39. The Li Priests

A group of priests specializing in Daoist rituals, notably funerals, are the members of the Li family from Yanggao 陽高 county in Shanxi, one of several local ensembles. Lay practitioners who have transmitted their art over many generations, they call themselves yin-yang to indicate that they traverse the worlds of the living and the dead.

The current patriarch is Li Manshan 李滿山 (b. 1946), a versatile musician and experienced ritual specialist who stays close to his native village and pays little attention to material possessions. He learned his skills from his father Li Qing 李清 (1926-1999), an awesome musician on the mouth-organ as well as an impressive master of performing rituals and vocal liturgy. The next generation is led by Li Manshan’s son Li Bin 李斌 (b. 1977), who moved to the county seat so his own son could get a better education and is expanding the group’s clientele to city dwellers.

Their main skills involve fortune-telling, scripture recitation, and music—the latter being what catapulted them into national and international recognition, giving performances in Carnegie Hall and all over Europe. Locally they serve after a death has occurred. They site the grave using a Feng Shui compass and determine the most auspicious time of burial with the help of the deceased’s eight characters. They decorate the coffin with hand-drawn efficacious talismans, usually on the third day after the death, a process that may take up to seven hours. Before the actual funeral, they decorate the soul hall, commonly the living room in the deceased’s home, and also provide all the paper artifacts that will accompany him to heaven: houses, cars, feasts, money, and more. Li Bin and his wife make these paper replicas in their funerary shop in town, while back in the village Li Manshan’s wife helps out with sundry tasks.

At the actual funeral, which lasts several days, they dress up in formal Daoist gear, complete with mortarboard hats, to play numerous tunes, commonly lasting from 15 to 30 minutes each and often accompanied by the chanting of relevant scriptures. They do this throughout the entire liturgy, from Announcement through Opening Scriptures, Thanking the Earth, Inviting Deities, and Transferring Offerings all the way to Burial. On occasion, Li Manshan writes out magical symbols on red strips of paper used to seal the coffin. In between bouts of music, the Daoists rest.

Li Manshan’s band consists of six players, mostly family members but also including Wu Mei 吳美, who as a teenager found himself fascinated by the profession and asked to become Li Qing’s disciple. He is now the group’s star player, a virtuoso on any instrument who often plays solos. Instruments include different kinds of drums, gongs, cymbals, conches, clarinets, mouth-organs, and strings. The tunes, often discordant and haunting, convey messages to the divine, including the announcement of the death, the desire for deliverance into an immortals’ heaven, and blessings for the descendants.

For their national and international performances, they choose an adapted program, beginning with an opening procession around the hall onto the stage, using mouth-organ rather than the traditional percussion for Opening Scriptures. Then, feeling that the mournful cadences of the initial piece that lasts seventeen minutes may be to heavy for the uninitiated, they just sing the first three couplets. Next come an abbreviated version of a long mouth-organ suite, followed by the uproarious Catching the Tiger sequence. Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, finale of the Transferring Offerings ritual, makes a rousing percussion interlude, and they conclude with a rather short version of a medieval hymn, leading into the final Chasing Round the Five Quarters.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2jmjxxRXBI&t=6s



Read: Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York: Pantheon Books.

Jones, Stephen. 2017. Daoist Priests of the Li Family: Ritual Life in Rural China. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Three Pines Press.