The story appears on

Page A5

March 4, 2017

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » People

Ancient Taoist rituals thrive in modern era

WEDDINGS, birthdays and funerals are big events IN China. In Shanghai’s Chuansha Town and some other rural areas of the Pudong New Area, it is still considered essential to have a Taoist priest perform rites on such occasions.

Born in 1952, Yin Lugen retired at 50 years old during a time when state-run factories underwent a process of restructuring beginning in the late 1990s.

He first worked as a self-employed truck driver before he eventually took up his father’s mantle as a Taoist priest, dedicating himself to the study, research and practice of Taoist rituals and music in order to serve both his community and more distant villages.

Raqs Media is organizing a performance of Yin’s Taoist rites as part of the “51 Personae” project, in which Yin is the last person.

“By that time, my son was married and had a family of his own. The pressure to earn money became less intense. I will literally survive as long as I can get some allowance for doing odd chores around the house,” Yin tells Shanghai Daily.

Taoism is one of the oldest of China’s native religions, and its teachings are still part of the daily lives of millions of people. It can be traced to a 6th-century BC text written by Laozi, the “Dao De Jing” or “Tao Te Ching.” The writings of “Tao Te Ching” promote passive behavior and harmony with nature.

Dao, or the way, is the path to enlightenment. To follow the dao is to recognize the inner harmony and balance in all living things. Chanting and instrumentation are used by priests of Taoism as a tool to achieving the dao.

Power of music

In Taoist ceremonies, music is a key component of the service. The entire dialogue of the ritual is intoned or sung by the priests, and these prayers are always accompanied by music from the dizi (bamboo flute), erhu (Chinese fiddle), drum and bell.

The centuries-old rituals were on the verge of extinction during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) when all old customs, cultures, habits and ideas were denounced. However, they have slowly come back in recent years, especially at funerals.

As a flute player who sets the key tone to the chanting, Yin has his own interpretation and experience of Taoist music.

“Nobody wants to die in desolation, and we all want to be buried in a proper way — whether you are a believer or not,” Yin says. “Taoist music is a way to speak to the gods, to pray for the dead and to relieve the pain of the living, so that an inner harmony is achieved.”

According to Yin, Taoist rituals are called keyi. Ke refers to the scriptures and religious text, while yi is the ceremonial protocol and procedures of the ritual.

There are mainly two kinds of rituals in Taoism — yang rituals for blessing the living, and yin rituals for the deceased. Accordingly, there are two main forms of Taoist music — yang and yin. While yang stands for things male, warm, positive and hard, yin stands for the female, cold, negative and soft.

For example, the “Ode of Wishing for Longevity” is a yang tone that is often used for birth ceremonies in combination with magical instruments such as the qing (bronze bowl) to manifest the power of the goddess Guanyin, one of the deities of Taoism.

On the other hand, “The Immortals” is a yin tone and often used for burial ceremonies in combination with wooden instruments such as the muyu (a Chinese temple block) to mimic the Jade Emperor’s merciful respond to repentance.

“The music in Taoism has rich ethnic style and traditional characteristics. When the melody starts, the atmosphere is solemn and respectful,” Yin says.

According to Yin, the ritual can be performed by one person with one instrument; two persons with two instruments or four persons with four instruments … depending on the patron’s requirements. Grand Taoist rituals of fasts and offerings may need at least a dozen of masters and last for several days or weeks.

Never too late to learn

It wasn’t easy for Yin to learn to practice Taoism in his 50s. Though his father was a veteran Taoist ritual master, he was new to the tradition at the time.

“My father learned the text by heart by mimicking the sound of his master sentence by sentence. He wouldn’t tell what it meant. So I bought several Taoist treatises, such as ‘The Jade Emperor’s Mind Seal Classic’ and ‘The Three Treasures of Immortality.’

“I first copied them word by word, then practiced reciting the sentences with my father to get the rhythms right, until I finally learned the whole text by heart,” Yin says.

“I also play the dizi in the ritual, if people can afford it, for a four-piece performance. The sound of the dizi has been enjoyed by the Chinese for over 2,000 years. I learned the tunes piece by piece with numbered notes and improved my craft while performing at various occasions. There are a lot of varieties due to regional differences,” he explains.

Yin says most Chinese people know very little about Taoist music, even if some pieces are widely used in national or daily ceremonies, banquets and celebrations. One piece that is very often heard is the classic “The Moon Reflected in Two Springs.”

“In my opinion, Taoist music is as good as any other form of Chinese folk music and could be promoted as a kind of New Age music,” he says.


For more information about Yin’s performance, please follow WeChat account dinghaiqiao-.

To watch live broadcast, visit


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend