The Genesis of the Yao Dao Project

The Yao Dao Project was born on a Saturday morning, on January 31st, 2015, at the Starbucks of the HKU Main Library. That day, introduced by the anthropologist Gonçalo Santos, Joseba Estevez and David Palmer met to discuss their respective projects in Laos and China, and they initiated their highly fruitful collaboration. David invited Joseba to present and discuss his ongoing research and projects in Laos, started in 2009, at Hong Kong University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong to a wider audience of scholars of Daoism and Chinese religion. The resulting discussion provided the necessary grounds to consolidate the basis of the Yao Dao Project and short-, middle-, and long-term agendas. Experts with whom we have consulted have joined the Yao Dao Project as its international advisory board. In turn, Joseba invited David and Martin Tse to visit Luang Namtha, Lao PDR, to attend a Lanten Daoist ordination. After this field trip, which took place in August 2017, various research proposals and clearer road map for the Yao Dao Project ensued.

The Yao Dao project builds on the first in-depth social anthropological study of the lived ritual tradition of a Lanten Yao community in the holistic context of its social, ritual, and economic life, conducted from 2010 to 2020 in Laos by Joseba Estevez. His doctoral research on the role of ritual experts among the Lanten of Laos “Conquering Demons, Taming the Forest: The Ritual Roles of the Lanten Priests and Masters” was conducted through his training in the social anthropology of Southeast Asia under the supervision of Josephus Platenkamp (University of Münster, Germany). The field research conducted among the Lanten of Luang Namtha brought to light the focal importance of the manuscripts and oral stories in the Lanten ritual system, and, thus for the reproduction of the social and cosmological orders of the Lanten society as we know it today.  During his primary research, funded by the German Research Foundation (2011-2015; DFG Projektnummer 183877994), Joseba Estevez acquired rich anthropological data about the Lanten culture, socio-cosmos, kinship and exchange systems, and especially about the ritual system, gaining over the years of extensive fieldwork a comprehensive view of the role of the Lanten ritual experts, namely priests and masters. Various other grants (e.g., Fritz Thyssen Foundation, IP@WWU) supported further research in Laos. Joseba  Estevez has been adopted as a member of the Lee clan and his master-father Lao Lee arranged the ceremony granting him his ritual name Lee Dao Tong 李道通 and ‘spirit-armies’ as part of his initiation ceremony and ritual training.

David A. Palmer, trained in the anthropology of Daoism and Chinese religion under Kristofer M. Schipper at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, is recognized worldwide as one of the leading authorities on the anthropology of Chinese religion. This project continues his research programme on the transnational transmission and influence of Daoism in non-Chinese or non-Han social and cultural contexts (See Dream Trippers and “Occulting the Dao“). The current project extends the transnational approach to ethnic minorities on the China-Laos-Vietnam borderland. This project also builds on the integrated textual and anthropological approach Palmer has developed in his study of Chinese communal ritual, through field research on the ritual tradition of a locality in Yingde county in northern Guangdong, culminating in a forthcoming monograph in Chinese on Civil and Martial Altars in a South China Ritual Tradition. The latter monograph is co-authored by Martin Tse, who is co-leader of the Yao Dao Project.

The first achievement and cornerstone of the Yao Dao Project was the consortium established through an MoU signed in Laos between the University of Münster, the University Hong Kong, and the National Library of Laos (2016-2021). This first accomplishment grew into the successful framework that has nurtured the various projects in Laos and the ongoing research on the Yao Mun.

The research on the Yao Mun

The research on the ritual experts in Laos conducted by Joseba Estevez became the foundation for the various projects presented on this website (see Manuscripts and Oral Stories). The first research collaboration funded by HKU was the seed grant “Daoism, Chinese imperial power and borderland local society: the case of the Lanten Yao in Laos” (Palmer PI and Estevez Co-I; 2017-2018). This project pushed forward the research in Laos with a multidisciplinary approach to the Lanten society and ritual system, opening comparison with other Lanten societies inhabiting the emerging ‘Golden Quadrangle’ development region.

The enhanced understanding gained thanks to this seed fund resulted in a major grant by the Hong Kong General Research Fund on “Daoism, Ethnic Identity, and State Socialism: the Lanten Yao on the China-Vietnam-Laos Borderland” (GRF grant no. 17609218; PI Palmer, Co-Is Estevez, Mark Meulenbeld, Lin Chen-yuan, and Tam Ngo; 2019-2021).

Various grants enabled the Yao Dao Project to hire its in-house research teamincluding the Hong Kong Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship “Daoist Ritual, Local Society and the State: Ethnography, Text and Theory” (2019-20; PI: David A. Palmer).

The project Rituals and Manuscripts of the Lanten (Yao Mun)” (2021-2024 Palmer PI, Estevez Co-I), funded by the General Research Fund of Hong Kong, marks the current phase of the research.

In July 2023, as part of a project directed by Prof Hanno Lecher, Heidelberg University, Estevez digitized the Yao Manuscripts Collection curated by the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS). This project was funded by the endeavour “Investigation and digitalization of valuable Chinese folkloristic artefacts and documents in overseas collections”, directed by Prof Xiaobing Wang, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China.

Martin Tse was engaged in the Yao Dao Project from its early beginning. His  research has focused on the Lanten mortuary death rituals (‘assault on hell’) and the ordination ceremonies, which are the focus of his PhD thesis. 

An Wei, Helen Fu, and Guo Huiwen  produced the database of Lanten manuscripts and have been carrying the essential task of transcribing and studying the selection of living ritual manuscripts in use employed in the ceremonies studied by the Yao Dao team. Zhang Mengting works in close collaboration with Joseba Estevez in the creation of maps on the Lanten historical migrations, distribution of population, and conceptual maps on the socio-cosmos.

The ongoing project has enabled team members to conduct observations, interviews and audio-visual documentation based on their different specialties and interpretive angles. It has also enabled the start of the transcription of selected Lanten manuscripts employed in the ceremonies attended by the team and those of especial significance.

The irruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing international lockdowns resulted in the postponing of various planned field trips to China and Vietnam. The team members overcame the challenge caused by the pandemic by focusing on the extensive and exhaustive audio-visual library of rituals, the completed digital library of Lanten manuscripts, and by resorting to social media to keep close contact with the informants and collaborators in Laos. Construction of a database on Lanten manuscripts has advanced including key ritual manuscripts, summaries, emic explanations, and analytical descriptions. The temporary lockdown provided the team members with a unique opportunity to organise workshops and seminars, submit proposals, and work on publications.

Meanwhile, the training of various ritual experts and informants in new technologies, including using smartphones and social media, presented its fruits as it allowed us to maintain the close connection with our Lanten informants and collaborators in spite of COVID-19-related national lockdowns and international flight restrictions.

The Yao Dao Project is also incorporated into the collaborative projects of “Infrastructures of Faith: Religious Mobilities on the Belt and Road” (Collaborative Research Fund, 2019-2022) and “Global China Local Cultures” (RGC Research Fellowship, 2021-2025). Through these grants, the Yao Dao Project is researching how new infrastructures of the BRI being built in the region of the field site, including highways and high-speed railroads, are affecting religious circulations and map onto the old migration routes of the Lanten across the boundaries of China, Vietnam and Laos. We will also investigate how the Lanten and the inhabitants of Luang Namtha respond to the forces of Chinese modernity that are increasingly transforming the economy and culture of northern Laos.