Chinese shamanism

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Ideograms of wu 巫 in different ancient Chinese scripts.

Chinese shamanism, alternatively called Wuism (Chinese: 巫教; pinyin: wū jiào; literally: "wu religion, shamanism, witchcraft"; alternatively 巫觋宗教 wū xí zōngjiào), refers to the shamanic religious tradition of China.[1] Its features are especially connected to the ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture.[2] Chinese shamanic traditions are intrinsic to Chinese folk religion, an overarching term for all the indigenous religions of China. Wu masters remain important in contemporary Chinese culture.

Various ritual traditions are rooted in original Chinese shamanism: contemporary Chinese ritual masters are sometimes identified as wu by outsiders,[3] though most orders don't self-identify as such. Also Taoism has some of its origins from Chinese shamanism:[4][5] it developed around the pursuit of long life (shou 壽/寿), or the status of a xian (仙, "mountain man", "holy man").[6]

Meaning of wu

The Chinese word wu 巫 "shaman, wizard", indicating a man 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 覡 "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. The Chinese tradition 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", Turkish 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 巫 "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 무 (of Muism) is cognate to Chinese wu 巫.

Schuessler lists some etymologies: wu could be cognate with wu 舞 "to dance"; wu could also be cognate with mu 母 "mother" since wu, as opposed to xi 覡, 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 巫 "shaman; witch, wizard; magician" was 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.

Shang period

The Chinese religion from the Shang dynasty onwards developed around ancestral worship.[7] The main gods from this period are not forces of nature in the Indo-European way, but deified virtuous men.[8] The ancestors of the emperors were called di (帝), and the greatest of them was called Shangdi (上帝, "the Highest Lord").[9] He is identified with the dragon (Kui 夔), symbol of the universal power (qi).[10]

Cosmic powers dominate nature: the Sun, the Moon, stars, winds and clouds were considered informed by divine energies.[11] The earth god is She (社) or Tu (土).[12] The Shang period had two methods to enter in contact with divine ancestors: the first is the numinous-mystical wu (巫) practice, involving dances and trances; and the second is the method of the oracle bones, a rational way.[13]

Zhou period

The Zhou dynasty, succeeding the Shang, was more rooted in an agricultural worldview.[14] They opposed the ancestor-gods of the Shang, and gods of nature became dominant.[15] The utmost power in this period was named Tian (天, "the Great One").[16] With Di (地, "earth") he forms the whole cosmos in a complementary duality.[17]

See also


  1. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43. Further: Cf. Werner Eichhorn, Die Religionen Chinas, 1973, pp. 55-70.
  2. Nelson, Matson, Roberts, Rock, Stencel. 2006.
  3. Nadeau, 2012. p. 140
  4. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  5. Waldau, Patton. 2009. p. 280
  6. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  7. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  8. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  9. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  10. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  11. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  12. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  13. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  14. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  15. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  16. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  17. Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.


  • Ulrich Libbrecht. Within the Four Seas...: Introduction to Comparative Philosophy. Peeters Publishers, 2007. ISBN 9042918128
  • Sarah M. Nelson, Rachel A. Matson, Rachel M. Roberts, Chris Rock, Robert E. Stencel. Archaeoastronomical Evidence for Wuism at the Hongshan Site of Niuheliang. 2006.
  • Randall L. Nadeau. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  • Paul Waldau, Kimberley Patton. A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780231136433
  • Arthur Waley, The Nine Songs: a Study of Shamanism in Ancient China. London, 1955. [1]
  • Coblin, W. South. 1986. A Sinologist's Handlist of Sino-Tibetan Lexical Comparisons. 1986. Steyler Verlag.
  • Laufer, Berthold. 1917. "Origin of the Word Shaman", American Anthropologist 19.3: 361-371.
  • Mair, Victor H. 1990. "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš and English Magician,” Early China 15: 27–47.
  • Schuessler, Axel. 2007. An Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. University of Hawaii Press.

External links