Ritual in The dream of the red chamber

Citing Cao Xueqin’s entrancing novel The story of the stone recently, I was reminded that among the many virtues of the epic tale is its detailed depiction of rituals in 18th-century Beijing[1]

A work of fiction it may be, but what I admire here is the ethnographic thick description—a model for modern fieldworkers. Prompting us to experience such rituals within the far wider context of social life and personal experience, the author not only evokes all the human detail of the family’s behaviour and emotional world, including the priests’ relations with their patrons, but depicts the whole physical setting and itemizes expenses.

Chapters 13 and 14 describe a 49-day observance for the funeral of the family matriarch, with several groups of ritual specialists performing. Chapter 13 gives the text of the placard—similar in style to those used in modern times. [2] In David Hawkes’s brilliant translation (for the whole passage, see vol.1, pp. 255–87):

He also instructed someone to invite an expert from the Board of Astronomy to select dates for the funeral and the ceremonies preceeding it. With the approval of this official it was decided that the lying in state should be for forty-nine days and that the notification of bereavement indicating the family’s readiness to receive official visits of condolence should be made in three days’ time.

這四十九日,單請一百單八眾禪僧在大廳上拜大悲懺,超度前亡後化諸魂,以免亡者之罪;另設一壇于天香樓上,是九十九位全真道士,打四十九日解冤洗業醮。然後停靈於會芳園中,靈前另外五十眾高僧,五十眾高道,對壇按七作好事。
A hundred and eight Buddhist monks were engaged to perform a Grand Misericordia for the salvation of all departed souls in the main reception hall of the mansion during these forty-nine days, while at the same time ninety-nine Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect were to perform ceremonies of purification and absolution at a separate altar in the Celestial Fragrance pavilion. These arrangements having been made, the body was moved to a temporary shrine in another pavilion of the All-scents Garden. Fifty high-ranking Buddhist monks and fifty high-ranking Taoist priests took turns in chanting and intoning before it on every seventh day.
[…]
Inside the gateway, facing the street, a high staging was constructed on which Buddhist monks and Daoist priests sat on opposite sides of an altar intoning their sacred texts. In front of the staging was a notice on which was written in large characters:

[…]
WE,
The very Reverend Wan-xu, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all monks and clergy of the Incorporeal, Ever-tranquil Church of the Lord Buddha,

and
the Venerable Ye-sheng, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all priests and practitioners of the Primordial, All-unifying church of the Heavenly Tao,

HAVE,
with all due reverence and care, prepared offices for the salvation of all departed souls, supplicating Heaven and calling upon the name of the Lord Buddha

NOW,
earnestly praying and beseeching the Eighteen Guardians of the Sangha, the Warlike Guardians of the Law, and the Twelve Guardians of the Months mercifully to extend their holy compassion towards us, but terribly to blaze forth in divine majesty against the powers of evil, we do solemnly perform for nine and forty days the Great Mass for the purification, deliverance and salvation of all souls on land and on sea…

—and a great deal more on those lines which it would be tedious to repeat [Cao Xueqin’s comment, not mine!].

Chapter 14 goes on to list some of the major ritual segments and activities. The Buddhist Water and Land (shuilu 水陸) ritual included Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), Smashing the Hells (poyu 破狱), Transmitting the Lanterns (chuandeng 傳燈), Illuminating the Deceased (zhaowang 照亡), Opening the Golden Bridge (kai jinqiao 開金橋), and Leading the Panoplied Pennant (yin chuangfan 引幢幡. [3]

Daoists performed the Presenting the Memorial (shen biao 申表) ritual before the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor; Chan Buddhist monks performed Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香), Flaming Mouth (yankou 焰口), and Worshipfully Presenting the Water Litanies (bai shuichan 拜水懺); and thirteen young Buddhist nuns recited mantras.

這日乃五七正五日上,那應佛僧正開方破獄,傳燈照亡,參閻君,拘都鬼,筵請地藏王,開金橋,引幢幡;那道士們正伏章申表,朝三清,叩玉帝;禪僧們行香,放焰口,拜水懺;又有十三眾尼僧,搭繡衣,靸紅鞋,在靈前默誦接引諸咒,十分熱鬧。

Rendering the fantastical vocabulary of Daoist ritual into English is always a challenge—also well met by Ken Dean and John Lagerwey. Again, Hawkes makes a brilliant attempt at this passage—with occasional elaborations, and a quite understandable, even attractive, “translation” of titles for ritual segments into specific actions (which, of course, they are!):

The Thirty-fifth had now arrived—an important day in the penitential cycle of seven times seven days preceding the funeral—and the monks in the main hall had reached a particularly dramatic part of their ceremonies. Having opened up a way for the imprisoned souls, the chief celebrant had succeeded by means of spells and incantations in breaking open the gates of hell. He had shone his light (a little hand-mirror) for the souls in darkness. He had confronted Yama, the Judge of the Dead. He had seized the demon torturers who resisted his progress. He had invoked Kṣitigarbha, the Saviour King, to aid him. He had raised up a golden bridge, and now, by means of a little flag which he held aloft in one hand, was conducting over it those souls from the very deepest pit of hell who still remained undelivered.

Meanwhile the ninety-nine Taoists in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion were on their knees offering up a written petition to the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor himself in his heavenly palace. Outside, on their high staging, with swinging of censers and scattering of little cakes for the hungry ghosts to feed on, Zen monks were performing the great Water Penitential. And in the shrine where the coffin stood, six young monks and six young nuns, magnificently attired in scarlet slippers and embroidered copes, sat before the spirit tablet quietly murmuring the dharani that would assist the soul of the dead woman on the most difficult part of its journey into the underworld. Everywhere there was a hum of activity.

Not wishing to quibble over details, my only little comment there would be that the (thirteen!) niseng refers to nuns. And that final comment “Everywhere there was a hum of activity” (re’nao “exciting”, “bustling”, lit. “hot and noisy”, cf. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.147–68) is ironic after the silent mantras of the nuns. (BTW, I almost like the rendition of shifen as “everywhere”, but I’m still inclined to think it carries the modern colloquial sense of “really”—thus “it was really boisterous”.)

Chapter 102 gives a detailed account of a one-day exorcism performed by forty-nine Daoist priests, with god paintings hung out, performing Ambulating Incense, Fetching Water (qushui 取水), Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表) and Inviting the Sages (qingsheng 請聖) rituals, and reciting the Dongyuan jing 洞元經 scripture throughout the day. Three chief liturgists, donning seven-star hats, wielded precious swords, flags, and a whip, as a placard was displayed and exorcistic talismans depicted.

In chapters  28 and 29 (Hawkes vol.2, pp.41–92) the family commissions a three-day Daoist Offering for well-being (ping’an jiao 平安醮) at the Qingxu guan 清虚观 temple:

Aroma continued:
“Her Grace sent that Mr Xia of the Imperial Bedchamber yesterday with a hundred and twenty taels of silver to pay for a three-day Pro Viventibus by the Taoists of the Lunar Queen temple starting on the first of next month. There are to be plays performed as part of the Offering, and Mr Zhen and all the other gentlemen are to go there to offer incense. Oh, and Her Grace’s presents for the Double Fifth have arrived.”

This section offers far less detail on ritual, the opera being the main attraction. We tend to assume that in the Good Old Days people gladly respected the “rules” (guiju 規矩), but like that intriguing re’nao of chapter 14, there is clearly a long ancestry to the common lament since the 1980s that audiences care more about ostentation than correct ritual performance. The account uncannily reflects my observations at Yanggao funerals since 2001 (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.356):

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall.

Imagine if Bach had taken that sabbatical in Beijing, then he might have had patrons like the Jia clan in The dream of the red chamber… They could hardly have appreciated Bach’s genius any less than the Margrave of Brandenburg (“what does that even mean?”).

JPM Daoist painting

Perfected Man Huang sends forth an official document recommending the deceased, c1700: Daoists presiding over the liandu funerary ritual of chapter 66 of the Jin ping mei. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; see Little and Eichman, Taoism and the arts of China, pp.192–3. Note typical northern shengguan ensemble of guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with large cymbals nao and bo.

Earlier still, the Ming novel Jin ping mei offers just as wonderful ethnographic material for rather less elite social strata—set in Shandong, ostensibly in the 12th century, but clearly based on the milieu of the author’s own day. Here too are many vignettes on minor domestic rituals and major exorcistic and mortuary rituals, as well as on the lives of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks.

Of course, these are just two of the most celebrated works of Ming–Qing fiction wherein we can seek such depictions. Just as with contemporary fieldwork, my first thought is to situate such rituals in space and time, rather than giving generic accounts. Thus one would seek to understand the rituals of the Jin ping mei in the context of 16th-century Shandong, and those of The story of the stone in that of 18th-century Beijing—just as we should be clear if our accounts of modern rituals refer specifically to north Shanxi in the 1930s, west Fujian in the 1990s, and so on.

Despite monumental social transformations since imperial times, all the rituals described in these early novels are still performed today—always varying by region and circumstances. [4]

Still, I need hardly reiterate that both texts (novels, ritual manuals, field reports) and images (paintings, photos) are silent and immobile: what we really need is films—which are in short supply even for current ritual practice, and an even taller order for the imperial era (though dramatized adaptations of The story of the stone may be quite educative!). [5]

 

[1] Within the vast literature on Hongxue 红学 (“Redology”—Dream of the red chamber studies), there are many Chinese studies of its religious and indeed musical components, searchable on databases. A considerable body of research is also available for Jin ping mei.
[2] For a couple of examples in English (for different kinds of rituals), see Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China, pp.53–8, and my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.230–31.
[3] For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
[4] For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
[5] Perhaps I digress, but given the stylized acting culture of China, the “Star of Tomorrow” company’s recent nine-part TV version (beginning with the episode below), using child actors, has been highly praised for its naturalism and conviction—far from merely cute.

 

Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake

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Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake:
the Medicine King cult

Zhaobeikou lake

On the Hebei plain, just south of the Xiongxian region, the Baiyangdian lake, and the ritual catchment area of the pilgrimage to the Medicine King temple in Maozhou, form a somewhat distinct area for ritual practice. This is highly topical since it is now part of the vast plan to build a megapolis there, expanding Beijing and Tianjin southwards amidst profound social and ecological change.

This was the southern boundary of our project on the Hebei plain, where we had found so many complex liturgical sequences, ritual manuals, and grand shengguan instrumental suites with scores derived from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin. Xiongxian turned out to be the heartland of the suites and scores, but around the lake just south, despite the lively Maozhou cult, the trail was becoming somewhat diluted—and I don’t believe this is merely because our visits predated more in-depth stays in the areas further north and west. Still, these associations were very much based in ritual and shengguan, and dated back to at least the 18th century.

This survey introduces ritual groups all around the lake, including villages of Anxin, Renqiu, and Gaoyang counties. The aquatic setting engenders plentiful rituals based on “releasing river [or lotus?] lanterns” (fang hedeng 放河/荷燈).

As ever, this article merely scratches the surface of our fieldnotes—themselves just a superficial survey of some village associations that came to our attention. There may be many more, and certainly were until the 1950s. Any one of these groups (and indeed the Maozhou temple) could, and should, form the subject of a detailed diachronic ethnography such as I did for Gaoluo.

Around the Baiyangdian lake we found further evidence for the connection not only with Buddhist monks and Daoist priests but also with the ritual and musical cultures of the Qing emperors in Beijing—a link that appears occasionally throught the Hebei plain, such as Yixian, and strongly suggested in Xiongxian just north.

Back in the mists of time, long before the internet, or even usable landlines—the 1990s—this ritual system still comprised the main cultural network of such regions. Having survived Maoism remarkably unscathed, there are complex reasons for the long-term decline of these associations—including not so much the recent urban development plan for the region, but migration, the whole commodification of society, and the secularizing pressures of the ICH. These notes are valuable for documenting local ritual life at a time when such transformations were still in their early days.

Nuns of rural Hebei

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Renqiu nun

In traditional China, ritual activity—indeed, public appearance altogether—appears to be male-dominated. But the role of women in religious life is significant—as worshippers, as members of amateur sects, and notably as spirit mediumsNuns hardly threatened the patrilineal traditions of ritual and instrumental music before the 1950s, but they make an interesting sub-plot.

Moving south from Beijing and Fangshan to Laishui county, this article goes on to gives vignettes (based on brief chats in 1994) on the ritual life of two elderly former nuns in a village in Renqiu county, near the Baiyangdian lake, half a century earlier. Such absorbing glimpses into the world of rural nuns before Liberation deserve including in our picture of local cultures.

Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

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GGZ xu 1

Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.

As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.

Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but there is rich material here, not only on the ethnography of local ritual in modern times, but for scholars of the late imperial period.

This is the latest in a series on ritual in Hebei that includes Houshan and the precious scrolls, suburban Beijing, and Bazhou.

Bazhou: an update!

Xin'an guanzi 1989

I’ve just updated my page on ritual groups in Bazhou with some more photos and subtle edits…

To remind you, this is part of a major series under local ritual where I’m moving from occupational household groups in north Shanxi to amateur (mostly village-wide) associations on the Hebei plain—so far including

Houshan
The Houtu precious scroll
Ritual groups of suburban Beijing, and
Xiongxian.

all related to previous articles on temple ritual in old Beijing (including the Zhihua temple), and the village associations of Gaoluo and Qujiaying.

More coming up soon!

Ritual groups around Bazhou, Hebei

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Xin'an Yingming drummer 1995

What a wonderful fieldsite we stumbled across in 1986, inspired by Yang Yinliu and Lin Zhongshu!

This is a new addition to a budding series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing. The elongated county of Bazhou lies just south of Langfang, Yongqing, and Gu’an. Rather as I did for the southern suburbs of Beijing, here I introduce two main ritual groups:

  • the Daoist tradition of Zhangzhuang village comes from a former Orthodox Unity temple;
  • the Gaoqiao village association nearby derives from a former Buddhist temple.

As we move south and east from Houshan, vocal liturgy tends to become subsidiary to the magnificent “holy pieces” of the classic shengguan wind ensemble deriving from the temples of old Beijing—notably the lengthy suites (daqu) whose most majestic form is to be found around Xiongxian county (major new page here!).

And as this series of articles on local ritual expands from north Shanxi to Hebei, it’s becoming something of an alternative, grass-roots, history of 20th-century north China through successive social and political vicissitudes.

Ritual groups of suburban Beijing

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N. Xinzhuang funeral 1

In the 1990s, ritual activity in the southern rural areas of the municipality of Beijing was patchy. While we found few ritual associations in the counties of Gu’an, Fangshan, and Zhuozhou south of the city, the groups in the suburban counties of Daxing and Tongxian, southeast of Beijing, were still actively providing ritual services.

Like other associations on the Hebei plain, these groups have ongoing ritual traditions, and clear links to Daoist priests and Buddhist monks. But these groups are distinguished by their proximity to Beijing, and by the fact that many groups acquired their ritual only in the 1950s, as laicized clerics sought to transmit their knowledge to villagers. Thus although they are not “old associations”, lacking the early history of most village groups that we found just further south on the plain, they clearly reflect temple traditions of ritual, relating to Beijing and Tianjin as well as to local networks. Again by contrast with most of the amateur village associations elsewhere on the Hebei plain, many of these groups don costumes for rituals, and accept fees.

This whole region was still largely rural when we made fieldwork trips there in the 1990s, but has since been absorbed into the ever-expanding urban sprawl of suburban Beijing—as indeed are villages further south on the plain, where we found many more ritual associations. In a physical and moral landscape that has changed constantly since the 1930s, restudies are always to be desired.

There are many such groups here, but in the article I focus on two:

  • The Lijiawu Daoist group, derived from the temple priests of Liangshanpo, and
  • the Buddhist-transmitted group of North Xinzhuang nearby.

This article also complements my various posts on Beijing temples and the transmissions south to villages like Qujiaying.