Daoists of Tianzhen, Shanxi

In my series on local ritual (under Themes, in main menu) on household Daoists in north Shanxi (including Shuozhou and Guangling (not to mention Yanggao, main subject of this blog), I’ve now added the ritual scene in Tianzhen county. Again, my own notes are supplemented by those of Chen Yu (summarized in her book Jinbei minjian daojiao keyi yinyue, pp.75–9). Still, as always, this outline is provisional, crying out for more detailed fieldwork.

Tianzhen county lies just east of Yanggao, in the far northeast of Shanxi. As early as 1992, when master household Daoist Li Qing—like others in Yanggao, from a notional Orthodox Unity tradition—outlined the main ritual groups in the vicinity, he told me that the Lü family in Upper Yinshan village in Tianzhen were Longmen Complete Perfection Daoists. Not until 2011 did I find the time to visit them. By this time, as Chen Yu and I explored farther afield in north Shanxi, it was becoming clear that household Complete Perfection Daoists were quite common—but as I often note in these posts, geographical proximity is more significant than any notional doctrinal distinctions.

As in Yanggao, Daoists here are known as yinyang. Today there are fewer active groups in Tianzhen than in either Yanggao or Shuozhou. Until they made a base in the county-town in the 1990s, most were based in Upper Yinshan 上陰山 village, in Mixinguan township south of the county-town—just east of the centre of Daoist activity around Upper Liangyuan and Shuangzhai in Yanggao.

The temple connection
Their ritual tradition has a clear origin in the Nanmen si 南門寺 temple in Huai’an county. [1] The temple no longer exists, but was apparently in the old town of Huai’an, not so far northeast of Upper Yinshan. Forebears from all three Daoist families we visited had been given to the temple when young, and shared a common master there—the priest Hao Zhicheng 郝志誠. He later became the resident priest at the Leiyinsi 雷音寺 temple (Tiemiao 鐵廟) on Shentoushan 神頭山 mountain near South Gaoya 南高崖, just east of Upper Yinshan.

According to Zhang Bingwen, the priests at the Nanmen si belonged to the Way of Yellow Heaven (Huangtian dao 黄天道). This was a major sect, indeed founded in Huai’an and active around north Shanxi and the Zhangjiakou region of Hebei (my book, p.45). The priests there (and the sect) used shengguan ritual wind ensemble as well as their vocal liturgy and percussion.

As in Shuozhou, this temple origin is significant, illustrating an important pattern. We heard of no former temples in either Tianzhen or Yanggao with clerical staffs sufficient to perform rituals as a group—most local temples were either unstaffed or had one solitary temple-keeper. However, before 1949 parents might give their young son (typically 7 or 8 sui, sometimes as young as 5 sui) to a temple, where he would spend the next twenty years or so as a priest, becoming an adept ritual specialist—and then return home, have a family, and continue practicing ritual among the folk as a household Daoist, teaching his own sons and establishing a family tradition.

Our work with the three Daoist lineages from Upper Yinshan is somewhat complicated by the fact that relations between them are strained—a not uncommon phenomenon among rival groups in the religious market.

1 Three Daoist lineages

1.1 The Zhang lineage
Zhang Bingwen 張炳文 (or Zhang Bingying 张秉英, b. c1943) is at least the fifth generation of Daoists in his family. He moved to Tianzhen town in about 1999, after a “family dispute”.

TZ Zhang yankou best

1 Zhang Bingwen performing yankou in town funeral, 2011. Yunluo gong-frame on right.

The Zhangs lived in Upper Yinshan from the time of his great-grandfather. Zhang Bingwen’s grandfather Zhang Sheng 張勝 was given to the Nanmen si temple when young, where he learned ritual as a priest, later returning to the laity.

Zhang Bingwen’s five uncles (daye)—in order of seniority Zhang Rukui 張儒奎, Zhang Zhongkui 仲奎, Zhang Zhunkui 俊奎, Zhang Shikui 仕奎, and Zhang Hongkui 宏奎—were all Daoists, as was another bofu uncle Zhang Liyuan 理原.

Zhang Bingwen claimed that the Daoists in Jiajiatun 贾家屯, Jifengyao 季馮窑, and Gudatun 谷大屯 villages, and even the Lü family in Upper Yinshan, all learned from his family.

Bingwen’s father Zhang Jichang 張继昌 (1915–95) was also a Daoist, as is Bingwen’s son Zhang Riyong 張日永 (b. c1972). He is second of five brothers, all Daoists.

1.2 The Lü lineage
As we saw above, the Lü family was our first clue to the ritual life of Upper Yinshan. We talked mainly with Lü Xiude吕修德 (b.1940) and his son Baoshan吕寶善(b.1966).

Lü trio

2 Lü Baoshan, Lü Xiude, and Lü Fushan, 2011.

The family Daoist tradition began with Lü Zongxian 吕宗賢 (1875­–c1939), whose master was Hao Zhicheng. Like Zhang Bingwen’s grandfather, Lü Zongxian was given when young to the Nanmen si temple, later returning to the laity. He studied calligraphy from age 5 sui (presumably when he was given to the temple) and was admired for his characters as well as his ritual practice. But they now know of no Daoist titles (fahao) or generational poem.

Leading Daoist in the next generation was Lü Yuzhang 吕玉璋 (1911–89). To survive, he had spent two years from 18 sui (c1928–9) as temple keeper (kanmiaode) at Qiaoziyan 乔子烟 village just east in Gudatun 谷大屯. A fine interview that he gave in his last year to Yanggao cultural cadre Chen Kexiu shows the depth of his ritual knowledge. Lü Yuzhang’s brother Lü Yuxi 吕玉玺, whom we meet below as a regular member of Ning Zhan’s band, was also active.

Now at last we were chatting to Lü Xiude in his house in Upper Yinshan. He began learning when 8 sui in about 1947. Though not in good health when we visited him, he recalled the Maoist period for us. Peasants then still managed to find enough money to invite Daoists, and the village cadres didn’t interfere; they managed to invite Daoists in the “years of difficulty”—though even the village cadres came to lift the coffin just so they could get some free gao paste to eat. In the Cultural Revolution they handed over some manuals to the Red Guards, but hid some others. I note in passing that political campaigns (both under Maoism and later with the birth-control policy) are said to have been more severe in Tianzhen than in some neighbouring counties. They were inactive from autumn 1963 until 1980.

Lü Baoshan (b.1966) began learning in secret (“under the bedcovers”) with his grandfather when 7 or 8 sui, from about 1972. Around 1999 he moved to Sanlitun 三里屯 village on the edge of the county-town, where his family is busy making paper artefacts for funerals. So now all three families have a base in town.

Lü Baoshan is the oldest son; the second son Lü Fushan 吕福善 (b.1972), who learned from the age of 15 sui, is also part of the band today. Eight of nine regular members are from this family. He recalls a few words of English: red flag, pen, and good morning! Like more and more rural families, they have a computer.

I’ve noted how shawm-band musicians may be recruited to Daoist bands (my book, pp.319–25), but here—unusually—it works the other way round too: Lü Baoshan also sometimes works in a shawm band when the funeral family doesn’t require Daoist ritual.

1.3 The Ning lineage
On our previous visits to the county-town, we had eventually tracked down Zhang Bingwen, but neither he nor the Lü family mentioned the Ning lineage. I only learnt of them through Chen Yu.

Ning Zhan band

3 The Ning family Daoists perform ritual excerpts for Chen Yu in their courtyard, 2010. Photo: Chen Yu.

Ning Zhan 宁占 (b.1928) is remarkable. He and his wife are both in good health; though he’s a dedicated smoker, he’s lively, consulting his almanacs without glasses.

Also based originally in Upper Yinshan, in 1993 they moved to the town to live with the family of his son Ning Yuanheng 宁元恒 (61 sui), who is also a Daoist, as is the latter’s son Ning Peng 宁鹏 (42). Other regular members also include a cousin Ning Runheng 宁润恒 (58) and a brother-in-law Gao Jinyin 高进銀 (55). According to Chen Yu, two family daughters also sometimes took part in the band before they married.

In another common pattern, while the younger Daoists go out on ritual business (yingmenshi, as in Yanggao), Ning Zhan, in his old age, has stayed at home. There, seated calmly on his kang, he’s busy receiving a constant throng of people asking him to determine the date for them. On one early morning visit we spent two hours with him, having to ask our questions in between his predictions for twelve customers, who gave him a total of 130 kuai.

Ning Zhan krz

4 Ning Zhan determines the date.

They’ve even put up a sign in the courtyard:

Old and young alike, please come in and take a ticket
[an eccentric use of the term fahao!]

Again, Ning Zhan told Chen Yu that his grandfather had originally learnt from the priest Hao, either at the Nanmen si temple or after he moved to the temple at South Gaoya.

Ning Zhan himself began learning to write, determine the date, and sing the scriptures from the age of 5 sui, attending private school (sishu) from 7 sui; as usual, he learned the shengguan instruments in his teens. By the time he was 30 sui (1957!) he had a reputation and a fine regular band: Lü Yuxi (see above), and three Daoists from Jifengyao village, Feng Erzhao 馮尔钊, Feng Erming 馮尔明, and Feng Ercheng 馮尔成.

Ning statuette

5 Taiyi zhenren statuette, Ning Zhan, early 1960s.

Ning Zhan still keeps a statuette (rare for north China, I believe; cf. Hunan) of Perfected One of Grand Unity (Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人) which he made in the early 1960s when (briefly) reinvigorating the band after the “years of difficulty”. They were active till the Four Cleanups, but then silent until Ning Zhan’s son Yuanheng revived the band around 1984, giving it the auspicious title Changsheng ban 长胜班 (sounding more like an opera troupe than a Daoist band).

Apart from the sites mentioned above, two further villages formerly had related household Daoist groups: Caijiazhuang 蔡家庄 (two bands) and Chengdagou 称达沟.

2 Ritual practice
As throughout north Shanxi, Daoists used to perform temple, earth, and funerary scriptures (my book, p.25).

Those few temple fairs still held in Tianzhen seem not to invite Daoist ritual. But the senior Daoists of all three lineages clearly recalled the jiao 醮 Offering. As in Yanggao (my book, pp.237–43), apart from distinctive segments like shenwen 申文, yingjing 迎經, and xiewu 謝午, most segments overlapped strongly with those for funerals.

As in Yanggao, they haven’t revived the earth scriptures (tujing 土經: xietu 謝土 Thanking the Earth) since the 1980s, but did so until the 1950s.

2.1 Funerals
So ritual business is now dominated by funerals. The Ning band calls them bao’en jing 報恩經; their fees sounded rather modest, around 80 yuan per person per day, 500 total for the band. But their business wasn’t so regular as the Li band in Yanggao; the extra income from making paper artefacts is welcome, and Ning Zhan does fine solo business determining the date from home.

Still, Lü Xiude and Lü Baoshan gave a rather detailed account of funeral ritual. Their repertory seems similar to that of the Orthodox Unity Daoists in Yanggao just west, but with interesting variants. They described a four-day funeral as if it was still common; in fact they haven’t done it since before 1963, and though 46-sui Lü Baoshan took the lead in describing it, he can hardly have performed it. He gave us this account without consulting any written texts. So his impressive “memory” seems to be based on his recollection of his early training (naigong 奶功, never forgetting what one learnt when young), and his practice until about 1995.

I have given more detailed, and more reliable, accounts of changing ritual sequences for the Li family just west (my book, pp.29–34, 244–52, 343–56), but here’s an outline for Tianzhen.

Former four-day funeral, Tianzhen: account offamily
[public fashi rituals in bold]

Day 1

  • Opening the Scriptures qijing 起經: sing Huanglu zhaiyan 黃錄齋言
  • Reciting Scriptures nianjing 念經: a hymn
  • Fetching Water qushui 取水


  • Reciting Scriptures, two visits


  • Communicating the Lanterns guandeng 觀燈: recite Jiuyoudeng zhenjing 九幽燈真經

Day 2


  • Smashing the Hells poyu 破獄


  • Crossing the Bridges guoqiao 過橋
  • Surrounding the Lotuses weilian 圍蓮; as in Shuozhou, cf. Yanggao Roaming in Paradise (youlian): my book, pp.250–51
  • Chasing the Lanterns paodeng 跑燈

 Day 3

  • Opening the Quarters kaifang 開方 (pao wufang 跑五方)
  • Hoisting the Pennant yangfan 揚幡
  • Judgment and Alms panhu 盼斛 [2] 


  • Invitation zhaoqing 召請
  • Transferring Offerings zhuanxian 轉獻      
  • Releasing Flaming Mouth fang yankou 放焰口; see below
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls song guhun 送孤魂          

Day 4
burial chubin 出殯                           

But as elsewhere, two-day funerals are now standard; in addition to the routine songjing visits (anyway fewer than in Yanggao), the main fashi public rituals only weilian and an optional paodeng. As they commented, this simplification is to do with the rise of pop singers since the 1990s (see my film, from 30.31).

Most ritual segments (Fetching Water, Communicating the Lanterns, Hoisting the Pennant and Judgment and Alms, the Invitation, and so on), and indeed the individual vocal and instrumental items within them, seem to resemble those of Yanggao quite closely.

I’ll just give one tiny hint of local variation—which also shows that even in the absence of ritual manuals, we can still (as long as senior Daoists are alive) recreate ritual texts no longer performed. This is just one example among many in our notes from Tianzhen.

The Lü family recalled a memorial (wendie文牒) once recited for Fetching Water (over successive attempts at transcription we have certainly miswritten some of the characters):

青雲救苦門下牒     恭依
右申    上
井泉龍王通海大神                請

This look rather different both from the prescription for Inviting Water (qingshui 請水) given by Min Zhiting (Daojiao yifan, pp.195–6) and from the memorial that Li Qing copied in his collection of ritual documents (my book, pp.378. Note the term gongshe commune, still in use in the early 1980s when he copied the volume).


6 Memorial for Fetching Water, from Li Qing, Kuwen dai daochang zawen 庫文代道場雜文 compendium.

The Pardon
I have discussed the Pardon in my book (pp.246–50), and in my film there are some precious clips of Li Qing leading it in 1991 (see here). The Lü family performed the Pardon before 1964, but haven’t revived it.

What they do have, though, is some precious old written texts for the ritual: a Taishang Yuhuang shuo shezui 太上玉皇說赦罪 (Yuhuang shezui tianzun shenjing 玉皇赦罪天尊神經) manual (see below), and a template for the memorial (“pardon slips” shetiao 赦條).


7 The Pardon document.

2.2 A funerary yankou
The lengthy nocturnal yankou ritual (cf. my book, pp.225–7) should be performed after Transferring Offerings; the full version lasting around five hours, it would thus go on until well after 3am. But it has long been commonly abbreviated, so again it can’t have been performed in full for many decades.

While we were in Tianzhen county-town, Zhang Bingwen’s band was doing a funeral (for a woman who had died at the age of 96 sui) in the family home off North street. We attended the evening ritual, which turned out to be a yankou (see photo 1 above).

As we approached, deafening fireworks were being set off in the street. While everyone was watching the Jinju opera Wang Baoquan outside on the road (an opera here usually lasts three to five days, costing over 10,000 kuai), Zhang Bingwen’s band settled before the coffin to perform the yankou, for an audience of precisely two: me and my colleague Li Yueshan!

This yankou (which he also calls “scriptures for the rescue from suffering” jiuku jing 救苦經) was a shorter and heavily-adapted version of the Hongyi shishi ritual. Such abbreviation is by no means merely recent—it has a long history in versions like the Mengshan shishi). While conveying the main content, it was full of variety—in its styles of group singing and solo chant, the alternation and combination of singing and shengguan melodic instrumental ensemble, use of percussion and conch, and in its tempi.

Although abbreviation was a long tradition, Zhang didn’t care to tell the host that this was a short version. As he explained to us, it should comprise eight scriptures (jing, here hymns), but tonight they only did four or five. As we saw, Zhang has a manual, but even though the ritual was abbreviated, it is impressive that he has no need to consult it.

There were four sequences, with pauses between them:

  • Cibei zan 慈悲讚, Wujin beitan 吾今悲嘆, Xifang jie;
  • Yuhuang zan 玉皇讚;
  • Shizhang zui 十丈罪 (cf. Yanggao Shi miezui 十滅罪) with coda of Xi xiang feng 西相逢 on shengguan;
  • Greater and Lesser Five Offerings (Wu gongyang五供養) in turn.

3 Ritual soundscape
Apart from the “scriptures” (actually sung hymns) mentioned above, Lü Xiude also listed hymns like Yuqie jing 瑜珈經, Dongji gongzhong 東極宫中, and Xifang jie 西方界, all again standard in Yanggao (my book, pp.261–75).

The Lü family still had an old sheng mouth-organ made not far west in Yanggao by Gao Yong’s grandfather Gao Bin, probably in the 1920s. But for some reason the Tianzhen groups were no longer ordering the wonderful sheng made by Gao Yong. Instead, since about 2002 Lü Baoshan had been buying them from Hohhot; their amplifying pipes are both unnecessary and unsightly.

Their large guanzi oboes are the largest of any we’ve seen in the region. Lü Baoshan still plays a small guanzi that his father made at the age of around 18 sui. From his demonstration of the fingerings, their scale system plainly belongs to the early liuzidiao system (my book, pp.295–6), with the pitch he/liu as the do tonic in the basic scale.

Their hats are of the Complete Perfection style, unlike the “sun-and-moon” hats of the Yanggao Daoists. Both types only last four or five years.

The yunluo gong-frame properly consists of ten pitched gongs in three rows of three, with one central gong at the top, as in Beijing, Hebei, and so on. We saw how the Yanggao Daoists now use only two gongs. In Tianzhen, the Ning family Daoists have all ten gongs, but one row is badly out of tune, so they use seven; the Zhang band also uses seven gongs, one row of three having presumably been lost; and the Lüs now only play a row of three.

As elsewhere in the region, the tradition of shengguan suites has been in decline along with the rituals that require them. But their overall style is slow and solemn, on a par with that of Yanggao.

4 Ritual manuals and paintings
The only ritual manual that we saw in the homes of Zhang Bingwen and Ning Zhan was the Hongyi version of Bestowing Food (Hongyi shishi 鴻儀施食),

Zhang’s copy was written (in very basic calligraphy) by his father since the 1980s—Bingwen can and does perform it for funerals. Ning Zhan’s copy is transcribed in Chen Yu, pp.312–22.

Yuhuang shezui jinhTaishang jiuyoudeng shenjing cover
8 Ritual manuals, 1932.

The Lü family has a fine volume from 1932 (21st year of the Republic) with the two scriptures Taishang jiuyoudeng shenjing and Taishang shuo Yuhuang shezui copied onto the same pages—front and back, beginning from opposite ends, as was common. Again, Lü Baoshan has copied small notebooks with ritual texts (including Thanking the Earth, though they no longer perform it), as well as gongche solfeggio for shengguan ritual melodies and percussion patterns for large cymbals.

The Lüs also used to have god paintings (shenxiang) of the Ten Kings (shidian yanjun 十殿閻君) and the Three Officers (sanguan 三官), hung out for rituals.

5 Conclusion
As ever, the study of such local traditions is enriched by an acquaintance with the broader regional context.

We have another firm temple connection. And while the rituals of the Tianzhen Complete Perfection Daoists have much in common with their Orthodox Unity neighbours in Yanggao, there are a few interesting variations. Their material for the Pardon is rather fuller; and their yunluo gong-frames are more melodic, though still falling short of the complete ten gongs. Otherwise, as I note elsewhere, the main difference lies in their differently shaped hats!

Tianzhen leads us still nearer towards Hebei—the Zhangjiakou region (where Grootaers and Li Shiyu were active in the 1940s), as well as Yuxian and Yangyuan—linking up areas for potential future study of household Daoists.

So far, this tour of north Shanxi surveying Daoist ritual seems to suggest that Orthodox Unity groups like those of Yanggao are outnumbered by Complete Perfection Daoists. But just wait until I’ve marshalled our notes on Datong county—I know, you’re All Agog.

For several visits in 2011, I’d like to thank Li JinLi Yueshan, and Ma Hongqias well as the Tianzhen Bureau of Culture. Chen Yu’s book and fieldnotes also provide useful material.

[1] As I noted in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China (pp.5–6), a si temple may be notionally “Buddhist”, but one commonly finds instances where they were staffed by Daoists.
[2] Here they indeed used the character pan 盼, rather than 判;  see my book, pp.89–91.