Shamans of China


Folk Religion in China

(13558 words 26.05.05)
Spiritual beliefs and superstitions still abound in China even though they are frowned upon and in some cases suppressed by the authorities. Ancient rites and customs thrive in almost every village, town and city across China, There are literally millions of ancestral shrines and temples honoring local heroes, important ancestors, and local deities, as well as important figures in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Folk religions can vary a great deal from region to region and even individual to individual. Arguably they are strongest in rural areas, especially places left out of the economic boom, where people need something to help them deal with the frustrations of the modern world and fill the emptiness left behind by Communism’s ideological demise.

While Confucianism and Taoism have traditionally been popular with the Chinese upper classes, folk religion has traditionally been popular with the Chinese masses. Over the years, Chinese folk religion has absorbed and assimilated elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and they in turn have absorbed and assimilated elements of Chinese folk religion. Each often relies on practitioners of the others to perform its rituals and organize events.

Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions ( See Taoism). Confucianism also incorporates some folk beliefs such as ancestor worship. Buddhism has been influenced by local religion too. In some cases local Chinese gods have been transplanted on Buddhist ones.

World religions (percentage of practioners in the world) : 1) Christianity (33 percent); 2) Islam (20 percent); 3) Non-religion and atheism (15.4 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhism (6 percent); and 7) Other (7 percent).

Scientists and scholars have’devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese folk religion, superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Kinds of Folk Religion in China
Folk religion is alive in various forms of magic and sorcery, the worship of personal household gods, personalized spirits, and ancestral ghosts, and the rituals of antler-headed shaman and local holy men. Shamanism and animism have persisted, especially in the countryside. For many Chinese, Confucianism is unsatisfying because it doesn’t supply answers to the questions of the afterlife. Taoism has many elements found in Chinese folk religions.

Animist and shamanist groups and cults have had large following throughout China’s history. The Quietists were famous for incorporating trance and ecstacy techniques in their religious rituals. The “Yellow Turbans” roused the peasant masses in A.D. 184 into believing that world was going to end and “blue heaven” was going to be replaced by “yellow heaven.”

Shamanism is China’s oldest indigenous belief system. It is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shaman rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines and in village homes.

Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means “agitated or frenzied person” in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors. Shaman have traditionally had a serious illness followed by a a deep religious experience before they become shaman.

Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets the shaman will die.

Animism is also practiced in China. It refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima, the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.

Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too—mountains, special rocks and landscape formations—have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive’dies its spirit has to go somewhere.

Ancient Texts and Shamanism in China

According to a 4th century B.C. Chinese text Discourses of the State, “Ancient men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below and their insight [enabled them] to illuminate what is distant and profound Therefore the spirits would descend into them.”

“The possessors of such power were, if men call xi, and if women, wu,” the text continued. “It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters.”.as a consequence the spheres of the’divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessing on the people, an accepted from them offerings. There were no natural calamities.”

Ancient historical texts described shamanist rituals in southern China in the forth century B.C. that honored mountain and river goddesses and local heros with erotic ceremonies that climaxed with fornication with the gods. The following poem describes such a ritual, performed by men and women shaman, who wore colorful clothes and doused themselves in perfume:
Strike the bells until the bell-stand rocks!
Let the flutes sound! Blow the pan-pipes!
See, the priestess, how skilled and lovely!
Whirling and dipping like birds in flight.”.
I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of heaven;
I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine.
Then holding my reins I plunge’down to my setting.

Becoming a Shaman and Shaman Techniques

Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an “other world;” 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.

Ancient shaman likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Ancient Chinese believed that there ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments.

The status of individuals in ancient China was determined by the perceived degree of his or her association with the supernatural. Ancient li rituals were used to communicate with spirits and promote harmonious relations in society. These tituals were held at ancestral shrines and meetings with rulers and vassals.

Shaman in Taiwan

Jonathan Adams of New York Times met with Chang Tin a jitong, or Taiwanese shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station. In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits. [Source:Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man seek help from Chang told the New York Times,”The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.” [Ibid]

Most often, Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk. Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the third prince), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy. But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her. [Ibid]

“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples” questions, she said. When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.” She says she’does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.” My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said. [Ibid]

In an interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she’did not choose it. “When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds, she said. They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.” When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she’did. [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual in Taiwan

One Sunday a month Chang invites those contacts to her office for an openspirit medium session. The’day that Adams visited she answered petitioners’ questions as several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts. Her office’door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway. As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Describing a shaman ritual, Adams wrote in New York Times, “After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left.”.Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.” [Ibid]

“A visibly relaxed Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease. [Ibid]

The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking. i Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on the other side. Give me your heart, and I’ll open it, Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman.””That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously. “I was just kidding; only you can open your heart, Ji Gong said. If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.” [Ibid]

Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual, and gently upbraided the man.” Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese’dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.” [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual Adapted to 21st Century

Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, told the New York Times that forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to private practice, often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

In the southern Taiwanese village that Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none. Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service, Ting said. But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized. But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks. [Ibid]

Chang is one of a small number of people who aremaintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income’derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters. To keep her clients abreast of what is happening she regularly sends out text messages to about 300 people. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old. [Ibid]

Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted. She said that these’days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness. So now they give a different type of guidance, she said. The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Chinese Creation Story

According to the most accepted version of the Chinese Creation story, before heaven and earth were created everything was vague and amorphous. The Great Beginning produced emptiness and from this emptiness the universe was created. Everything that was clear and light rose to form heaven and everything that was heavy and turbid became the earth. [Source: Huai-nan Tzu, reprinted in the People’s Almanac]

The combined essences of heaven and earth became the yin and yang, the concentrated essences of the yin and yang became the four seasons, and the scattered essences of the four seasons became the creatures of the world. The hot force of accumulated yang produced fire and the essence of the fire force became the sun; the cold force of the accumulated yin became the water and the moon. What was left over from the excess force of the sun and the moon became the stars and planets. Heaven received the sun while the earth received the water and soil.

“When heaven and earth were joined in emptiness and all was in simplicity, then without having been created, things came into being. This was the Great Oneness. All things issued from this oneness but all became’different, being divided into various species of plants, animals, birds, fish and beasts. When something moves it is called living, and when it dies it is said to become exhausted.”

See Taoist Creation Theory, Taoism

Yin and Yang

The concept of yin and yang, which literally means “dark side” and “sunny side,” is sometimes attributed to the forth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Tsou Yen, but it seems likely that the idea had been around for at least two thousand years before that. Yin and yang are thought of as two opposing forces—male and female, positive and negative, strong and weak, and light and dark—that are also attracted one another, with yang being male, strong and light and yin being female, weak, and dark. Each force needs the other to define itself and the interaction of yin and yang is believed to influence’destinies and things. [Source: World Religions, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

The classic Chinese scholar Liu Zi explained yin and yang this way: “When the yang has reached its highest point, the yin begins to rise, and when the yin has reached its greatest altitude, it begins to decline. And when the moon has waxed to its full it begins to wane. This is the changeless Rao of Heaven. After the year’s fullness follows decay, and the keener joy is followed by sadness. This is the changeless condition of man.”

Yin is generally perceived as a negative force while yang is seen as a positive force Some gods are shown carrying a demon trap, which is used to catch the five noxious creatures of yin forces: centipedes, spiders, snakes, geckos and toads. Tigers are seen as powerful yang animals and they can be used to dispel negative yin forces. The heavenly dragon represents the power of heaven and is regarded as the yang force in its highest form.

Some Asians have used the concept of ying and yang to justify a hierarchal order of the human world and argue that social classes are the basic order of society and not subject to change.

Spiritual Beings in China

Chinese generally recognize three’different kinds of spiritual beings;
1) ancestors, generally benign dead relatives;
2) ghosts, the angry souls of people who died in accidents or without getting married; and
3) gods, in many cases the souls of dead people who lived such meritorious lives they developed spiritual powers which they can use to help others.

One Asian scholar told National Geographic, “The best educated and the illiterate alike, believe exactly what the emperors believed. They believe in the morality propounded by Confucius. They are in awe of vague Buddhism. Above all, they bow to the spirits of their ancestors and to many others; to the spirit of great men; to the spirits of the sky and the fields, of the trees and of the animals; to the spirits good and evil and changeable in between.”

Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. Ghost are regarded as dangerous, particularly to children. They bring sickness and other problems. Great effort is made to avoid creating ghosts. If someone’dies in an accident or is unmarried at the time of their death efforts are made to appease them so they do not cause trouble for the living. Seasonal rituals are held to appease them. God are generally honored and petitioned for help in various matters.

“Ghosts” are souls that remain on earth harassing and causing trouble for the living. They are thought to be souls that failed to reach the afterlife because of some problem they encountered on their journey; a lack of a proper send off by their living relatives on earth; or tragic circumstances surrounding their death or life. Special rituals are often held to send these ghosts to their afterlife’destination. See Ghosts, Superstitions

Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include
Shou Hsing (God of Longevity),
Fu Hsing (God of Happiness),
Lu Hsing (God of High Rank),
Tsai She (God of Wealth),
Pao Sheng (God of Medicine),
Ju Lai Of (God of Luck),
Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility),
Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates.
Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.

Local Deities in China

Guanyin (Kuanyan), the Goddess of Mercy, is arguably the most popular deity in China. Found in Buddhist and Taoist temples and on family altars at home, she is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is usually represented sitting on a lotus blossom. The lotus symbolizes purity because it grows from dirty water without getting dirty.

Guanyin is believed to have been a real person who lived in southwestern China around 300 B.C. and was killed by her father because she refused to marry the man he wanted her to marry. According to legend, after she’died she transformed hell into paradise and was permitted by the God of the Underworld to return to earth. During her nine year stay on earth she performed many deeds and miracles, including saving her father.

Guan Yin was originally the God of Mercy. He became the Goddess of Mercy after the introduction of Christianity to China as an answer to the Virgin Mary.

The god Fachu is worshiped by people who are recovering from an illness or who want to succeed in business. He is particularly revered by tea merchants. On Fuchu’s birthday worshipers go to a temple and present his image with two red “turtle” rice cakes that represents payment plus interest for a wish granted in the previous year.

The Goddess of the Sea—known as Matsu or mazu in Fujian Province and Taiwan, and Tianhau in Hong Kong and Guangdong—is popular in coastal areas. Many Chinese fishing vessels carry a shrine to this goddess, who, according to legend, was originally a real young girl who used her powers to predict the weather and save fishermen from storms. Thousands visit a shrine’dedicated to her on Meizhou Island.

The Dragon King is a popular deity in Shaanxi Province. A visitor to a temple honoring the god told Newsday, “I pay respects to the Dragon King. If you have a problem, you come here and cast lots. That can tell you how to solve your problems.

In the village of Xialing in Guangdong Province, peasants make offerings at roadside altars to wooden images of the Heaven Mother and the King of Three Mountains. Villages say the gods are not connected to Taoism or Buddhism but are local deities that “bring the village prosperity, harmony, wealth and strong children.”

Many households have statues or other objects associated with deities. These objects are not regarded as bought but rather are “invited” into one’s home in the belief they will bring good fortune.

Chinese Spirits

The writer and dissident Liao Yiwu met one man in prison who was there because he burned is wife alive, convinced he was possessed by an evil dragon. The man converted to Christianity and prayed everyday, “hoping that evil dragon will not come back and harm people again.”

Some villagers say that ghost no longer exist because Mao got rid of them in 1957. Even so, to hedge their bets perhaps, they wear charms with clusters of old coins. “The more coins the more you can avoid unclean ghosts,” one village women told the writer Amy Tan.

Many Chinese believe in animals spirits. The fox spirit is particularly well known. So too are the rabbit and snake. Some people protect their house from the fox’s influence with a circle incense.

Many Chinese believe that certain people have the ability ro see the spirit world. Clairvoyants are called mingbairen, “those who understand.” They were’discouraged in the Mao era but have made a comeback in recent years.

Chinese Temples

Chinese temples are often comprised of many buildings, halls and shrines. They tend to be situated in the middle of towns and have north-south axises. Large halls, shrines and important temple buildings have traditionally been dominated by tiled roofs, which are usually green or yellow and sit atop eaves decorated with religious figures and good luck symbols. The roofs are often supported on magnificently carved and decorated beams, which in turn are supported by intricately carved stone’dragon pillars. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

Pagodas are towers generally found in conjunction with temples or viewed as temples themselves. Some can be entered; others can not. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the heavens were round and the earth was square. This concept is reflected in the fact that pagodas have square bases rooted to the earth but have a circular or octagonal plans so they look round when viewed by the gods above in the sky.

In the Mao era, temples were often used as storehouse for the local production team. Since Mao’s death many temples have been reclaimed for religious observances and thousands of new temples, many devoted to local gods in rural areas, have been built. More than 1,300 temples were built in Shaanxi province alone in the 1990s.

In many cases, these temples have not only become a place to worship but have become a center of social and welfare activity. The Black Dragon Temple in Shaanxi, for example, sponsors deforestation and irrigation projects, builds schools and provides assistance for the poor.

Chinese Temple Features
Many temples have courtyards. Often, in the middle of the courtyard is a small bowl where incense and paper money are burnt. Offerings of fruit and flowers are left in a main hall at the intricately-carved altars, often decorated with red brocade embroidery with gilded characters.

Traditional Chinese temples contain wall paintings, carved tile walls and shrines to gods and ancestors that in turn are wonderfully decorated with wood carvings, murals, ceramic figures and plaster moldings with motifs that the Chinese regard as auspicious.

On the outside of temples there are often stone walls with simple carvings; gates with statues of fanged, bug-eyed goblins, intended to keep evil spirits away; and monuments of children who displayed filial piety to their parents and virgins who lost their fiances before marriage but remained pure their entire life.

Wealthy Chinese temples often contain gongs, bells, drums, side altars, adjoining rooms, accommodation for the temple keepers, chapels for praying and shrines devoted to certain deities. There is generally no set time for praying or making offerings—people visit whenever they feel like it—and the only communal services are funerals.

At Chinese temples orange and red signifies happiness and joy; white represents purity and death; green symbolizes harmony; yellow and gold represents heaven; and grey and black symbolize’death and misfortune. Swastikas are often seen on Chinese temples. The Chinese word for swastika (wan) is a homonym of the word for “ten thousand,” and is often used in the lucky phrase “chi-hsiang wan-fu chih suo chü” meaning “the coming of great fortune and happiness.” See Hinduism, Buddhism

Chinese Temple Practices
Busy Chinese temples are smokey places crowded with people lighting bouquets of smoking joss sticks, saying prayers, leaving jade orchid blossoms as offerings, throwing sheng bei (fortune-telling wooden blocks) and donating ghost money to variety of ancient gods in return for things like good luck on the lottery, good scores for children on important exams and good business.

Temple goers burn fake money for longevity and set fire to paper cars and TV sets at funerals. In 1995, the Chinese government banned the practice of burning money during ancestor worship ceremonies because the custom was officially deemed a fire hazard and a superstition.

K’o t’ous (kowtows) are bows performed as acts of worship. Worshipers at local temples for the Dragon King bow three times before an image of deity, place incense sticks before it, cast lots of numbered bamboo sticks and make’donations. Pilgrims visiting temples sometimes line up and stop every few steps and bow.

Temples in China are not good places to visit if you have respiratory problems: burning incense coils, some of them 50-feet in length when unraveled, hang from the ceiling; joss sticks smoke away in urns; and pieces of ignited rice paper are tossed into the air by worshipers.

In January 2006, 36 people were killed in an explosion when devout Buddhists in the central province of Henan burned incense and prayed at a temple near warehouse storing firecrackers, igniting the fireworks.

Mountains and Religion in China
Mountains are important in China’s religions. The Kun-lun Shan, a range of mountains in northern Tibet, is where Taoists believe paradise can be found. The Kimkang mountains in Tibet are an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. China has five sacred mountains, and many Chinese hope that in their lifetime they can climb all five. Most of these mountains have stairways to the summit, where there are nice views and noodle stands and postcards-selling monks.

Taishan (near Qufu) is China’s most sacred mountain and one of China’s most popular tourist sites. Revered by Taoists and Confucians, it covers an area of 426 square kilometers and is 4,700 feet high. Many emperors came here to make offerings and pray to heaven. Poets and philosophers drew inspiration from it. Pilgrims prayed on an alter said to be the highest in China.

Confucius is said to have climbed Taishan and proclaimed “I feel the world is much smaller” when he reached the top. The Emperor Wu Di ascended it in his quest for immortality. Taishan means “big mountain” or “exalted mountain” It is the eastern peak among the five holy mountains associated with the cult of Confucius. The five peaks represent the’directions—north, south, east, west and central—and Taishan is considered the holiest because it is in the east, the’direction from which the sun rises. For many Chinese it is like Mecca. Climbing it is as much a nationalist and spiritual experience as a recreational one.

Hermits and Chinese Religion
Hermits have lived in the mountains since ancient times. There are Taoist and Buddhist ones as well as one ones with closer affiliations to traditional Chinese folk religion. But they are not limited to Taoists or Buddhists. Poets, political figures and average people have also been hermits. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

Hermits are “unique images that ancient Chinese culture has nurtured. [They] represent Chinese people’s pursuit of an ideal way of life,” the writer Zhou Yu told the Global Times. “Their lifestyle is completely self-supporting, without demanding too much from the outside world.”.”For hermits, to live a secluded life and practice Daoism or Buddhism is not solely about ‘benevolence,’ but living a real, simple life—What they do is to make their heart bright, clear and natural,” explained Zhou, who is also editor of Wendao (Seeking Way), a magazine’dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture. [Ibid]

In recent years, more and more people have become interested in the exclusive life led by the hermits in Zhongnan Mountain, especially following the publication of books such as Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by American author and translator Bill Porter in 1993. [Ibid]

Attraction of the Hermit Lifestyle and Zhongnan Mountain
Jiang Yuxia wrote in the Global Times: “Cherishing his reverence and curiosity for Chinese hermits, writer Zhou Yu was eager to change his fast-paced urban life. He thus embarked on a journey, in the spring of 2010, to seek hermits in the legendary Zhongnan Mountain, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Also known as Taiyi or Difei Mountain, Zhongnan Mountain is a section of the Qinling Mountains with the reputation of “Fairyland,” “the first paradise under heaven” and a home to hermits for over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Taoism founder Laozipreached scriptures and nurtured the idea for his classic work Tao the Ching here. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

“Everyone wishes that he or she has the chance to get to know about his or her own life again and the lifestyle of hermits provides us another picture. . . When they realize that they need to make adjustments to their lives, they go to the mountains to seek them,” Zhou said. However, he added, real hermits don’t have to live in mountains. “If you don’t have peace and quiet in your heart, you cannot have tranquility even if you live’deep in the mountains.”.Start with the simplest practice: To get to know your needs and desires, and find a proper position for yourself. If you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city.”

Taoist Hermit
After traveling to Zhongan Mountain Zhou came across “Hermit Ming,” who has resided in a thatched valley cottage for a decade, living an ascetic and self-sufficient life. Although Ming does not meet the typical image of ancient hermits, his unique lifestyle, both traditional and modern, and charisma aroused Zhou’s interest enough for him to stay and turn the story of his solitary life into his latest book, Bai Yun Shen Chu (“Deep in the Clouds”). [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

“Hermit Ming lives in the mountain not only to practice Taoism, but to have a place where he can live a life in which he can face’disputes peacefully,” Zhou wrote in the book. “Only in this way are his mind and body able to grow like trees and flowers to show their natural side.” Ming’s daily routine, according to Jiang, consists of: “an early morning start to do chores including hoeing weeds, tilling land and picking herbs; two meals a day, snack and tea at lunchtime, dinner at four; then a walk before settling down to read sutras or do other chores.” By sunset he returned home, “falling asleep to the sounds of springs, wind and birds.” [Ibid]

“Born into a wealthy South China family of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for generations,” Jiang wrote, “Ming was beset with strict rules, complex relationships and feuds among family members from a young age. After witnessing a series of mishaps and the’death of his mother at eight, Ming left his family at 17 and began his long-cherished dream of traveling around the country to seek answers to the many questions that had bothered him, including life and death. With only an aluminum mug and two lighters, Ming traveled all the way to Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei and other provinces before he finally settled down at Zhongnan Mountain.” [Ibid]

“In the valley, he built his own cottage with help from other hermits and villagers living at the foot of the mountain, spending time growing vegetables, practicing Taosim and doing his chores. Unlike those secluded hermits recorded in old books, Ming is unconventional: He’does not reject the outside world or its civilization. He has a telephone at his place to keep contact with other hermit friends while they travel around and is skilled at riding a motorbike. He has shared quarters with a female hermit for a decade. Ming has explored as far as Nepal to have a look of the outside world and is friendly to unexpected, curious visitors.” [Ibid]

According to Ming, “the major reason that we have too many agonies is because we receive too much information and we are not good at dealing with it properly. Then you become unhappy.”. When you live in the mountain, you have time to think about problems.” Ming’s lifestyle has also evoked Zhou to ponder modern urban life and even seek a way out. “In our life, most of the time we are asking for things from others to satisfy our endless demands. Hermits, however, are the other way round,” Zhou said. “I found the possibility of a [new] lifestyle. When we feel bothered, we begin to examine our lives and ask ourselves if there are chances to change it. To some extend, many hermits in Zhongnan Mountain can be called seekers of a new lifestyle.”

; Asia Obscura ;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2011 [1]

Wu-shamans as healers

Chinese wu 巫 “shaman” occurs over 300 times in the Chinese classics, which generally date from the late Zhou and early Han periods (6th-1st centuries BCE).

The belief that demonic possession caused disease and sickness is well documented in many cultures, including ancient China. The early practitioners of Chinese medicine historically changed from wu 巫 “spirit-mediums; shamans” who used divination, exorcism, and prayer to yi 毉 or 醫 “doctors; physicians” who used herbal medicine, moxibustion, and acupuncture.

As mentioned above, wu 巫 “shaman” was depicted in the ancient 毉 variant character for yi 醫 “healer; doctor”. This archaic yi 毉, writes Carr (1992:117), “ideographically depicted a shaman-doctor in the act of exorcistical healing with (矢 ‘arrows’ in) a 医 ‘quiver’, a 殳 ‘hand holding a lance’, and a wu 巫 ‘shaman’.” Unschuld believes this 毉 character depicts the type of wu practitioner described in the Liji.

Several times a year, and also during certain special occasions, such as the funeral of a prince, hordes of exorcists would race shrieking through the city streets, enter the courtyards and homes, thrusting their spears into the air, in an attempt to expel the evil creatures. Prisoners were dismembered outside all gates to the city, to serve both as a deterrent to the demons and as an indication of their fate should they be captured. (1985:37)

Replacing the exorcistical 巫 “shaman” in 毉 with medicinal 酒 “wine” in yi 醫 “healer; doctor” signified, writes Schiffeler (1976:27), “the practice of medicine was not any longer confined to the incantations of the wu, but that it had been taken over (from an official standpoint) by the “priest-physicians,” who administered elixirs or wines as treatments for their patients.”

Wu and yi are compounded in the word wuyi 巫醫 “shaman-doctor; shamans and doctors”, translated “exorcising physician” (De Groot 1910), “sorcerer-physician” (Schiffeler 1976), or “physician-shaman” (Mainfort 2004). Confucius quotes a “Southern Saying” that a good wuyi must have heng  “constancy; ancient tradition; continuation; perseverance; regularity; proper name (e.g., Yijing Hexagram 32)”. The (ca. 5th century BCE) Lunyu “Confucian Analects” and the (ca. 1st century BCE) Liji “Record of Rites” give different versions of the Southern Saying.

First, the Lunyu quotes Confucius to mention the saying and refer to the Heng Hexagram:

The Master said, The men of the south have a saying, Without stability a man will not even make a good shaman or witch-doctor. Well said! Of the maxim; if you do not stabilize an act of te 德, you will get evil by it (instead of good), the Master said, They (i.e. soothsayers) do not simply read the omens. (13/22, tr. Waley 1938:77)

Confucius refers to a Yijing line interpretation of the Heng “Duration” Hexagram (tr. Wilhelm 1967:127-9): “Nine in the third place means: He who does not give duration to his character meets with disgrace.” In Waley’s earlier article about the Yijing, he translated “If you do not stabilize your “virtue,” Disgrace will overtake you”, and quoted the Lunyu.

“The people of the south have a saying, ‘It takes heng to make even a soothsayer or medicine-man.’ It’s quite true. ‘If you do not stabilize your virtue, disgrace will overtake you’.” Confucius adds 不占而已矣, which has completely baffled his interpreters. Surely the meaning is ‘It is not enough merely to get an omen,’ one must also heng ‘stabilize it’. And if such a rule applies even to inferior arts like those of the diviner and medicine-man, Confucius asks, how much the more does it apply to the seeker after [de] in the moral sense? Surely he too must ‘make constant’ his initial striving! (1933:136-137)

Boileau contrasts Siberian and Chinese shamanic medicines.

Concerning healing, a comparison of the wu and the Siberian shaman shows a big difference: in Siberia, the shaman is also in charge of cures and healing, but he does this by identifying the spirit responsible for the disease and negotiates the proper way to appease him (or her), for example by offering a sacrifice or food on a regular basis. In archaic China, this role is performed through sacrifice: exorcism by the wu does not seem to result in a sacrifice but is aimed purely and simply at expelling the evil spirit. (2002:361)

Wu-shamans as rainmakers[edit]

Wu anciently served as intermediaries with nature spirits believed to control rainfall and flooding. During a droughtwu-shamans would perform the yu  “sacrificial rain danceceremony”. If that failed, both wu and wang  “cripple; lame person; emaciated person” engaged in “ritual exposure” (Schafer 1951) rainmaking techniques based upon homeopathic or sympathetic magic. As Unschuld (1985:33-34) explains, “Shamans had to carry out an exhausting dance within a ring of fire until, sweating profusely, the falling drops of perspirations produced the desired rain.” These wu and wang procedures were called pu / “expose to open air/sun”, fen  “burn; set on fire”, and pulu 暴露 “reveal; lay bare; expose to open air/sun”.

For the year 639 BCE, the Chunqiu records, “In summer, there was a great drought” in Lu, and the Zuozhuan notes a discussion about fen wu wang 焚巫尪:

The duke (Xi) wanted to burn a wu and a cripple at the stake. Zang Wenzhong 臧文仲 said: this is no preparation for the drought. Repair the city walls, limit your food, be economic in your consumption, be parsimonious and advise (people) to share (the food), this is what must be done. What use would be wu and cripple? If Heaven wanted to have them killed, why were they born at all? If they (the cripple and the wu) could produce drought, burning them would augment very much (the disaster). (tr. Boileau 2002:363, cf. Legge 1872:180)

The duke followed this advice, and subsequently “scarcity was not very great”.

The Liji uses the words puwang 暴尪 and puwu 暴巫 to describe a similar rainmaking ritual during the reign (407-375 BCE) of Duke Mu 穆公 of Lu.

There was a drought during the year. Duke Mu called on Xianzi and asked him about the reason for this. He said: ‘Heaven has not (given us) rain in a long time. I want to expose to the sun a cripple and what about that?’ (Xianzi) said: ‘Heaven has not (given us) rain in a long time but to expose to the sun the crippled son of somebody, that would be cruel. No, this cannot be allowed.’ (the duke said): ‘Well, then I want to expose to the sun a wu and what about that?’ (Xianzi) answered: ‘Heaven has not (given us) rain in a long time but to put one’s hope on an ignorant woman and offer her to pray (for rain), no, this is too far (from reason).’ (tr. Boileau 2002:364, cf. Legge 1885 1:201)

Commentators interpret the wu as a female shaman and the wang as a male cripple.

De Groot connects the Zuozhuan and Liji stories about ritually burning wu.

These two narratives evidently are different readings of one, and may both be inventions; nevertheless they have their value as sketches of ancient idea and custom. Those ‘infirm or unsound’ wang were non-descript individuals, evidently placed somewhat on a line with the wu; perhaps they were queer hags or beldams, deformed beings, idiotic or crazy, or nervously affected to a very high degree, whose strange demeanour was ascribed to possession. (1910 6:1194)

Wu-shamans as oneiromancers

Oneiromancy or dream interpretation was one type of divination performed by wu 巫. The Zuozhuan records two stories about wu interpreting the guilty dreams of murderers.

First, in 581 BCE the lord of Jin, who had slain two officers from the Zhao (趙) family, had a nightmare about their ancestral spirit, and called upon an unnamed wu “shaman” from Sangtian 桑田 and a yi “doctor” named Huan 緩 from Qin.

The marquis of [Jin] saw in a dream a great demon with disheveled hair reaching to the ground, which beat its breast, and leaped up, saying: “You have slain my descendants unrighteously, and I have presented my request to the High God in consequence.” It then broke the great gate (of the palace), advanced to the gate of the State chamber, and entered. The duke was afraid and went into a side-chamber, the door of which it also broke. The duke then awoke, and called the witch of [Sangtian], who told him everything which he had dreamt. “What will be the issue?” asked the duke. “You will not taste the new wheat,” she replied.

After this, the duke became very ill, and asked the services of a physician from [Qin], the earl of which sent the physician [Huan] to do what he could for him. Before he came, the duke dreamt that his disease turned into two boys, who said, “That is a skilful physician; it is to be feared he will hurt us; how shall we get out of his way?” Then one of them said: “If we take our place above the heart and below the throat, what can he do to us?” When the physician arrived, he said, “Nothing can be done for this disease. Its seat is above the heart and below the throat. If I assail it (with medicine), it will be of no use; if I attempt to puncture it, it cannot be reached. Nothing can be done for it.” The duke said, “He is a skilful physician”, gave him large gifts, and send him back to [Qin].

In the sixth month, on the day [bingwu], the marquis wished to taste the new wheat, and made the superintendent of his fields present some. While the baker was getting it ready, [the marquis] called the witch of [Sangtian], showed her the wheat and put her to death. As the marquis was about to taste the wheat, he felt it necessary to go to the privy, into which he fell, and so died. One of the servants that waited on him had dreamt in the morning that he carried the marquis on his back up to heaven. The same at mid-day carried him on his back out from the privy, and was afterwards buried alive with him. (tr. Legge 1872:374, note “witch” translates wu)

Commentators have attempted to explain why the wu merely interpreted the duke’s dream but did not perform a healing ritual or exorcism, and why the duke waited until the prediction had failed before ordering the execution. Boileau (2002:368) suggests the wu was executed in presumed responsibility for the Zhao ancestral spirit’s attack.

Second, in 552 BCE a wu named Gao 皋 both appears in and divines about a dream of Zhongxing Xianzi. After conspiring in the murder of Duke Li of Jin, Zhongxing dreams that the duke’s spirit gets revenge.

In autumn, the marquis of [Jin] invaded our northern border. [Zhongxing Xianzi] prepared to invade [Qi]. (Just then), he dreamt that he was maintaining a suit with duke [Li], in which the case was going against him, when the duke struck him with a [ge] on his head, which fell down before him. He took his head up, put it on his shoulders, and ran off, when he saw the wizard [Gao] of [Gengyang]. A day or two after, it happened that he did see this [Gao] on the road, and told him his dream, and the wizard, who had had the same dream, said to him: “Your death is to happen about this time; but if you have business in the east, you will there be successful [first]”. Xianzi accepted this interpretation. (tr. Legge 1872:478, note “wizard” translates wu)

Boileau questions:

why wasn’t the wu asked by Zhongxin to expel the spirit of the duke? Perhaps because the spirit went through him to curse the officer. Could it be that the wu was involved (his involvement is extremely strong in this affair) in a kind of deal, or is it simply that the wu was aware of two different matters concerning the officer, only one connected to the dream? (2002:369)

According to these two stories, wu were feared and considered dangerous. This attitude is also evident in a Zhuangzi story about the shenwu 神巫 “spirit/god shaman” Jixian 季咸 from Zheng.

In [Zheng], there was a shaman of the gods named [Jixian]. He could tell whether men would live or die, survive or perish, be fortunate or unfortunate, live a long time or die young, and he would predict the year, month, week, and day as though he were a god himself. When the people of [Zheng] saw him, they all ran out of his way. (tr. Watson 1968:95)

“As soothsayers.” writes de Groot (1910 6:1195), “the wu in ancient China no doubt held a place of great importance.”

Wu-shamans as officials

Sinological controversies have arisen over the political importance of wu 巫 in ancient China. Some scholars (e.g., Eliade 1964 and Chang 1983) believe Chinese wu used “techniques of ecstasy” like shamans elsewhere; others (e.g., Keightley 1983) believe wu were “ritual bureaucrats” or “moral metaphysicians” who did not engage in shamanistic practices.

Chen Mengjia wrote a seminal article (1936) that proposed Shang kings were wu-shamans.

In the oracle bone inscriptions are often encountered inscriptions stating that the king divined or that the king inquired in connections with wind- or rain-storms, rituals, conquests, or hunts. There are also statements that “the king made the prognostication that …,” pertaining to weather, the border regions, or misfortunes and diseases; the only prognosticator ever recorded in the oracle bone inscriptions was the king … There are, in addition, inscriptions describing the king dancing to pray for rain and the king prognosticating about a dream. All of these were activities of both king and shaman, which means in effect that the king was a shaman. (1936:535, tr. Chang 1983:46-47)

Chen’s shaman-king hypothesis was supported by Kwang-chih Chang who cited the Guoyu story about Shao Hao severing heaven-earth communication (above).

This myth is the most important textual reference to shamanism in ancient China, and it provides the crucial clue to understanding the central role of shamanism in ancient Chinese politics. Heaven is where all the wisdom of human affairs lies. … Access to that wisdom was, of course, requisite for political authority. In the past, everybody had had that access through the shamans. Since heaven had been severed from earth, only those who controlled that access had the wisdom – hence the authority – to rule. Shamans, therefore, were a crucial part of every state court; in fact, scholars of ancient China agree that the king himself was actually head shaman. (1983:45)

Some modern scholars disagree. For instance, Boileau (2002:350) calls Chen’s hypothesis “somewhat antiquated being based more on an a priori approach than on history” and says,

In the case of the relationship between wu and wang [king], Chen Mengjia did not pay sufficient attention to what the king was able to do as a king, that is to say, to the parts of the king’s activities in which the wu was not involved, for example, political leadership as such, or warfare. The process of recognition must also be taken into account: it is probable that the wu was chosen or acknowledged as such according to different criteria to those adopted for the king. Chen’s concept of the king as the head wu was influenced by Frazer’s theories about the origin of political power: for Frazer the king was originally a powerful sorcerer. (2002:351)

The Shujing “Classic of History” lists Wu Xian 巫咸 and Wu Xian 巫賢 as capable administrators of the Shang royal household. The Duke of Zhou tells Prince Shao 召 that:

I have heard that of ancient time, when King Tang had received the favoring decree, he had with him Yi Yin, making his virtue like that of great Heaven. Tai Jia, again, had Bao Heng. Tai Wu had Yi Zhi and Chen Hu, through whom his virtue was made to affect God; he had also [巫咸] Wu Xian, who regulated the royal house; Zu Yihad [巫賢] Wu Xian. Wu Ding had Gan Pan. These ministers carried out their principles and effected their arrangements, preserving and regulating the empire of [Shang], so that, while its ceremonies lasted, those sovereigns, though deceased, were assessors to Heaven, while it extended over many years. (tr. Legge 1865:206, n.b., names standardized to pinyin)

According to Boileau,

In some texts, Wu Xian senior is described as being in charge of the divination using [shi 筮] achilea. He was apparently made a high god in the kingdom of Qin 秦 during the Warring States period. The Tang subcommentary interprets the character wu of Wu Xian father and son as being a cognomen, the name of the clan from which the two Xian came. It is possible that in fact the text referred to two Shang ministers, father and son, coming from the same eponymous territory wu. Perhaps, later, the name (wu 巫) of these two ministers has been confused with the character wu (巫) as employed in other received texts. (2002:358)

Wu-shamans participated in court scandals and dynastic rivalries under Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE), particularly regarding the crime of wugu 巫蠱 (with gu “venom-based poison”) “sorcery; casting harmful spells”. In 130 BCE, Empress Chen Jiao was convicted of using shamans from Yue to conduct wugu magic. She “was dismissed from her position and a total of 300 persons who were involved in the case were executed” (tr. Loewe 1970:169), their heads were cut off and exposed on stakes. In 91 BCE, an attempted coup against crown prince Liu Ju involved accusations of practicing wugu, and subsequently “no less than nine long months of bloody terrorism, ending in a tremendous slaughter, cost some tens of thousands their lives!” (tr. Groot 1910 5:836).

Ever since Emperor Wu of Han established Confucianism as the state religion, the ruling classes have shown increasing prejudice against shamanism (de Groot 1910:1233-42, Waley 1955:11-12). Some modern writers view the traditional Confucianist disdain for female shamans as sexism. Schafer wrote:

In the opinion of the writer, the Chou ruling class was particularly hostile to women in government, and regarded the ancient fertility rites as impure. This anti-female tendency was even more marked in the state of Lu, where Confucius approved of the official rain-ceremony in which men alone participated. There was, within ancient China, a heterogeneity of culture areas, with female shamans favored in some, males in others. The” licentiousness” of the ceremonies of such a state as Cheng (doubtless preserving the ancient Shang traditions and customs) was a byword among Confucian moralists. Confucius’ state seems on the other hand to have taken the” respectable” attitude that the sexes should not mingle in the dance, and that men were the legitimate performers of the fertility rites. The general practice of the later Chou period, or at least the semi-idealized picture given of the rites of that time in such books as the Chou li, apparently prescribed a division of magical functions between men and women. The former generally play the role of exorcists, the latter of petitioners. This is probably related to the metaphysical belief that women, embodying the principle yin, were akin to the spirits, whereas men, exemplifying the element yang, were naturally hostile to them. (1951:158)

Accepting the tradition that Chinese shamans were women (i.e., wu 巫 “shamaness” as opposed to xi 覡 “shaman”), Kagan believes:

One of the main themes in Chinese history is the unsuccessful attempt by the male Confucian orthodoxy to strip women of their public and sacred powers and to limit them to a role of service … Confucianists reasserted daily their claim to power and authority through the promotion of the phallic ancestor cult which denied women religious representation and excluded them from the governmental examination system which was the path to office, prestige, and status. (1980:3-4)

In addition, Unschuld (1980:125-128) refers to a “Confucian medicine” based upon systematic correspondences and the idea that illnesses are caused by excesses (rather than demons).

The Zhouli provides detailed information about the roles of wu-shamans. It lists (Falkenhausen 1995:282), “Spirit Mediums as officials on the payroll of the Zhou Ministry of Rites (Liguan 禮官, or Ministry of Spring, Chun guan 春官).” This text differentiates three offices: the Siwu 司巫 “Manager/Director of Shamans”, Nanwu 男巫 “Male Shamans”, and Nüwu女巫 “Female Shamans”.

The managerial Siwu, who was of Shi 士 “Gentleman; Yeoman” feudal rank, yet was not a wu, supervised “the many wu“.

The Managers of the Spirit Mediums are in charge of the policies and orders issued to the many Spirit Mediums. When the country suffers a great drought, they lead the Spirit Mediums in dancing the rain-making ritual (yu 雩). When the country suffers a great calamity, they lead the Spirit Mediums in enacting the long-standing practices of Spirit Mediums (wuheng 巫恆). At official sacrifices, they [handle] the ancestral tablets in their receptacles, the cloth on which the spirits walk, and the box containing the reeds [for presenting the sacrificial foodstuffs]. In all official sacrificial services, they guard the place where the offerings are buried. In all funerary services, they are in charge of the rituals by which the Spirit Mediums make [the spirits] descend (jiang 降). (tr. von Falkenhausen 1995:285, cf. de Groot 1910 6:1189-1190)

The Nanwu and Nüwu have different shamanic specializations, especially regarding inauspicious events like sickness, death, and natural disaster.

The Male Spirit Mediums are in charge of the si 祀 and yan 衍 Sacrifices to the Deities of the Mountains and Rivers. They receive the honorific titles [of the deities], which they proclaim into the [four] directions, holding reeds. In the winter, in the great temple hall, they offer [or: shoot arrows] without a fixed direction and without counting the number. In the spring, they make proclamations and issue bans so as to remove sickness and disease. When the king offers condolence, they together with the invocators precede him.
The Female Mediums are in charge of anointing and ablutions at the exorcisms that are held at regular times throughout the year. When there is a drought or scorching heat, they dance in the rain-making ritual (yu). When the queen offers condolence, they together with the invocators precede her. In all great calamities of the state, they pray, singing and wailing. (26, tr. von Falkenhausen 1995:290, cf. de Groot 1910 6:1189)

Von Falkenhausen concludes:

If we are to generalize from the above enumeration, we find that the Spirit Mediums’ principal functions are tied up with averting evil and pollution. They are especially active under circumstances of inauspiciousness and distress. In case of droughts and calamities, they directly address the supernatural powers of Heaven and Earth. Moreover, they are experts in dealing with frightful, dangerous ghosts (the ghosts of the defunct at the time of the funeral, the evil spirits at the exorcism, and the spirits of disease) and harmful substances (unburied dead bodies during visits of condolence and all manner of impure things at the lustration festival). (1995:293)

Modern wu

The ancient Chinese traditions of wu-shamans continue in the contemporary cultures of China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Popular practices include clairvoyance, fortune telling, exorcism, invocation, and prayer.

Scholars have studied many aspects of modern wu. De Groot (1910 6:1243-1268) provided descriptions and pictures of hereditary shamans in Fujian, called saigong (pinyin shigong) 師公. Paper (1999) analyzed tongji mediumistic activities in the Taiwanese village of Bao’an 保安. Noll (2004) documented Chuonnasuan (1927–2000), the last shaman of the Oroqen in northeast China.

Jordan Paper summarizes the present-day shaman’s religious significance.

Mediums, frequently associated with local temples … are ubiquitous aspects of popular Chinese religion. They are (or at least were into the mid-twentieth century) common from far north in Manchuria to the extreme south of Hainan and Guangtung, and from the eastern island of Taiwan to Tibet in China’s far west. (1995:117-8)  [2]

The Shamanistic Shang: At the Roots of Chinese Medicine by Rob Vena

The shaman, or ‘wu’, was often the religious leader or priest of a tribe.  He/she was believed to hold magical powers and possess the ability to navigate along the ‘Axis Mundi,’ ‘Spiritual Pivot,’ or ‘Ling Shu.’  This ‘pivot of the world,’ was believed to be the connection between the lower, middle, and upper worlds… that is, the link between hell, earth, and heaven.

In shamanism, one must remedy the other worlds in order to make things better, or right, in this world.  Hence, the shaman was often called upon by the community to perform a psychodrama, make sacrifices to Shang-Ti, or act as mediator between the populace and the spirits of the other worlds.  To do this, the shaman would enter into an ecstatic state, or trance, that would enable him/her to traverse along the pivot of the three worlds, the Ling Shu, in an attempt to cure disease, exorcise evil spirits, bring about success in hunting and agriculture, and overall, to keep the community healthy and in proper balance.

The practices of acupuncture and herbology may also be attributable to the shamans of the Shang era.

According to Eckman (1996), “…acupuncture itself most likely originated from the exorcistic practices of the early shamans or wu” (p. 201).  He says, “…the earliest acupuncturists may very well have been the shamen [sic]” (p. 41).  With regard to acupuncture needles, he claims that, “the earliest examples being bronze needles …date to the late Xia, Shang or early Zhou dynasty” (p. 38).

It is interesting to note here, I think, that one of the two books of the Huang Di Nei Jing or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (arguably the single most important text in the canon of Chinese Medicine) bears the same name as that of the ‘pivot of the three worlds’ that was so well traversed by the shamans of the Shang while in their mystical state.  Is it just coincidence that this 81-chapter book, which focuses on acupuncture, description of the meridians, functions of the zang-fu organs, nine types of needles, functions of the acupuncture points, needling techniques, types of Qi, and the location of 160 points, is called the ‘Ling Shu’ or Spiritual Pivot?’  Or, does the very name of this text clearly signify the strong connection and relationship between the practices of acupuncture and the shamanism of the Shang?

As for herbology, Eckman refers to Huang Fu Mi’s book of 282 CE, The Systematic Study of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, when he says, “In it, Huang states that The Treatise of Cold-Induced Disorders was based on The Theory of Herbal Decoctionsattributed to Yi Yin, the prime minister of the ancient Yin (Shang) dynasty” (p. 70).

Several other important concepts related to Chinese Medicine also appear to have emerged and developed during the time of the Shang, including possibly, a primitive understanding of the pulse, blood, and other body fluids.

Additionally, the formation of the theoretical thinking of Yin Yang and the Five Elements can be traced back to this period, and according to Walsh (2007), “The concept of the dual soul was also developed …the Po is the animal part of the soul which remains with the body after death (and which is what ghosts are), while the Hun is the spiritual part of the soul which disappears into the afterlife.”

It is also believed that a preliminary understanding of Shen and Jing was held by the time of the Shang.  Shen is the emotional, mental and spiritual aspect of a human being, whereas Jing, which is usually translated into English as ‘essence’, is held to be responsible for growth, reproduction, development, sexual maturation, conception and pregnancy.

And lastly, the Shang seem to have had a rudimentary grasp on the all encompassing concept of Qi.

The original character for the word Qi seems to have appeared at this time, as a way of representing that unknowable aspect of the universe that makes things grow and transform – that thing that inter-transforms into all things – and, its early meanings seem to have been something along the lines of vapor, mist, or clouds.

Qi is a very difficult word to translate, and its meaning can vary depending on the context in which it is used.  Its meaning has changed in many ways since those early days of the Shang.  For example, when referring to the Four Pillars of Chinese Medicine, the word Qi can have at least four different meanings.  When talking about acupuncture and moxibustion, the word is understood to mean ‘the relationship between the surface and the interior.’  When referring to herbs and diet, it means ‘the flavor and function of the herb or food.’  In physical manipulation it means ‘gait and posture,’ and in Qigong it refers to ‘one’s relationship with the rest of existence.’  As Maciocia (1989) explains, “Qi is the basis of all phenomena in the universe and provides a continuity between course, material forms and tenuous, rarefied non-material energies. …Qi is the very basis of the universe’s infinite manifestations of life, including minerals, vegetables, and animals (including man)” (p. 36).  Is it any wonder that the Shang identified the idea of Qi with something as insubstantial as a vapor, mist, or clouds?

In closing, it is important to note that there is very little to be found on Shang medical practices in comparison to the wealth of information that is available on the later Chinese dynastic orders and their practices.  But from what little there is to find on the Shang, we can clearly surmise that the origins of Chinese Medicine extend far into the past and lie firmly rooted somewhere in the midst of their shamanistic beliefs and practices. [3]

Wu Yi QiGong (Shamanic Medicine QiGong)

The ancient roots of Chinese Medicine, Qigong, Astrology and Feng Shui all originated from ancient chinese shamanism.

These shamans were known as WuYi and were highly respected in the community.

The definition of WuYi is a very good metaphor for Qigong practice. The Chinese Character for Wu translates as Sorcerer and was later replaced with the character Yi Doctor of Medicine.

There are a couple of other meanings of WuYi, although they are completely different chinese characters to the WuYi above. Sounding similar, they are written the same in pinyin (English letters used for Mandarin characters). Wu meaning emptiness (as in Wu Ji) and Yi meaning intention. I include this meaning of WuYi because it aptly explains the best way to practice Qigong, with empty intention.

Additionally Wu is the number 5 and Yi the number 1, therefore 5 to 1. This refers to the unification of the 5 Souls (Ling) that regulate emotions housed in the Yin organs into 1 Consciousness (Shen).

Therefore these three meanings mimic the concept of Tao. Qigong came from the WuYi who understood Tao came from emptiness. We practice WuYi Qigong and through empty intention (action through non-action) are filled with Qi and connected to Tao. Through meditation we can foster and cultivate the 5 positive emotional attributes (Virtue) and unify them into 1 consciousness and return to the Tao. All of which adds up to a healthier, happier and more contented life. [4]

What is Qigong?

Qigong is an ancient Chinese health care system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention.

The word Qigong (Chi Kung) is made up of two Chinese words. Qi is pronounced chee and is usually translated to mean the life force or vital-energy that flows through all things in the universe.

The second word, Gong, pronounced gung, means accomplishment, or skill that is cultivated through steady practice. Together, Qigong (Chi Kung) means cultivating energy, it is a system practiced for health maintenance, healing and increasing vitality.

Qigong is an integration of physical postures, breathing techniques, and focused intentions. 

Qigong practices can be classified as martial, medical, or spiritual. All styles have three things in common: they all involve a posture, (whether moving or stationary), breathing techniques, and mental focus. Some practices increase the Qi; others circulate it, use it to cleanse and heal the body, store it, or emit Qi to help heal others. Practices vary from the soft internal styles such as Tai Chi; to the external, vigorous styles such as Kung Fu. However, the slow gentle movements of most Qigong forms can be easily adapted, even for the physically challenged and can be practiced by all age groups.

Like any other system of health care, Qigong is not a panacea, but it is certainly a highly effective health care practice. Many health care professionals recommend Qigong as an important form of alternative complementary medicine. [5]


Separating Original Chinese Religion and Chinese non-Theist Philosophies

Without a doubt the Chinese religion today is a conglomeration of many philosophies moulded into one. The above collection of articles and facts places information upon which I will attempt to separate the religious aspects of the Chinese religion from the philosophical non-theistic aspects of what I consider to be the fundamental basis of Chinese religion. The origins of the Chinese religion were founded before recorded history, and well before the appearance of the Shamans, but the Shamanistic practices that we can study today, go back more than 5000 years and are some of the earliest evidence of Chinese religious practice and rituals. Many of these ancient practices and rituals listed here have survived the ages and are still practiced by millions of Chinese today. We can see the influence of early Folk Religion, and Shamanism in today’s modern Chinese culture even with the lapse of thousands of years.

Perspective in the TimeLine of History

In order to appreciate the evolution of the Chinese religion and culture we must bear in mind the time line of its evolution:

Neolithic China ca. 10,000 – 2000 BC
HUANG DI (2697-2597 BC  or 2674 – 2575 BC)
Shang Dynasty 1766 BC to 1027 BC

Zarathustra (627-585 BCE) promulgated the Dualism of Good and Evil,

          LAO-TZU  (604-531 BCE) WROTE THE “TAO DE CHING.”

Confucius (580?-479 BCE) “flaunted his agnosticism”,

Buddha (565-483 BCE) taught a “godless wisdom”,

Xenophanes (550 BCE) criticized Greek polytheism,

Pythagoras (550 BCE) taught sacred geometry and mathematically based science,

Moses (1393-1272 BC):Burning Bush 1314BC (3324 years ago)

Isaiah (550 BCE) taught “the first true monotheism in history”,

Neolithic China ca. 10,000 – 2000 BC

People who existed during the Neolithic period of China must have wondered about the vicissitudes of the world around them and sought answers to meet their understanding of their environment even as far back as 12,000 years ago. For these people to have identified their problems and sought spiritual or immortal gods who were able to moderate or protect them from such evil or illnesses was a sign of the intelligence of such beings. Thus began the creation of spiritual and immortal early gods of their culture. What concerned these early neolithic peoples were simple problems and their creating deities to help them resolve these problems reflects the problems that existed so very long ago in the neolithic period. These concerns were:


Deities relating to Protection/Security/Punishment/Laws…………………………………………21 deities

Deities relating to Sex/Illness/famines/exorcism/death……………………………………………15 deities

Deities relating to Wealth/Success/Happiness/Compassion/happiness/virtue………..11 deities

Deities relating to creation and Heavenly Laws and gods…………………………………………5 deities

Deities relating to Prostitution……………………………………………………………………………………3 deities

Personal security and safety, punishing of the criminals, Laws to regulate society, Illnesses, Famines, Sex, Compassion, Happiness, Success, Virtue, creation, prostitution and fidelity, are these not the same worries of modern man? It shows that what neolithic peoples sought after were no different from that which modern man seeks. But the ancient Chinese religion was pragmatic and earthy and had less emphasis on the Laws of God and its exclusion of non believers. The Chinese religion was non exclusive but totally eclectic. Therein lies the fundamental difference. Hence the Chinese religions have been non-autocratic and non-domineering and thus  non-warring religions (peaceful religions).

The Evolution of (Chinese) Shamanism with Folk Religion

With all early peoples, the need for their healers accompanies their need to understand the vissisitudes of the world about them thus the appearances of their medicine men, soothsayers, and comforters of the distressed.  No doubt the Shamans of China’s early societies appeared in order to meet the spiritual, medical and social needs of the people. In fact the Chinese Shamans have played a very important role in the evolution of the Chinese religion and culture which evolved from the ancient Chinese gods that were created by their folk religion in the earliest days of their civilisation. Shamanistic practices and rituals have been entwined with Chinese folk religion from the very early days.


Shamanist Medical practices such as herbal remedies, exorcism, and acupuncture are widely observed and practiced today.

Exorcism, acupuncture, herbal medicine, still unproven with modern medical science, has managed to keep 1.5 billion people alive and increasing. Granted some of the remedies may be rather dicey, but with modern technology even western medicine admits it can learn a lot from Chinese herbalism and remedies. Chinese herbal medicine is still widely practiced throughout China today and probably continue for many more generations.


Divination(omens, prophecy), Geomancy(divination by geographic features), Feng Shui (wind and water), Astrology,Spirit Travel, and the Use of Talismans (charms), are all shamanic practices that have survived the ages and still observed by a large percentage of the people of modern China as they have in past centuries.


Alchemy (sorcery, witch-craft, black-magic,) Sexual Yoga,  and Dream Yoga are some esoteric practices that are also practiced and continue to this day.

Thus we can see that Shamanist Practices far from being considered primitive and dead are in fact thriving and practiced in so many forms by so many people in modern Chinese culture. What effect does shaman practice and rituals have on the psyche of the Chinese population, subconsciously or consciously, today? So the direct influence of shamanist beliefs and the influence of all those ancient Chinese gods, must play a great part in the  subconscious of the Chinese thought process, because the symbols and icons of that ancient culture is a part of the modern Chinese culture existing in Taoist and Buddhist Temples and home alters. Pictures of the various Chinese gods and goddesses can be found everywhere from a tiny village prayer hovel to the decor of an expensive multi-million dollar home in Paris, London, or New York in the likes of statues of Buddha, Kuan Yin, Confucius or LaoTzu. So to dismiss the influence of ancient Chinese gods on modern Chinese culture is like saying, there is no influence of culture on current thought processes.[7]


Long before the Shang era, rulers used shaman priests and their divinations to predict their fortunes and their future, using tortoise shells and oracle bones to read their prognostications. The inscriptions and crack formations gradually assumed greater and greater importance in the readings for these Shaman priests. Gradually these inscriptions and patterns became standardised and formed an ideographic pictorial message that made sense. This led to the pictorial calligraphy and the eventually of the full Chinese Hieroglyphics and language. The significance of this Shamanic heritage cannot be overlooked in the development and shaping of the culture of the peoples. [18]


Shamanic practices like “qi gong (chi gung, or energy exercises, Tai-Chi,) are designed to enable the practitioner to live in harmony with nature has a massive following in the East and has even caught on in the West.

The above clearly shows the continuing influence of ancient shamanistic Taoism on the culture of China. The significance of the above 5 items is this, remove it altogether, and it will no longer represent the Chinese culture. It is part and parcel of the Chinese culture. It is the basis of the Chinese religion.

Superimposition of non-Theist Philosophies on to the Chinese Folk Religion

Hundreds or thousands of years later from the founding on the ancient Chinese gods, later non-theist philosophers expounded their moral and social philosophies which because of their wisdom and practicality were superimposed on the folk religion of China and accepted as a doctrine of their beliefs. Such philosophies include:



School of Legalism

School of Naturalists





It becomes clear that Chinese beliefs merge with much later moral and social philosophies that followed later. The separation of Religious philosophies, even between different religions such as Taoism and Buddhism become vague and unclear. The separation of the basic Chinese Religion from the fundamental Chinese culture is impossible as shown in Appendix 3 below [15]. Yet the piety of the people is not in doubt when one observes their devotion at the temples and at funerals or All Souls Day, “Qing Ming.” The separation of religious philosophies and moral or social philosophies is all merged into one activity, piety to the gods.
But what becomes apparent is the unmistakable influence of Shamanistic rituals and beliefs in their religious observances. Thus the people have clung on to religious customs and rituals that were created even before the advent of recorded history. The culture of the Chinese people were formed from these basic ancient shamanistic customs, and beliefs and could not be displaced by the brutal suppression of Mao or any other beliefs because it is the nature of the people. [15] [16] [17] [21]
To provide Time perspective the following information is useful:
Kong Fuzi (551BC-479BC) (Latinised: Confucius), who laid down the basis for the followers of Confucianism.
Laozi (Lao Tsu) (circa:145BC-86BC) Founder of Daoism (Taoism)
Mozi (Latin: Micius),Mo Tzu, Alicius, (ca.470BC-391 BC) founder of Mohism,
Mengzi (Latin:Mencius) Meng Tzu,(ca.372-289 BC) a Confician who expanded upon Kong Fuzi’s legacy.
Shang Yang (ca.390-338 BC) and Han Feizi (ca 280-233 BC), responsible for the development of Ancient Chinese Legalism which was the core of the Qin Dynasty.

Xunzi (ca. 312-230 BC) who was at the center of ancient Chinese intellectual academia, even more iconic than Mencius. [11]

Ramblings of An Ancient Author

Ten of thousands of years before the Christian Era, (CE), a peoples of the Yangtse valleys, isolated for the rest of the world by high mountains, deserts, tundra and treacherous oceans, these peoples wondered about life and death, illness and health, poverty and wealth, starvation and plenty, heaven and earth, spirits and devils as would any other peoples or civilisations. These peoples evolved original ideas and concepts because they were not influenced by any other prevailing cultures around them. No other cultures were in contact with their own. So more than 10,000 years ago, these primitive peoples had the concept of heavenly spirits, earthly spirits, evil spirits, and different gods to fulfil the multi-needs of the people. Although they accepted one god as superior to the other gods, but all gods had the power and authority over their jurisdiction. No god was totally omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent and hence there was no requirement to submit to the all mighty god, hence there was no totalitarianism nor the requirement for total devotion to martyrdom. There never developed the concept of a totalitarian god who was exclusive to all other gods because he existed among other gods. Hence no one killed in the name of his Taoist god. [This would seem to be a more sophisticated concept of gods in today’s troubled world.]

The Taoist concept of gods, and spirits, has not changed much since its original concepts even if later moralistic, social, or ethical philosophies developed thousands of years later were superimposed(corrupted) upon  it to produce a more complete people’s philosophy for living in harmony and moderate the harshness and cruelties of ruthless and merciless rulers and Emperors. So today’s concept of Chinese religions as, Taoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism, actually means worshipping with the rituals and traditions of the original Taoist-Shamanistic religious beliefs but superimposed upon it are the non-theist moral philosophies of Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha.

A Pew survey estimated that in 2010 there were 67 million Christians in China out of a population of 1.3 billion people. The appeal is the modernity of Christianity and the belief that the Biblical stories are historical events that actually have taken place. But if it can be shown that the historicity of the Bible is no better than the legends of the old Taoist-Shaman religious beliefs, would there still be this appeal. The historicity of Jesus Christ is today being critically examined and there has been no historical or archaeological evidence to support the stories in the Gospels. If this is so, the basis of the folk religion of Taoism and as valid as the stories of the Gospels.

The Taoist-Shaman Chinese Religion needs updating and modernising.It is hoped that this will inspire some one to study the fundamental ancient religion of China and to refine it for 21st century acceptance.


[1] Folk Religion of China:

[2] Wu: Shaman –

[3] Shaman: Roots of Chinese Medicine:

[4] WuYi Shamanic Medicine:!wu-yi-qi-gong-newtown/c1vit

[5] Qigong: 

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