Ritual paintings of Li Peisen

Ritual painting (detail), 1940s

Ritual painting (detail), Li Peisen 1940s.

Here’s a significant addition to my work on the Li family Daoists, further to my film, book, and reflections on this blog.

Until the 1950s, the leaders of household Daoist bands in north Shanxi (see the series of articles on Local ritual under “Themes” in main menu) kept paintings that they displayed for funerary, temple, and Thanking the Earth rituals—notably of the Ten Kings (cf. Hebei), as well as representations of deities worshipped during other funerary rituals like the Pardon (see my film, from 48.22).

Since the 1980s such images are rarely displayed, and I have found few in the collections of Daoist families—many were casualties both of political campaigns and a more general, and gradual, impoverishment of ritual practice (see also my book Daoist priests of the Li family).

One notable difference between the images I’ve found in Hebei and north Shanxi is that the former were effectively the public property of the whole village, in the custody of its amateur ritual association, guaranteeing well-being for all; whereas the latter were used for rituals by individual families of occupational ritual specialists.

Even here I sense nuance: many of the Hebei groups, while still devotional, were sectarian, so it’d be good to add images of the sects in north Shanxi too—even if the Hebei groups were largely village-wide and ascriptive, whereas the north Shanxi sects were intra- and inter-village!

One exception to the (recent) paucity of images among the north Shanxi Daoists is the array of paintings handed down by the great Daoist Li Peisen (1910–85) to his son Li Hua. Some he seems to have painted himself, perhaps in the 1940s; others are clearly rather older.

In this region (evoking Renaissance Italy), religious painters are “artisans” known as huajiang 畫匠, a broad term that covers those who decorate temples (murals, statues, and so on) and indeed coffins—decorating the latter also being part of the yinyang Daoist’s duties (my film, from 18.30). The painters of these images fall into a somewhat more literate category, though obviously they shared a visual and moral world with the temple decorators—Li Bin just emailed me another term, zuo zhizhede 做纸折的, which I can’t wait to hear in Yanggao dialect!

Beyond the use of these images in the broad tripartite classification of rituals, we would also hope to consider their precise setting. Some would be displayed in the house where the coffin is lodged before the burial; those for temple fairs in the temple itself; and (for both contexts) some in the “scripture hall” where the Daoists rest and prepare for their ritual visits. Others might have been displayed in the house of the family commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual. Yet others would be arrayed in the public arena, in the open air, for funerary segments like the Pardon. Funerals are most common in the winter—for the 1991 ritual shown in my film it was snowing. These latter images would thus need to be replaced regularly.

First, hanging scrolls of the Ten Kings (in four groups):





Below is the full painting of The Ten Kinds of Orphan Souls (detail at top of page)—like the Ten Kings, apparently painted by the same hand (I assumed that of Li Peisen, but if so then he was even more talented than everyone recalls), and (judging from the costumes and caps of the shawm band) in the 1940s. Along with the Ten Kings series above, it’s notable for vignettes of what looks like an overview of recent local history at the foot:



Great Emperor of City Moats.

The following images are smaller, perhaps to be mounted on sticks (as Wu Mei does in the Pardon sequence of my film):

LPS 27

Ghost king.

Perfected Warrior of North and South Poles:


Now for some yet-unidentified images—I’ll try and consult Li Manshan next time I see him, but meanwhile some among you can perhaps hazard as good guesses as we can. I’ve given some provisional identifications based on hasty comments from Li Hua and Li Bin while I took photos and made notes—we were also busy discussing his father’s collection of ritual manuals and working out how they overlapped with those of Li Qing! Gimme a break…

While many of these deities are of course widely distributed, rather than an abstract global study referencing “Chinese history” one should pursue such enquiries relating to ritual in north Shanxi, in conjunction with the family’s own ritual manuals—although many of the deities in the latter too have become less familiar to ritual specialists in Yanggao since the 1950s.

Some of these may be the Three Officers (sanguan):


LPS 11LPS 13

Two similar paintings, perhaps Judgment Officers (panguan 判官—and let’s speculate about the differences, in the context of ritual activity in Yanggao at the time!):

LPS 15LPS 26

Possibly Laojun (left) and Yuhuang:

LPS 18LPS 20

Perhaps Zhang Heavenly Masters:

LPS 21LPS 23

LPS 24

Finally, what we may call “”group photos” (heying 合影):

LPS 22LPS 17

LPS 28LPS 25

LPS 14

Wangmu niang and attendant gods?

Li Peisen also preserved a series of inscriptions with the names of deities, all bearing the title Zhengyi famen “Ritual branch of Orthodox Unity”:

LPS 29

LPS 30

Another reminder, both important and I hope superfluous: these images are to be used in specific rituals—along with vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan wind ensemble! But as material artefacts decline, the ritual soundscape endures! Ritual life can perpetuate itself in a changing society without paintings, but not without performance. But both images and soundscape always belong to the specific practices of a time and place; they’re not disembodied from society, to be admired merely in a museum or concert hall.