Thoughts arising from screening Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist

By Stephen Jones

I had a wonderful time with the Li family Daoist band on our 2013 tour of Germany and our last concert was here in Erlangen—so it was very nostalgic for me to come back! I was happy to revisit the film in the company of the CAS-E participants, and found the comments stimulating—the following notes are mainly compiled in response, often with links to my website. You will find a useful roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists here.

Film Poster

Let’s start with a basic query concerning the wider relevance for a non-specialist audience. I mentioned outsiders’ clichéd notions of China, mainly the Red Guards destroying all traces of religion; now, perhaps, skyscrapers and shopping; conversely, the old orientalist trope of ancient reclusive mysticism. My film shows another little-known side of China,“not some exotic remnant of ancient oriental wisdom”, but the everyday concerns of poor people in the villages, the embedding of Daoist practices to help people adjust to life and death.

And while I resist hiving off “music” (and “religious music”) as a topic to be studied separately from ritual, a glib media image of Chinese music might be a glamorous musician on the concert platform playing secular, romantic, mellifluous, short modern solos. By contrast, the film illustrates the vocal liturgy, with gutsy wind and percussion ensemble, always based in ritual, that are common throughout rural China.

Thus two leitmotifs of my research make a kind of contrary wish-list. I like to remind scholars of ritual that soundscape is crucial: sound (vocal liturgy, melodic and instrumental music) is the means through which silent texts are animated. Conversely, I remind scholars of music that it’s a social activity in which ritual plays a major role, so we must pay attention to the changing social context (relevant posts listed here)

Li Qing presides over the Pardon ritual, 1991                                                                                       Li Manshan leads the band on procession, 2011

As to future prospects, new generations may be reluctant to take up the trade of yinyang: parents (including Daoists) naturally want their children to do well in school, find a secure well-paid job in town, and get urban registration, whereas working as a Daoist is a tough life, with long days in poor demoralised villages, for a rather small fee (see here).

But an even more insoluble issue is that their patrons are disappearing—these villages are themselves moribund, emptying out under the phenomena of urban migration, popular media, state education, and upward mobility.

Li Qing copying ritual document, 1991 & Li Manshan preparing texts for Hoisting the Pennant ritual, 2012

Diaries are instructive, for Li Manshan and his son Li Bin.

Golden Noble recites the Invitation, 2012

Other themes include ritual change in the area and the wider social context in Yanggao county—including a series on women.

Li Manshan decorating coffin, 2015

We mentioned the old topos of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. I don’t quite know how all this might bear on Esotericism. Studies of Daoist ritual in south China seem to place a disproportionate weight on “secret formulas”, cosmic visualizations, and initiation of priests, inherited from classical sinology. This is surely less evident to the ethnographer in the field, certainly in the north Chinese countryside, and part of my “mission” is to remind people that the ritual work of a household priest is often rather mundane.

The study of Daoist ritual is so highly specialised that I feel it’s unfortunate that the vast corpus of research is largely an autonomous zone, hardly accessible even within the wider field of religious studies, and rarely engaging with the ethnography of changing modern society.

Li Qing on sheng, 1991

The importance of the wonderful sheng mouth-organ is discussed here.

Improving communications: mobiles and motor-bikes, 2011

For those seeking other ritual groups in north China, many fieldnotes are rounded up here.

Pondering the emphasis on fieldwork (as opposed to “silent, immobile old books in libraries”), one important element in my relationship with Li Manshan—besides our mutual veneration for his father Li Qing—has been staying at his village house every time I came since 2011, following him around everywhere (determining the date and burial site, decorating coffins, leading the funeral band), chatting at leisure, being with the family. And it’s been useful, not to mention inspiring, to take part in the band occasionally (“participant observation”), when they’re one short and really desperate—which is eerily reminiscent of my lifelong experience as an orchestral violinist!


Stephen Jones is an independent scholar who has been doing fieldwork on living traditions of ritual and soundscape in rural north China since 1986. He has published six books on the topic, as well as several documentaries.


CAS-E blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgment: “This article was published by CAS-E on June 6th, 2024.”

The views and opinions expressed in blog posts and comments made in response to the blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of CAS-E, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated.


Image 1: Film poster (Photo by the author)

Image 2: Li Qing presides over the Pardon ritual, 1991 (Photo by the author)

Image 3: Li Manshan leads the band on procession, 2011 (Photo by the author)

Image 4: Li Qing copying ritual document, 1991 (Photo by the author)

Image 5: Li Manshan preparing texts for Hoisting the Pennant ritual, 2012 (Photo by the author)

Image 6: Golden Noble recites the Invitation, 2012 (Photo by the author)

Image 7: Li Manshan decorating coffin, 2015 (Photo by the author)

Image 8: Li Qing on sheng, 1991 (Photo by the author)

Image 9: Improving communications: mobiles and motor-bikes, 2011 (Photo by the author)


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