Daoist Priests of the Li Family
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Daoist Priests of the Li Family

Ritual Life in Village China


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By Stephen Jones
416 Pages
January 2017
ISBN 978-1-931483-34-6


Complementing the author's moving film Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist -- to watch, click here, https://vimeo.com/155660741 -- this engaging and original book describes a hereditary family of household Daoist priests based in a poor village in north China. It traces the vicissitudes of their lives—and ritual practices—over the turbulent last century through the experiences of two main characters: Li Manshan (b.1946), and his distinguished father Li Qing (1926–99).

A social ethnography of ritual specialists and their local patrons, the work anchors in their changing ritual performance practice. The book combines local social history and biography, evoking the changing ritual soundscape and the continuing vibrancy and relevance of the Daoists’ performance. Jones reflects on the inspiration of fieldwork, giving a unique flavor of rural life in China today. A vivid portrait of a rapidly changing society, Daoist Priests of the Li Family will fascinate anthropologists, scholars of Chinese religion, world-music aficionados, and all those interested in Asian society.


Stephen Jones has been documenting local Chinese ritual traditions since 1986, going on to hold research posts at SOAS while working as a violinist in London early music ensembles. He is also author of  Folk Music of ChinaPlucking the WindsRitual and Music of North China (two vols, with DVDs), and In Search of the Folk Daoists of North China. He has known the Li family since 1991.


Stephen Jones offers a sophisticated, yet intimate and highly readable portrait of a family of Daoist priests in northern China. Based on an astounding quarter century of following the Li family of Yanggao County, Jones provides the sort of rich texture that nonfiction writers of all stripes strive for, but rarely attain. Punctuated with wry humor and deep compassion for his subjects, Jones has created a masterpiece that blends fast-paced history and deeply observed descriptions of ritual. —Ian Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Beijing correspondent 

Here is an indispensable and exemplary ethnography of Daoists in northern China. It is indispensable as an insight into northern Chinese rural life as well as into the family of a band of house Daoists. No other work shows us this ordinary but neglected side of rural China. It is exemplary because while written in an accessible, indeed a breezy style, it is full of precise descriptions of rituals and accurate history of changes, revivals, and foreshortening of ritual practice. Written by a musician and a participant in those rituals, it is complete as no other description of Daoist ritual has been. The film accompanying the text, already full of pictures, is a wonderful complement.—Stephan Feuchtwang, London School of Economics

Stephen Jones has for over twenty years been bringing entirely new knowledge on lived and performed Daoism in northern China. This book, and the companion film, abundantly display the best features of his previous work: warmth toward the people he studies, amazing sense of humor, thick ethnography in a historical context, and a knack for conveying the beauty of rituals. It also breaks new ground with a focus on one family tradition and its texts, which allows him to approach that grail: giving a comprehensive, all-rounded description of everything Daoists do. —Vincent Goossaert, Professor of Daoist Studies, EPHE Paris