Local ritual

By contrast with my long-term work on the Li family Daoists of Yanggao (notably my film and book, as well as this nice update), under this growing heading are grouped brief surveys of some other local Daoist (and a few Buddhist) traditions—mainly for north Shanxi and the Hebei plain, as well as Shaanxi. All these articles derive from “hit-and-run” fieldwork (more poetically, “gazing at flowers from horseback” 马观), mostly on the basis of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China (now in paperback!), but they’re worth sharing as part of a more general survey.

I spell out the various levels of fieldwork, from provincial surveys to studies of an individual family, here.

The list so far:


On Shaanxi:

On Ningxia and Gansu:

On Liaoning:

Wang band jiao envelopes

On reflection, there are several reasons why household Daoists in north China haven’t received much attention, except from musicologists.

Scholars of Daoism have long studied household Daoists in Taiwan, and when mainland China opened up in the 1980s it was natural to cross the strait in search of their relatives, their origins, in south Fujian and east Guangdong. From there the topic gradually spread through south China, and we now have a vast body of field reports.

Meanwhile in the north there was actually a longer tradition of studying folk ritual, but it derived mainly from musicologists. Others—even scholars of Daoism and ritual—had inherited a misleading modern idea that the only Daoists in the north were ascetic monastic priests of the Complete Perfection branch. Accordingly, most people have limited their searches to such temple priests.

So I suggest a rethink. It’s not that we shouldn’t study temple clerics. But they are always vastly outnumbered by household Daoists, throughout north and south China. Instead of heading for a temple, it’s generally more fruitful to ask in a funeral shop.

Still, this work shouldn’t be left to musicologists. Scholars of Daoism are still the right people for the job—as long as they make an effort to achieve basic literacy in the soundscape, and modern ethnographic enquiry.

So far the pages here focus on Shanxi and Shaanxi. I’m now adding some more lavishly-illustrated case studies for ritual groups on the Hebei plain, based on Part Three of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. The vibrant ritual scene in south Hebei (introduced in §4.2 of In search of the folk Daoists) is already quite well studied.

Most deserving of detailed further fieldwork is Gansu (In search of the folk Daoists, ch.6). As in south China, much better covered, once one begins joining up the dots on the map, one hopes to learn more about the empty spaces.

Buddhist ritual is very much a subsidiary topic. So far I’ve given sketchy introductions to Ekou (central Shanxi),  Zuoyun (north Shanxi), and Yangxian (south Shaanxi); it features often in the articles on the Hebei plain; and yet others can be found via the Buddhism tag in the sidebar.