Daoist ritual in southwest Shanxi

Shanxi pics

Upper row: funeral, Yicheng county; (right) ritual leader Gao Faseng.
Lower row: Daoists in Jiangxian; (right) ritual manuals of Zheng Jiaqi.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan.

My fieldwork on Daoist ritual in Shanxi has focused on the north (for an early foray, see here). Large areas of the province still remain to be explored, but many groups of household Daoist ritual specialists appear to be active in the southwest.

Since this is another region that I haven’t visited, my account here, based on limited secondary sources, is more of an invitation than a report.

Again, it’s curious, nay unfortunate, that only music scholars have paid attention to these groups. The material related to the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, collected in the 1980s and 90s, predates the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, which has merely stultified research; and I’d like to think that it has all been superceded by research from scholars of Daoism, but apparently not. So this is just a modest and more colourful update of the material in ch.4 of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. [1] Meanwhile with urban migration and changing tastes, local ritual activity will have continued to change.

Provincial scholars have made a suspiciously neat distinction between north Shanxi, where household Orthodox Unity Daoists are common; and south Shanxi, where Complete Perfection Daoists, apparently temple-dwelling priests, dominate. Further to my article Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen, I’ve refuted this simplistic assumption even for north Shanxi (notably for Shuozhou; see also Tianzhen and Xinzhou); and for south Shanxi too, as for south Hebei, the current practitioners are also householders, who learned from former Complete Perfection temple priests. [2] But as we found in north Shanxi, household Complete Perfection Daoists long predate the revolution.

* * *

South of Linfen city, counties in southwest Shanxi listed with active household Complete Perfection Daoists are Jiangxian, New Jiangxian, Yicheng, and Xiangfen.

Jiangxian and Yicheng counties
Since the 1980s, collectors have made brief visits to the Zheng family Daoists at Bolinpo hamlet, just southeast of Zhangcun village in Dajiao township, Jiangxian county. [3] A 2013 thesis by Wu Lei is conceptually misleading, but three pages give us a tantalizing glimpse into grass-roots Daoism since imperial times, even if many details need clarifying.

By 2010 Wu Lei’s main informants were Zheng Zongding 郑宗定 (b.1966) and Zheng Xiangmao 郑祥茂. First he cites the county gazetteer on the early ancestry of the Zheng lineage. Of three brothers, Zheng Bencheng 郑本城 was sent to the Dongyue miao 东岳庙 temple in Bolinpo; Zheng Benli 郑本立 to the Changsheng guan 长生观 temple in Motou village; and Zheng Benxiu 郑本秀 to the Qingping guan 青平观 temple in South Liang, Yicheng county.

Zheng Xiangmao is a descendant of the Qingping guan lineage. The temple was originally called Xiangqing guan 香清观, and a stele survived until the 1960s. But his oral tradition is quite detailed. The founder of his Daoist lineage (in the Song dynasty?!) was Zheng Chunmao 郑春茂; there is even a tradition that his masters there were called Cui 催 and Niu 牛. When the temple fell into disrepair it was restored with collective funds from the three villages of South Liang, Qingliu, and Niujiapo, and this was when it was renamed Qingping guan.

In 1905 Zheng Xiangmao’s grandfather Zheng Xinwu 郑新武 (10th generation of Daoists in the lineage) moved his whole family from Bolinpo to live at the Qingping guan. After Liberation it became a factory (known as South Liang Priory, Nanliang an 南梁庵), but Zheng Xiangmao and his older brother Zheng Xiangfa 郑祥发 still lived there until 1968. Their father Zheng Jiahe 郑嘉和 was the 11th generation of Daoists.

Zheng Zongding’s branch was separate, descended from the Daoists of the Dongyue miao temple in Bolinpo. His grandfather Zheng Jiayun 郑嘉云 was a brother of Zheng Jiahe and Zheng Jiaqi 郑嘉奇 (1907–97), also priests at the temple. The latter told collectors that his lineage had begun practising as Daoists only after fleeing the Ming court to escape execution by the new Manchu rulers—we heard a similar story in Shuozhou, and variations may be widespread.

Though the Dongyue miao temple was destroyed during the Japanese occupation, the Daoists performed two annual jiao Offering rituals: on 1st moon 1st–3rd for the home village, and on 3rd moon 14th–16th for a she parish of ten surrounding villages. In nearby South Fan after the Chongzhen guan 崇祯观 temple was destroyed, the Daoists there also continued practicing among the folk. [4]

Zheng Jiaqi taught Daoist ritual to his son Zheng Xiangtong 郑祥桐 (b.1952) in his youth, before the Cultural Revolution. They belonged to the Haozu branch of the Huashan lineage—jia and xiang are the 21st and 22nd characters in its 40-character poem. [5] But there also seems to be an element of the Longmen branch.

This genealogy from Wu Lei hardly clarifies matters, but at least suggests the extent of the lineage:

Zheng tree

The plot thickens further in a passage from the county gazetteer, which is no clearer. It states that during the Republican period, one Zheng Hong 郑洪 (of the Huashan branch?) migrated from Shandong to the Yunxi guan 云溪观 temple in Yicheng, while three brothers led by Li Liqin 李立勤 came from Henan to the Chongzhen guan temple in South Fan.

Indeed, the Anthology collectors had met Li Liqin (1905–85; they gave the characters李理琴. Hmm), another former temple priest taking part in folk ritual, who had entered a temple on Fuqiushan 浮丘山 in Henan at the age of 8 sui. This genealogy also needs further elaboration:

Li tree

Further north in Yicheng county, a separate group was led by Li Xianghe 李祥河 (b. 1930), based in Upper Shicun (Shimiao) village, Wangzhuang district. Li was said to be the 14th generation of Daoists in his family, also of the Huashan branch. His younger brother Li Xiangqing 李祥清 (b.1942) was also active. Li Xianghe learned ritual from young with his father Li Jiahua 李嘉华. Already taking part in rituals by the 1940s, he spent a period from 1958 as an instrumentalist in a local arts work troupe—like many Daoists, such as Li Qing further north in Shanxi.

Another senior gaogong liturgist in Yicheng county was Gao Faseng 高发僧 (see photo above).

Buddhist ritual
As we’ve seen, among household ritual groups Daoist bands are always in a great majority (for folk Buddhist activity, see e.g. my posts on Wutaishan, south ShaanxiZuoyun, and suburban Beijing). Yang Yongbing, in a section that purports to describe combined “Buddhist-Daoist” (sengdao 僧道) household groups, mainly performing for funerals, [6] doesn’t seem to give any evidence for this fusion. Instead he introduces the ritual practice of Buddhist temple monks around south Shanxi, along with brief biographies; and he describes one household Buddhist group, that of Shen Mingren 申明仁 (b.1958) in Gucheng village of Yicheng county.

Shen Mingren’s father was a temple monk at the village Meihua si 梅花寺 temple. After being laicized in 1950 he had four sons—for whom he continued the Buddhist naming series with the character xi 喜. He recalled the former funeral sequence over three days and three nights, later abbreviated—now they just recited the Jin’gang jing 金刚經 and Xinjing 心經 scriptures, performing Crossing the Bridges, the Invitation, and fangshi 放食 (yankou 焰口) rituals.

Yang even places another Daoist group in this section, that of Xu Genji 许根继 (b.1933) in Wuji village near Linfen city, performing rituals with his four sons. Xu claimed a Huashan-branch ancestry of over twenty generations; before the Cultural Revolution they lived in the village’s Changqing guan 常清观 temple.

Ritual sequences
As to funerals in this region, though the Anthology summary is superficial and centred on instrumental music, it lists the sequence for a two-day Daoist “complete ritual” (quanshi 全事): [7]

Daoist funeral programme, Yicheng–Jiangxian

Day 1

  • kaijing 開經 Opening the Scriptures
  • qingshen 請神 Inviting the Gods
  • songshu 送疏 Escorting the Requests (vocal liturgy includes Tan xiaojuan 探孝眷)
  • yuji 預祭 Preparatory Sacrifice (including popular instrumental melodies)
  • zhaohun 招魂 Summoning the Soul (vocal liturgy uses Zhaowang ke 招亡科 text)
  • guo jinyinqiao 過金銀橋 Crossing the Gold and Silver Bridges
  • yankou 焰口

Day 2   

  • yingshu 迎疏 Welcoming the Requests (instrumental melodies include Daobing ji 刀兵祭, cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 1)
  • dagongwu 大供舞 Dance for the Greater Offering, including Shi gongyang 十供養, Linlang zhenxiang 琳琅振響, and Huanglu zhaiyan 黃籙齋筵 (all part of “standard” temple ritual)
  • zachangzi 扎場子Setting up the Arena (with acrobatics and popular melodies)
  • kaiji 開祭 Opening the Sacrifice
  • gaomiao 告廟 Report to the Temple (youjie 遊街 Parading the Streets)
  • songshu 送疏 Escorting Away the Requests

Alas, none of the scholars documents the collections of ritual manuals of all these groups (like those of Zheng Jiaqi in the photo above), but for the Buddhist bands Yang Yongbing at least lists volumes for songshu 誦疏 (“over 30 volumes”), yankou and fangshiyangfan 揚幡 Raising the Pennant, poyu 破狱 Smashing the Hells, and Crossing the Bridges.

In the melodic instrumental ensemble played by Daoists in south Shanxi as part of their rituals, the suona shawm has often replaced the more classic shengguan instrumentation (cf. Xushui). With typical stress on entertainment aspects, tricks with martial arts (zashua 杂耍) are listed, incorporating percussion ensemble (wuchang 武场).

A note on Houtu temples
Another reason I’m curious to learn more about this region is that while the worship of the goddess Houtu is common on the central Hebei plain (see here, and here), it’s not evident in other regions nearby—until suddenly we find a cluster of Houtu temples in southwest Shanxi (also indicated on the map above).

The trail seems to pick up again north of Linfen, where Tiancun in Fenyang, Jiexiu city, [8] and Jingsheng town in Lingshi county all have temples to Houtu; passing Hongtong on the way south, there’s another one in East Yangcun near Linfen. Indeed, there’s a shrine to Houtu at the Dongyue miao temple in Bolinpo.

(left) the fine Houtu temple at Jiexiu; (right) the Houtu temple at Wanrong.

In David Johnson’s major research on south Shanxi (focusing on ritual opera, sadly neglecting all the Daoists in the region) he mentions the Houtu temple fair in Renzhuang, Quwo county—not far west of Bolinpo—held on 3rd moon 18th. [9] Among several early Houtu temples further southwest are those in Miaoqian village of Wanrong county (with its cousin in Jingshan, Shaanxi), and Guduo village in Hejin county; over on the western bank of the Yellow River in Shaanxi, there’s a Yuhuang Houtu temple near West Yuancun village, Hancheng county. And these are just the grander ones that have attracted outside attention.

Nearby at Longquan village in Ruicheng county is the Yongle gong temple, with its famous early murals. Most modern sources tend to list such temples as mere historical relics, offering few clues on ritual practice; important as all such research is, it’s silent and immobile, with scant material on modern ritual practice.

Still, the more ancient the temple, and the more its material artefacts are valued by cultural authorities, the more likely it is to have been converted to a tourist site, resembling a museum, with admission by ticket—and therefore less able to keep functioning as a site of popular worship. [10] At the other end of the scale are all the abandoned decrepit little village temples that still contain a wealth of early murals.

It’s all the temples in between these two extremes that tend to interest me—those that still serve as sites of worship for local communities. In these cases, there will be “red and fiery” ritual activity (e.g. herehere, and here), and perhaps some kind of cult to deities like Houtu.

* * *

Always seeking to join up the dots—further afield, the Shangdang region of southeast Shanxi, renowned for its yuehu “musical households”, also has active household Daoists, much less well documented. [11] This leads towards the rituals of former Complete Perfection temple Daoists in south Hebei.

These reports on southwest Shanxi focus on two main ritual networks, but there are clearly many more throughout the whole region. This is just preliminary spadework; the material begs many questions, and as time goes by it becomes harder to clarify early transmissions. But, as in north Shanxi, we clearly have a substantial network of Complete Perfection Daoists whose early bases in a group of local temples around the area gradually mutated into the current household ritual scene. Any of these groups could make rich material for detailed ethnographies, and edited films, along the lines of my study with the Li family Daoists.


[1] See Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成,山西卷, pp.1773–74, biographies p.2047. Cf. Liu Jianchang, Chen Jibin, and Ren Deze, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告 [Field report on religious music in Shanxi], Yinyue wudao 1990.1, pp.11–12; Jing Weigang 景蔚岗, Zhongguo chuantong shengguanyue shenlun 中国传统笙管乐申论 [Traditional Chinese shengguan music] (Changsha: Hunan wenyi cbs, 2005), pp.89–91. See also Yang Yongbing 杨永兵, Jinnan chuantong yinyue gailun 晋南传统音乐概论 [Survey of traditional music in south Shanxi] (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui chubanshe, 2008) ch.5; his articles in Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 (ed.) Diyijie Zhong­–Han Fojiao yinyue xueshu yantaohui lunwenji 第一届中韩佛教学术研讨会论文集 and Disanjie Zhong­–Han Fojiao yinyue xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua cbs, 2004, 2006), may give further leads. To be used with caution is Sun Xiuhua 孙秀华 and Zhang Lei 张磊, Shanxi daojiao yinyue 山西道教音乐 (Taiyuan: Sanjin cbs, 2010); for transcriptions with ritual texts, see pp.75–122, and brief biographies pp.264–6.

[2] The Anthology claims that the dominant Longmen lineage of Complete Perfection Daoism takes its name from Longmen, now Hejin county in southwest Shanxi, but it is usually linked to Longmenshan in Longzhou, western Shaanxi (Encyclopedia of Taoism, p.704).

[3] Apart from the two laconic biographies in the Anthology (p.2047), and Jing Weigang, Zhongguo chuantong shengguanyue shenlun pp.89–91, see Wu Lei 吴蕾, Shanxi sheng Jiangxian Bolinpo daojiao yinyue kaocha diaocha yanjiu 山西省绛县柏林坡道教音乐考察调查研究 (MA thesis, Shanxi University, 2013), pp.10–12. The English abstract of the latter charmingly renders Bolinpo as “Berlin ramp”.

[4] This mention of the jiao ritual is only found in Jing Weigang, Zhongguo chuantong shengguanyue shenlun p.90, but seems reliable; he lists the ten villages, but alas no ritual sequences. For some leads to the parish, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.7 n.12. The Chongzhen guan is mentioned by Wu Lei.

[5] For the poem, beginning zhi yi wu shang dao 至一無上道, see the Anthology, p.1774; Koyanagi’s list no.13. The relevant characters in the other Zheng family names aren’t part of the poem, so further clarification is needed here.

[6] Jinnan chuantong yinyue gailun, pp.252–74, 283–98 (including a detailed account of the former three-day Buddhist funeral). The Anthology (pp.1978–2020) also gives transcriptions from Linfen of vocal liturgy and instrumental pieces, providing names of leading performers but not detailed locations.

[7] Anthology, pp.1773–4; transcriptions (alas, only instrumental), pp.1962–77; Yang Yongbing, Jinnan chuantong yinyue gailun, pp.276–7. For a good description of funeral ritual in Yuncheng, albeit lacking Daoists (always a possibility to bear in mind!), see Huang Zhusan 黄竹三 and Wang Fucai 王福才, “Shanxi sheng Yuncheng Anyizhen de sangyi” 山西省运城安邑镇的丧仪 [Funeral ritual in Anyi township, Yuncheng, Shanxi province], Minsu quyi 86 (1993), pp.199–282.

[8] Talking of Jiexiu, and further to my various discussions of “precious scrolls“, here’s an interesting book: Li Yu 李豫 et al., Shanxi Jiexiu baojuan shuochang wenxue 山西介休宝卷说唱文学 [The narrative-singing literature of precious scrolls in Jiexiu, Shanxi] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian cbs, 2010).

[9] David Johnson (1994) “Temple festivals in southeastern Shanxi: The sai of Nanshe village and Big West Gate”, Minsu quyi 91 (1994), pp.641–734; his Spectacle and sacrifice: The ritual foundations of village life in north China (Harvard University Press, 2010), p.31, cf. Huang Zhusan 黄竹三 and Wang Fucai 王福才, Shanxi sheng Quwo xian Renzhuang cun shangu shenpu diaocha baogao 陕西省曲沃县任庄村山鼓神谱调查报告 (Minsu quyi congshu series, 1994), p.16.

[10] Among many compendiums of Shanxi temple art and architecture (note Anning Jing, The Water god’s temple of the Guangsheng monastery : cosmic function of art, ritual and theater [Leiden: Brill, 2002]) are several with a focus on music (and therefore ritual), e.g. Zhongguo yinyue wenwu daxi, Shanxi juan 中国音乐文物大系,山西卷 [Compendium of cultural artefacts on Chinese music]; Duan Yichang 段毅强, Shanxi jinnan siguan bihuazhongde yinyue shiliao yanjiu 山西晋南寺观壁画中的音乐史料研究 (MA thesis, Shanxi daxue, 2012).

[11] See my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.86–7, with links to the studies of Xiang Yang and Qiao Jian on the yuehu.