Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen

*** UPDATED!***

I began exploring the false dichotomy between Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi)  and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) branches in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China (note especially pp.17–18). Now that we have more instances, let’s revisit the scene.

A simplistic view still prevails that household traditions of Orthodox Unity Daoists are characteristic of south China, and that the only Daoists in the north are celibate temple-dwelling priests of the Complete Perfection branch in the major urban and mountain temples—a cliché perhaps dating only from 20th-century urban intellectuals, still parroted by scholars of both Daoism and music. Since that myth has been scotched, other scholars have claimed that north Shanxi is characterized by (household) Orthodox Unity Daoists, south Shanxi by (formerly temple-dwelling) Complete Perfection Daoists. We now find this is wrong too—several other counties in north Shanxi are dominated by household Complete Perfection Daoists, just as in south Shanxi.[1]

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t matter! To stress again, it used to be assumed that Complete Perfection Daoists referred to elite monastic ascetics in north China, whereas Orthodox Unity Daoists always indicated household-based folk priests mainly active in south China. But actually in north China there are countless household Daoists too, who may notionally belong to either branch; the rituals they both perform for the folk, and their manual collections, vary by region rather than by any supposed denomination. Moreover, there may have been few temple-dwelling priests of either branch in Yanggao even before the 1950s, but elsewhere in north China there were many Orthodox Unity temple priests too, and temple and domestic rituals might be part of the livelihood of temple priests of both branches.


Frustrated that so few texts from the Li family’s current practice appeared in early sources, I instead began to find many of them featuring prominently in recent collections of texts performed in some of the major Complete Perfection temples since the 1980s. It transpires to be a legitimate and fruitful approach not to reject sources from any nominal affiliation, including those notionally “Complete Perfection” or even “Buddhist”.

Thus we have material on the rituals performed by priests of the major urban and mountain temples today, now mainly Complete Perfection; but the priests of local temples (both Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity) performed rituals too. Before the 1950s there were many more temple-dwelling Orthodox Unity priests than today. The missing link is the ritual practice of temples in the region, of either branch—including those of Hengshan and Datong. Since these temples were hardly active for ritual after the 1940s, we have no material available.[2]

If the issue of Numinous Treasure, Orthodox Unity, ritual as the dominant component of Complete Perfection ritual corpus is little broached, our knowledge of local Complete Perfection ritual is still more hazy. We shouldn’t assume that Complete Perfection liturgy is, or was, entirely standardized; the repertoire might be more so in the elite shifang conglin temples (particularly since the 1980s), but local zisunmiao temples might use regional practices. Texts are more standard than the melodies that animate them. Anyway, if we could, we should study the ritual performance history of local temples because they are nodes, whereas the household traditions are more like branches. Local temples acquired their rituals and manuals from higher-level temples, and trained young novices—many of whom would later return home to set up their own household traditions. All such traditions evolved, and none is “superior,” but the temples should be an important link in the chain. The Li family collection could be that of a modest local regional temple.


Scholars of religion tend to discuss whole ritual segments, ritual manuals, rather than the individual elements within them. But it is not just music scholars who focus on the detail: collections of musical transcriptions from current temple practice reflect the emic views of Daoists themselves (both temple and household) in documenting individual hymns. Since the same text is often used in different rituals, we may call such texts “floating” hymns.

I have consulted modern sources—most of which happen to be notionally Complete Perfection—like those of Min Zhiting for the vocal liturgy of the major Complete Perfection temples;[3] the Xuanmen risong morning and evening services; compilations of “Daoist music” of temples such as Wudangshan in Hubei and Baiyunshan in Shaanbei, and of household Complete Perfection Daoists of Julu in Hebei; and even studies of Hong Kong temple repertoires. One would surely find many of these texts among other Orthodox Unity household Daoists in north China too; still more promising would be collections for Orthodox Unity temples before the 1950s, but material is lacking.

The aim of comparing the Li family textual corpus with such sources is not to show them as deviating from or conforming to some kind of orthodoxy, but to establish some points of comparison that might be quite widely applicable—not some ancient plethora of texts (such as the Daoist Canon), but an influential living tradition that we can link with a particular locale.

Such collections of vocal liturgy are not exhaustive. They mostly contain some of the sung vocal items that Daoists themselves consider most important, but they rarely include chanted or recited sections. Even so, the texts of the Li family immediately collate much more closely with these small samplings of current temple practice than with vast compendia of ancient texts like the Daoist Canon, producing results for the majority of the material that they now perform. In sum, I find more of the Li family texts in modern Complete Perfection temple practice than in the Daoist Canon or the Daozang jiyao; most come from the daily services and the yankou. At least nine of the texts sung by the Li family today appear in the “Orthodox melodies of Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen zhengyun).

This correlation with current temple practice applies not only to the hymns, but to many of the jing scriptures and zhou mantras. But whereas the scriptures and mantras also go back to the Daoist Canon, the hymns rarely do so. Among the texts of the above table of items still performed, I have found only a few solitary parallels in the Canon—which appear in modern temple usage too. Even widening the search from the hymns to the entire corpus of the Li family’s ritual manuals, very few texts appear in the Canon. By contrast, both the current sung repertoire and the former chanted scriptures of the Li family would be quite familiar to temple priests today—the only texts that they might not recognize would be the manuals for some specific rituals. This is hard to assess, since the Complete Perfection material mainly concerns the daily services and the yankou; maybe few Complete Perfection temples performed the types of public ritual used by household Daoists in Shanxi, or maybe we just don’t have the texts in order to judge. Once we accept that Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection texts overlap significantly, we need not be surprised to find so many of the Li family texts in Complete Perfection temple sources.


In areas of north China for which I have information (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China), household Daoists may nominally belong to either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection branches. But such simplistic pigeonholing may distract us from the details of their ritual practice.

In their rituals and ritual manuals I can discern no significant distinction. When the Complete Perfection branch evolved in the 12th century, its priests (both temple and household) took over Orthodox Unity ritual practice: as John Lagerwey once observed to me, “that was the only show in town”. And while a distinct Complete Perfection literature did evolve (see my book, pp.203–207), their ritual practice never developed into a separate corpus of Complete Perfection ritual texts.

That explains why such an august Complete Perfection temple priest as Min Zhiting (see above) was constantly citing Orthodox Unity ritual manuals from the Daoist Canon; and why the best mainstream source for the manuals of the Orthodox Unity Li family household priests in Yanggao is the repertoire of modern “Complete Perfection” temple practice like the Xuanmen risong.

On the evidence to hand, household Complete Perfection Daoists seem rather more likely to recall their place in their particular lineage poem. They may have a clearer family tradition of earlier ancestors having spent time as temple priests. But household Orthodox Unity priests may also possess both these features. Of course the histories of such groups need documenting, but when we come to performance (which, after all, is the heart of ritual) it may be less germane.

And in some places now—since around 2000—the picture is further confused by a certain “centripetal” tendency. With wider access (such as the internet), some groups that have always been Orthodox Unity may be exploring ways of “legitimizing” themselves by seeking manuals from prestigious central sites like the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, and having costumes and hats made which make them appear to be Complete Perfection Daoists. They may even reform their “local” ritual practice by adopting elements from the “national” White Cloud Temple.

The scene is further obfuscated by a tendency among some scholars (both local and central) to assume that if a group is household-based, then they must be Orthodox Unity—a problem I have already queried. We really must debunk this assumption. In my recent posts, the Changwu Daoists turn out to belong to the Huashan branch of Complete Perfection, and the Guangling Daoists appear to come from a Longmen tradition. Actually, this is not so clear-cut—even non-Quanzhen priests might adopt Longmen titles (note sources by Vincent Goossaert cited in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.18 n.34).

So while the ritual texts and ritual sequences of the two notional branches are rather similar, what always makes local traditions distinctive is the way in which the texts are performed.

Li Qing leading the Pardon, 1991. My first visit.

Even here there’s another erroneous cliché that needs debunking. Generations of scholars of Daoist music have parroted the notion that in style the “music” of Orthodox Unity (conceived narrowly as “household” or folk) Daoists is more popular and lively, whereas that of Complete Perfection (again, conceived narrowly as austere monastic) Daoists is solemn, slow and restrained. It derives entirely from an unfounded theory about household and temple practice. We only need to watch my film about the Li family band to realize this simply won’t do. Orthodox Unity Daoists, their basic style (exemplified by the zantan hymns that permeate all their rituals) is extremely slow and solemn—but as you can hear, it is indeed punctuated by exhilarating moments. The style of (household!) Complete Perfection Daoists is certainly no more “solemn”. Both branches may use melodic shengguan instrumental ensemble—and if anything, that of the Orthodox Unity groups tends to be more slow and solemn.

Indeed, when I showed Li Manshan my videos of funeral segments by the Complete Perfection Daoists in Shuozhou, he found their performance “chaotic” (luan). Orthodox Unity groups in Yanggao like that of Li Manshan pride themselves on the “order” (guiju) of their performance.

My only ongoing note on this is that several Complete Perfection groups (such as in Shuozhou and Guangling) may have preserved the element of fast tutti a cappella recitation of the jing scriptures better than in some Orthodox Unity traditions like those of Yanggao. But that doesn’t bear on the false stylistic dichotomy. Like Life, It’s Complicated… We always need to expand our database and use our critical faculties.


[1] Sun and Zhang 2010 (on “Daoist music” in Shanxi) mainly discusses household groups; the only temple group described is that of the Complete Perfection temple of Northern Wudangshan in west Shanxi.
[2] Jones 2010: 17–18, 85, and passim, Chen 2015: 51–90 and passim, and ch. 11 below. For the wider issue, see chapters in Liu and Goossaert 2013, notably Goossaert’s own, pp.19–43.
[3] More work is needed to clarify the basis of Min Zhiting’s writings. His Quanzhen zhengyun (Min 1991) consists of 56 vocal texts from the Sichuan Daozang jiyao, transcribed in cipher notation. Trained in Huashan, he spent periods in the Baxian gong temple in Xi’an, and (from 1946 to 1951) in temples at Wuchang, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, before returning to Huashan, only arriving at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing in 1985. Were the ritual practices, and melodies, of these temples really so unified?