Rectifying names

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 marchmonts, 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 group 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 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, 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!’ ”


[1] This is based on my book, pp. . 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.