Folk and temple ritual in Ningxia

NX Daoist

Funerary rituals of household Daoists in Ningxia.

I keep hoping that someone will organize a vast fieldwork project on household Daoist ritual in Gansu province (for now, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.6), but Ningxia just east, west of Shaanbei, also looks to have lively traditions.

Of course Ningxia province is better known for its Hui Muslim population—and the recent clampdowns (e.g. here). But Han Chinese make up around two thirds of the inhabitants, and their Buddhist and Daoist ritual activity is widespread, with a long history.

One always hopes to make connections between ritual regions—joining up the dots from Hebei to Shanxi, Shanxi to Shaanxi, Fujian to Jiangxi, and so on. So by popular demand [not—Ed.] here’s a little introduction. With no personal experience of fieldwork in Ningxia, my discussion is based on limited secondary sources; so along with consulting county gazetteers and local publications, this is merely the kind of spadework one should do before venturing into the field (cf. my posts on Changwu nearby in west Shaanxi, south Shaanxi, and Zuoyun in north Shanxi).

I set forth from the instrumental volume of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, itself resulting from fieldwork from the 1980s to early 90s. For a substantial overview of the Anthology, see my

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337,

and further thoughts here and here.

As usual, while I dispute the very concept of “religious music”, I’m grateful for all the clues in the Anthology. Most genres are included in the instrumental volumes, [1] but as we’ll see below, material sometimes features under other categories too.

Still, we do indeed have to read between the lines.

Though the Anthology’s textual documentation is sparse and less than well-informed, its many transcriptions, including both vocal liturgy and melodic instrumental melodies and percussion items, suggest lively ritual traditions.

(By the way, throughout the Anthology the full-score transcriptions with percussion parts are a vast waste of space, and trees. The principles of the percussion (drum, gongs, cymbals, and so on) can usually be succinctly explained in a footnote; where exceptional patterns occur, they can be economically added into the score. Bit late now. Oh, and despite the abundant transcriptions, I’ve already lamented the lack of available recordings.)

(On the map I’ve included Jingbian and Dingbian in Shaanbei, as well as Baiyunshan, since these are apparently rare sites for household Daoist ritual there).

Daoist ritual
For Daoism in Ningxia we also have a substantial book,

  • Zhang Zongqi 张宗奇 (1964–2011), Ningxia daojiao shi 宁夏道教史 [History of Daoism in Ningxia] (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua cbs, 2006).

Like many such volumes (e.g. Fan Guangchun 樊光春, Xibei daojiao shi 西北道教史), it focuses on early sources, the material aspect of temples, and the official side of the story. This is all useful historical material, including accounts of the fates of temples under Maoism and since, but it hardly touches on the kind of current popular household ritual activity that I seek.

As in north Shanxi, household Daoist ritual specialists in Ningxia (and Gansu) are known as yinyang, so this is clearly part of the long “yinyang corridor” that I proposed in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China (ch.1, and map 1). The distribution of Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection branches is hard to determine. What little material Zhang Zongqi gives on ritual specialists mainly concerns high-ranking temple priests (pp.109–12, with biographies). A survey was initiated in 2001, mainly to “register” household Orthodox Unity Daoists, but as ever, official thinking simplistically equates Complete Perfection with “temple-dwelling”, and Zhang suggests that the fieldwork was less than rigorous; thus it remains unclear if there are Complete Perfection Daoists among the household practitioners, as I found elsewhere (e.g. for Shanxi, Shuozhou, Tianzhen, and Xinzhou).

Revealingly, Zhang estimates that there were a mere thirty or so temple-dwelling clerics in the province, but over thirty thousand household Daoists! Which makes it all the more sad that he doesn’t tell us about them. He does mention the term zouyi 走义 (p.110), encompassing all the types of ritual services provided by Daoists in the southern mountains.

So for now it’s back to the Anthology. The transcriptions of “Daoist music” come from Qingtongxia municipality and the counties of Lingwu, Huinong, Yinchuan, Guyuan, Tongxin, and Zhongning. [2] And of course within each of these counties there may be many groups, as my series under Local ritual suggests. The transcriptions provide names of performers, which may be a clue to help us find them; since household groups are generally hereditary, even if the Anthology material is already nearly thirty years old, it should help us find living traditions—even if the descendants of ritual specialists there are now just as likely to be found on urban building sites. For instance, the leading yinyang in Zhongning county whose liturgy is transcribed (1071–92) were Hu Zhengling 胡正玲 and Sun Zhancai 孙占才.

Buddhist activity
Here the transcriptions, with texts, seem to come from routine rituals as performed by temple monks at the Shoufo si 寿佛寺 in Pingluo, as well as Zhongning, the Gaomiao 高庙 in Zhongwei, and Yinchuan. There are clearly lay groups practising too.

NX Buddhist

Temple and folk Buddhist ritual in Ningxia.

Transcriptions and texts
One value of the Anthology is that it provides liturgical texts—as performed at the grass roots, not merely from silent library volumes detached from place.

For Daoist ritual, apart from melodic and percussion instrumental transcriptions, those with texts include many familiar in both temple and household ritual elsewhere, such as Yizhan deng 一盞燈, Mangmang Fengduzhong 茫茫豐都中, the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請), and Zhongzhong wuming 種種無名. Items from household yinyang include the standard text Linlang zhenxiang 琳琅真香, used in the daily services of the great temples.

Transcriptions of Buddhist ritual segments include—from the yankou (and thus overlapping with Daoist ritual, both temple and household)—Yici zhenling 以此振鈴 from the Invitation, and the Skeleton song. [3]

Online there are many clips of the training of temple priests, and official meetings of the Daoist Association, but as ever I’m mainly seeking household groups—short funerary clips with the Handingtang 汉鼎堂 Daoists include Homage to the Northern Dipper and Ascending the Ritual Platform.

Other coverage of liturgy
While I’m revisiting the Anthology, a reminder that material on ritual may also feature in other sections apart from the instrumental volumes—notably those on narrative-singing, as we saw in my post on the Changwu Daoists in west Shaanxi.


As for opera, the Anthology coverage of narrative-singing is divided between two categories: the monographs, with historical material for all periods (including Maoism) (Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志), and music, with transcriptions and texts (Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成).

For Ningxia, I haven’t yet seen the monograph, but the narrative-singing music volume gives substantial material on “Buddhist precious scrolls” (fojiao baojuan 佛教宝卷) and “Daoist morality tales” (daojiao shanshu 道教善书). [4] This neat binome is unlikely to reflect local terminologies, and they should probably be studied in conjunction. Whereas the sections in the instrumental volumes are largely limited to the great temples, here the compilers clearly engaged more with folk practice.

The “precious scrolls” appear to belong largely to the later more popular style, rather than the classic sectarian type with 24 pin chapters whose performance practice and ritual background I have outlined for Hebei (see here, and here, citing my Plucking the winds). But in Ningxia, as in Hebei and east–central China, they are mostly performed by devotional sectarian groups.

Eleven excerpts are transcribed, from Haiyuan, Yinchuan, Longde, Xiji, Lingwu, Yongning, and Pingluo, ending with a lengthy sequence from Huinong, the Yingge baojuan 鹦哥宝卷 (sic).

The section gives biographies of two master exponents, Cao Jinming 曹锦铭 (b.1934) in Yongning and Xu Jianye 徐建业 (b.1945) in Pingluo. The latter, a disciple of the great monk Xuzao 续早 (1919–91), [5] was one of the main informants for the coverage of “Buddhist music” in the instrumental volumes. More hints at activity during the Cultural Revolution: Xu Jianye is described as collecting Buddhist repertoire since 1972; Cao Jiming is said to have started leading his ritual group in 1969!

Local scholars also collected many manuscripts of precious scrolls.

As to the “Daoist morality tales”, transcriptions come from Xiji, Yanchi, Zhongning, Tongxin, Qingtongxia, Yinchuan, Guyuan, and Taole (in Pingluo). Biographies are given for two hereditary household Daoists from Qingtongxia: Rong Guang’en 荣光恩 (b.1920) and Li Xiwu 李锡武 (b.1942).

In both sections, apart from more austere ritual texts (hymns to deities, Triple Libations, and so on), themes include the stories of Mulian and Woman Huang—otherwise rather less common in north China than in the south, for which there is extensive research.

Alas, none of these sources provides even basic programmes for calendrical or mortuary rituals, or lists of ritual manuals.

In my post on rain rituals I mentioned the processions of Lianhuashan and Xiangshan temple fairs, as well as Pingluo and Yinchuan.

Appendix: Gansu
While we’re consulting the narrative-singing music volumes, a little footnote on Gansu further west, where the precious scrolls are again a major theme. Here, in the guise of “Hexi precious scrolls” (and by contrast with research on household Daoists), they have attracted considerable scholarly attention, well before the reifications of the dreaded Intangible Cultural Heritage (like this), and there is much online coverage.

The broader topic of precious scrolls in China is vast. The introduction and references to Rostislav Berezkin’s 2017 book Many faces of Mulian: the precious scrolls of late imperial China, as well as the foreword by Victor Mair (who pioneered Western studies in the early 1980s) make a useful survey of the extensive work of Chinese scholars like Li Shiyu and Che Xilun, the Japanese Sawada Mizuho, and Western sinologists like Daniel Overmyer, Wilt Idema, and David Johnson. While textual research yields rich material on imperial history, Berezkin introduces an ethnographic dimension to a subject that (apart from our work in Hebei, notably posts cited above) has been dominated by the collection of silent texts rather than the documentation of performance practice in the ritual life of changing local society.

For the Hexi corridor, Idema’s The Immortal maiden equal to heaven and other precious scrolls from western Gansu (2015) includes a critique of research. Anthology collectors in Gansu found living traditions in the western regions of Wuwei, Zhangye, Jingtai, and Jiuquan/Jiayuguan, as well as Minxian south of Lanzhou—again ending with a long excerpt from the Yingge baojuan 莺鸽宝卷, as performed in Jingtai. [6] As in Ningxia, the earlier sectarian layer is now secondary to a more popular style; again, the story of Mulian is a major theme.

* * *

As ever, for north China as much as for the south, the challenge is to beware reification, and to look beyond the major temples that form the basis of official accounts—although they too may be nodes for folk activity. Further research might be based on detailed ethnographies of changing ritual life among local communities, setting forth from local fieldwork.

And I’m still holding out for studies of the innumerable household Daoists of both Gansu and Ningxia!


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Ningxia juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成,宁夏卷: text pp.749–52, transcriptions 755–1092, biographies and groups 1095–1100.
[2] Ibid.: text pp.749–52, transcriptions 835–1092.
[3] Yizhan deng, Mangmang Fengduzhong, and indeed Wujin beitan 吾今悲嘆 also appear in the narrative-singing volume (for which see below). For all these ritual texts as performed by the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, north Shanxi, see my Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.14.
[4] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Ningxia juan 中国曲艺音乐集成,宁夏卷, text pp.784–826, 827–82.
[5] See brief biographies of both in ibid., p.1095; more detail on Xuzao in his baidu entry, which gives his dates at 1918–87.
[6] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Gansu juan: text pp.747–53, transcriptions 748–801, biography 802. Note also related ritual genres, pp.595–746, 803–14.