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

Ritual Life in Village China

Paperback $42.95, plus S&H PDF download $17

By Stephen Jones
420 Pages
Jan 2017
ISBN 978-1-931483-34-6


Along with Jones' moving film Li Manshan: Portrait of a Folk Daoist -- watch here https://vimeo.com/155660741 -- this engaging and original book describes a hereditary family of household Daoist priests in rural 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).

The story anchors changing ritual practice in the ethnography of ritual specialists and their patrons as they negotiate new challenges, giving a unique flavor of rural life in China today. A vivid portrait of a rapidly changing society, the work will fascinate anthropologists, scholars of Daoism and folk religion, world-music aficionados, and all those interested in Chinese society.


Stephen Jones has been documenting living traditions of ritual and music in rural China 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. .


Stephen Jones offers a sophisticated yet intimate and highly readable portrait of a family of Daoist priests in north China. Based on an astounding quarter century 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, this masterpiece blends fast-paced history and deeply observed descriptions of ritual. — Ian Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Beijing correspondent for The New York Review of Books, and author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (Pantheon, 2017)

This fine ethnography is indispensable as an insight into north Chinese rural life as well as into a family of household Daoists; no other work shows us this ordinary but neglected side of rural China. It is exemplary because while accessibly written, it is full of precise descriptions of rituals and accurate history of changes, revivals, and foreshortening of ritual practice. With Jones’ experience of participating in their rituals, it is complete as no other account of Daoist ritual has been. The online film accompanying the book makes a wonderful complement. — Stephan Feuchtwang, London School of Economics, author of The Anthropology of Religion, Charisma and Ghosts—Chinese Lessons for Adequate Theory (De Gruyter 2010)

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, piquant 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-round description of everything Daoists do. — Vincent Goossaert, Professor of Daoist Studies, EPHE (Paris)

About the Film

Stephen Jones’ wonderful and informative film should be required viewing for anyone interested in the fate of Daoism in modern China. Scenes from the same folk Daoist family over three decades give us a precious window into the life and personality of a Daoist yinyang specialist from north China, as well as those of his father and his troupe members. The film suggests the destruction of the great temples and much of their traditional ritual repertoire under Maoism, but reveals the persistence of Daoist liturgy and the importance of texts (with excellent translations of  hymns and invocations) and music within it. We gain new insights into the evocative, ever-present centrality of the role of writing (of scriptures, talismans, all kinds of calligraphy) within Daoist ritual. The extraordinary landscape of the region plays a powerful role in the film, framing the activities of villagers. — Professor Kenneth Dean (McGill University, Montreal), author of film Bored in Heaven.