Three paperbacks out!

After an interlude when my three Ashgate volumes (the first two being part of the fine SOAS Musicology series) suffered a prohibitive price-hike, they are now reissued by Taylor & Francis/Routledge in affordable paperback editions. You can order them here (under “Books”!).


The two Ritual and music books are all the more worth snapping up for their accompanying DVDs—the first making useful background for my film on Li Manshan.

While I’m about it, details of my 2016 book Daoist priests of the Li family are here.

And you can order Plucking the winds, my riveting account of the South Gaoluo village ritual association and its history, here!

Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums

The male domination of rural performance genres appears stark. [1] I’ll outline the overall context in my third article, but for now let’s focus on ritual.

As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.

Ritual and Religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.

Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. [2]

Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. [3]

Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.

Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.

But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion; [4] and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role.

Houshan medium

Medium praying to the female deity Empress Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Houshan disciples

Medium’s disciples, Houshan temple fair 1993.

In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙) are as common as everywhere else.

XLY mediums

Worshippers cluster round mediums in a sideroom at the new temple at Lower Liangyuan, 2011.

Some of them also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.

Shanxi sect

Sectarian ritual, north Shanxi 2003.

Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).

They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.

The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently.


[1] This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40.

[2] Note Xiao Mei, “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu”, in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003), with DVD.

[3] See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.

[4] See ibid., n.40.

The Daoists of Shuozhou, Shanxi

I’ve just added a substantial “page” on the Shuozhou Daoists.

If you recall, it was my film and book on the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao who were my original inspiration for this whole blog. Just in case anyone supposes that they are an isolated case, I keep meaning to write a lengthy, detailed article about Daoist ritual activity elsewhere in north Shanxi—but for now, here’s a little introduction to the Shuozhou scene, to whet your appetite (or not). While provisional, it will serve mainly to hint at the riches of Daoist lineages, ritual life, and manuals in this region.

Wang band

Introduction: Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity.
1 Shuozhou: 1.1 The Zhou lineage of Gengzhuang; 1.2 The Wang lineage of Muzhai; 1.3 Wang Huarong; 1.4 The Zhang lineage of Shentou.
2 The Pinglu region: 2.1 The Li lineage of Front Anjialing; 2.2 The Yang lineage of Hancun.
3 Yingxian: the Qinglongshan Daoists.
4 Rituals and ritual segments: 4.1 A village funeral; 4.2 Another funerary Hoisting the Pennant; 4.3 Other funerary rituals; 4.4 Rituals for the living.
5 Ritual soundscape.
6 Ritual manuals.
7 Preliminary hypotheses.

New paperback out!


Just received the new paperback edition of my 2010 In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and very handsome it looks too. Which is the main thing…

Apart from addressing a vast area of ritual practice that has hitherto been neglected, I haven’t yet noticed scholars taking on board a basic point, that besides our usual image of household Orthodox Unity Daoists, household (not just temple-dwelling) Complete Perfection Daoists are also common.

Do rush online and buy it! LOL

Casing the joint: funeral shops

Arriving in a county-town in China in search of leads to ritual activity in the area, far more promising than becoming ensnared at the Bureau of Culture is to visit the funeral shops (shouyidian, zhizhapu, and so on).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Some are actually run by yinyang household Daoists. In Yanggao town, Li Bin’s shop is just one of around half a dozen funeral shops, of which several others are also run by yinyang. Daoists also have many such shops in Tianzhen and Shuozhou county-towns.

Tianzhen funeral shop

Funeral shop in Tianzhen county-town.

Those run by shawm bands tend rather to provide a complete service for weddings—still in Yanggao, Yang Ying and his relatives have a thriving business in Gucheng south of the county-town.

Yang Ying shopfront

The most remarkable concentration of funeral shops I have seen in the region is in Yingxian. All along East Street, just east of the famous Liao-dynasty pagoda and all the tourist tat, over fifty such shops line both sides of the long road.

Yingxian funeral shops

For more photos from north Shanxi, see Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.93–4.

Whoever runs such shops, they all have close contacts with both ritual specialists and shawm bands, as well as geomancers, cooks, grave-diggers, and so on. They can soon tell you the best bands, and when funerals are coming up.

All this makes platidinous banquets with local cultural officials pleasantly superfluous.

Catholics of north China

One theme of Ian Johnson’s new book The souls of China, also shown in his youtube clips, is the resurgence of Christianity.

For an introduction to Catholicism in north China, see

  • Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: tragedy and hope in an emerging civil society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

For Shanxi, I already mentioned a Catholic village in Xinzhou. Villages just south in central Shanxi are the subject of

  • Henrietta Harrison, The missionary’s curse and other tales from a Chinese Catholic village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013)

Talking of Catholicism in Shanxi, after William Hinton’s remarkable Fanshen, on the land reform in Longbow village in Changzhi municipality, southeast Shanxi, it comes as a surprise to learn in his sequel Shenfan that around 20% of the village’s 2,000 population is Catholic; in nearby Machang the figure is over 80%.

Hinton’s daughter Carma continued his work with some fine films.

As ever, we should bear the whole religious context in mind. South Shanxi is also a focus for studies of the “music households” (yuehu), mainly shawm bands with strong ritual connections. [1] And again, household Daoists are common (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp. 85–7).

Hebei is also a hotbed for Catholicism. I discuss the Gaoluo Catholics in a separate page.


[1] Xiang Yang (2001) Shanxi yuehu yanjiu, Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2001; Qiao Jian, Liu Guanwen, and Li Tiansheng, Yuehu: tianye diaocha yu lishi zhuizong, Nanchang: Jiangxi renmin chubanshe, 2002.

Daoist ritual in north Shanxi

*Government health warning: this post is guaranteed joke-free*

For Daoist ritual in north Shanxi, in addition to my works, and those of Wu Fan, the recent book of Chen Yu 陈瑜 is useful:

  • Jinbei Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 晋北道教科仪音乐研究 (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2015).

It provides details of groups in the counties of Yanggao, Datong xian, Guangling, Hunyuan, Tianzhen, Shuozhou, Yingxian, Shanyin, and Xinzhou, going beyond Part One of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China.

While written in the dry format of Yuan Jingfang’s “music-genre” system (see my book, p. 365), it gives details of ritual sequences, beyond the narrow pigeonhole of “music”.

Notably, for scholars of ritual texts, Appendix 5 (pp.282–377) contains a useful collection of manuals from various groups.

One little caveat: the title of the opening manual in the Li family collection is a fiction. Lacking a title on the cover (or any memory of one), they call it “hymn volume” (zantan ben), as I explain in my book (pp.208–9, 375); while it does indeed contain many texts related to the yankou, Chen’s title is made up.

There is still plenty more to explore in the region—even the Shuozhou Daoists deserve a multi-volume study of their own.