The book

The film complements my new book (Three Pines Press, 2016, 416 pp.). You can order it here.

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Here’s a review by the erudite John Lagerwey, from Religious studies review 43.3 (September 2017):

This is a beautiful book that takes us into the living heart of village Daoism like no other. It is unique for its close-up narrative of the history of all the Daoist priests in a single village in northern Shanxi, for its insight into ritual change since 1949, and, perhaps most important of all, its account, accessible to rank amateurs like myself, of Daoist music. All of us who study Daoist ritual know how central music is to the story, but, musical illiterates that most of us are, we cannot read—and therefore avoid—the many professional accounts of Daoist music. Here at last, by a person who is himself an accomplished violinist, we have an introduction that everyone can appreciate. How important this is may be illustrated by two facts: the first is one demonstrated by Jones himself, namely, that the Daoist priests in the region where he has worked are also the Daoist musicians. While this is not quite as unique as he suggests—it is also true, for example, of the Daoists of Taipei in Taiwan—the brilliance and centrality of their music may not only be experienced through the online videos that accompany the text, one can sense it through Jones’s affectionate descriptions, of which I will give just one example. During the funeral ritual, writes Jones, a Daoist holding flag, bell, and conch stands facing the kneeling kin; “A final verse leads into a hectic chanted coda, until time stands still for Golden Noble’s desolate free-tempo solo singing of a sequence of ‘Vowing with hearts at one we Invite’ verses, sounding the bell as he sings.” Particularly noteworthy for those of us who have worked primarily in the South is the centrality of the sheng mouth organ: “The sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the sixth century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches.” We may add, second, that, in ancient China, the Master of Music was also Minister of Education. All of this suggests that the Daoism of North China may have preserved key features of the very earliest forms of state organization that are indispensable to an “insider’s” understanding of what the word “China” might mean. The entire book interweaves equally accessible descriptions of key rituals with accounts of the men performing them. Here, too, there is nothing comparable in the literature: where most ethnographers of Daoist ritual are only interested in the ritual filiation of the priests they study, Jones is interested in them as persons, and follows them through the extraordinary vicissitudes of life in China since “liberation” for purveyors of “superstition.” The simple humanity of these people in the face of persecution under Mao, their capacity for adaptation, and their devotion to quality performance even in the face of the gathering ignorance and indifference of their audience in contemporary China are all made even more palpable by Jones’s intimate, jocular relationship with them. Jones’s work is a model we can share with our students of what is meant by “participant observation.” Finally—and this is something Jones insists on regularly throughout— even though he does his best to trace what he observes back in time, at least to the eighteenth century, his primary goal is not ritual archaeology or “salvage ethnography” but the description of a ritual moment in a specific time and place, and of the changes he has himself observed over the last forty years. As already suggested, the losses imposed by Maoist suppression are in fact less dramatic than those that result from the dying village society of post-reform China. But Jones wishes to carry this one step further, reminding us that change is a permanent fact of every society, and so “we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction.” Much could be said about this statement, but it must be left for another time and another place.

  • For the Yanggao Daoists in the context of ritual in north China, see my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (Ashgate, 2010, also with DVD).
    In Chinese, see also
  • Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang 阴阳鼓匠 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2007);
  • Chen Yu, Jinbei Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 晋北道教科仪音乐研究 (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2015).