Buddhist ritual in south Shaanxi

As part of my series on Local ritual, this outline will be even more sketchy than my articles on some other areas that I haven’t visited, but again I’m hoping to entice people to go and do some serious research.

From my armchair, I’ve been trying to augment the sparse clues I gave in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (p.96) to ritual practice in the Hanzhong region of south Shaanxi—distant from Shaanbei in the north of the province, rather independent from central Shaanxi, and perhaps belonging more to the Sichuan cultural area.

BTW, I like doing these maps. However rudimentary my attempts, they ground our studies in real places, hinting at people’s lives in local society, far from abstract ancient texts.

The temple-dwelling Complete Perfection Daoists of Hanzhong, studied by Adeline Herrou (A world of their own, 2005, and her recent film) seem not to perform folk rituals outside their temples: their main life is devoted to reflections on the dao—still the common image of Daoism among many Chinese and foreign aficionados.

However, in this same region, collectors working on the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples again unearthed folk ritual traditions, mainly related to former temple Buddhist monks around Yangxian.

Household Buddhists around Yangxian
In most areas of rural China, Buddhist ritual groups are now in a small minority compared to Daoist bands.  I mentioned one such group in Daixian county near Wutaishan; further north in Shanxi, ritual traditions in Zuoyun county just west of Datong, presented merely as “Buddhist temple music”, still await serious fieldwork.

For Shaanxi province, Liu Jie gave a brief overview of “Buddhist and Daoist pieces” for the instrumental volumes of the Anthology, in an article first published in 1988. [1] Yangxian county in south Shaanxi, along the Han river basin east of the regional capital Hanzhong, is one area where Buddhist ritual groups are still active.

Yang Zixuan, perhaps

Yangxian ritual masters, undocumented photo from this site.

In this region ritual groups are known as “scripture stalls” (jingtan 經攤). In recent years there were still said to be about eight or nine such groups around Yangxian making a living from performing rituals—mainly funerals. According to local material (evoking the vocabulary of Buddhist ritual specialists in distant eastern Guangdong) their vocal liturgy is called chanhe ban 禅和板 (referring to the Chan school of Buddhism); while the melodic instrumental component, known as xianghua ban 香花板, uses shengguan wind ensemble—here adding banhu and erhu fiddles.

Liu Jie‘s biography (also here) of Yang Zixuan (1916–99), Buddhist ritual specialist in Yangxian, is augmented by a more recent site. Born in 1916 in Moziqiao village in Ziqiao township, Yang Zixuan was given to the Chinan si 池南寺 temple at the age of 7 sui, taking the fahao Buddhist name Derun 德潤. Apart from calligraphy, vocal liturgy and percussion, he soon learned the shengguan ritual wind ensemble music. He went on to become a disciple of the monk Deshun 德顺 in the Sansheng si 三圣寺 temple in Zhangjiaba to the southwest. By his teens he was recognized as an outstanding ritual specialist and guanzi player. “Competing” with a Daoist band at a funeral in the 1930s, he even outranked the celebrated Daoist Cui Jiashan 崔家山.

From 1937 to 1949 Yang Zixuan was invited to teach at many temples, including the Shangyuan guan上元观 (presumably Daoist), Upper Li family temple上黎家寺, Gaoyuan si 高原寺, and the Nianfo ya 念佛崖, as well as the Guanyin si 观音寺 in Chenggu, training over twenty disciples. I now long for more detail here, about the Japanese occupation, the civil war, and so on.

We often find ritual specialists being recruited to regional state troupes under Maoism, and soon after the 1949 “Liberation” Yang was recruited to the Red Star song-and-dance ensemble in the regional capital Hanzhong. The provincial and national radio stations recorded his guanzi solos, and six or seven volumes of transcriptions were mimeographed—only to be lost in the Cultural Revolution.

On the revival of the 1980s Yang, now retired from the troupe, helped the Anthology collectors. It’s unclear if he himself resumed his ritual practice, but his disciples did. The site lists three other ritual specialists from Yang’s generation, and eight from the next, mostly from Xiecun township. Since the revival the leader has been Zhang Husheng 张虎生.

The other main source for collectors was Huang Xueru 黄學儒 (b.1930, Buddhist name Lingji 靈吉). He was given to the Upper Lijia si 上黎家寺 temple at the tender age of 4 sui, becoming a disciple of the senior monk Yang Junshan 杨均山 and later of Yang Zixuan. From 1950 he made his living with an itinerant folk puppet opera troupe (mu’ou xiban), but by 1952, after a brief sojourn in the Tax Department, he was recuited by the state-funded county opera troupe. He seems to have been laid off, along with most such state cultural employees, in 1960. After retiring in 1980 he resumed ritual activity among the folk.

The article lists five other ritual specialists from Huang’s generation, mostly from Xiecun and Longting townships, including (see hereLi Shanwa 李善娃 (b.1935), from Gaoyuan si village, who also learned in the temple environment from the age of 4 sui; and Wang Baoping 王寶平 (b.1932?), from Xiecun, who became a monk at the age of 10 sui—laicized after Liberation, he too continued taking part in folk ritual.

Another band descends from Yan Yaowa 颜夭娃 (b.1917, fahao Rufu 如福) from Xiaojiang village, who was given to the Zhiguo si 智果寺 temple in Yangxian at the age of 8 sui, becoming a disciple of the monk Wenyi 文儀. He was recruited to the county opera troupe in 1953, returning home in 1958. He too resumed ritual activity after the liberalizations of the 1980s. Even in his 90s he was still performing folk ritual with his “scripture stall”.

Yangxian nianjingThe only scant clue I can find to the funerary practice of such groups is that they hang out ritual paintings and recite “Lake of Blood” scriptures such as Dizang xuepen zhenjing 地藏血盆真經 and Xuepen fachan 血盆法懴.

Finally, some material on current temple (rather than folk) ritual activity. The distinguished abbot Tongbao 通寶 (b.1931) was given to the Yanliang si 延良寺 temple at the age of 8 sui. In 1945 his Buddhist master sent him to the Wulang miao 五郎廟 temple in Sucun village, Chenggu county, where he furthered his ritual studies with the monk Chengjing 成静 (b.1920). In 1947, still only 17 sui, Tongbao was ordained at the Wenshu yuan 文殊院 temple in distant Chengdu, consolidating his mastery of vocal liturgy, before returning to the Yanliang temple, where he has been abbot since 1956. Since the 1980s’ restoration he has held positions in county committees, and in 2004 he was chosen as head of the new county Buddhist Association. He has seven ritual disciples. They are active mainly within the temple itself.

Other ritual activity
Household Daoist ritual bands in south Shaanxi are even less well documented. We saw tiny clues to Yangxian—Cui Jiashan’s group in the 1930s, and perhaps Yang Zixuan’s training work at the Shangyuan guan temple. Daoist bands in Xixiang county are mentioned in passing by Liu Jie, but I find no further clues.

Alas, no ritual sequences are provided in the material on the Yangxian Buddhist groups, but a basic list for folk Daoist rituals in south Shaanxi funerals, not giving specific places, gives this sequence:

  • Opening the Scriptures 開經
  • Inviting the Gods 請神
  • Issuing the Litanies 發懺
  • Repaying Kindness 报恩
  • Chasing the Bridges 跑橋
  • Communicating the Lanterns 觀燈
  • yankou 放食
  • Spreading [Flowers?] 打散
  • Bidding Farewell to the Soul 辞令 [靈?]
  • Final morning: burial.

Further east in Zhen’an county, a token video shows household Daoist Wu Longbin leading an Inviting Water (qingshui 請水) ritual.

A separate type of ritual performance, known in Xixiang county and once quite widespread, is “filial songs” (xiaoge 孝歌), apparently transmitted from Hubei. These songs, accompanied by percussion, were performed by itinerant groups while “seated through the night” before the coffin at funerals. [2]

* * *

As I implied in my introduction to Buddhist ritual, the latter has long been more based on the practice of temple monks, whereas occupational Daoist ritual specialists have long thrived independently of the temples, and are thus far more numerous. So one likely difference between household Daoist and household Buddhist groups is that the latter (for now) may often comprise former monks laicized since 1949, whereas the long household ancestry of Daoist groups is clearer—even if some of their forebears too may have spent periods as temple priests before the 50s.

That’s just about as much material I can find on Yangxian before someone does some serious fieldwork. [3] By contrast, brief articles for the Intangible Cultural Heritage (like this) are typically bland. With mechanical lists of “Buddhist pieces” (but not ritual sequences), they invariably end with an obligatory paean, dictated by Party-speak, to the “meaning and value” of the genre in question—ancient history, beauty, need to preserve precious heritage, blahblahblah—the same old platitudes churned out ad nauseam. As ever, they focus on the Han and Tang heritage, and early historic temples of no clear relevance, scrupulously avoiding any reference to modern social and religious life. The Baike entry is just as bland. In order to pass the official test, such genres have to considered as “religious music”.

By now I’m fed up with all this, and I’d like to suggest a more basic “meaning and value” to such articles:

to consolidate the ideological agenda of the modern state.

If anything, the state of research has only deteriorated since the 1980s when local cultural workers collected basic data for the Anthology, and it’s an indictment of the lack of progress over the last three decades that I’m reduced to citing the latter material. Faced with such cultural riches, the ICH representatives can only display their own lack of culture. Local traditions need somehow to be rescued from the hands of “heritage” apparatchiks. The whole conceptual vocabulary of such material needs a radical overhaul. No-one thinks to document ritual practice, or list ritual manuals. And as to the modern history of such groups in a constantly changing society—forget it.

As always, while scholars of religion are notable by their absence, one is grateful that music scholars have at least collected basic material; but the narrow focus on “religious music” is absurdly limited. We need to spread the net wider; for instance, several groups of “household Daoists” (huoju dao), as well as yinyang and duangong, are included in a list of sects for suppression in south Shaanxi under Maoism. [4]

Thing is, such sparse material as one can find published is always the tip of the iceberg. This is merely the kind of basic preparatory spadework that we need to do. Someone please go and spend some serious time there engaging with folk ritual practice! One could, and should, write a book about the ritual life and vicissitudes of all of these groups.

Always seeking connections, from here it is not far south to Sichuan, heart of fine Daoist ritual traditions. And just east lie the major Daoist mountains of Wudangshan in north Hubei, for which both temple ritual and lay practice around the foot of the mountain have been documented—but there is room for more.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shaanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 陕西卷, pp.1676–7, 1680–81; transcriptions (alas only instrumental items) 1708–82, 1792–4.
[2] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Shaanxi juan 中国曲艺音乐集成, pp.1373–1446.
[3] Somewhat more promising is an unpublished thesis (one of many fine projects for the Shanghai Ritual Music Research Centre): Wang Xiaoping 王晓平, Shaannan Yangxian fojiao yinyuede yishi yinsheng yanjiu  陕南洋县佛教音乐的仪式音声研究 (2012).
[4] Zhao Jiazhu 赵嘉朱, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng 中国会道门史料集成 (Beijing,  2004), pp.1147–52.