These are real, by the way; for some fantasy reviews, see here.

  • A beautiful book that takes us into the living heart of village Daoism like no other. — John Lagerwey
  • One of the richest fruits of intensive fieldwork I have ever read.
    — Mark Meulenbeld
  • Jones provides the sort of rich texture that nonfiction writers of all stripes strive for but rarely attain. Punctuated with wry humor and deep compassion for his subjects, this masterpiece blends fast-paced history and deeply observed descriptions of ritual.
    — Ian Johnson

Daoist priests of the Li family:

Here I will post some reviews of my 2016 book as they emerge (for short appraisals by Ian Johnson, Stephan Feuchtwang, and Vincent Goossaert, see the back cover of the book).

This is a beautiful book that takes us into the living heart of village Daoism like no other. It is unique for its close-up narrative of the history of all the Daoist priests in a single village in northern Shanxi, for its insight into ritual change since 1949, and, perhaps most important of all, its account, accessible to rank amateurs like myself, of Daoist music. All of us who study Daoist ritual know how central music is to the story, but, musical illiterates that most of us are, we cannot read—and therefore avoid—the many professional accounts of Daoist music. Here at last, by a person who is himself an accomplished violinist, we have an introduction that everyone can appreciate. How important this is may be illustrated by two facts: the first is one demonstrated by Jones himself, namely, that the Daoist priests in the region where he has worked are also the Daoist musicians. While this is not quite as unique as he suggests—it is also true, for example, of the Daoists of Taipei in Taiwan—the brilliance and centrality of their music may not only be experienced through the online videos that accompany the text, one can sense it through Jones’s affectionate descriptions, of which I will give just one example. During the funeral ritual, writes Jones, a Daoist holding flag, bell, and conch stands facing the kneeling kin; “A final verse leads into a hectic chanted coda, until time stands still for Golden Noble’s desolate free-tempo solo singing of a sequence of ‘Vowing with hearts at one we Invite’ verses, sounding the bell as he sings.” Particularly noteworthy for those of us who have worked primarily in the South is the centrality of the sheng mouth organ: “The sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the sixth century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches.” We may add, second, that, in ancient China, the Master of Music was also Minister of Education. All of this suggests that the Daoism of North China may have preserved key features of the very earliest forms of state organization that are indispensable to an “insider’s” understanding of what the word “China” might mean. The entire book interweaves equally accessible descriptions of key rituals with accounts of the men performing them. Here, too, there is nothing comparable in the literature: where most ethnographers of Daoist ritual are only interested in the ritual filiation of the priests they study, Jones is interested in them as persons, and follows them through the extraordinary vicissitudes of life in China since “liberation” for purveyors of “superstition.” The simple humanity of these people in the face of persecution under Mao, their capacity for adaptation, and their devotion to quality performance even in the face of the gathering ignorance and indifference of their audience in contemporary China are all made even more palpable by Jones’s intimate, jocular relationship with them. Jones’s work is a model we can share with our students of what is meant by “participant observation.” Finally—and this is something Jones insists on regularly throughout— even though he does his best to trace what he observes back in time, at least to the eighteenth century, his primary goal is not ritual archaeology or “salvage ethnography” but the description of a ritual moment in a specific time and place, and of the changes he has himself observed over the last forty years. As already suggested, the losses imposed by Maoist suppression are in fact less dramatic than those that result from the dying village society of post-reform China. But Jones wishes to carry this one step further, reminding us that change is a permanent fact of every society, and so “we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction.” Much could be said about this statement, but it must be left for another time and another place.

Though by training an ethnomusicologist, Stephen Jones has written a book on the Daoists of Shanxi villages that is not in any way limited to the narrow field of either “ethno-” or ”-musicology.” His Daoist Priests of the Li Family: Ritual Life in Village China is an extremely thorough study of various aspects of the local history of the village of Yanggao, including family genealogy, social change, manuscript culture, music, ritual and so on, often set against the background of political history writ large. The subtitle of the work is indeed to be taken very seriously, as the book truly describes the “ritual life” of a Daoist family in its broadest sense.

Starting with the Introduction (pp.1–34), moreover, the author builds a passionate case for the crucial relevance of doing fieldwork even for scholars of Chinese history. Indeed, it is clear throughout the book that to develop personal relationships with the “subjects” one studies virtually guarantees access to a rich trove of data. In his own words, “the importance and complexities of rapport,” which, as he points out, are “hardly on the agenda of Daoist ritual studies,” has the capacity to make even “archival work … take on a fresh glow” (p.22; also see similar critique on p.33).

After the Introduction, the author goes on to “punctuate the chronological flow of biographical chapters with sections on specific rituals.” What this means in practice is, for instance, that chapter one opens with a biographical sketch of Li Qing (1926– 99), “Master Daoist” and father of the book’s main protagonist, Li Manshan (b. 1946). This biographical part is unexpectedly rich in various insights: meaningful, lively descriptions of detailed family relations, circumstances of disciples, surveys of the local religious life, accounts of local temples, and a first exploration of “ritual life” during the time of Li Qing’s greatest activity. Within these sections, interesting glimpses are provided into the rich history of the locality, such as the presence of female spirit-mediums (known as “great immortals” daxian, p.47), the memories and scarce remains of local temples, or the lack of ordinations for Daoists (with some locals claiming that one is “born a Daoist,” p.51). The chapter subsequently ends with a first description of ritual more strictly speaking. In particular, Jones describes “Delivering the Scriptures”—a ritual segment he calls “today the most constant of all the Yanggao Daoists’ rituals, the basic minimal program for both funerals and temple fairs” (p.52).

In other chapters, a constant flow of fascinating anecdotes is maintained. Chapter two, “Occupation and warfare: the 1940s,” mentions Li Qing’s unorthodox recollection that “the Japanese troops, themselves devout, even made donations” when they saw Daoists performing rituals (p.59). It also shows how fieldwork with living people can teach us about the past, when Li Manshan explains the social configuration of Daoists that is cursorily alluded to in a local stele inscription (p.61). Chapter three, “The Hall of Auspicious Virtue,” purports to trace local history as far back as possible, which is mostly to the 18th century—though Jones provides very apt speculations about Yanggao’s beginning as a military encampment (pp.73–74). It is in this context that the author fulminates against the perception that traditional culture represents something like a “living fossil” (p. 70), an argument that he expands on pp.368–74. Chapter four, “Liberation: the early years, 1948–1957,” is valuable for its recollections of religious activity in the 1950s (p.105). Chapter five, “Years of trauma: 1958–1964,” details the harsh circumstances of the period before the Cultural Revolution. Chapter six, “Silence descends: 1964–1978,” is a short chapter about the uncertain years of political revolutions. Chapter seven continues with the happy news of religious revival, chapter eight is an extremely insightful chapter about the (re-)copying of manuals, and chapter nine describes the revival of temple fairs and the possibility of seeing the 1990s as a “golden age” of Daoist ritual in Yanggao. One of the longer descriptions of ritual is attached to this chapter: “Solo activities of the Daoist.” In it, Jones provides an overview of various small but commonly performed rituals in Li Manshan’s daily praxis.

Chapter ten makes the case for studying ritual manuals alongside ritual performances while being cognizant of the fact that these two never match completely. Jones even states that “the practice of the Li family since at least the 1980s hardly requires the use of ritual manuals” (p.203). Importantly, he argues that this phenomenon is not to be understood as some sort of “impoverishment” of ritual (p.204). This is a crucial chapter, providing nuanced discussion of meaningful analytical differences between descriptive and prescriptive materials, and of classification of rituals. Chapter 11 delves into the ancestry of texts, offering some regional comparisons. Chapters 12 and 13 describe core rituals of the region.

Finally, chapters 14–16 are what Jones calls “the heart of the matter,” namely performance, representing “The sound of ritual.” Here the author surveys vocal liturgy (p.256), ritual percussion (p.279) and melodic music (p.290), while he revisits some of the previously discussed rituals from a musicological angle. The last few chapters (17–19) situate the local Daoist “ritual life” of Yanggao against the background of the 21st century, a changing world (and the Daoists themselves travelling abroad, first to Amsterdam, New York, then Hong Kong, Venice, Milan, Leipzig and Genoa). The last chapter ponders on the inevitability of a “decline” narrative, while hoping to avoid a romantic “nostalgia for some former Golden Age” (p.343).

For the semblance of objectivity, let me voice some critical notes. First of all, while the narrative structure of historical chronology and ritual intermezzi is interesting, the downside is that it makes comprehension more difficult and does not allow the reader to get into a flow—but maybe the author intended his audience to remain on edge

Also, one might have hoped Jones would have taken the time to find a better publisher. Although it is true that the Three Pines Press must be commended for allowing the author to publish such a large manuscript, the make-up is at times clumsy (e.g. p.88) [SJ: blame rather to be laid at my door, having gone to great pains with the layout] and therefore adds to the confusions of the complex narrative.

Most important, though, this book is exuberantly written while always seeking nuance. It is light-hearted (often jocular and deliciously inappropriate), yet serious and meticulously researched. It is one of the richest fruits of intensive fieldwork I have ever read.

This is is an immensely rich but readable book of many facets: a history of a family facing the vicissitudes of 20th-century China; a detailed record of local Daoist rituals, paintings, halls and texts; a vivid description of everyday rural life; and a witty account of the friendship between a London violinist and Li Manshan, an eighth-generation hereditary priest. The latter is a “dour, chain-smoking North Chinese peasant” who “embodies all the arcane ritual knowledge” accumulated over centuries.

One key aspect of this ritual knowledge is music: hymns and percussion interludes played on an array of gongs, drums and cymbals; and shengguan instrumental ensemble pieces, played on mouth organs, short guanzi (oboes), and bamboo flutes. Analyses of the rituals, texts and music are tucked away in separate chapters. Despite these having exotic titles such as “Mantra to Smash the Hells” or “Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body”, Jones’ book is not about sage mystics of yore or ancient rituals but about Li and his band’s everyday working lives—as shopkeepers, migrant workers and as ritual disciples and masters appeasing gods, writing talismans, choosing auspicious dates and sites, and conducting funerals.

Jones has been visiting the poor county of Yanggao since 1991, when he first heard Li Manshan’s father, Li Qing, a renowned priest and musician. Jones has returned repeatedly since then, staying with Li Manshan to study his music, and has accompanied Manshan’s group on tours of Europe and the US. His account is peppered with gossip, anecdote and jokes from these trips.

There are tens of thousands of hereditary ritual families, like Li’s, making music throughout China. Jones has recorded many, and his blog is a wonderful place to explore these and other Chinese musical traditions. You can find there his recordings of Li’s band and a documentary film, Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist.