The film

Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist

If for any reason the film doesn’t play directly from here, then go to

A film by Stephen Jones; edited by Michele Banal, with funding from the ANR Shifu project (Paris Nanterre).

82 minutes, in Chinese, with English subtitles.

This intimate portrait film explores the life of eighth-generation household Daoist Li Manshan (b.1946), leader of a group of ritual specialists in the poor countryside of Yanggao county in north Shanxi, China.

Using footage mainly from the period since 2011 but also from as far back as 1987, the film shows both Li Manshan’s funerary practice as leader of his ritual group and his solo activities — determining the date for the burial, decorating coffins, and even his work in the fields. We are led into the vocal liturgy, percussion, and melodic instrumental music of their magnificent funeral rituals, learning how ritual practice has changed since the 1930s — and even since the 1990s, under challenges such as migration, the modern education system, and the competition at funerals from pop music.

This moving portrait of the diverse activities of Li Manshan and his group serving their local community in a rapidly changing rural China will fascinate anthropologists, scholars of Daoism and folk religion, world-music aficionados, and all those interested in Chinese society.

  • Here’s a review from Kenneth Dean (McGill University, Montreal), author of the film Bored in Heaven:

Stephen Jones’ wonderful and informative film should be required viewing for anyone interested in the fate of Daoism in modern China. Scenes from the same folk Daoist family over three decades give us a precious window into the life and personality of a Daoist yinyang specialist from north China, as well as those of his father and his troupe members. The film suggests the destruction of the great temples and much of their traditional ritual repertoire under Maoism, but reveals the persistence of Daoist liturgy and the importance of texts (with excellent translations of  hymns and invocations) and music within it. We gain new insights into the evocative, ever-present centrality of the role of writing (of scriptures, talismans, all kinds of calligraphy) within Daoist ritual. The extraordinary landscape of the region plays a powerful role in the film, framing the activities of villagers.

  • And an informal review sent to me by a young scholar, fellow north-China explorer, who may go by the name Absinthe U. Banal*:

Outside the window, snow-flakes fluttered down across the deadened Miskatonic fields. My girlfriend, Rakheth Neanah (Or curséd Egyptian pharaoh? Unscramble the anagram!) and I lay abed on the second floor of a crumbling Arkham farm-house. From the forest beyond the margin of the snowy waste, there came a distant keening. I drew the blinds. “Did you ever finish that film about Daoists I sent you?”

“I’m flying back to Scotland today,” she said, pleadingly.

Watch Stephen Jones’s film Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist if this morning is last morning you’ll spend with your lover for a whole year. Watch Stephen Jones’s film Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist ESPECIALLY if this morning is the last morning you’ll spend with your lover for a whole year. We particularly enjoyed “Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body” (~50:00) and the famous JOKE (~1:21:00). 5/5.

For notes on an out-take, see here.

* * *

The film might also be called

Four funerals and a funeral

Indeed, DO keep watching after the final credits for the celebrated JOKE!

Also trailer here (a handy teaching aid, perhaps?):

or here:

And there’s a DVD of the Li band’s concert performances on stage in Venice and Beijing (such exceptional contexts are discussed in ch.18 of my book):

  • 2014 Folk Daoist ritual music of north China, DVD, Intersezioni Musicali/Fondazione Cini.

Note also the complementary book Daoist priests of the Li family, and numerous vignettes and updates under the Li family category, rounded up here.

*The U. being short for Ulysses, I presume. No relation to the film’s fine editor.