertoire of vocal labelled melodies used in funeral liturgy seems to be very small: the most common titles (precisely “label” for melodies) are Langtaosha 浪淘沙 (playlist track 6, and musical example in commentary), Gua jinsuo 挂金鎖, and Jinzi jing 金字經. The repertoire of titles used in the precious scrolls is greater, but still quite limited. These melodies are in a fixed number of words per line.

As we saw above, each chapter of the precious scrolls ends with a labelled melody. Some of these melodies are in several verses; two or four verses are common, but there may be over ten. Some also are used in different chapters of the same scroll, set to different texts. It is unusual for more than one melody to be specified in the same chapter, performed consecutively, but there are instances in the Baiyi scroll and Dizang scroll. Although my sample is small, it seems that even fewer melodies have been used since the 18th century—as is clear from comparing the melodic titles in the Dizang scroll with those in other extant scrolls, for instance.

Of the thirty-nine melodies in the scrolls we collected, fifteen occur in three or more scrolls. Apart from the melodic intricacies of ten-word form, to know these melodies is another basic task for a ritual specialist wishing to perform the scrolls. As Wei Guoliang told us with his manic chortle, “If you don’t understand that, you can’t open your mouth!” But now the scrolls are performed in such fragments that most of these melodies are virtually obsolete.

In fact these titles are all “classic” labelled melodies with a long history, of which notated versions survive in scores of the élite such as the imperially-commissioned Jiugong dacheng nanbeici gongpu of 1746. Thus these ritual songs sung by common villagers today are clearly connected with the “art music” of the imperial literati: as with instrumental music, the musical worlds of urban literati and village commoner were closely linked. If notated versions survive only as far back as the 18th century, texts of identical structure survive from much earlier, often from the Song or even Tang dynasties. Precious scrolls throughout north China use this same limited stock of labelled melodies; though melodically they are unlikely to be identical, future analysis may show similarities.


Recording session on the Houtu scroll, August 1993.

The above discussion is anything but exhaustive, even for the narrow area covered. But going beyond simple, silent texts, we can now see that the performance practice of such precious scrolls—in the hands of peasant ritual specialists—transpires to be rather complex. 

David Johnson (Ritual and scripture in Chinese popular religion, pp.59­–74) has summarized some evidence for the historical performance of precious scrolls; though he mainly addresses their more recent southern form, his historical examples are interesting.

Among several “private” performances, he cites one from Huashan (Shaanxi) in 1946, where a young woman, apparently leader of a group of pilgrims, performed short texts of the shorter more recent popular type more common in the south. Johnson also cites several private ritual performances by nuns, described in the late-16th–century novel Jinpingmei, for birthdays in an affluent urban household, in intimate domestic settings, with an audience of women. Though somewhat diverse, most of these again seem to refer to shorter texts, whether doctrinal or popular, rather than the 24-chapter scrolls that were soon to become popular among sectarian groups.

In central Hebei in modern times, performances of the scrolls are very different in most respects. The only temple-dwelling performers that I heard of were the Houshan Daoists. The scrolls belong to amateur village ritual associations, and are performed by men only, the ritual specialists of the association; and they perform them only in ritual contexts, never for pure entertainment—they are not considered “entertainers” at all, however captivating their renditions may be for the audience. Nor are there any “private” or “intimate” settings now; whether in the village or for pilgrimage, the ritual contexts are funerals and gods’ days. The former sects didn’t necessarily perform them “privately”, since they were by no means necessarily “secret”, and their membership constituted most of the population of the village. Even the occasional use of some scrolls for household exorcisms in Hebei was far from a “private” setting—and again, far from entertainment.

On the central Hebei plain, few ritual associations follow the sectarian pattern: they hold no meetings on the 1st and 15th of each moon, they observe no precepts, they don’t engage in meditation or healing, and so on. In some cases this may have changed; maybe over a period since the 19th century they evolved from devout sectarian groups meeting frequently to village-wide associations performing their rituals only occasionally. But such village-wide associations were always a major element in the picture. They represented village orthodoxy; while under Maoism even that had been vulnerable, it is a mainstream that tends to be neglected in studies based on historical literary sources. My point is that although I describe a current scene, and there may be less diversity now, the current Hebei groups must represent the most common situation in this region in imperial times—amateur ritual groups performing on behalf of their poor villages.

By the 1990s the sectarian scriptures in Hebei were not necessarily in the hands of the sects. Some have been transmitted to the yinyuehui which often served the sects; others are kept by former sectarian members, or by family members. Some knowledge survives of how to perform them, both in ritual associations and among individuals such as mediums or loners. While the scrolls were only performed complete very rarely even before Liberation, sections are still performed today, and elderly singers further recall some labelled melodies that are no longer performed. One insight from fieldwork is to show that the scrolls are not just general historical texts, but belong to specific groups of worshippers at specific times.

My focus here on the Houtu scroll gives only a very cursory impression of the ritual performance of the precious scrolls in rural north China. While historical sinological work and textual study remain necessary, it is high time we added the element of ritual performance. Thus I am not merely adding to our catalogues of texts—I am showing how they are still used. Even if the scrolls are not performed complete, the bare texts give a paltry impression of performance. Not only are the important and lengthy invocations to Amitabha in ten-word sections not written into the scrolls, and there may also be interludes for the large cymbals or shengguan wind ensemble; but also, the long rituals of which the scrolls are part may be very elaborate.


[1] This article is based on my books Plucking the winds and In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3, which contain further refs., including full citations for the sources below.
[2] Overmyer (Precious volumes, p.3) is wise to use the term “precious volumes”, since they are not in fact scrolls, but here I stick with the conventional English rendition.
[3] Listed in Li Shiyu 1957, no.68; Li Shiyu 1961, no.045; and Che Xilun 1999, no.1132, it is reproduced in Pu Wenqi 2005, vol.4: 177–243. It may have come from the collection of Fu Xihua, but I don’t know where he got it.
[4] These shenzhou may be an early feature; cf. the opening of the Gufo tianzhen kaozheng longhua baojing, Pu Wenqi 2005, vol.3: 423–6.
[5] These three styles in the Houtu scroll of South Gaoluo feature on the CD with my Plucking the winds: track 1 (and ex.1, p.373); track 23; track 24 (and ex. 6, p.382).