Since his ordination in 2004, Chen Diwen has put in many thousands of hours of Buddhist funerals and Daoist jiao, and has performed hundreds of minor rites to protect and heal bodies and households. The grueling liturgical work and a continued smoking habit have etched lines into his boyish face and have added pounds to his slight frame. Through all those hours of practice, Chen has continually honed his craft.


"The ordination is just one part of a disciple’s study; afterward one continues to learn. When I first began, I was definitely not so great because I didn’t really know that much. But, as I told you before, we study things from older masters as we do them, and we mimic the things that certain masters do well. These days I’m still mediocre, but I understand a lot and can do most of the rites without a problem."


Chen maintains a sense of humility. He knows he has a long way to go before he will master all the rites in his lineage’s repertoire, especially those not practiced as frequently as funerals or minor rites for exorcising bodies and spaces. But Chen has indeed matured into a seasoned master. These days he performs with a rich, tenor voice that exudes confidence and efficacious power. Master Chen has presence.

Chen Diwen performing a funerary rite in which relatives toast the deceased, 2018.

Like nearly everyone in rural Hunan, Chen Diwen and his liturgical brethren have benefited from China’s breakneck economic development. In 2004, Chen earned ¥40 ($4.90) a day for a funeral, jiao, or minor rite. Now he normally earns ¥180 ($25.50) a day. During a good month, he can make between ¥4000 and ¥5000 ($550 to $700) depending on how many funerals or minor rites he happens to work. But there are frequent dips in demand for liturgical services, and not all households can pay the going rate.


Chen recalls what Li Yezhen taught him about professional etiquette. "When my master was transmitting the rites to me he said, “When patrons give you a red envelope [of cash for payment], you won’t know how much money is in it. You mustn’t immediately look to see how much is there. First finish the ritual, return home, burn some paper money to your ancestral masters and ask them to protect the patrons, to steady their affairs and improve them. Only after may you open the red envelope. Even if the amount is very little you must not complain, for our vocation is a kind of service.”


Although the economics of the liturgical life are not always stable, an ethical code imbues masters with a sense of duty. “We are responsible for developing our tradition in a healthy way down the generations,” Chen explains. “We are responsible for performing each and every rite as well as we can. Every time we perform a rite, we must always do it with sincerity; we must always follow the way our masters taught us. We must not be casual about it lest we suffer karmic retribution.”


This sense of a larger responsibility to the tradition helps mitigate annoyances that inevitably come up in the liturgical life. When asked, Chen Diwen complains that patrons often serve terrible food between rites. Most irritating, some patrons will try to critique masters’ performances. “I don’t like when people casually say that I did not perform a rite well. They are laymen who don’t understand a thing [about the rites]. They just flippantly talk and we feel it’s not fair.” Steadfastness to the tradition must override any indignation. “Regardless of what we like or don’t like, we must earnestly finish the [ritual] affair. This is the ethics of this vocation. Regardless of how people act, we agreed [to their request] and so we must supply good liturgical service.” Ultimately, Chen is a servant of the local community on behalf of the gods in the celestial realm. He willfully keeps that in mind when dealing with the displeasing parts of his vocation.


In January 2008, Li Yezhen died at the age of seventy-four. Since then, whenever Chen Diwen summons the deceased masters of the lineage to witness the rites, and especially when he calls upon the yuanchen before producing talismans, Chen makes sure to employ his master’s heart seal. With a transmogrified brush and ink or with his mind’s eye, Chen inscribes each component of the personal character zhen 真 in his master’s Daoist name while he softly incants,


Within the three realms of the ten directions,                    十方三界內

Lightning from my eyes startles demons and deities.       目電鬼神驚

The great Dao does not serve me alone,                              大道无私服

With a realized heart I arrive at the Imperial Gate.          真心達帝閽

Whenever my heart seal is brought forth,                           凡吾心印到

Generals and marshals appear in their true forms!           將帥現真形


By employing the heart seal, Chen beckons his master to the altar space. Even after death, masters never abandon their disciples. They continue to support them in their liturgical work. With a wistful smile, Chen explains that each time he produces the heart seal he visualizes his old master in liturgical action. “I imagine him as an old man in his home commanding the presence of his thunder generals and marshals to protect [the integrity of] my rites.”


Yin Jiao is, of course, the leading figure in that retinue. He continues to honor his pledge to the lineage. His intimate bond with Chen Diwen is a willful instance of that broader pledge, and the banner he knotted at Chen’s ordination remains the sign of that bond. These days Chen keeps the banner enshrined above his personal thunder altar (leitan 雷壇) in his home. In 2009, he and his wife renovated a house on his family’s plot of land, just down the mountain road from his grandfather’s place, where Chen’s ordination was held. The project was largely financed with money borrowed from relatives and fellow masters in the lineage—the preferred method of financing in the countryside because it is interest free. After completion, Chen immediately reconsecrated his thunder altar by reinstalling Yin Jiao and all the martial deities recognized by the lineage, just as Li Yezhen had done for Chen’s original thunder altar on the final day of his ordination.

The rolled-up banner knotted by Yin Jiao hangs over the niche in the wall enshrining Chen Diwen’s familial and liturgical ancestors. On the shelf beneath the banner sits a photograph of Chen’s great-grandfather, and tablets dedicated to various ancestors. Below are perched the masters who have loomed largest in Chen’s life. To his right, transmission master Li Yezhen is memorialized both in a photograph and in a wooden image, which was carved by Li’s grandson shortly after the master’s death. To the left stands the slightly taller wooden image of Yang Faqing, the deified ritual master who healed Chen as a child and who sat on the main altar at his ordination. The statuette was bequeathed to Chen by his pious grandmother. The wooden images are adorned with layers of red cloth. One band is bestowed each time the deity responds favorably to a prayer. Next to the wooden images sits a photograph of the local danqing who healed Chen’s mental distress while in his twenties.


Each day, Chen Diwen burns incense and paper money to these ancestors and to the martial deities installed at his thunder altar. Each day, he gazes up at the knotted banner in recognition of the intimate bond he forged with Yin Jiao, the leader of that martial retinue. Just as promised at the ordination, Chen venerates Yin Jiao, and Yin Jiao is expected to respond to the master’s ritual summons. During funerals and jiao, Chen calls upon Yin Jiao and his fellow martial gods to protect the altar space, and to ward off demonic influences that might intercept Chen’s written petitions as they are delivered to their celestial destinations. During minor exorcistic rites, Chen produces talismans that directly call on Yin Jiao and his cohort to stand guard over vulnerable households and bodies or to expel demons that might already be causing illness or misfortune. Master and martial functionary collaborate to produce efficacious rites.


The bond between Chen Diwen and Yin Jiao is the cornerstone of Chen’s practice, but a sense of precariousness endures. "I always believed the banner would knot, that I performed well all that my master had taught me, but it is not the same after ordination. Afterwards, people will not necessarily hire you if the rites you perform are not efficacious. For example, since I’ve done many minor rites around here and most went all right, people think I’m OK. So tomorrow some people hired me to do a minor rite. I’ll go to a patron’s house and chant scriptures in the afternoon, and then produce talismans to rid demonic agents in the evening. There’s someone sick in that household. . . . If you perform the rites well, people will definitely help spread word [of your liturgical potency]. So, a lot of people will know who you are, your relations in the community will expand, and there will naturally be more folks who hire you. The opposite is also true!"


The fact that Chen struck a strong bond with Yin Jiao at the ordination gives him a great deal of confidence as a master, but that confidence alone is not enough to secure a livelihood. Observable ritual outcomes, especially of minor rites designed to protect or heal bodies and spaces, are public assessments of Chen’s liturgical work. Patrons care about whether Chen’s performance of the rituals seems to make the situation better. In liturgical terms, those assessments measure the strength of Chen’s continuing relationship with Yin Jiao. Every ritual collaboration carries the possibility that Master Chen, Yin Jiao, or both fail to live up to the liturgical obligations sworn during the ordination. Every ritual carries risk.


Most of the time this risk feels minimal. “Usually I am not anxious because I have memorized the rites well and have prepared well.” Chen does his part in the ritual collaboration; he sincerely performs the rites the way his masters taught him. He expects Yin Jiao to do his part and respond to the ritual summons.


However, at times a feeling of precariousness is more palpable. The Banner Rite is performed during the first day of every Daoist jiao. The head officiant displays his bond with Yin Jiao, thereby renewing the liturgical relationship struck at ordination, and reassuring patrons that the entire jiao will have efficacious power. The officiant gives the entire community an opportunity to re-evaluate his own liturgical prowess. Even seasoned masters feel anxious each time they perform the Banner Rite. Jiang Yucheng confesses, “We are always a little bit nervous when we perform the Banner Rite; we are afraid the banner will not knot well.” Chen Diwen echoes the sentiment, but adds that things have gotten slightly easier for him. “At the beginning [of my career], I was a little nervous when I performed the Banner Rite, but later, after I had done it a few times, I was not as nervous.” Anxiety might lessen with experience, but it never fully subsides.


That anxiety is well founded. In 2014, I attended a jiao offered to the local temple god (miaowang) in thanksgiving for his protection of the people and livestock of a hamlet near Fuqing. The head officiant, a younger master in Chen Diwen’s lineage from the Li clan, dutifully performed the Banner Rite. After an uncomfortably long twenty-four hours, his banner knotted only loosely. The patrons were so dissatisfied that they insisted on paying for only a two-day jiao rather than for the three-day affair to which they had agreed. An intense argument between masters and patrons ensued. The masters argued that a two-day event was not worth their time, and that shortening the liturgical program would rush the event and risk offending the gods. Eventually they settled on a new rate for a three-day jiao. Humiliated, the head officiant struggled through the rest of the program.


Chen Diwen is thankful that he himself has never experienced such a public ritual failure, and that his relationship with Yin Jiao remains strong. The possibility of such a crisis is part of what drives him to hone his craft.

Chen Diwen offering incense and paper money to his ancestors and martial deities at his thunder altar in his home, 2014. Photograph by the author.


Chen Diwen calls back the soul of the deceased at a funeral, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Nick Otto.