Rectifying names

On the state system’s distorted official packaging of local ritual traditions,
and its misguided yet largely futile attempts to promote them.

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

In Yanggao, as across a wide band of northwest China, people refer to household Daoists as yinyang, rather than the standard daoshi[1] Just west in Datong county, people refer to them as erzhai 二宅 “two dwellings”. Indeed, the binome yinyang erzhai refers to their dual officiation over yin and yang dwellings for the dead and the living, so the two terms are alternative abbreviations.

More prosaically, locals talk of “requesting the scriptures” (qingjing 請經), and the Daoists they invite are known as “responding for household rituals” (yingmenshi 應門事). A group of Daoists was once known as a “hall” (tang 堂), and named after its leader, such as “Li Qing tang,” but the common term was ban 班 “band,” as in “scripture band” (jingban) or “band of yinyang”. They are Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) Daoists of the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao) scriptural tradition.

With this background in mind, time for another rant. It was for the 1990 festival of religious music in Beijing that local cultural cadre Chen Kexiu dubbed Li Qing’s band the “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe” (Hengshan daoyue tuan 恒山道乐团), following the style of various “Buddhist Music Troupes” like those of Wutaishan, whose group also took part. I have only three problems with this name:

  • Hengshan,
  • Daoist music, and
  • troupe.

Working backwards, the word “troupe” is a modern urban institutional term, reminiscent of the cheesy song-and-dance troupes. The local term in Shanxi is “band” (ban)—indeed, Li Bin uses that for his advertisement above his town shop, even if he retains “Hengshan” and “Daoist music”.

“Daoist music” is another of my bugbears. The problem arises when it is music scholars who discover them. No-one calls the many thousands of Daoist groups in south China “Daoist music troupes”, because the people doing the research there regard them—correctly—as Daoist groups, not Daoist music troupes. “Music” (let’s say sound) is always a core aspect of ritual.

As to Hengshan, it is one of China’s five Daoist marchmounts, or sacred peaks. This mountain in Hunyuan county, not so far south of Yanggao, has long been home to Daoist priests resident in temples there, and was patronized by many emperors. So it sounds prestigious, by analogy with the Buddhist Wutaishan, or the southern Longhushan.

The only problem is, the Yanggao Daoists have never had any contact with Hengshan. Li Manshan can’t find either Hengshan or Hunyuan on my map, and even asks me if it’s in Shanxi! Yanggao people have had constant contact with Datong and Inner Mongolia to the north and northwest, and even a bit with temples just east (Yangyuan, Huai’an), but we hear of no links with counties to the south like Hunyuan. Yanggao people can barely understand Hunyuan dialect. And if the Li family are somehow to be linked to Hengshan, should we use the same title for all the hundreds of Daoist bands active in north Shanxi? I might add that the temple priests of Hengshan belong to the Complete Perfection branch of Daoism, whereas the Yanggao household Daoists are Orthodox Unity Daoists—but that’s not the main issue here. Nor do we have any accounts of ritual practice on Hengshan.

This cavalier branding of folk groups has long been a vice of cultural officials, but at grass roots it has only a limited effect. Still, things haven’t got any better; the list of submissions for the Intangible Cultural Heritage bandwagon is full of such romantic titles. Quaintly, when I visited Hunyuan in search of Daoists in 2011, the Bureau of Culture there had just dubbed their local household Daoists the Hengshan Northern Peak Daoist Music Troupe, preparing an outrageously kitsch demo video for their ICH application, complete with smoochy erhu fiddle and rippling zheng zither in imitation of the appalling recent innovation of the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, quite alien to them both. The Daoists of this group, living in the town right at the foot of the mountain, were at least physically closer to Hengshan, but they too were household Daoists with no clear link to the Hengshan temples.

Oh well—out of those five Chinese characters, I can at least concur with the word dao. Calling Li Manshan’s band the Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe is like calling a group of Calabrian folk exorcists the Sistine Chapel Choral Society.

But it is only me who has a problem with the name. The Daoists are quite happy to go along with it, and have even had a set of red robes made with the title emblazoned on the back, complete with a contact phone number, a kind of mobile advertisement. Forget the exquisite robes of yesteryear, embroidered with the eight trigrams and the Eight Immortals—though again, I haven’t found anyone in Yanggao who can recall any such ornate costumes. On their tours abroad they bring a set of matching suitcases proudly stamped with the characters for “Hengshan Daoist Music”. And Daoists like Li Bin are now used to the term “Daoist music” when they talk to officials and journalists, however much I dispute it. I doubt if they ever used or heard the term before the 1990 festival. Some people with a certain education, having heard that I am studying music, use the term when talking to me. But locally even the term “Daoism” (daojiao) is hardly used. I am not so naïve as not to see why names like this are given, it’s just that by the second decade of the 21st century I believe Chinese and Western scholars can move away from such misleading terminology.

In Chinese a fine way to express this anomaly is the common expression

  • “Mr Li wearing Mr Zhang’s hat” (Zhang guan Li dai 张冠李戴)—

especially since it is indeed the Messrs Li who have been inadvertently presented with this inappropriate headgear. In Datong city, Bureau Chief Li gave another good reason to change the name:

What a mess—audiences are going to come up to them and say, “We’ll come to Hunyuan, climb Hengshan, and come and find you doing rituals in the temple there!”

See also Vocabularies, educated and local.

* * *

Update (2018)
This was my first post in what has become a whole series of rants on the heritage shtick, collected here. Just in case anyone’s not quite aware of the impasse between state policy and local ritual culture, and the dangers of the former intruding in the latter, here’s an illustration—in addition to other critiques of the ICH system, and the Disneyfied stage presentations that it favours (see Festivals: the official–folk continuum, under The reform era).

In the (suitably deserted) rooms set up for the “Hengshan Daoist Music Training Bases” at Li Manshan’s house and next to Li Bin’s funeral shop in town, alongside a hilarious list of rules of attendance, punctuality, and so on, a fading poster gathers dust (cf. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, pp.141–2):

Thirteenth Five-Year Guideline [2] for the Innovation and Development of Hengshan Daoist Music

HSDYT rules

Its whole conceptual language—almost every single phrase in its vocabulary—is that of state apparatchiks, of national secular education; and as such it is familiar to Yanggao dwellers. But it’s entirely alien to the culture to which Daoist ritual belongs. I grit my teeth to translate it, but here goes (it’s not even entirely grammatical, and I’m sure not going to try and improve it):

  • 1) To hold four Beginners’ Training Sessions, with sixty pupils, focusing on the commonly-played melodies of Hengshan Daoist Music, the playing techniques of shengguan, and the mutual combination of civil and martial arenas.
  • 2) To hold a relatively advanced Pupils’ Training Session, choosing forty pupils of outstanding achievement from the elementary and intermediate classes. Focus on training in the theory of Hengshan Daoist Music, the classic suites and supporting pieces, and the various performing contexts of Daoist Music. Further, to systematically train twenty from these forty pupils of outstanding achievement to train and transmit.
  • 3) Mainly with these forty outstanding pupils, each leading one band [sic], to establish a Yanggao Hengshan [sic] Daoist Music Performing Arts Group [“group”: jituan, a term adopted from the business world] to make Hengshan Daoist Music flourish on the basis of transmission, setting forth outside Yanggao towards national influence and stepping onto the world musical stage.

I can only repeat: Daoist ritual in Yanggao is nothing to do with Hengshan, it’s not Daoist Music, and it’s neither a Troupe nor a Performing Arts Group.

The good news is that none of this flummery has come to pass, and none of it will: it’s not only misguided, but largely futile. As I’ve observed, knowing the life involved in working as a Daoist, no “pupils” with any sense could possibly want to take it up.

[1] This is based on my book, pp.176–7. In Yanggao and elsewhere there are a few jushi lay devotees who seek to lead their lives according to the precepts of ancient Daoist wisdom, but here the issue of “belief” is not relevant; and since those who only determine the date and decorate coffins are also known as yinyang, I use the term “Daoists” to describe yinyang who perform rituals.

[2] That is, the current national Five-Year Plan from 2016, thirteenth since the system was established in 1953.