Religion in Chinese society

My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:

  • C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).

The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.

Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.

This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?

Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuanprecious scrolls”:

During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.

Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”


South Gaoluo liturgists performing the Houtu scroll, 1993.

However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.

While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.

Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.

In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.

In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.

Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.

As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Former monk Daguang with village disciples, North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959. For more images of Maoism, see here.

Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.

In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:

C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.

Yang’s chapter concludes:

The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.

See also the festschrift

  • Wenfang Tang and Burkart Holzner (eds), Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).

In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.

In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:

On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.

Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.

Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):

It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.

Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.

Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that

it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.

His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:

Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.

* * *

Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.

But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.






Heritage: a roundup


This recent Guardian headline encapsulates my feelings about the whole heritage shtick. The heritage tag on this blog is voluminous, covering many local genres in China and elsewhere.


The starter, citing thoughtful research on the Intangible Cultural Heritage system around the world, is

John Butt offers useful perspectives in

Also basic is this page on the Li family Daoists:

Another relevant post is

More broadly, I list some posts on the friction between traditional and conservatoire styles here. The ICH also crops up in several field reports under local ritual, including

While some scholars observe how local dwellers mould the state programme to their own agendas, I often note that its effects are either negative or inconsequential. And I’m not alone.



Chau on “doing religion” in China


I’ve long been inspired by the work of Adam Yuet Chau on religion in China. His recent book

distils his wisdom, based both on his own fieldwork (notably in Shaanbei) and on his readings of a wide literature, along with his experience of editing volumes on the topic—notably Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008).

As he explains in his opening salvo “Why are you reading this book?”, Religion in China is aimed at a broad audience, including students taking courses on Chinese and East Asian religions, or on religious studies; seekers of spiritual wisdom, tourists, missionaries; and China-watchers concerned about human rights and politics.

Chau seeks to change the way we understand religion in China and the wider world, disputing the confessional model that produces so much misunderstanding, both in China and abroad.

Another equally prevalent approach is to view religion in China primarily in terms of philosophical and religious ideas, as sources of “Oriental spiritual wisdom”, useful antidotes to an allegedly overly materialist and rationalist West.

Instead, he advocates study of ways of “doing religion”, and a “relational approach”.

There is no need for us to identify and share the beliefs informing these religious practices. […] Having a personal religious or spiritual orientation in whatever form might potentially aid one’s understanding of other people’s religious practices […]. But it could equally well hinder one’s understanding because one might too easily identify the familiar and overlook the radically different, or one might feel threatened by practices that are radically different from one’s own, bringing into doubt the validity of one’s faith or spiritual pursuit. On the other hand, being an atheist also has its advantages and disadvantages in the cross-cultural study of religion.

He takes material primarily from mainland China, but also from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He reminds us of the dangers of statistics that are modeled on a confessional-affiliational understanding of mutually exclusive religious membership.

He discusses the different approaches to religion in China. By contrast with religious studies, which tend to focus on texts, doctrines, concepts, religious thinkers, and schools of thought, he stresses social interaction, history, sociology, political science, and anthropology offer alternative models.

In Chapter 1 Chau presents his “five modalities of doing religion”, expounded in his previous work—a most useful framework, sidestepping the “conceptual fetishes” of “Buddhism”, “Daoism”, and “Confucianism”:


As he observes, such “internal diversity” is actually common to Christianity and the other major world religions.

A further question that is worth bearing in mind is whether or not you believe that religious diversity is intrinsically a good thing.

Whereas a religious-pluralist position

treats religion not just as an empirical fact but as a policy goal, Christian missionaries and other kinds of believers in any ultimate religious Truth would prefer to see their own religion triumph over all the others. And staunch atheists would want to see a completely secularized world with no religions at all.
However, religious diversity as a concept is alien to most Chinese people because their approach to religion is primarily instrumental and occasion-based (what can be called an efficacity-based religiosity) rather than confessionally-based, and their experience of religious diversity is embodied in the employment of different religious service providers on various occasions rather than abstract systems of religious doctrines and teachings.


what happens on the ground “religiously” is very much a congruence of local customs, historical accidents, social environment, personal temperaments, configurations of modalities of doing religion, and the makeup of the local ritual market.

He goes on to give instance of the five modalities in turn, noting that they may overlap.

At any one time in any locale of the vast late imperial Chinese empire—and to some extent today as well as in the larger Chinese world—all of these modalities of doing religion were in most probability available to be adopted by individuals or social groups, though factors such as class, gender, literacy level, accidents of birth and residence, position within different social networks, temperament, local convention, and the configuration of various modalities might channel some people towards certain modalities and not others. Most peasants in China have traditionally adopted a combination of the relational and the immediate-practical modalities into their religiosity; sometimes they adopt the liturgical modality and hire religious specialists when the occasion requires them, such as funerals and communal exorcisms. Illiteracy and lack of leisure would preclude them from most of the discursive and personal-cultivational modalities. The traditional educated elite tended to adopt a combination of the discursive and the personal-cultivational modalities, but they, too, often needed the services of the liturgical specialists.

However, it is the discursive/scriptural modality, with its high level of literacy and its penchant for philosophical and “theological” thinking, that holds a particular allure for many in the West (and indeed for the Chinese state), at the expense of the other forms.

The vast majority of the world’s population who “do” religion in other ways are thus silenced.

My own work focuses on the liturgical modality, while taking into account those further down the list (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.1).

Chapter 2, “Interacting with gods, ghosts, and ancestors” opens with a cross-cultural reminder about deities:

We have to ignore the saint cults in Catholicism, the Sufi saint cults in Islam, the belief in angles and holy persons, etc., in order to preserve the monotheism illusion.

Chau points out that new deities have constantly been produced, at both elite and popular levels. He highlights the importance of ling “spiritual efficacity”, and the gods’ response to the problems of worshippers—which gave him the title for his book Miraculous response. As ever, he stresses

Whether or not we accept the possibility of real divine power, we need to understand ling as a sociocultural construct.


Many Chinese people have a practical approach to deity belief. […] One should not not believe, nor should one believe everything”; “If you worship him, the deity will be there; if you don’t worship him, he won’t mind”.

After listing the basic ways of worshipping deities, including offering incense, divination, and so on, he discusses appeasing “hungry ghosts” and ancestor worship. He considers the household as the basic unit of religious engagement (by contrast with Christianity), and stresses “hosting”—for both humans and deities—and “red-hot sociality”.

Chapter 3 discusses festivals and pilgrimages, with examples from both north and south China. Far from the dry portrayals of scholars who focus narrowly on the discursive meanings of ritual texts, Chau stresses the sensory stimulation of such “red and fiery” events—noises, sights, smells, tastes, and ambient sensations. He explains the temple associations that organize festivals, again stressing social relationships. On pilgrimages such as those of Mazu in Taiwan and southeast China, networks are consolidated as deities visit other deities. He broadens the scope by introducing New Age spirit mediumism in Taiwan, as well as the Hajj of Chinese Muslims, and ends by offering the concept of “mutual capturing” through cultural forms.

Chapter 4 unpacks the variety of ritual service providers and their clients. The former—again, engaged with a view to efficacy—include geomancers, occupational household Daoist and Buddhist groups, devotional sects, and spirit mediums. Different types of specialists may be invited for the same event: “ritual polytrophy”. He gives vignettes of a yinyang master in Shaanbei, a group of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanxi (none other than the Li family!) serving the funeral market, and a Daoist jiao Offering ritual in Taiwan. He introduces the handling of troublesome spirit ties by means of exorcism. He’s ever alert to the social context—I like his description of the spirit medium’s home as

the rural equivalent of a hair salon, where people gather, information and gossip is spread, and there is plenty of red-hot sociality.

Chau contrasts this whole “efficacy-based” tradition with the more “dharma-based” religiosity common elsewhere in Asia.

He goes on to unpack the common lament of “rampant commodification”, revealing its long history.

Many people (including many Chinese) might think that the commodification of religion is somehow not right and therefore is a deplorable trend. However, this value judgment is out of place for observers who wish to understand the cultural logic behind native practices rather than passing judgment on these practices. The view that religion should somehow be a pure, spiritual pursuit freed from such “ugliness” as monetary transactions and “vile” desires is a fundamentalist, elitist, and/or modernist/reformist position that itself needs critical deconstruction.

Given that many fieldworkers may have their minds on higher pursuits, he goes on to prescribe a fine questionnaire pertaining to price-lists for all kinds of religious expenditure, from temple renovation and sponsoring opera performances to fees for minor domestic rituals, the costs of incense and paper money, and banqetting (pp.130–31). Finally he returns to the close relationship between providers and consumers of ritual services, and the benefits of the household idiom.

Having stressed the general paucity of confessional religious identities, Chapter 5, “Communities and networks”, gives some instances where they do indeed come into play. Notwithstanding all the instances that Chau has given to show the enduring vitality of communal and household ritual life,

In many locales in contemporary China there is a definite trend towards the atomization of society, where few people are organizing any collective or communal activities and people spend a large amount of time watching television in the comfort of increasingly nuclearized homes. People seem to be happy that they are no longer being forced to participate in collective labor, collective political study [discuss…], or mass campaign rallies, all prevalent features of Maoist collectivist life. Yet there is also ample evidence to suggest that people in many parts of China have revived pre-Maoist forms of communal social life, sometimes even borrowing techniques of Maoist mobilization and social organization to good effect. […]


both historically and in today’s China, there are a significant number of people who do have a strong and definite religious identity (e.g. being a Buddhist, Daoist, or Christian; belonging to a sect). Even though small in numerical terms (but still in the millions), they are very important in the Chinese religious landscape.

He gives examples of monastic communities and networks, the remarkably resilient Christian congregational communities, qigong groups (including Falungong), and lay Buddhist confessional groups like Foguangshan and Ciji. He ends by considering the impact of new technologies on religious transmission.

Chapter 6, “State-religion relations” unpacks issues in a popular theme. Chau observes that the Maoist antipathy towards religious institutions was part of a general intolerance of any social institution outside the orbit of the party-state, as well as an assault on their status as property owners. While household-based ritual specialists were also persecuted, the attacks on them were far less thorough when compared to those on temples, lineages, and major cult centres. Again, the “household idiom” of religious service provision was a key to survival.

He outlines the official regulatory framework, noting the further complexities of the recent Intangible Cultural Heritage and the fuzzy “religion sphere”. He chooses this translation rather than “religious sphere” to avoid any misunderstanding:

Not only is the religion sphere not religious in nature, its existence is constitutive of the overall construction of secularity.

Returning to the discursive-scriptural modality, Chau observes that its rise is also propounded by the secular state—by contrast with the vast majority of providers and consumers of religious services. And after observing a broad local tolerance towards the practice of “superstition”, he outlines recent reforms in funerary and burial practices.

In “Conclusions” he surveys the major theme: the religious revival, once again debunking a reified approach to tradition.

It would be easier to understand this continuity if we understood religious traditions as complex, dynamic, ever-changing clusters of institutions, practitioners, and consumers, knowledge and practices, sociopolitical relations and hierarchies, fully amenable to innovations, inventions, and reinventions all the time. Religious traditions are not static.

Finally Chau stresses the centrality of relationality in doing religion, far beyond mere texts. University courses on Buddhism and Daoism

are often presented as “Oriental thought”, emphasizing ideas at the expense of practice. Presenting a non-Abrahamic religious tradition “systematically” might seem a respectful thing to do, as if granting equal dignity to these traditions that only a century ago were considered unworthy pagan superstitions. This kind of scholarly and pedagogical systemizing owes its inspiration to the Christian tradition of systematic theology, which attempts to formulate Christian doctrines as a coherent whole (but of course ordinary Christians do not necessarily practice their Christianity “coherently”). We might not be able to readily throw off this intellectual baggage, but we must always be aware of such epistemological habits (or “habits of the mind”) when we try to understand any religious tradition.

In a succinct three-page list of basic sources in English, Chau includes John Lagerwey’s China: a religious state, a largely historical overview, and The religious question of modern China edited by Goossaert and Palmer. I might also mention C.K. Yang’s Religion in Chinese society (1961), a fine early study written at an exceptionally traumatic time for the PRC. And Chau might be sympathetic to my suggestion to include some ethnographic films in this list—always a more engaging medium than discursive, silent, immobile representations on the page.

* * *

Like Ian Johnson’s The souls of China (2017), this book should appeal to a rather broad readership. Some of the issues in reaching a wide audience are in presentation, such as in-text references and footnotes—both inimical to more populist publishers. But Chau’s book has sixteen photos, whereas Ian’s, curiously, has none.

The two books are very different. While also giving fine personal vignettes, Chau’s main aim is to illuminate social structures; whereas Johnson’s book, while also well-informed, revolves around portraits of a few figures (again including the Li family Daoists!), and may speak more vividly to non-specialist China-watchers. So The souls of China (“a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise”—James Miller) makes more welcome fodder for the Western Seekers of Truth, as well as for advocates of religious freedom and the triumph of spirituality over secularism. But I hope all those who admire Johnson’s book will also learn from Chau’s work.








New work on sectarian ritual

Hou Chong

I look forward to reading a recent book collecting promising articles on the role of sectarian religious scriptures in folk ritual over a wide area:

  • Hou Chong 侯沖 (ed.), Jingdian, yishi yu minjian xinyang 经典, 仪式与民间信仰 [Classics, ritual, and folk worship] (Shanghai guji cbs, 2018),

continuing a long tradition of such research in China.

The contributors pay attention not only to texts but to performed rituals; and while some articles discuss early history, the focus is on the modern era. Themes include “precious scriptures” (baojuan), the Luo and Xiantian sects, and Zhenwu worship, with contributors such as Wang Jianchuan, Cao Xinyu on White Lotus scriptures, Rostislav Berezkin on funerary baojuan in Changshu (see also n.1 here), Xiao Jihong on North Dipper rituals of the Bai minority in Jianchuan, Yunnan, and Lü Pengzhi on Five Thunder registers (Wulei lu 五雷錄) in west Jiangxi.

Excuse these crappy screenshots—you can view the contents more clearly on sites such as douban:

mulu 1

mulu 2

Many of my posts under Local ritual bear on sectarian worship in north China, both among devotional groups and, before the 1950s, among temple priests. See also here, and here.



Ritual life around Suzhou

Blind people groping at the elephant

Following my posts on the tangming bands and the 1956 Suzhou Daoist project, while I have no field experience of Daoist ritual around Suzhou, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp with the aid of exceptionally abundant secondary sources. So this isn’t so much a review of Suzhou Daoism, as an illustration of the multiple ways of approaching it.

TJ master

Wu Shirong leading Xiantian bawang zougao ritual, 2011. Photo: Tao Jin.

Research on ritual life throughout the whole of south Jiangsu—Suzhou, Changshu, Wuxi, Shanghai, and so on—ranks close behind that for southeast China and Hunan. Still, ritual activities in these regions are quite different: in the southeast and Hunan, individual household altars (and particularly their ritual manuals) dominate research, whereas in south Jiangsu wider networks of temples and their priests seem more important.

One might suppose that Suzhou Daoism would be a rather easily-defined topic, but it illustrates my comment (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.3–4) that we are all “blind people groping at the elephant” (xiazi moxiang 瞎子摸象)—only able to describe that tiny part of the total picture that we happen to grasp, never managing to see the whole.

Even for scholars equipped with the skills to study modern or imperial China, Daoist ritual is a daunting topic. And it’s hard to integrate within the changing religious practices and life stories of ordinary people in rural China under successive regimes since the early 20th century. Indeed, this is a general issue in religious studies: the tension between approaching religion as social activity and as doctrine—the manifestation of the Word of God (see e.g. Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, and Ritual theory, ritual practice).

For China, we might identify three broad strands of enquiry: social history, ritual (particularly texts), and “music”, that seem to be conducted independently; it seems hard to piece together the multiple pieces of the jigsaw. And whereas change is a major element in studies of social history, ritual and music tend to be treated as eternal; scholars in both the latter fields engage only sporadically with modern society and people’s lives.

Even studies of Daoist ritual and “Daoist music” don’t quite communicate with each other. While sound is invariably a vital element in the performance of ritual, scholars of ritual tend to downplay performance and its soundscape, whereas scholars of “music” may focus too narrowly on it. Both tend to reify, documenting either ritual sequences and liturgical texts or “pieces of music” at the expense of studying social change.

1 Social history: the wider religious context
Here I can only hint at the riches of ritual activity around Suzhou. As throughout China, Daoist ritual is a major theme in ritual activity in the region, but it’s far from the only one. While studies of Daoist ritual tend to favour “salvage” above ethnography, it should be obvious that an understanding of ritual practice depends on the study of local society.

A network of scholars have done impressive research on ritual life around south Jiangsu from the late imperial era, using exceptionally well-documented material on socio-political change since the mid-19th century.

In his book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949, Vincent Goossaert makes a convincing case for studying the lives of “ordinary Daoists”. And further, he spreads the net wider to ordinary ritual practitioners. Around Suzhou (as elsewhere), spirit mediums (xianniang 仙娘 or lingmei 靈媒), devotional groups (xianghui 香會, xuanjuan 宣卷, luantan 亂壇, and so on—often sectarian), temple and household Buddhists, and so on are all active, forming an interrelated complex (for further readings on xuanjuan, see n.1 here).

xuanjuan 2009Xuanjuan scriptural group, Jingjiang 2009.
Source: Berezkin and Goossaert, “The three Mao lords”.

A fine introduction to the wider social background is

  • Tao Jin 陶金 and Gao Wansang 高万桑 [Vincent Goossaert], “Daojiao yu Suzhou difang shehui” 道教与苏州地方社会 [Daoism and Suzhou local society], in Wei Lebo 魏乐博 [Robert Weller] (ed.), Jiangnan diqude zongjiao yu gonggong shenghuo 江南地区的宗教与公共社会 [Religion and public life in the Jiangnan region] (2015).

They cite a wealth of historical sources from the late Qing and Republican eras, as well as more recent field reports. Like Yang Yinliu, they note nested hierarchies of ritual practitioners, and indeed within the ranks of hereditary Daoists—with a minority of elite fashi ritual masters maintaining their historical contacts with Longhushan [1] and Beijing above the ranks of common household Daoists.

Noting changing ritual practices from the late 19th century, the authors provide rich material contrasting the pre-1949 and modern periods, such as the mentu 門圖 or menjuan 門眷 ritual catchment-area system formerly common throughout the region.

One of the recurring themes in Goossaert’s research is the history of state attempts to manage—and control—unlicensed priests operating at the grassroots level, and the whole diversity of the religious scene.

  • “A question of control: licensing local ritual specialists in Jiangnan, 1850-1950”, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and Liu Shufen 劉淑芬 eds., Xinyang, shijian yu wenhua tiaoshi 信仰, 實踐與文化調適 (Taipei, 2013).

Even in the early 1950s, the Suzhou Daoist association distinguished temple-based Daoists (daofang 道房) and the others (fuying 赴應) whom they hired on a daily basis. The complex relation between Daoists and state supervision has continued to be a major issue in the reform era. Leading Daoist masters who led the preparatory committee for the Suzhou Daoist Association from 1979 included Zhang Xiaoxuan 张筱轩, Ren Junchen 任俊臣, and Zhou Qiutao 周秋涛. Other municipalities also formed Daoist Associations over these years. But there was a wide age-gap between the younger Daoists and their senior masters who had trained under a very different system.

Today, with the increasing vogue of recycling imperial models of governance, we witness to a certain extent a return of this idea that official Daoists and Buddhists holding positions in their respective associations are entrusted with licensing and controlling the vernacular priests in their locales (and indeed, to a certain extent, spirit-mediums who work with them).

By the 2010s, while rituals were still held at the Xuanmiao guan, the temple was partly museified; core focuses serving the ritual needs of communities are now the nearby Chenghuang miao and Qionglongshan (in the western suburbs near Lake Tai).

Another major centre is the Maoshan temple complex. As usual, studies of Maoshan are dominated by ancient history rather than the maintenance of its temple liturgy in modern times; as ever, such prominent temples are subject to great official pressure. Relevant here are

  • Yang Shihua 杨世华 and Pan Yide 潘一德 eds., Maoshan daojiao zhi 茅山道教志 [Monograph on Maoishan Daoism] (2007), and
  • Ian Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain: the modern transformation of Maoshan”, Journal of Daoist studies 5 (2012).

But there is a multitude of smaller temples throughout the municipalities under the Suzhou region—Kunshan, Wujiang, Changshu, Zhangjiagang, and Taicang.

The revival was gradual. A variety of rituals were soon in demand, such as exorcistic and blessing rituals, rituals for new dwellings, mortuary (including commemorative) rituals, and even wedding rituals. The authors describe four main types of jiao Offering currently performed: taiping jiao 太平醮 for the well-being of a local community; guoguan jiao 過關醮 for life crises, particularly for children; jiao to protect from fire (huojiao 火醮); and rituals for the Thunder God leishen 雷神. They note that 7th-moon rituals to deliver the soul have become rare, but they don’t discuss funerals.

Beyond studies of particular rituals (see below), two tables (pp.105–106) suggest the variety of rituals routinely performed today (cf. the diaries of Li Bin and Li Manshan in Yanggao):

Table 1Rituals performed by Tao Jin’s master Zhou Caiyuan in July 2011, showing locations, personnel, ritual type, and ritual segments. For the seven rituals held at the Heshan daoyuan he was a “guest master” (keshi 客师).

Table 2Rituals held at the Chenghuang miao temple in July 2011, including Communal Offerings (gongjiao), Crossing the Passes (guoguan), commemorative daochang, and so on.

As around Shanghai and elsewhere, spirit mediums are crucial organizers. Until the 1950s the xiangtou from the local gentry who invited the elite Daoists to perform rituals, and those attending, were male; nowadays female lingmei (or xianniang 仙娘), and female worshippers, play a leading role. And almost all the rituals (even in the urban temples) are commissioned by rural patrons.

Even some long-discontinued ritual processions resumed—only no longer to the elite temples. For the changing religious scene of festivals, territorial cults, and pilgrimages from the late Qing to the Republican era, see further

  • Gao Wansang 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert), “Wan Qing ji Minguo shiqi Jiangnan diqude yingshen saihui” 晚清及民國時期江南地區的迎神賽會, in Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul Katz) and 高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert) eds., Gaibian Zhongguo zongjiaode wushinian: 1898–1948 改變中國宗教的五十年: 1898–1948 (Taipei, 2015)
  • Vincent Goossaert , “Territorial cults and the urbanization of the Chinese world: a case study of Suzhou”, in Peter van der Veer ed., Handbook of religion and the Asian city: aspiration and urbanization in the twenty-first century (2015).

In the latter, a nuanced account of the ever-changing fortunes of urban, suburban, and rural temples, the processes of deterritoralization and reterritoralization, he observes:

Judging by current practice, small-scale rituals by local communities typically involve two main kinds of ritual specialists: spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters. […] Not all territorial communities hire Daoists for their celebrations every year; the scripture-chanting masters provide cheaper, simpler services, complemented by dances and songs formed among the community’s elder women. For the larger celebrations involving Daoists, spirit mediums and scripture-chanting masters are also commonly present; these specialists have a clear division of labour and are not in competition.

See further

And the journal Minsu quyi, always core reading for Chinese ritual studies, continues to publish a wealth of material, most recently here.

2 Documenting ritual practice
While such work is exceptionally rich in social detail, it can’t seek to address the nuts and bolts of ritual practice—which for scholars of Daoism is the heart of the matter.

This is the kind of work for which Tao Jin 陶金 is perhaps uniquely qualified, with his detailed historical knowledge of Daoism and its ritual manuals. One of very few scholars of Daoism who have followed the lead of Saso and Schipper in participant observation, Tao Jin apprenticed himself first to Chang Renchun in Beijing and then, since 2008, to the Daoist masters Zhou Caiyuan 周財源 and Wu Shirong 吾世榮 in Suzhou; in 2018 he was himself ordained.

  • Tao Jin 陶金, “Suzhou ‘Xiantian bawang zougao keyi’ chutan” 蘇州《先天奏吿科儀》初探, in Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志 and Laogewen 勞格文 [John Lagerwey] eds., Difang daojiao yishi shidi diaocha bijiao yanjiu guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwenji 地方道教儀式實地調查比較研究 (國際學術研討會論文集) (Hong Kong, 2013).

In this article Tao Jin explores the esoteric Xiantian bawang zougao ritual to the Doumu 斗姥 deity. It may be adapted to rituals for both the living and the dead; he documents a mortuary version that he attended at a family home, including randeng 燃燈 and poyu 破獄 segments (see photo above).

Only from the tables can we learn that the group consisted of three liturgists and four instrumentalists; they are not named. Tao Jin’s purpose is not to document normative current practice but to explain aspects of the early evolution of Daoist ritual. He gives only minimal coverage of the soundscape—even basic features like solo chanting, group singing, slow/fast, melisma, the function of percussion and melodic instrumental music.

One may choose to depict a given ritual because it encapsulates the core wisdom of ancient Daoism, or because it is frequently performed today. In my work on the Li family I focus on funerals, because that is their main context, which we can document in detail by observation; I also note their performance of temple rituals and Thanking the Earth, rare or obsolete since the 1950s. Tao Jin comments (in a footnote!) that the Doumu ritual is still performed in the Shanghai region for both the living and the dead, whereas in Suzhou it is now used only for the latter; one wonders about reasons for this difference.

Work of this type is more concerned with tracing medieval antecedents and imperial history than with documenting change within living memory, or indeed performance practice. As with the voluminous material on household Daoist groups in southeast China, documenting the radical social or political changes since the 19th century is left to other scholars.

Another of Tao Jin’s themes is the strong historical link with Daoism in Beijing; [2] and such rituals should also be studied in conjunction with those of Shanghai. While he, with his rich insider’s experience as a participant, should be well qualified to detail the practicalities of ritual life, his main energy is devoted to doctrinal history. Still, if anyone eventually compiles a more comprehensive account of the whole range of rituals still performed, then Tao Jin is the person to do it.

3 Music scholarship
All this seems to put the perspective of musicology in the shade, but this approach does at least provide an impression of current practice.

Clearly, the soundscape of Daoist ritual is crucial; but looking to scholarship on “Daoist music” to understand ritual also has its limitations. Around Suzhou and Wuxi, a reified image of the Shifan instrumental genres works to distract us from both ritual practice and local society; however complex, Shifan is only one supporting element in the performance of Daoist ritual in the region.

In the 1950s “Daoist music” became a palatable way of discussing Daoist ritual; but it obfuscated the issue. Still, whether I like it or not, “Suzhou Daoist music” is A Thing. Like the studies of ritual, such works tend to be heavily laced with generic citations from ancient history. And by contrast with the broader enquiry of social scholars, based on folk practice, they are dominated by the official Xuanmiao guan group. Still, they suggest some clues.

So the riches of Daoist ritual around south Jiangsu (and everywhere) need to be addressed by scholars of Daoist ritual, not just “Daoist music”. I would like to read works without the word “music” in the title, where it is a given that coverage of the soundscape is intrinsic to the task.

Transcriptions are an important step towards revealing the nuts and bolts of ritual practice, towards suggesting how performers and patrons experience ritual performance. However, scholars of Daoism may be reluctant to take this on board. Learning to read cipher notation requires very little time, but few will take the trouble to do so—perhaps partly because they will struggle to perceive its relevance. Whether for the vocal liturgy or the instrumental music, they might ask: does the manner of performance—notably its sound—matter, as long as the text gets transmitted? (cf. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.256–7). Indeed, transcriptions—like reproductions of ritual manuals—are merely a form of graphic representation, not easily translated into sound. What we need is film (on which more below).

The Anthology
After a very basic introduction, the “religious music” section of the instrumental volumes of the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷) gives extensive transcriptions of items of vocal liturgy (pp.1439–1645), though it only gives brief notes to contextualize them. The Shifan genres which punctuate them are transcribed separately under instrumental ensembles.


From the Anthology: top (left) Daoist tangming group; (right) Mao Zhongqing leads ritual overture on drum at the Chunshenjun miao temple;
mid: (left) Xue Jianfeng accompanies liturgy on shuangqing lute; (right) Maoshan ritual;
below: (left) chuanhua segment of Quangong/Quanfu ritual; (right) Zhou Zufu accompanies vocal liturgy.

JC Maoshan

Opening of Hymn to Incense from San Mao baochan, Maoshan,
with percussion prelude and accompaniment.

From Maoshan the Anthology provides transcriptions from the following rituals:

  • San Mao biao 三茅表
  • San Mao baochan 三茅寶懺
  • Yuhuang chan 玉皇懺
  • Shangqing risong wanke 上清日誦晚課

And from Suzhou:

  • Sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 三寶懺悔設[施?]食玄科
  • Qingwei gongtian xingdao chaoyuan keyi 清微供天行道朝元科儀
  • Quangong/Quanfu 全功全符
  • Quangong/Quanbiao 全功全表
  • Miscellaneous vocal liturgy

The Anthology continues with transcriptions of Buddhist ritual (pp.1652–1765), mainly of the influential Tianning si temple in Changzhou, as well as Nanjing and Yangzhou, and some items from the xuanjuan scripture groups.

Valuable as the Anthology is, it provides us with clues, starting-points; its material always needs unpacking. Meanwhile, in the substantial series Zhongguo chuantong yishi yinyue yanjiu jihua 中國傳統儀式音樂研究計畫 [Traditional Chinese ritual music research project]

  • Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2000)

is a rather slim tome. Their dry list of rituals (pp.39–40), under the basic categories of jiao, fashi, and minor rituals, is less than clear. And instead of clarifying, they go on to discuss the instrumental component. They do then give transcriptions (pp.53–130; texts alone on pp.141–72) of the vocal liturgy from two major rituals (Duiling sanbao chanhui sheshi xuanke 對霛三寶懺悔設食玄科 and Lingbao xianweng jilian xuanke 靈寶仙翁祭煉玄科), but entirely without context.

The Offering to Heaven ritual
In the same series, a much more detailed account of one of the core rituals, as performed by the Xuanmiao guan group, is

  • Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun 蘇州道教科儀音樂研究: 以“天功”科儀為例展開的討論 (1999).

It doesn’t consist merely of musical transcriptions, but belongs with the style of the works of Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 for other traditions (e.g. Beijing, south Hebei, and Baiyunshan), documenting whole rituals in detail.

Liu Hong lists three types of jiao Offering:

  • those formerly commissioned by urban dwellers for prosperity;
  • Communal Offerings (gongjiao 公醮) commissioned by rural groups assembled by a xiangtou leader (usually a tiangong ritual, as here)
  • offerings for individual families.

In a useful section (pp.194–8) discussing flexible elements in the ritual, he notes that whereas before Liberation they used to travel widely in the region to perform lengthy rituals, tailoring them to patrons’ differing demands, since the reforms the patrons come to the Xuanmiao guan temple to have rituals performed, leading to both standardization and abbreviation. This is important, although one now wants similar treatments for all the rituals still performed “among the people”, including those listed in the tables above.


Patrons for tiangong ritual, 1994. Photo: Liu Hong.

The tiangong ritual consists of three main sections: Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 發符), Offering to Heaven (gongtian 供天), and Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表)—a sequence also regularly performed by Zhou Caiyuan under the heading of Communal Offering.


From Liu Hong’s description of the gongtian ritual segment.

Liu Hong’s account isn’t limited to melodic items; he includes texts of chanted sections, and describes ritual actions; and like Tao Jin, he provides titles for ritual manuals and diagrams of altars. He also pays rather more attention to social context; for the ritual he attended in July 1994, the “audience” of over one hundred consisted mainly of female peasants from the outlying regions, bringing offerings to be used during the ritual. He lists the performers for a tiangong ritual at the Chunshenjun miao temple in 1995: seven fashi liturgists (led by Xue Guiyuan), two xianghuo helpers and seven instrumentalists (with Mao Liangshan on drum).

Studies of ritual nearby
We might read this material in conjunction with related monographs on Shanghai and Wuxi:

  • Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Haishang Baiyun guan shishi keyi yinyue yanjiu 海上白雲觀施食科儀音樂研究 (1997) documents a 1994 performance of the shishi ritual, and contains reproductions of four ritual manuals.
  • Qian Tiemin 錢鐵民 and Ma Zhen’ai 馬珍媛, Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (2 vols., 1999) contains transcriptions of the vocal liturgy (pp.165–568), but is dominated by the instrumental repertoire.

For other volumes on Shanghai in the important Minsu quyi congshu series, see n.3 here, including a review by Poul Andersen.

So such studies by musicologists contain considerable material for the scholar of Daoism.

4 Maoism
Though the Maoist era was a crucial period for transmission, details remain elusive. Tao Jin and Goossaert give a bare outline (p.99–100). Household Daoist Zhou Caiyuan recalled a large-scale zhutian hui 朱天會 ritual in the late 1950s at the Wulu Caishen miao temple near the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Maoshan temples managed to maintain activity too: in 1963, roughly 20,000 believers attended a kaiguang 開光 inauguration ritual at the Jiuxiao gong temple there. [3] Even the performance of such rituals under Maoism suggests a nuanced picture, but few details emerge of more routine practice—including funerals, always an important context.

A 1956 list of temples in the city of Suzhou (Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.15–18) gives a stark picture of the decimation of the physical religious landscape there. Suburban and rural temples may have been hit less hard, though ritual activity there too would have been severely limited.

5 Lives
To return to Goossaert’s plea, it’s worth exploring the lives of the ritual performers.

For scholars of Daoism, the fashi ritual specialists properly take priority over the “musical” Daoists. But the 1957 volume Suzhou daojiao yishuji only lists their names, and the Anthology biographies concern not those specializing in liturgical practice but performers noted for their instrumental accomplishments who went on to achieve fame under Maoism as members of secular state troupes. Still, these Daoists are not mere “musicians”: they have long experience performing lengthy rituals. While some of them formally served as temple clerics before Liberation, most were household Daoists. [4]

Some of the most famed performers are renowned for their drumming (a major component of Daoist ritual around the region), such as Mao Zhongqing and Zhou Zufu, as well as Zhu Qinfu in Wuxi. Scholars pay attention to the complex drum sections that punctuate the instrumental suites, rather than the less virtuosic art of accompanying vocal liturgy (on which, for Yanggao, see here.)

Most of these biographies describe prominent Daosts recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple group in Suzhou:

Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (1915–?)
Mao Zhongqing studied from young with his father Mao Buyun 毛步雲, a priest in the Huoshen dian shrine attached to the Xuanmiao guan. He studied dizi flute with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎 of the Jifang dian shrine, sanxian plucked lute with Hua Yongmei 華詠梅 of the Wenchang dian shrine, and the whole Shifan repertoire with Dai Xiaoxia 戴啸霞, a Daoist attached to the Greater Guandi miao temple. From the age of 12 sui he was working for the Caishen dian temple.

After Liberation he was recruited to a Music Research Group in the Suzhou Daoist community for the “Resist America, Support Korea” Association. In 1953, like Cai Huiquan, he was employed in the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra, along with his fellow Daoists Wu Mingxing 吳明馨, Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, and Hua Lisheng 華麗生. But already in late 1954 he requested leave to return to Suzhou, where he worked for the Suzhou Daoist Study Committee.

In 1956 he took part on drum and tiqin fiddle in the major project to document a complete jiao Offering ritual. Wu Xiaobang, leader of the project, went on to organize the Heavenly Horses Dance Experimental Office (Tianma wudao shiyanshi 天马舞蹈实验室) in Shanghai, with whom Mao Zhongqing toured widely from 1958 to 1960. When the group folded in 1961 he once again returned to Jiangsu, joining the provincial Kunqu troupe. In the early years of the Cultural Revolution he was kept on at the reception office there, but he took early retirement in 1970, returning to Suzhou. In 1979, as tradition restored, he was part of an illustrious group of thirteen Daoists gathered together by cultural officials to record. He was now assigned to the Suzhou Song-and-Dance Ensemble, also taking part in the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe.

Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (b.1915)
From a background of Kunqu, Zhou Zufu was adopted after his mother’s death into the hereditary ritual tradition of the Zhou family in Huajing village of Wuxian county, descended from the Renshi tang 仁世堂 hall, performing along with four brothers. Aged 17 sui he studied Daoist percussion with Xu Yinmei 許吟梅 of the Caishen dian temple of the Xuanmiao guan, and from 21 sui he invited Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, an eminent Daoist attached to the Zongguan tang 總管堂 hall, to Huajing to teach them sanxian. After the Japanese occupation, with travel disrupted, he studied Shifan with Zhu Peiji 朱培基 (aka Zhu Boji 朱柏基). By now he was a respected performer in Daoist ritual and tangming groups around the countryside. He was given a post in the Suzhou Daoist association, expanding his ritual activities to the city. After the Japanese were defeated he was the only rural Daoist to take part in the Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, one of many such official Daoist groups formed since the 1920s.

Zhou Zufu

Zhou Zufu, ritual transmission. Source: Liu Hong, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu.

After Liberation Zhou Zufu was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group. In 1953 he was assigned to the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe (forerunner of the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe), and in 1957 he went on to the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra. Again, he had to return to the Suzhou countryside with the 1962 state cuts.

Following a typical lacuna in the account, he was recalled to the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe in 1977. In 1984 he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan temple. That year he performed in Venice with a combined group from Suzhou (also including qin master Wu Zhaoji), arranged impressively by Raffaella Gallio, first foreign student at the Shanghai conservatoire from 1980—who incidentally was instrumental in helping me realize that Chinese folk music was reviving (see here).

The account lists official festivals at which he took part through the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1990 Beijing Festival of Religious Music. But by the late 1980s he was also a leading light in rituals at the Xuanmiao guan, teaching the new generation.

Jin Zhongying 金中英 (1925–96)
A hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, Jin Zhongying studied at sishu private school from the age of 6 sui, but had to withdraw after two years since the family could no longer afford the fees. When he was 12 sui his father died, and he gradually began performing in rituals, learning instruments and liturgy from masters like Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (see below), and learning further from 15 sui in the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 Daoist academy. In 1945, as the Japanese were defeated he took part in its successor the Yixuan yanlu, but their activities were soon curtailed by the civil war. In 1948 he studied with Xu Yinzhu 許吟竹 at the Wenchang dian temple.

After Liberation, in 1951 he too was enlisted to the Suzhou Daoists’ propaganda activities for the Korean War, and from 1953 he headed the second Daoist Music Research Group, with a brief interlude in the Minfeng Suzhou Opera Troupe. He had an impressive collection of ritual manuals, and it was he who in 1953 provided the early Juntian miaoyue score by Cao Xisheng. He was one of the organizers of the 1956 project, and the main author of the resulting volume; and like Mao Zhongqing he went on to join the Tianma Troupe in Shanghai. In 1960 he was recalled to oversee the Suzhou Chinese Music Troupe. From 1965 he held successive cultural posts in Suzhou. He was a leading light in the revival from 1979.

As I observed in my post on the tangming bands, few Daoists would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and protected them, mostly, from accusations of “feudal superstition”.

By contrast with other regions, there was more official research activity in Suzhou under Maoism, based to a degree on the lively Daoist institutions of the Republican era. But such biographical sketches are frustrating. They were all versatile instrumentalists, but for details on their ritual and liturgical practice we have to seek elsewhere.

Cao and Zhang give further brief biographies (pp.131–40)—still based more on “musicians” than on liturgists. In addition to the Daoists above, they list:

Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?)
Son of the great Daoist Zhao Ziqin 趙子琴, who had over two hundred disciples, Zhao Houfu also studied percussion in the 1930s with the Daoist master Dai Youxia 戴攸霞. From 1951 he was a member of the Suzhou Daoist Music Study Group, and he took part in the 1956 project, going on to the Tianma Troupe.

Xie Jianmei 謝劍梅 (1912–88)
From Suzhou city, from the age of 16 sui he learned with Li Peiyuan 李培元 and Shao Shilin 邵世琳, with further training in liturgy from Qian Zhanzhi 錢綻之, Wu Dinglan 吳鼎蘭, and Jin Shenzhi 金慎之. He became a priest at the Caishen dian shrine of the Xuanmiao guan after the 1945 victory over Japan. In 1951 he joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, working alongside Jin Zhongying and Hua Lisheng. Later he was recruited to the Kunshan Dasheng Yueju Opera Troupe. During the Cultural Revolution he worked at a primary school. From 1981 he was employed at the Xuanmiao guan.

Cao Yuanxi 曹元希(1913–89)
A hereditary Daoist at the Huoshen miao temple in Suzhou, he was a descendant of Cao Xisheng, compiler of the Juntian miaoyue score. After studying with Shao Shilin 邵士琳 and Xu Yinmei 許吟梅, he became abbot of the Huoshen miao. In 1951 he too joined the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group, and he took part in the 1956 project. From 1957 he was in the Heavenly Horses dance troupe, moving on to the Suzhou Chinese Music Orchestra and the Suzhou Kunqu Troupe, where he worked until retiring.

Hua Lisheng 華麗笙 (1915–89)
Hua Lisheng became a priest in the Jifang dian 機房殿 shrine of the Xuanmiao guan at the age of only 10 sui, learning ritual with Cao Guanding 曹冠鼎. In 1946, with Zhang Jingyun 張景雲, Li Youmei 李友梅, and Zhang Yunmou 張雲謀 he formed the Yunji she 雲笈社, a short-lived organization for Daoist research. In 1952 he was recruited to the Central Broadcasting Troupe, but returned home due to ill health. Through the Cultural Revolution he made a living from making paper boxes in Xuanmiao guan Alley. From 1981 he worked for the preparatory group for the Suzhou Daoist Association, becoming secretary when it was established in 1986.

Mao Liangshan 毛良善 (b.1927)
From Weiting in Wuxian county, Mao Liangshan was adopted at the age of 6 sui by Zhao Houfu, learning Daoist ritual with him and Zhao’s father Zhao Ziqin. He became a priest at the Xiuzhen guan temple in Suzhou at the age of 13 sui, under the tutelage of Shen Yisheng 深宜生. On the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he returned to Weiting to work in the communal fields. In 1984 the Suzhou Daoist Association summoned him to perform rituals.

Xue Jianfeng 薛劍峰 (b.1925)
A hereditary Daoist, Xue Jianfeng became a temple priest at 14 sui, studying with his father Xue Songqing 薛松卿 and Shao Shilin. From 18 sui he was abbot of the Liushuixian miao 柳水仙廟 temple. After the disruption of the Cultural Revolution, he returned to the Xuanmiao guan in the early 1980s. While a versatile instrumentalist, he specialized in the shuangqing 雙清 plucked lute. Along with Zhou Zufu and Mao Liangshan he trained the new generation.

Jiang Jierong 蔣介榮 (b.1926)
From Wuxian county, Jiang Jierong began studying Daoist ritual from the age of 8 sui with his father Jiang Nianxuan 蔣念萱. His father died when he was 13 sui, whereupon he studied “shendao” 神道 (the tangming ritual style) for three years under Tao Qinghe 陶慶和 (Tao Dawei 陶大微). At the age of 16 sui he became a priest at the Qingzhou guan temple in Suzhou, furthering his studies with Xu Yinmei. Upon land reform he left the clergy, but continued working as a household Daoist. After a long lacuna in the account, he resumed ritual life upon the reforms, and was recruited to the Suzhou Daoist Association in 1990.

Here I may as well include a renowned Daoist drummer from nearby Wuxi, on whose reputation the wider awareness of the art of Daoist drumming in south Jiangsu is largely based—it’s worth recalling that Chinese musicologists were studying ritual in mainland China long before other scholars, and that this began with the great Yang Yinliu‘s immersion in Wuxi Daoism.

Zhu Qinfu 朱勤甫 (1902–81) [5]
Born to a poor family in Zhucuntou village of Wuxi, Zhu Qinfu was brought up by his Daoist uncle Zhu Xiuting 朱秀亭. He became the fifth generation of Daoists in the family, taking part in rituals from the age of 8 sui, and training formally with Zhu Xiuting from 12 to 16 sui. He was part of the Tianyun she group that performed for Henry Eichheim in 1921.

Around 1940 he formed a band called Shiwuchai 十勿拆, renowned for their rendition of the Shifan gu instrumental repertoire. In October 1947 he was invited by the Yangchun she in Shanghai to combine with the Tianyun she for three days of performances, attended by luminaries like Mei Lanfang and Yu Zhenfei. The recordings were broadcast and issued on six discs, but were apparently destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

After Liberation, Zhu Qinfu was recruited in 1952 to the orchestra of the Central Opera Academy in Beijing, and then the Central Experimental Opera Academy. In 1962 he was sent back home as a result of the state cuts following the famine—whereupon, to their credit, the conservatoires of Shanghai and Beijing employed him (the CD-set Xianguan chuanqi includes a 1962 recording). But with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was again forced home.

In 1978 the Shanghai conservatoire once again sought him out. Their recordings were less than ideal, since he was no longer in good health. In 1979 they made a TV documentary. Zhu also returned to the Central Conservatoire in Beijing before his death in 1981.

Back in Suzhou, Liu Hong also introduces two leading liturgists:

Xue Guiyuan 薛桂元 (b.1919) began learning with his father from the age of 9 sui, training from 15 sui at the Anzhaiwang miao 安齋王廟 and from 19 sui with Shao Shilin 邵世琳. Whereas the most accomplished Daoist instrumentalists might find work in state troupes, this was not an option for ritual masters like Xue Guiyuan, and from 1951 he had to work as a peasant, right until 1988 when he was summoned to the Xuanmiao guan.

Zhang Boxu 張伯旭 (b.1921), from Wuxian county, learned with his father from 9 to 13 sui, going to study with Li Duanchun 李端春 before making a living as a household Daoist. From 21 sui he spent two years in Suzhou under Lu Zifan 陸子範. He seems to have remained active until 1962, when he had to return to peasant life. Resuming ritual activities from 1988, he was recruited to the Xuanmiao guan in 1992.

Zhang Boxu

Zhang Boxu, ritual transmission.

All these Daoists came from hereditary backgrounds, learning first in the family and then often with other masters. They had all performed rituals for their local communities before Liberation; though such accounts are unclear about their ritual life under Maoism, they had been largely unable to practice until the 1980s’ revival.

Cao Benye and Zhang Fenglin also introduce three able younger Daoists who became priests at the Xuanmiao guan since 1984, taking part in training sessions (cf. Shanghai) and becoming regular members of the temple’s main ritual group: Lu Jianzhong 陸建中 (b.1966), Xie Jianming 謝建明 (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong 韓曉東 (b.1972). Here we can note a shift: with hereditary training having been disrupted, their studies now took place at a later age, and under the auspices of the temple’s training programmes. Lu Jianzhong and Han Xiaodong went on to pursue their studies further with ritual master Xue Guiyuan.

But again, I wonder about the fates of Daoists struggling to make a living after Liberation: not only the more accomplished fashi ritual masters and instrumentalists, but ordinary Daoists too. Many had to return to the collective fields or take up factory jobs, though doubtless some also performed rituals intermittently. More detailed biographies would yield rich material on the Maoist era.

XMG 93

Xuanmiao guan group led by Zhou Zufu (centre, drum), Beijing 1993. My photo.

Today the Xuanmiao guan group comprises some accomplished Daoists (see also here), but the temple’s “museified” official representation may innoculate us from considering the complex realities of local ritual life (cf. the Zhihua temple in Beijing). We still need to include the lives and activities of both fashi ritual masters and ordinary Daoists in the picture.

5 Film
I return to my usual refrain: none of this discussion can convey an adequate impression of the actions and sound of rituals in performance—and sound is precisely the means by which the texts are communicated.

So beyond silent immobile texts (and beyond transcriptions), what we need is films. After all, fieldworkers do commonly film the rituals they observe; but their footage is rarely admitted to the public domain. Online you can find a few unedited, undocumented clips, like the footage of the Dispatching the Talismans at the end of this post.

Rather, I’m suggesting edited ethnographic films with commentary and subtitles showing liturgical texts—both documentaries showing ritual life in social context, and “salvage” projects aiming to preserve or recreate rarely-performed rituals. For the former, Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven enriches his detailed work on ritual life in Putian in Fujian; for the latter, we might cite the current project of the Shanghai Daoist Association, and Patrice Fava’s films tend towards this style. For further such material, see here.

Of course, the historical dimensions of film may be rather shallow. It by no means supplants textual publications, but it should be a sine qua non. However well such textual descriptions are done, they can’t begin to evoke such complex rituals; it’s an absurdity of academia that they are considered adequate. Film is hardly a new medium. Scholars’ reluctance to use it may be partly to do with the lasting dominance of print media in academia, but it also suggests that they consider the written text, not performance, as primary. They write texts about other written texts. In the Appendix of my Daoist priests of the Li family I made this analogy:

It’s like someone with a fine kitchen and loads of glossy cookbooks, who draws the line at handling food or cooking.

If a copy of the 1956 film of the Suzhou Offering ever miraculously resurfaces, then Tao Jin can add subtitles for the ritual segments and vocal texts…

* * *

So the Xuanmiao guan is just one element in Suzhou Daoist ritual; and the latter is just one component of ritual life around the region.

A certain compartmentalization of all these strands may be inevitable; but it’s hard to bring them into dialogue. I suppose it was this kind of synthesis that I attempted in my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, combining text and film. Within the ethnographic framework of the book I gave material both on the wider history of their ritual texts and on their changing performance practice—my task made easier by the sparser historical material and a smaller ritual repertoire. Often my posts on local ritual in north China concern traditions for which little evidence has emerged in either historical or religious studies—which makes them both valuable and limited. But for regions like Suzhou it may be too much to ask for an accessible synthesis of these various elements.

So again the analogy of “blind people groping at the elephant” seems apposite.


With many thanks to Tao Jin and Vincent Goossaert



[1] On the Longhushan connection, see e.g. Vincent Goossaert, “Bureaucratic charisma: The Zhang Heavenly Master institution and court Taoists in late-Qing China”.

[2] “Dagaoxuandiande daoshi yu daochang: guankui Ming–Qing Beijing gongtingde daojiao huodong” 大高玄殿的道士与道场管窥明清北京宫廷的道教活动, Gugong xuekan 2014.2, and
“Dadong wushang jiuji tianxian chuanjie keyi chutan: yige Qingdai Beijing yu Jiangnan wenhua luantan jiaohu yingxiangde anli” 蘇州無上九極天仙傳戒科儀初探: 一個清代北京與江南文化亂壇交互影響的案例, Daoism: religion, history and society 5 (2013).

[3] Johnson, “Two sides of a mountain”, pp.95–6.

[4] My summaries here are based on three sources, not always unanimous in detail: the Anthology, Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Zhang Fenglin 張鳳麟, Suzhou daoyue gaishu 蘇州道樂概述 (2000), pp.131–40, and Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu: yi “tiangong” keyi weili zhankaide taolun苏州道教科仪音乐研究:天功科仪为例展开的讨论 (1999), pp.321–8.

[5] Cf. my Folk music of China, pp.255–6.

Buddhism under Mao: Wutaishan


After an interlude on ritual around south Jiangsu (notably the great Daoist ritual held in Suzhou in 1956), here I return to my home base of north China, focusing on the Maoist era as a kind of prequel to my post on the Wutaishan Buddhists.

As always, I note the tension between studies of ritual and “music”. Whereas scholars of religion tend to focus on early doctrine and silent texts, Chinese music scholars set forth from the living soundscapes of ritual. At the same time, they have tended to collect reified “pieces of music”, only paying attention to ethnography quite recently. However, at least they do the fieldwork, stressing the actual performance of ritual, and we can glean clues to the changing life of religion in society.

Wutaishan is one of the foremost sites for Buddhism in north China. Since the 1980s, the history of its temples has become a major research topic, [1] and Chinese music scholars have documented their rituals (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.213–25). But already in 1947, amidst civil war and land reform, Ya Xin spent three months on Wutaishan documenting the ritual soundscape (whose features in north China I introduce here).

Following the national Communist victory in 1949, major projects to document a wide range of folk musical genres were initiated right across China. In March 1954 Ya Xin took part in a conference in Chengdu to discuss the enterprise, prompting him and five others to spend August doing fieldwork in the temples of Emeishan in Sichuan. In 1955 he edited a 508-page volume of transcriptions, including both that material and his 1947 work on Wutaishan:

  • Ya Xin 亞欣, Siyuan yinyue 寺院音樂 [Temple music], Zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui Chengdu fenhui, 1955.

By the 1950s, scholars like Yang Yinliu studying “religious music” found it obligatory to defend the “value” of the topic, and Ya Xin prefaced his introduction (pp.1–15) with such a defence. The following transcriptions for Emeishan (pp.16–297) include the major Yuqie yankou ritual, daily services, and other vocal liturgy. [2]

But back in 1947 (just as Bill Hinton was embedded with the land reform teams in a village further south in Shanxi), Ya Xin had carried out fieldwork on Wutaishan while serving as a cultural cadre for the Jin–Sui Liberated Area. The conditions were most taxing: amidst ongoing battles with Nationalist troops, the Communists were implementing land reform. So Ya Xin notes that his work was imperfect. But it was a bold initiative: while collecting folk music had been a major project in the Shaanbei Base Area, temple ritual was not on their agenda.

For Wutaishan (pp.299–454), Ya Xin transcribed the main items from the Yuqie yankou ritual, shengguan wind ensemble melodies for both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles, and the Three Days and Nights (san zhouye) mortuary ritual. With the book’s many transcriptions of hymns (zan 讚), gathas (ji 偈), mantras (zhenyan 真言), and so on, it provided an early framework for understanding the mechanics of vocal liturgy.

YX score

From Ya Xin’s transcriptions of the Wutaishan yankou: Daochang chengjiu hymn,
and opening of Huayan hui, showing melisma with padding characters.

Finally, visiting Du Wanzhongshan’s gufang 鼓房 folk wind band in Dongye town at the foot of the mountain Ya Xin notated their “eight great suites” (pp.455–508), derived from the shengguan of the temple monks (Folk music of China, pp.218–19)—although unlike groups of household ritual specialists, they don’t perform vocal liturgy.

Since Ya Xin wasn’t equipped with a recording machine, one both admires his diligence in transcription and wonders at its accuracy. I surmise that much of his work on the vocal liturgy was done with individual monks singing items for him repeatedly, rather than in the course of rituals—not least because the Buddhist texts themselves are highly complex, so he clearly had access to ritual manuals; and he seems to have consulted gongche scores of the shengguan music too. But he didn’t list the temples where he made his transcriptions, or provide names of monks.

We should bear in mind the wider history of Wutaishan around the time. Here I seek clues in the 1988 Wutai county gazetteer. [3] Though such sources are “history of the victors”, they contain some useful material.

Warlord conflict from the 1920s, with Yan Xishan’s troops active, already made the region unstable. But in 1936 Wutaishan had 130 active temples with 2,200 registered clerics (including 800 lamas)—many of whom were doubtless fleeing from warfare. John Blofeld spent time there in 1936–37.

The early architecture of the Wutaishan temples had attracted historians for some time. Japanese scholars found some important temples early in the 20th century, though the Danish Johannes Prip-Møller was unable to visit during his 1929–33 temple survey. In 1937, on the eve of the invasion, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin rediscovered the Tang-dynasty Foguang si temple. The search for “living fossils” would later become a major industry in Chinese musicology.

Japanese troops invaded the area in October 1938, carrying out several massacres. This was an early base area for the Communists in the resistance against Japan. Both patriotic and quisling Buddhist associations were formed in the temples. Many of the monks assisting the resistance were Tibeto-Mongolian lamas, such as those of the Zhenhai si temple, who in 1938 handed over to the 8th Route Army an entire arsenal of weapons that had been given by Chiang Kai-shek to the bodyguard of the Zhangjiafo lama. Monks handed over another cache of weapons in 1942.

The Nationalists fled in 1943, and the Japanese were in retreat from 1944. By July 1946 the Communists were in complete control, and began carrying out land reform. The monks now lost much of their land and income, and some temples were destroyed. By 1947, with little patronage, tilling the monks’ remaining land constituted 89% of their income.

Yan Xishan’s forces returned in October 1946, but retreated again in November. Even in February 1949 they committed a massacre in Dongye town.

During this whole period from 1937 a succession of Communist leaders had passed through. After Chairman Mao’s 1947 visit to the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, on a trip to Wutaishan in 1948 he expressed appreciation of the cultural heritage of Buddhism (for many such comments see e.g. here). Such utterances might have offered a certain intermittent validation for research, though they are utterly paltry alongside the Party’s long-term onslaught on religion.

Upon Liberation and over the following years, most temple clerics were laicized, with their traditional patronage severely reduced. The remaining monks on Wutaishan (a 1956 survey lists 445) [4] received a monthly income of 20–40 yuan from the county government. During the Maoist era ritual life was doubtless much impoverished, though the authorities sanctioned occasional visits from overseas Buddhist delegations.

Meanwhile, away from the temples, household ritual specialists, their numbers now boosted by clerics returning to the laity, maintained a certain activity. And although the influence of Wutaishan made Buddhism dominant around the region, Daoist ritual specialists were also active, such as in nearby Xinzhou.

Sectarian groups are another major theme in religious life throughout China. The sectarian connections of the amateur ritual associations in central Hebei, whose liturgy was transmitted from temples, are a separate case. But all these sects should interest us, since while not all of them performed complex liturgy, they show a link between temple and lay practice.

It is not that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests were usually sectarian; often, as in Yanggao, occupational ritual specialists are clearly distinct from the sects. But I have a growing list of temples where clerics belonged to such groups (Tianzhen, Xinzhou, Baiyunshan).

The recent county gazetteers, however partial, are often a useful source on the sects. Major campaigns were held from 1950 to 1951, and continued through into the Cultural Revolution. Of course, campaigns against “heterodox teachings” were nothing new, having been frequent under both imperial and republican governments, but the new campaigns were far more ruthless. Still, the sects went underground as usual, and have revived since the 1980s. However partial such recent accounts may be, it is important to bear in mind this perspective on local religious organizations when we consider the practice of folk ritual over the last century; this background still colours local society, and our discussions, today.

In the Wutai region, despite campaigns since 1945, intensifying in 1949 and 1950, a variety of sectarian groups were still active through the 1950s, including the Jiugong dao, Huanxiang dao, and Houtian dao. [5] They had a firm base in the temples as well as throughout the countryside. A brief biography of Zhang San Baotai 张三保泰 (1890–1958), [6] leader of the Houtian dao sect, is so rare as to be worth summarizing.

After joining the sect in 1924, Zhang became a monk at the Yuanzhao si temple on Wutaishan in 1938. The following year he declared himself a living Buddha, but his plot with Yan Xishan’s troops to organize an underground arsenal was exposed. In 1941 he travelled through Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, recruiting over ten thousand followers. His activities continued under the PRC, despite the campaigns of 1950–51. After returning to Wutai from Yuxian in Hebei in 1955, he prepared a major armed uprising for 1960, planning to establish a capital at Dingxian in Hebei, and mobilizing in Shandong; but he was captured and executed in 1958.

Apart from the general persecution of “orthodox” religious practices, the sectarian connection would have further darkened the cloud hanging over the temples.

Research in the 1950s
I know of no fieldwork on the rituals of the Wutaishan temples after Liberation. Still, eighteen monks from Wutaishan took part in a provincial festival of folk music at Taiyuan in 1958, winning a prize. Provincial scholars were hoping to do fieldwork from the mid-1950s, but were unable to do so. [7]

The “eight great suites”
The folk shengguan instrumental bands made a more palatable topic than the vocal liturgy of the temples, and this style did go on to achieve wider fame. In 1953 the Shanxi Radio Station revisited Du Wanzhongshan’s band in Dongye to record, which were widely broadcast, and Liu Shiying 刘士英 published transcriptions.


Bapaizi melody for shengguan, in Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian.

Indeed, early in the War against Japan a friend of Bo Yibo, then a major Communist resistance leader in Shanxi, had lent a 1926 gongche score of this repertoire to Lü Ji, who would become the pre-eminent official pundit of Chinese music. After Liberation Lü Ji lent the score to Yang Yinliu; [8] a page was reproduced in vol.4 of the 1957 Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片, spreading awareness of the genre in music circles.

Even as the enforcement of the commune system was leading to desperation, further recordings of the suites, along with transcriptions, were made from 1959, with Du’s son Du San now leading the band.

When I first visited Wutaishan in 1986 it was still far from a bustling national and international tourist attraction. Indeed, I needed a special permit to travel there. Even the town of Taihuai was still a tranquil retreat. But my attention soon turned from the temples to folk ritual practice, and on my later trips I explored household groups in the surrounding region, including a fine shengguan band in Dongye town, led by Xu Yousheng. In 1992, having followed them round on funerals, we held a recording session (#5 on CD1 of my China: folk instrumental traditions; or a shorter version as #5 of the CD with the 1998 paperback of Folk music of China).

Since the reforms
The provincial scholars who had planned fieldwork on Wutaishan in the mid-1950s were only able to realize the project after the end of the Cultural Revolution, leaping into action as early as 1978. A group of senior monks was invited to the Shanxi Music and Dance Research Institute that year, and the precious recordings (as well as some further tracks from 1988) were issued on the five-cassette series

  • Wutaishan foyue 五台山佛乐, with notes by Liu Jianchang, in The Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China series, ed. Tian Qing (Shanghai yinxiang gongsi, 1989; reissued on CD since 1998). [9]

The set includes both vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble music, with excerpts from the yankou ritual and examples of both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles. Like the group that came to England in 1992, most of the performers had been ordained on Wutaishan but had spent much of the Maoist era elsewhere in Shanxi, doing rituals sporadically among the folk. And meanwhile the “southern” style of vocal liturgy was replacing the distinctive regional styles of northern temples (such as Beijing and Shenyang).

1978 mim

From 1978 to 1980, Chen Jiabin and Liu Jianchang published transcriptions in mimeograph, and by the 1980s, along with the Anthology fieldwork, several provincial scholars were undertaking studies. The most extensive research is

  • Han Jun 韩军, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun 五台山佛教音乐总论 (2012).

The Anthology coverage is also substantial:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 山西卷 (2000), introduction pp.1543–53, transcriptions 1554–1768.

The yankou: opening of Huayan hui hymn, from Anthology. For variant renditions, see Han Jun, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun, pp.152–5.

Such studies suffer from the usual flaws of Chinese research, consisting mainly of reified transcriptions rather than ethnography, but they contain some clues to the changing fortunes of religious life.

Meanwhile, as with groups such as the Zhihua temple, media coverage steered clear of the ritual basis of the tradition by highlighting the shengguan instrumental ensemble, with glossy performances on stage.

  • Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012)

also mainly focuses on the shengguan ensemble, but she takes a more ethnographic approach, with useful sections on the vocal liturgy; notes on actual rituals observed, including a funeral; and astute comments on the ideological baggage of Chinese studies and the recent commodified market.

* * *

In the West the study of Chinese ritual is often considered to date from the work of Kristofer Schipper in Taiwan in the 1960s; and in the PRC much of the vast energy in researching local ritual traditions has taken place since the 1980s.

However, long before scholars of religion, fieldworkers in mainland China, in the Republican era and under Maoism, were hard at work documenting ritual practice—their studies conducted under the discreet guise of “music”. [10] It was the intrepid fieldwork of such scholars before 1965, despite all the ideological obstacles then placed in their way, that formed the background to the monumental Anthology project of the 1980s. While most Chinese music scholars working on northern ritual traditions stress the shengguan ensemble, they don’t neglect the vocal liturgy.

Most scholars of Buddhism, and indeed Daoism, are more concerned with early doctrinal issues and the material heritage than with ritual performance. But as I constantly stress, if we wish to study religion in China, we must get to grips with its soundscape. And even this barely addresses my main concern—the changing ritual life of local communities.


[1] Note e.g. the journal Wutaishan yanjiu 五台山研究, and the recent volume Yishan er wuding: duoxueke, kuafangyu, chaowenhua shiyexiade Wutai xinyang yanjiu 一山而五頂:多學科,跨方域,超文化視野下的五台信仰研究 [One mountain of five plateaus: studies of the Wutai cult in multidisciplinary, crossborder and transcultural approaches], ed. Miaojiang 妙江, Chen Jinhua 陳金華, Kuan Guang 寬廣 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2017).

[2] Yang Yinliu had visited Qingchengshan in the summer of 1942, but his attempts to transcribe vocal liturgy there were frustrated by an unhelpful abbot (see his 1961 essay “How to treat religious music”). BTW, folk and temple ritual in the vast province of Sichuan is also a major topic that I can’t begin to address—as ever, the Anthology is one starting-point, and Volker Olles can provide leads.

[3] Besides other essays in the Wutai xianzhi, for “major events” of the Republican and Maoist eras, see pp.696–714. See also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012), pp.10–21. For more background, see Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (1972).

[4] Wutai xianzhi, p.581.

[5] Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.

[6] Wutai xianzhi, p.643.

[7] Liu Jianchang 刘建昌, Chen Jiabin 陈家滨, and Ren Deze 任德泽, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告, Yinyue wudao 1990.1.

[8] Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji (1986), prelude by Lü Ji, p.3.

[9] Cf. Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries, pp.128–9. Of course, rituals such as the yankou, with its complex Tantric mudras, cry out to be documented on film. For a brief 2003 excerpt from a yankou in a minor temple in Yanggao, led by a monk trained at Wutaishan, see my film Doing Things.

[10] Cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.20–26.

Meditation: update with translation!


Hardly had I published this series of links to posts on the Shunzhi emperor’s Buddhist meditation on impermanence, and what it’s doing in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, when I realized that I would be churlish not to provide a rough translation, for those readers less than fluent in classical Chinese—of whom I hope there are many!

So I’ve now added it under the original post, here. Help welcome…