Chinese shamanism

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Chinese shamanism, alternatively called Wuism (Chinese: 巫教; pinyin: wū jiào; lit. 'wu religion, shamanism, witchcraft'; alternatively 巫觋宗教 wū xí zōngjiào), refers to the shamanic religious tradition of China.[1][2] Its features are especially connected to the ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture.[3] Chinese shamanic traditions are intrinsic to Chinese folk religion.[4]

Various ritual traditions are rooted in original Chinese shamanism: contemporary Chinese ritual masters are sometimes identified as wu by outsiders,[5] though most orders don't self-identify as such. Also Taoism has some of its origins from Chinese shamanism:[1][6] it developed around the pursuit of long life (shou /寿), or the status of a xian (, "mountain man", "holy man").[1]

Meaning of wu[edit]

A wu master

The Chinese word wu "shaman, wizard", indicating a person who can mediate with the powers generating things (the etymological meaning of "spirit", "god", or nomen agentis, virtus, energeia), was first recorded during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 BCE), when a wu could be either sex. During the late Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BCE) wu was used to specify "female shaman; sorceress" as opposed to xi "male shaman; sorcerer" (which first appears in the 4th century BCE Guoyu). Other sex-differentiated shaman names include nanwu 男巫 for "male shaman; sorcerer; wizard"; and nüwu 女巫, wunü 巫女, wupo 巫婆, and wuyu 巫嫗 for "female shaman; sorceress; witch".

The word tongji 童乩 (lit. "youth diviner") "shaman; spirit-medium" is a near-synonym of wu. Modern Chinese distinguishes native wu from "Siberian shaman": saman 薩滿 or saman 薩蠻; and from Indian Shramana "wandering monk; ascetic": shamen 沙門, sangmen 桑門, or sangmen 喪門.

Berthold Laufer (1917:370) proposed an etymological relation between Mongolian bügä "shaman", Turkic bögü "shaman", Chinese bu, wu (shaman), buk, puk (to divine), and Tibetan aba (pronounced ba, sorcerer). Coblin (1986:107) puts forward a Sino-Tibetan root *mjaɣ "magician; sorcerer" for Chinese wu < mju < *mjag "magician; shaman" and Written Tibetan 'ba'-po "sorcerer" and 'ba'-mo "sorcereress" (of the Bön religion). Further connections are to the bu-mo priests of Zhuang Shigongism and the bi-mo priests of Bimoism, the Yi indigenous faith. Also Korean mu (of Muism) is cognate to Chinese wu . Schuessler lists some etymologies: wu could be cognate with wu "to dance"; wu could also be cognate with mu "mother" since wu, as opposed to xi , were typically female; wu could be a loanword from Iranian *maghu or *maguš "magi; magician", meaning an "able one; specialist in ritual". Mair (1990) provides archaeological and linguistic evidence that Chinese wu < *myag "shaman; witch, wizard; magician" was maybe a loanword from Old Persian *maguš "magician; magi". Mair connects the nearly identical Chinese Bronze script for wu and Western heraldic cross potent , an ancient symbol of a magus or magician, which etymologically descend from the same Indo-European root.

Early history[edit]

The Chinese religion from the Shang dynasty onwards developed around ancestral worship.[1] The main gods from this period are not forces of nature in the Sumerian way, but deified virtuous men.[1] The ancestors of the emperors were called di (), and the greatest of them was called Shangdi (上帝, "the Highest Lord").[1] He is identified with the dragon (Kui ), symbol of the universal power (qi).[1]

Cosmic powers dominate nature: the Sun, the Moon, stars, winds and clouds were considered informed by divine energies.[1] The earth god is She () or Tu ().[1] The Shang period had two methods to enter in contact with divine ancestors: the first is the numinous-mystical wu () practice, involving dances and trances; and the second is the method of the oracle bones, a rational way.[1]

The Zhou dynasty, succeeding the Shang, was more rooted in an agricultural worldview.[1] They opposed the ancestor-gods of the Shang, and gods of nature became dominant.[1] The utmost power in this period was named Tian (, "heaven").[1] With Di (, "earth") he forms the whole cosmos in a complementary duality.[1]

Qing period[edit]

The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912) introduced substantial elements of Tungusic shamanism to China. Hong Taiji (1592–1643) put shamanistic practices in the service of the state, notably by forbidding others to erect new shrines (tangse) for ritual purposes. In the 1620s and 1630s, the Qing ruler conducted shamanic sacrifices at the tangse of Mukden, the Qing capital. In 1644, as soon as the Qing seized Beijing to begin their conquest of China, they named it their new capital and erected an official shamanic shrine there. In the Beijing tangse and in the women's quarters of the Forbidden City, Qing emperors and professional shamans (usually women) conducted shamanic ceremonies until the abdication of the dynasty in 1912.

In 1747 the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) commissioned the publication of a Shamanic Code to revive and regulate shamanic practices, which he feared were becoming lost. He had it distributed to Bannermen to guide their practice, but we know very little about the effect of this policy. Mongols and Han Chinese were forbidden to attend shamanic ceremonies. Partly because of their secret aspect, these rituals attracted the curiosity of Beijing dwellers and visitors to the Qing capital. French Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot published a study on the Shamanic Code, "Rituels des Tartares Mandchous déterminés et fixés par l'empereur comme chef de sa religion" (1773). In 1777 the Qianlong Emperor ordered the code translated into Chinese for inclusion in the Siku quanshu. The Manchu version was printed in 1778, whereas the Chinese-language edition, titled Qinding Manzhou jishen jitian dianli (欽定滿洲祭神祭天典禮), was completed in 1780 or 1782.[7][8] Even though this "Shamanic Code" did not fully unify shamanic practice among the Bannermen, it "helped systematize and reshape what had been a very fluid and diverse belief system."[9]

Northeast shamanism[edit]

Shamanism is practiced in Northeast China and is considered different from those of central and southern Chinese folk religion, as it resulted from the interaction of Han religion with folk religion practices of other Tungusic people such as Manchu shamanism. The shaman would perform various ritual functions for groups of believers and local communities, such as moon drum dance and chūmǎxiān (出馬仙 "riding for the immortals").

Modern Shamanism[edit]

Shamanism saw a decline due to Neo-Confucianism labeling it as untutored and disorderly.[10] This was furthered in the 19th century with the arrival of Western imperialism’s view of shamanism as superstition,[10] opposing their view of science and western religion. The final hit was Maoist China causing all religious practices to disappear from public spaces.[10] While spirit mediums have begun reappearing (mostly in rural China) since the 1980’s,[10] they operate with a low profile, often working from their homes, relying on word of mouth to generate business, or in newly built small temples under a Taoist Association membership card to be legitimate under the law.[10] The term shamanism and the religion itself has been critiqued by Western scholars due to an unfair and limited comparison to more favored religions such as Christianity and other modern and more documented religions in Western society.[11]

In China today, shamanism has a strong negative stigma and has lost much of the respect it had during ancient times.  Spirit mediums are viewed as scammers or people with mental health problems, and are rarely portrayed otherwise by the Chinese media.[10] Along with the focus on science, modern medicine, and material culture in China (which created serious doubt in spiritual practices), shamanism is viewed as an opposition to the modern focus of science and medicine in the pursuit of modernizing China. Modern shamanism is considered as an obstacle to China’s overall modernity.[10] The marginalization of shamanism is one of the reasons for it mostly being practiced in rural areas or small towns, along with the lack of enforcement of anti-shamanism policies among authorities in rural areas (either because they believe in Shamanism themselves or “look the other way in concession to local beliefs”). Shamanistic practices today include controlling the weather, healing diseases modern medicine can not treat, exorcism of ghosts and demons, and seeing or divining the future.[12]

Mainland China’s Shamanism's decrease in popularity does not reflect Shamanism in all areas. Taiwan (although Taiwan tried to ban Shamanism, in the end only restricting it) still have many who openly practice without the stigma seen in other parts of China.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Libbrecht 2007, p. 43.
  2. ^ Eichhorn 1973, pp. 55–70.
  3. ^ Nelson et al. 2006.
  4. ^ Zhang & Hriskos 2003.
  5. ^ Nadeau 2012, p. 140.
  6. ^ Waldau & Patton 2009, p. 280.
  7. ^ di Cosmo 1999, p. 355, note 5 (Manchu text printed in 1778, Chinese text completed in 1782).
  8. ^ Rawski 1998, p. 240 (Chinese text completed in 1780).
  9. ^ Rawski 1998, p. 298.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Yang 2015.
  11. ^ DuBois 2011.
  12. ^ Xing & Murray 2018.


  • Waley, Arthur (1955). The Nine Songs: a Study of Shamanism in Ancient China. London.
  • di Cosmo, Nicola (1999). "Manchu shamanic ceremonies at the Qing court". In McDermott, Joseph P. (ed.). State and Court Ritual in China. Cambridge University Press. pp. 352–398. ISBN 978-0-521-62157-1.
  • DuBois, Thomas A. (2011). "Trends in Contemporary Research on Shamanism". Numen. 58 (1): 100–128. doi:10.1163/156852710X514339-2. JSTOR 23045924.
  • Michael, Thomas (2015). "Shamanism Theory and the Early Chinese 'Wu'". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 83 (3): 649–696. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfv034. JSTOR 24488180.
  • Eichhorn, Werner (1973). Die Religionen Chinas. Die Religionen der Menschheit. W. Kohlhammer. ISBN 978-3-17-216031-4.
  • Libbrecht, Ulrich (2007). Within the Four Seas--: Introduction to Comparative Philosophy. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 978-90-429-1812-2.
  • Nelson, Sarah M.; Matson, Rachel A.; Roberts, Rachel M.; Rock, Chris; Stencel, Robert E. (2006). Archaeoastronomical Evidence for Wuism at the Hongshan Site of Niuheliang. S2CID 6794721.
  • Nadeau, Randall L., ed. (2012). The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-9031-2.
  • Rawski, Evelyn S. (1998). The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-92679-0.
  • Waldau, Paul; Patton, Kimberley, eds. (2009). A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-13643-3.
  • Xing, Haiyan; Murray, Gerald (3 December 2018). "The Evolution of Chinese Shamanism: A Case Study from Northwest China". Religions. 9 (12): 397. doi:10.3390/rel9120397.
  • Yang, Mayfair (6 May 2015). "Shamanism and Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity: Some Preliminary Reflections on a Gendered Religiosity of the Body". Review of Religion and Chinese Society. 2 (1): 51–86. doi:10.1163/22143955-00201001.
  • Zhang, Hong; Hriskos, Constantine (June 2003). "Contemporary Chinese Shamanism:The Reinvention of Tradition". Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. 27 (2).

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