In the Great Bear mountains of China’s Hunan Province lived a respected Daoist priest, ordained in 1946, who served his local community with ritual expertise. The community knew Master Jiang was coming to the end of his life, and his death early this year brought about an intense six-day ritual-filled funeral bringing this poor community together in mourning and celebration.
Photographer Nick Otto heard about the coming funeral from a friend who has spent significant time studying Chinese religion, and Otto did everything he could to get there from his home in San Francisco. “When an opportunity comes up to be a part of something so personal and traditionally so important it is impossible to pass up,” Otto said. “As the world grows more connected, local traditions will be lost or forgotten. I want to bear witness and document these traditions.”
The ceremonies would start each day around 7 a.m. and go until 11 p.m. “The whole process is so complicated right down to the art and writing on the walls,” Otto said. “Each day there were numerous ceremonies. Some were simple chants performed by other Daoists, some involved the family members walking in circles around the closed coffin, and others still involved the summoning of gods.”
Born in July 1928 and ordained in 1946, Master Jiang became the most respected Daoist priest in his locale despite never having traveled more than a few miles outside his rural hamlet, according to David Mozina, an assistant professor at Boston College. “He served as the mentor to the Daoists priests who officiated at his funeral,” Mozina said.
For Otto, U.S.-focused news misses the mark when it comes to telling China’s story:
“What we hear about China in the news, especially here in the U.S., are narratives about it being a growing economic power and having military strength. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of China is still poor. So much of what stays with me from the time I lived in China are the people and experiences outside of the cities.”
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