Dongbei folk religion

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Dongbei folk religion (Chinese: 东北民间宗教 or 东北民间信仰; pinyin: Dōngběi mínjiān zōngjiào or Dōngběi mínjiān xìnyǎng) is a variety of Chinese folk religion unique to northeast China (Dongbei or Manchuria), including the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, but with influences reaching as far as Hebei and Shandong.[1] It has profound differences from broader Chinese folk religion, because it is derived from the interaction of Han folk faiths with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms.[2]

A distinctive aspect of the religion is the prominence given to animal gods called xiānjiā (仙家 "familial beings / gods")[3] or dexiān (地仙 "earthly beings"),[4] and the practice of a form of shamanism by a semi-professional clergy known as dìzǐ (弟子 "disciples (of the gods)"),[5] dàxiān er (大仙儿 "children of the great gods") or tiào dàshén (跳大神 "dancers of the great gods").[6] This shamanic practice is known as chuma xian (simplified Chinese: 出马仙; traditional Chinese: 出馬仙; pinyin: chūmǎ xiān; literally: "the gods take action, action-taking gods").[7] Dizi are said to be imbued by gods, and perform healing, ritual assistance, exorcism, divination, and communication with ancestors for communities of followers.[8]

From pantheons of the gods worshipped and lineages of ritual ministers, in late imperial China and the early republican China the practice has also been known as the worship of the Five Great Gates (五大门 Wǔ dà mén[note 1]) or, among practitioners, the Four Great Gates (四大门 Sì dà mén[note 2]), although pantheons are much more diverse, varying locally or even from one household to another.[9]


The formation of Dongbei folk religion and chuma xian shamanism can be traced back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when a large number of Han Chinese settled in the northeast of China mixing with Manchus.[10] Either in the Qing period, and in the later Republic of China (1912-1949) and subsequent People's Republic, the worship of animal deities and the practice of chuma xian had bad relationship with the governments.[11] It was labeled "feudal superstition" (封建迷信 fēngjiàn míxìn)[12] and banned through different decrees.[13]

The worship of animal gods (动物信仰 dòngwù xìnyǎng) through popular devotion began to resurface in the 1980s, and soon also the chuma xian practice dizi ministry were revived.[14] In the 2010s there have been attempts to protect chuma xian under the policy of "intangible cultural heritage".[15]


The deities of Dongbei folk religion are primarily animal gods known as xiānjiā (仙家 "familial beings")[16] or dexiān (地仙 "earthly beings"),[17] The fox god has an important place; they are merciful gods, often appearing as white-bearded elderly gentlemen, possessing good will and aiming to help people.[18] Other divine animals are the tiger, the leopard, the mole, the toad, the snake, the rat, the weasel, the rabbit and the hedgehog among others.[19] Deities from broader Chinese culture also have a role in the pantheons of Dongbei folk religion; for example Huang Daxian is popular in the area, although he has no relation to Taoism as instead happens in southeastern China.[20]

The gods are ordained in groups of hierarchical pantheons, or families, a pattern inherited from the Chinese Confucian lineage system.[21] At the head of the pantheons, representing the gods collectively, are the fox great god and goddess—Great Father Fox or Húsān Tàiyé (胡三太爷) and Great Mother Vixen or Húsān Tàinǎi (胡三太奶).[22] Another deity widely worshipped is Húxiān (狐仙) the Fox Goddess.

Apart from the animal gods, there are two other groups of gods:[23]

  • The shàngfáng shénxiān (上房神仙 "heavenly gods / everlasting gods") from Taoism and Chinese mythology, that are only worshipped and do not possess the dizi;
  • The yīn xiān (陰仙 "underworld gods"), deceased beings who became gods through cultivating themselves (ancestors and progenitors).


Northeastern folk religion has a semi-professional clergy who practice chuma xian shamanism. The masters are known as dìzǐ (弟子 "disciples (of the gods)"), dàxiān er (大仙儿 "children of the great gods") or tiào dàshén (跳大神 "dancers of the great gods").[24]

As their name explains, they consider themselves to be "disciples" of the gods rather than mere channels of communication of the spiritual world to the human plane.[25] Another name that generically defines these ritual masters, that popular in the early republican period, is xiāngtóu (香頭 "incense heads").[26]

There are two types of possession that the disciples experience in terms of consciousness:[27]

  • quánméng (全蒙), "complete unconsciousness", in which the disciple is not aware of what happens and what the god says;
  • bànméng (半蒙), "semi-unconsciousness", in which the disciple is aware of what happens during the possession.

The ministers of the animal gods communicate with ancestors through an ecstatic experience called guòyīn (过阴 "passing to the underworld").[28] This is part of the practices of both chuma xian and related communal rites of broader Dongbei folk faith known as the Great Dancing Gods.[29] Even though now separated, chuma xian and the Great Dancing Gods were described as the same practice in the period of early republican China.[30]

Ritual practice[edit]

Chuma xian (出马仙), which means "the gods (who) take action" or "action-taking gods", is a form of shamanism, that is to say a way of communication between the spiritual and the human planes. Its name implies that gods and their disciples act as an organic whole, and in their action, form and content they express themselves together.[31]

Chuma xian animal shamanism shares characteristics with both Chinese Wuism and southern Chinese mediumship (Jitongism), features of Japanese Shinto, and various other shamanisms in the region (such as Tungus and Manchu shamanism, Mongolian shamanism, Korean shamanism, broader Siberian shamanism).[32] This is due to the interaction between Han Chinese and Manchu cultures, especially the Han cult of the fox[33][34] with Manchu wuwate or yeji ("wild ritual", the Chinese name) type of Manchu religion.[35][36]

The dizi are predominantly women, like the shamans of Northeast Asian shamanism, while mediums of southern Chinese Jitongism are almost exclusively men.[37] Moreover, while Dongbei disciples provide spiritual service independently, jitong media often collaborate with Taoist daoshi.[38] Another distinction is that while southern Chinese jitong can acquire the ministry through training, and they are possessed mostly by Taoist and strictly Chinese gods, Dongbei disciples are "chosen" or "ordained" by gods themselves like in other shamanic traditions, and their gods are animal totems.[39] When a future dizi is chosen, she experiences mo (磨 "sickness").[40]


Temples or shrines of Dongbei folk religion are generically called miao (庙) as in all of China. However, they can also be named xiāntáng (仙堂 "hall of the gods")[41] or tángzi (堂子), the latter name inherited from the temples of bolongzi or (in Chinese) jiaji ("ancestral ritual") type of Manchu shamanism.[42] Dizi also have private altars (lìtáng 立堂) in their homes.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also Five Great Families or Five Great Generations (五大家), or Five Great Gods (五大仙). This lineage involving: hu 胡 (fox), huang 黃 (weasel), chang 常 (viper), bai 白 (hedgehog), and hui 灰 (grey rat).
  2. ^ Involving hu 胡 (fox), huang 黃 (weasel), bai 白 (hedgehog), and hui 灰 (grey rat).


  1. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 19
  2. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  3. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 1
  4. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  5. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 1
  6. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  7. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 17
  8. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 2
  9. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 1
  10. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 45
  11. ^ Deng, 2014. pp. 45-46
  12. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 3
  13. ^ Deng, 2014. pp. 46-49
  14. ^ Deng, 2014. pp. 50-51
  15. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 52
  16. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 22
  17. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  18. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 21
  19. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  20. ^ Wang Xue, 2013.
  21. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 22
  22. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 75
  23. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 29
  24. ^ Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  25. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 2
  26. ^ Li Weizu (2011)
  27. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 32
  28. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 8
  29. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 8
  30. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 11
  31. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 3
  32. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 13
  33. ^ Kang (2006)
  34. ^ Huntington (2003)
  35. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 13
  36. ^ Deng, 2014. pp. 17-18
  37. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 13
  38. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 13
  39. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 14
  40. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 23
  41. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 2
  42. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 20
  43. ^ Deng, 2014. p. 27


  • Claire Qiuju Deng. Action-Taking Gods: Animal Spirit Shamanism in Liaoning, China. Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University, Montreal, 2014.
  • Kang Xiaofei. The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. New York, Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Rania Huntington. Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative. Cambridge, Harvard University Asia Center, 2003.
  • Li Weizu. Sidamen 四大門. Beijing: Beijing daxue chubaishe, 2011.
  • Liu Zhengai. 东北地区地仙信仰的人类学研究 Dōngběi dìqū de xiān xìnyǎng de rénlèi xué yánjiū. North Religion Summit 2008.
  • Wang Xue. 东北农村地区黄仙信仰的人类学研究 Dōngběi nóngcūn dìqū huáng xiān xìnyǎng de rénlèi xué yánjiū. Jilin University, 2013.

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