Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

Our material on ritual groups in north Shanxi relates mainly to the area east and south of Datong city. But Zuoyun county, just west, has potential—indeed, the whole area west of Datong would be worth exploring.

The scant ICH material is full of the usual flapdoodle. Exceptionally, whereas north Shanxi is dominated by Daoist groups, Zuoyun appears to belong to a Buddhist tradition.  Such groups are rare—for Yanggao, I could only give slender clues to Buddhist temple monks on the eve of Liberation (my book, pp.50–51); so far I have only introduced the Buddhist “scripture stalls” of Yangxian in south Shaanxi. Household Buddhist ritual—in inverse proportion to the historical ratio of Buddhist to Daoist temples—is always a small part of the folk ritual scene compared to Daoism, but it is worth looking out for.

However, it is too early to assess the scene around Zuoyun county. Typically, the material focuses on a single grand temple, the Lengyan si 楞嚴寺. The temple has a clerical staff performing daily liturgical services, but instead the “genre” is conveniently packaged  merely as instrumental “temple music”. Such temples are inevitably co-opted into the patriotic agenda of the ICH and the state. This short documentary from 2014 (first on the list, 14.59) is most unpromising (always beware when you see a music-stand!). Indeed, it’s a model of all the faults of the ICH, the awed melodramatic voiceover (standard for all such documentaries) cramming in a wealth of fatuous clichés. Classic “negative teaching material“!

I have a solitary mimeograph from 1979, quite undocumented, called “Performing scores of yinyang in Zuoyun county” (Zuoyun xian yinyang zanzoupu 左云县阴阳演奏谱). These transcriptions of recordings, which are now unlikely to surface, were evidently prepared as a submission for the Anthology, but the volume consists solely of transcriptions of shengguan wind ensemble suites, with no textual explanation whatsoever. If the title is accurate, then it suggests a substantial household Daoist tradition—but I can’t tell, for it might just as well be a Buddhist shengguan tradition. This repertoire was presumably performed either by former monks or by Daoists, but the current group playing for the Lengyan temple all learned since 1979.

Lengyan si

Indeed, before the 1949 “Liberation”, temple and household groups (both Buddhist and Daoist) must have regularly performed rituals among the folk in Datong city itself—as in Beijing and Xi’an. I met former Buddhist monks who had taken part in the ritual band of the Huayan si 華嚴寺 Buddhist temple—which then accompanied its liturgy with shengguan wind ensemble.

Wuzhai and further south
Judging from mainly instrumental pieces transcribed in the AnthologyBuddhist ritual specialists may also be active further south in Wuzhai county, though it is unclear if this material (from the late 1980s) derives from “salvage” fieldwork or a still active tradition. Among those consulted for the Anthology were former temple monks with the intriguing clerical names of Daoxian 道仙 (secular name Zhang Fengming 張鳳鳴) and Daocun 道存 (Bai Shan 白山), as well as Yuan Ying 圓瑛 (Liu Yuanying 劉圓瑛). [1]

Still moving south, the Anthology also documented household “Buddhist” groups in Jingle and (further east) Zuoquan (Luocun 駱村 village) counties. Yet further south in Linfen municipality, the brief paragraph on Xiangfen, Hongtong, and Fenxi counties claims combined Buddho-Daoist (sengdao 僧道) groups. [2]

Daoist groups are very active in south Shanxi— I outlined them briefly in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.85–7.

There’s still a vast amount of fieldwork to be done here. Where there are temple groups, I expect there to be household groups too; and where there are Buddhist bands, there are likely to be Daoist ones too. As usual, our first port of call should be not temples or apparatchiks, but funeral shops.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan p.1550, transcriptions pp.1724–57.
[2] Ibid. p.1550, transcriptions pp.1757–68.