Daoists of Tianzhen, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Click above for the latest in my surveys of household Daoist groups in north Shanxi, including Shuozhou and Guangling (not to mention Yanggao, main subject of this blog), as well as Changwu in Shaanxi. They’re now grouped in a sub-menu “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu.

Here I outline the history and ritual practices of three families of Complete Perfection Daoists in Tianzhen county—a tradition derived from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an just northeast.

Ning statuette


Interpreting pinyin

Shabi Dingxing 1995

Another irreverent exploration of the wonders of the Chinese language:

At least until it caught on as an input method for texting, the pinyin system of transliteration was slow to catch on in China, at least in the countryside. I took this mystifying picture of a shopfront in Dingxing county (Hebei) in 1995, as a little interlude between hanging out with ritual specialists, filming rituals, and photographing—aww, you guessed it—ritual manuals.

It’s actually an electrical and lighting store—the relevance of this only transpires gradually, since such tenuous relations as the notional pinyin may bear to the Chinese characters above it are only intermittent and haphazard. On closer inspection, some of the letters (indeed, a couple of characters too) have dropped off (as in the classic “His R’s fell off”).

Interpreting ancient literature can be like that—I think, for instance, of the labours of Sir Harold Bailey in deciphering fragmentary medieval texts excavated from Khotan. So perhaps this is where a certain sinological training comes in handy.

The cryptic motto begins to make more sense when we add speculative punctuation—evoking two aspiring young Cali actors (let’s dispense with “actresses“) embarking on a Bollywood-themed club night (a text alerting the paparazzi, perhaps):

Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”

Or is it even an invitation to anagrams?

Dahlia nabbed ninja
A banal jihad binned
Albania Hadj bin-end

I should’ve gone to Specsavers, but as I pondered the sign in a desperate search for meaning, the reason I took the photo was that I misread the final word as SHABI, “fuckwit”—actually a very popular expression that is considerably less shocking in Chinese than its literal meaning of “stupid cunt”. Anyway, I still like to think that SHABI is what it says.*


* Upon mature [sic] reflection, I strongly suspect that was indeed closer to the effect they were aiming for. If we posit a missing final character dian 店, then the last two words would be SHANG DIAN (“shop”), but either they couldn’t tell the difference between their stock of S, B, and D letters, or they just didn’t have enough of them—you know, the old fridge-magnet dilemma. Anyway, with superfluous letters suitably discarded, it really could emerge triumphantly as SHABI.

Temple murals of north China

Temple ritual, Yuxian 2014. Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

Further–waay further—to my page on the Guangling DaoistsHannibal Taubes has a fine, ever-growing, website documenting his ongoing research project (worthy of further funding!) on the iconography of rural temples in north China, with wonderful photos of murals taken by him and his assistants.

One of his main sites is the Yuxian–Guangling–Yangyuan region on the border of Hebei and Shanxi. The project—reminiscent of that of Willem Grootaers in the 1940s—is another illustration of the hidden depths of ritual culture in north China, so long a poor cousin of the south.

Such work can be a valuable adjunct to fieldwork on ritual practice. I hesitate to look forward to Hannibal expanding his already vast project to ritual paintings, and incorporating temple steles too…

Material like this may be more fruitful for the study of deities than for actual ritual life. But just a couple of examples from the website that do suggest the latter, from village temples in Yuxian just southeast of Yanggao. This is from a Dragon King temple in Yuxian, perhaps dating from the late Qing:

temple procession 001 full lowestres

Photo: Alex Chavarria.

Here’s a detail of the procession at the foot. Bringing up the rear, on the left (after the temple helper bearing the ritual umbrella) it shows a Daoist band—with chief vocal liturgist, a drum master, and players of the sheng mouth-organ, yunluo frame of ten gongs (now quite rare in the area), and guanzi oboe. The outsider might easily fail to notice that the latter figure (far right) is playing the guanzi—but locals, experiencing the shengguan ensemble at their village rituals all their lives, will recognize it at once.

temple procession Daoist group

Photo: Alex Chavarria.

I won’t quibble with the marching order—the drummer always leads the way, but hey.

Below we see a similar quorum from another nearby Dragon King temple, dating from 1709. Here they wear the same red costumes as household Daoists today—as do the two trumpet players leading the way, though they should be from a separate shawm band…

Daoist procession

Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

As with any such iconography (one thinks of Renaissance depictions of angel musicians), we are confronted with the issue of how “realistic”, or how generic and idealized, such depictions may be as a portrayal of local ritual life at the time. This detail from my photo of a ritual painting by Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen undoubtedly shows an authentic view of a 1940s’ ritual band (standing) such as the one that he himself led, with a group of seven—two guanzi, two sheng, yunluo (only three gongs?!), drum, and small cymbals:


The dizi flute, usually a member of the full shengguan ensemble, was perhaps less often used on procession—indeed, it’s largely fallen from use in this area since the 1990s. For the public ritual in the painting, the Daoists wear their red fayi costumes over their black dashan costumes, just as today. Interpreting such details is naturally informed by knowledge of the current scene.

Of course art is a valuable adjunct to our studies of ritual and religious life, but with my own stress on performance I find myself frustrated that it’s static, two-dimensional, and silent. Anyway, whatever your angle on Chinese religion, Hannibal’s site is fantastic new material, with rich potential.

Diary of a household Daoist

LMS 1992

August 1992: In a brief break between ritual segments of a funeral led by Li Qing, his son Li Manshan consults with another family to determine the date for a future burial.

In my book (pp.18–21) I gave instances of the daily ritual schedules of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin. They’re always so busy that Li Bin has only just found time to report back to me on what they’ve been up to recently. Apart from all the necessary research into the ancestry of ancient ritual texts, and so on, such diaries are an illuminating aspect of the ethnography of Daoist ritual practice. Apart from my film and book, Li Bin is also one of the protagonists of Ian Johnson’s The souls of China.

Li Manshan, now 72 sui, has recently been scaling down his activities a bit—mainly doing funerals in the immediate vicinity, and determinining the date. But since the band’s “triumphant return” (Kaixuan guilai 凯旋归来, on which more anon) from our mini-tour of France in May—and indeed throughout the previous months—Li Bin has hardly had a moment of free time. As he tells me,

The thing that’s the most hassle is when I get two or three concurrent funerals, having to arrange personnel and all the equipment. Each band needs suitable liturgists, wind players, percussionists, and someone to write the documents. And I have to make sure all the various sets of costumes and equipment are complete.

Until the 1950s their ritual work consisted of three types of “scriptures”: funerals, temple fairs, and (through the winter) Thanking the Earth rituals for individual families. The latter two types are now rare, so since the 1980s’ revival the vast majority of their business consists of funeral rituals and all the associated proprieties surrounding a death. But for reputable Daoists like Li Manshan and Li Bin, this alone can be a full-time occupation. In this area south of the county-town they are the most popular group performing such tasks, but there are others.

Before we look at Li Bin’s diary day by day, some more background. Funerals commonly last one and a half days. It’s very tiring work, performing from 7am to nearly midnight on the first day, with a whole series of long processions. As I say in my book,

Excuse the facile analogy with Western art music, but just the seven visits to the soul hall are like doing two motets and five cantatas over the course of the day—plus a few oratorios, and (previously, for temple fairs) six long symphonies.

For the wind players (like Li Bin) especially, accompanying the liturgy is tough physical work.

And on the following morning they make the lengthy burial procession from 8am to midday—as well as all the solo work of Li Manshan or Li Bin in exorcizing the house and checking the precise alignment of the coffin in the grave. Apart from singing the vocal liturgy, they have to double on the wind instruments and ritual percussion.

As I have also described (my book, ch.17), in addition to the two other core members Golden Noble and Wu Mei, Li Bin and Li Manshan need a pool of deps—some regular, others occasional—from the ranks of other local Daoist families and shawm bands. Using his smartphone, Li Bin has to keep a careful note of the fees he owes them; and he’s constantly driving round from village to village with his car packed with ritual equipment—ritual instruments and costumes, paper artefacts, mourning weeds for the kin, duilian and diaolian mottos to paste up at the soul hall and scripture hall, and so on.

Li Manshan prepares most of the mottos at home; he, Li Bin, or Golden Noble will also have to find moments during the funeral to write other ritual documents to be burned for particular ritual segments. At least recently they have deputed to the junior Daoists the lengthy and fiddly task of decorating (and later dismantling) the soul hall.

Usually the first day’s rituals come to a close around 11pm with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (magnificent percussion coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual) and the Escorting Away the Orphan Souls segment (see my film, from 1.11.07), but sometimes the host asks them to do a lengthy Sitting through the Night sequence into the small hours (playlist, track 3—see my notes). Until quite recently the six Daoists routinely dossed down for the night in a row on the kang brick-bed of the “scripture hall” (making room for me too, a fond memory), but now with the improved road network, given the rather basic conditions of most scripture-hall hosts, they sometimes zoom off back home on their motor-bikes. If the funeral isn’t too far away, Li Bin often drives back to his home in town—not least in case he needs to bring more equipment for the burial next morning or his next stop thereafter. But each night on reaching home after a seventeen-hour day, he always remembers to light incense before the statuette of Zhang Daoling in his funeral shop.

Apart from determining the date for funerals, siting the grave and decorating coffins (also both lengthy processes), booking the band, and then performing the rituals—not to mention the daily business of running his funeral shop and making paper artefacts with his wife—Li Bin is always busy doing consultations to determine the date for weddings, construction work, journeys, and so on.

I have to field constant phone-calls every day. Sometimes I determine the date over the phone for “moving the earth” (dongtu 动土) for building work. Over the phone people can go on for ages about weddings or opening a new business—often when I’m right in the middle of some really busy arrangements. It’s a real hassle, but I can’t refuse…

Free-lance musos in London would be only too happy to have such a full diary, but it comes at a cost. As a freelancer myself, I’m glad he’s in work; he has bills to pay, but I hope he gets a bit of time off occasionally. We can well understand why Daoists don’t want their sons to continue in the family tradition.

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin (Li Manshan’s son, 9th generation) on sheng, 2011.

These notes cover the period from their flight home from Paris on 22nd May through to 8th August.

From the map below we can also see the rather typical radius of their ritual activity. Apart from the occasional funeral in Yanggao town, and a rare visit to Datong city, they work mostly in a small area in east-central Yanggao, around the Li family’s old home of Upper Liangyuan and Gucheng district just south. You can click on the place-names in the sidebar to see dates. For another map of the area (also indicating location of other Daoists groups now and before the 1950s) see here.

The Li band may cater to the mortuary needs of many of these individual villages a dozen or so times each year. And they have done so for several generations, with many trusted friends in places like Yangguantun, Pansi, Luotun, and so on.

22: we take 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing;
23: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station.

  • 24: our train from Beijing arrives at Yanggao at 3.44am. At 4am [!] I drive down to Upper Liangyuan (dropping off Li Manshan at home) to help the Sun family prepare for funeral, then I drive back to town again to fetch equipment for them. I determine the date of the burial for 3rd June. 8am: to Shangzhuang to determine the date for a burial there (1st June).
  • 25: I decorate the coffin for Shangzhuang.
  • 26: I decorate the coffin for Upper Liangyuan, and site the grave.
  • 27–28: funeral at Upper Liangyuan for Zhao Xilin (date already determined before French tour).
  • 29: making paper artefacts, preparing for the Shangzhuang and Upper Liangyuan funerals.
  • 30–31: two concurrent funerals at South Luoyao and Pansi
  • 31–June 1: funeral at Shangzhuang.
  • 1: after the Shangzhuang burial, to Houguantun to determine date for burial (12th June, a simple solo “smashing the bowl” ritual—see my book, pp.193–4).
  • 2–3: Upper Liangyuan funeral. After burial, back home to make more paper artefacts.
  • 4–5: funeral at Anzao.
  • 6: making paper artefacts.
  • 7–8: funeral at Zhaoshizhuang.
  • 9–11: three days free to make paper artefacts. Hardly any rest since we came back from France.
  • 12–13: two funerals, at Huiquanzi (in Yangyuan, Hebei) and Houguantun.
  • 15–16: funeral for Sun family in Upper Liangyuan (Li Manshan’s home village).
  • 20–21: two funerals, in Wangguantun and Yanggao county-town.
  • 22–23: funeral at Shizitun; 23 pm I determine the date in Luotun, for burial on 4th July.
  • 25–26: funeral in Lower Liangyuan.
  • 28–29: funeral at Shizitun; 29 pm I determine the date in Yangguantun, for another burial on 4th July.
  • 1–2: funeral at Yousuoyao; I also determine the date in Houguantun, for burial on 8th July.
  • 3–4: funeral at Luotun. [4: burial at Yangguantun]
  • 7–8: two funerals, at Yangguantun and Houguantun. 8: after the burial at Yangguantun, another old person has died, so I go to determine the date—for 5th August.
  • 9: three families come to determine the date for their weddings.
  • 11–12: funeral in Datong
  • 14–15: concurrent funerals in Anzao and Zhanjiayao.
  • 16: coming-of-age party (yuansuo 圆锁) in town for friend’s son (cf. the scene of the party for Li Bin’s own son in my film, from 5.25).
  • 18: massive downpour in the northern hills; two killed as floods carry off a tractor [Li Manshan summoned to determine the date for a burial there].
  • 20–21: funeral at Upper Liangyuan.
  • 22–23: funeral in the county-town.
  • 27–28: funeral at Fantun (just east in Tianzhen).
  • 2–3: funeral at Lower Niangcheng.
  • 4–5: funeral at Yangguantun.
  • 7–8: funeral at Sibaihu. On the afternoon of the 8th, after the burial, just northeast all around Jijiazhuang, Lanyubu, and South Xutun, extreme windstorm and hailstones destroyed cornfields; one family in Jijiazhuang lost 40 mu of peppers.


With thanks as ever to Li Bin and his son Li Bingchang (also an Ariana Grande fan, I learn).

At the barbers

“Barber” by Sidney Gamble, Wenchuan, Sichuan (Item ID 43A-231). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.  Reproduced by permission.

Notwithstanding the constant transformation of Chinese society, Sidney Gamble’s photo from around 1917–19 shows a scene that is still common in rural China today (for his remarkable collection, see here; and for the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, including Gamble’s early film footage, here. And for more fine historical images, see this site).

I was wont to have my head shaved even before I began doing fieldwork in China. But since the older generation of peasants in north China tend to do so (mainly for the sake of hygiene), I emulate them while I’m there.

Early in the course of my long-term work with the ritual association of Gaoluo, one demonstration of our developing relationship was my decision to have my hair cut in the village. From my Plucking the winds (pp.205–6):

Our visits through the hot summer of 1993 were our first since our initial one in 1989. Though now engaged on a general survey of many villages, we were increasingly drawn to Gaoluo, returning there frequently, and despite the recent theft, we spent many happy times together. We used to sit outside on low stools in the shade of He Qing’s courtyard, with Cai An, Li Shutong, and others gathering round for a chat and a smoke. This was the time when we appreciated the depth of He Qing’s knowledge. And our major musical discovery that summer was the vocal performance of the magnificent Houtu scroll (audio playlist, track 6, and my notes here].

GL haircut

He Junqi prepares to cut my hair. Left: our fine MRI driver Little Deng; behind him, in white, maestro He Qing.

I admired the closely cropped heads of many of the musicians, and tend to do without much hair in the summer myself. He Junqi (then 54), a regular visitor to He Qing’s house, son of the sweet elderly flautist He Yi, used to cut the musicians’ hair for them, so I asked him if he’d like to do mine. Everyone stood round having a good laugh, while He Junqi gave me the most meticulous haircut and shave of my life, scouring my scalp with local “White Cat” washing-powder.

And since 2011, a regular haunt of mine on visits to Yanggao to hang out with Li Manshan and his Daoist band is the Barber for Old, Middle-aged and Young (Laozhongqing 老中青) in town, just round the corner from Li Bin’s funeral shop.


Photo: Li Bin.

Since we all agree that I look years younger with my head shaved, we soon glossed the name as “Old Jonesy is younger” (Lao Zhong qing 老钟轻)—yet another in our series of merry puns

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 钟思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Beijing University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 钟馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 钟子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname, but hey.

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen” (transliteration of Stephen).** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

As my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.


One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, dier “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange”.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”.


**Talking of transliterations of foreign names, “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Gaoluo: a restudy, and my role

Thankfully, I am rarely the object of interview—far more often the interviewer asking fatuous questions. I mentioned one such encounter where I failed in my task of giving snappy predictable answers, as well as Jack Body’s original take on my stammer.

Far more in-depth in nature is the new PhD thesis

  • Zhang Lili 张黎黎, Lun Zhong Sidide Nan Gaoluo yinyuehui yanjiu 论钟思第的南高洛音乐会研究 [On Stephen Jones’s research on the ritual association of South Gaoluo] (Beijing: Zhongguo yishu yanjiuyuan 中国艺术研究院 2017),

on my own relationship with the ritual association of South Gaoluo village, and my whole approach. Referring to my book

she consulted me over a long period with frequent and detailed emails, and it has been most stimulating for me to reflect on my fieldwork. Her thesis (supervised by the egregious Tian Qing) is enriched by several visits to Gaoluo—allowing her to make what is effectively a restudy, updating my history of the village and its ritual practice in the light of their later adoption into the dreaded Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) razzmatazz, with all the problems that it entails.

She reflects on the association’s memories of my visits—prompting further reflections from me here, leading to this page suggesting my challenge to the official narrative. She also discussed our work on Gaoluo, indeed our whole project on the Hebei ritual associations, with my fellow-fieldworkers Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao—a fruitful collaboration that stimulated us all.

MYL played

Taking part in the New Year’s rituals, 1998.

And my work in Gaoluo (from 1989 to 2001) may be seen as a blueprint for my later in-depth study with the Li family Daoists (going back to 1991, but intensive since 2011). The subject of the former was an amateur village-wide group, whereas the latter are an extended occupational family of household Daoist ritual specialists—but the principles of thick description and participant observation remain similar.

On my own “method”, at first I can’t really see what the fuss is about: isn’t this what anthropologists do?! Even in China there are many fine ethnographers, such as Wang Mingming, Guo Yuhua, Jing Jun; and in music (apart from Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao), Xiao Mei, Qi Kun, Wu Fan, and so on. They’re much better equipped than me for such work.

But sure, two decades ago my approach was more detailed, and personal, than was then the norm in Chinese musicology. The anthropologists whose work I was myself only beginning to digest—even those fine Chinese scholars who were later to become leading figures—were still hardly known in China. I was educating myself by reading up on both modern social-political background for China and wider ethnomusicological studies (Plucking the winds, Appendix 1). By now, such an approach is less remarkable, but then I found myself somewhat ahead of the game in ethnography—certainly within Chinese musicology, where the “living fossilsflapdoodle has remained hard to erase. Another approach that I took for granted was participant observation—a routine expectation in ethnomusicology, but still virtually unknown either in Chinese musicology or in studies of Chinese ritual.

Anyway, it will be good to see Zhang Lili’s restudy of Gaoluo, with further illustrations of the perils of the ICH.