Networks and the “cloudlike wandering” of Daoist monks in China today adeline herrou
Introduction: meet a “wandering cloud” We are in Hanzhong, a small provincial city in Shaanxi, central China.1 It is eleven in the morning, on an ordinary day of the ninth month of the year of the rooster (i.e., October 2005). The monastery door is wide open. You can hear ritual songs from the street: the midday scripture recitation (nianjing) has begun as incense smoke slowly spreads. A man in his thirties walks down an alley beside the temple. He is wearing a dark blue robe that reaches halfway down his calves, along with white leggings and cloth shoes. His hair is tied under a black silk cap that has an opening on top for the bun pinned with jade. This is how locals identify him as a Daoist monk (Buddhist monks have shaved heads and wear orange, gray, or saffron robes). The man leans on a stick that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a long wooden flute. He has no luggage, but the fact that he asks directions from the elderly people chatting in front of the mah-jong game house suggests that he is not a local. He continues on his way, at one point stepping aside to avoid a motorcycle that rushes past, and he eventually arrives at the temple. He stops in front of the porch, where a wooden inscription set high up identifies the place of worship. It is the Wengong Temple (i.e., Wengongci daoguan), the Daoist temple dedicated to the eponymous god, the famous Han Yu (of the Tang dynasty), the god of the Southern Gate of Heaven (Nantianmen). Following the locals’ advice, the man enters through a small door; it is not the main entrance, but it is the one most used at this temple. For geomantic reasons (in order to face South) this temple has its back turned on the town. To use the big door, damen, you have to go around to the other side. In the courtyard, two women sitting on low stools peel and thinly chop potatoes and Chinese cabbage. At the other end of the patio some lay people are sitting on a bench talking, while a monk works away writing Chinese characters in black ink on a red cloth. Under a canopy facing the first cult hall, the newcomer kneels on a small round cushion covered with raffia patchwork. Through the laths of the openwork windows he catches a glimpse of the great god Xuantianshangdi, “Supreme Lord of the Dark Heaven.” The monk avoids looking into the statue’s eyes as he bends forward, joins his hands at brow level and stoops in front of it. He taps his forehead
on the ground, ketou, three times before standing up and walking over to the monk who is writing characters. The monk puts down his brush and stands up when he sees the newcomer approaching. The two men bow face to face in greeting, their hands joined at heart level. Only a follower could distinguish the yinyang diagram in the interlacing of the fingers, the sign of the supreme pinnacle. The ensuing exchange is brief:
Figure 5.1 Daoist monk writing at his desk.