Ritual paintings of north China

SGL old pantheon detail

For aficionados of visual culture:

The main focus of our fieldwork on the Hebei plain through the 1990s was the ritual performance of amateur village-wide associations there. But of course we also documented the material artefacts of these groups—including ritual manuals, gongche solfeggio scores for the shengguan wind ensemble, donors’ lists, and so on. Donors’ lists are one theme of Zhang Zhentao’s fine book on the Hebei associations, Yinyuehui: Jizhong xiangcun lisuzhongde guchuiyueshe, pp.113–80.

I now realize that by comparison with elite painting, temple murals, [1] and so on, what we may call “folk art” is not so well represented—either in print publications or online. I’ve already included some paintings of village ritual groups in various posts/pages, but now I’m adding more as I introduce the ritual scene on the Hebei plain (under “Local ritual“, under “Themes” in main menu).

Most such paintings were depicted in the period since the late 19th century; some have been painted since the 1980s. They fall under three main headings:

  • Pantheons (e.g. Liujing)
  • Ten Kings of the Underworld
  • Other gods.

These images are displayed for calendrical rituals (notably the New Year) and/or for funerals—the Ten Kings images are used for both.

I’ve compiled a separate page for images from Gaoluo (now with other articles on Gaoluo under “Other publications” in main menu), including diaogua hangings and donors’ lists, from all four associations in North and South villages there.

These images are virtually public property of the whole village, in the custody of its amateur ritual association, guaranteeing well-being for all; whereas individual families of occupational ritual specialists once had many too—in another page (under Images: Li family) I introduce one rare collection handed down by the great Daoist Li Peisen in north Shanxi.

Just as one would suppose north China less rich in ritual than regions of the south, such as Hunan or Fujian, this wealth of artefacts may surprise. And at least one area of the north where I haven’t done fieldwork, south Hebei, seems to have a far greater array of god images, displayed for funerals and jiao Offering rituals.

Of course, these material artefacts are a sub-theme; our main material consists of a rich archive of audio and video recordings of ritual performance. Contemplating such images in a museum is a last resort: they are the backdrop to the ritual soundscape of vocal liturgy and “holy pieces” of shengguan wind ensemble, and a representation of the changing spiritual life of local communities. As you digest these pages, you might even listen to the items of vocal liturgy and shengguan on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

[1] Cf. the treasury of village temple murals documented by Hannibal Taubes (here and here). Note also Ritual artisans in 1950’s Beijing.