Ways of portrayal

It is symptomatic of the plight of Daoist ritual studies that while scholars doubtless have thousands of hours of precious video footage, we have hardly any edited films in the public domain. Published instead are many thousands of pages of silent texts.

This also relates to the problem of ancient history trumping modern ethnography (see Debunking “living fossils”). With a bit of ingenuity it is disturbingly possible to edit film so as largely to conceal the intrusions of modern society. So without really trying, my film brings to the fore many issues emerging in the book.

Scholars of Daoism might even do their best to censor images of Li Manshan smoking, though it would take some doing… They would exclude pop music, such an obvious feature for ethnographers, as well as mobile phones and motor-bikes—all the messy realities that impact on the Daoists’ ritual life. And references to recent migration, state education, and political vicissitudes might also not appeal to such scholars.

So the film warns against idealizing Daoist ritual—against the tendency to portray it as a manifestation of ancient oriental wisdom, adrift from social change.