Northeast China folk religion

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Northeast China folk religion or Dongbei folk religion (东北民间宗教 Dōngběi mínjiān zōngjiào, or 东北民间信仰 Dōngběi mínjiān xìnyǎng) is the variety of Chinese folk religion that is practiced in northeast China (Manchuria), including the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, but with influences coming from and reaching as far as Hebei and Shandong.[1] It is characterised by patterns of deities, worship and terminology that are different from those of central and southern Chinese folk religion. Many of these patterns derive from the interaction of Han folk faiths with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms.[2]

Prominence is given to the worship of animal gods, of a "totemic" value.[3][4] In the region the terms shen 神 ("god") and xian 仙 ("immortal being") are synonymous. Figures of ritual specialists or shamans[note 1] perform various ritual functions for groups of believers and local communities, including chuma xian (出马仙, "riding (for) the immortal gods"),[7] dances, healing, exorcism, divination, and communication with ancestors.[8]


File:Roadside shrine in Manchuria.jpg
A roadside shrine in Manchuria. (1888)

The formation of northeast China's folk religion and 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.[9] 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,[10] which considered it "feudal superstition" (封建迷信 fēngjiàn míxìn)[11] and banned through different decrees.[12]

The popular worship of animal gods began to resurface in the 1980s, and soon also the chuma xian practice was revived.[13] In the 2010s there have been attempts to protect chuma xian under the policy of "intangible cultural heritage".[14]

Japanese scholarship, Shinto similarities

Shinto shrine in Zhangjiakou, Hebei, China, in the 1960s. The Shrine incorporated Mongol Genghis Khan worship.

The study of northeast China's folk religion owes much to the scholarly enterprise that the Japanese conducted on the subject during the period of the Manchukuo (1932–1945) that they established after they occupied Manchuria.[15] Unlike Japanese-occupied Korea and occupied Taiwan, Manchuria was conceived as an autonomous nation, not to be assimilated into Japan, but rather to reproduce its cultural and religious structure.[16]

Ōmachi Tokuzo (1909-1970), a pupil of Yanagita Kunio (the founder of academic ethnography in Japan), conducted field research on local religion in the Manchukuo through the war years.[17] He later acted as the head of the Society for the Study of Manchurian Customs, producing an impressive body of research on local religion in Manchuria and north China.[18] Ōmachi identified the rural village, each with a Tudishen shrine, as the fundamental unit of northeast China's local religion and of the religious character of the Han Chinese race.[19] He also studies local Han Chinese goddess worship and the great similarity and integration of the Han and the Manchus.[20] Ōmachi does not appear to have supported the institution of Shinto shrines in Manchurian villages, which in Korea and Taiwan were intended for the spiritual transformation of the locals into Japanese citizens by their integration into Shinto communities.[21]

Another scholar, Tokunaga Takeshi, sought to demonstrate the spiritual unity of Japan, Manchuria and China by highlighting the similarities between ancient religious structures of the three nations:[22]

Japanese ancient shrines are of the kannabi (popularly known as Mt. Fuji-style) shape. There are many of these in Manchuria, as well ... [The artifacts] develop from the same agrarian culture and philosophy as Japanese Shinto (kannagara no michi) ... Modern [Chinese] matron temples have these elements, as well. Therefore, since the temples were built later, it is thought that matron worship was grafted onto this earlier pattern of belief.[23]

Other scholars studied the similarities between local and Japanese shamanisms.[22] The Manchukuo generally promoted a racially centered spiritual revival, that is an ethnic religion for each of the races inhabiting Manchuria.[24] For example, under the suggestions of Ogasawara Shozo that the Mongols "need(ed) a new religion, specifically a new god" they promoted the worship of Genghis Khan that continues today in northern China. The Shinto shrine of Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou, Hebei) incorporated Genghis Khan worship and was opened to local Mongols.[25]



Northeast China's folk religion gives high importance to animal gods,[26] and also the worship of clusters of goddesses is popular. The gods are ordained in hierarchies, or families (xiānjiā 仙家), a pattern inherited from the Chinese Confucian lineage system.[27] Fox deities have an important place,[28] with evident parallels in the Japanese cult of Inari Ōkami.[29] Usually at the head of the pantheon are placed 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).[30]

The most revered gods are the Wudaxian (五大仙), "Five Great Gods":

  • Huxian (狐仙) or Hushen (狐神), the Fox Goddess;
  • Huangxian (黃仙) or Huangshen (黃神), the Weasel God;
  • Changxian (常仙) or Changshen (常神), the Snake God;
  • Baixian (白仙) or Baishen (白神), the Hedgehog God;
  • Huixian (灰仙) or Huishen (灰神), the Rat God.

Another cluster worshipped mostly in Hebei, the Sidamen (四大门) or "Four Great Gate[ways]", excludes one of the five. Other variations include the Mangxian (蟒仙) or Mangshen (蟒神), the Python God or Boa God. Other divine animals are the tiger, the leopard, the mole, the toad and the rabbit.[31]

Deities from broader Chinese culture also are worshipped in the northeast; for example Huang Daxian is popular in the area, although he has no relation to Taoism as in southeastern China[32] and is rather identified as the Weasel God.

Local terminology distinguishes the animal gods as the middle way between the shàngfáng shénxiān (上房神仙 "everlasting gods") gods of the greater cosmos important in Taoism, that are only worshipped and do not take possession of shamans; and the yīnxiān (陰仙 "underworld gods"), deceased beings who became gods through self-cultivation (ancestors and progenitors).[33]


Northeastern shamans, consider themselves to be "disciples" (dìzǐ 弟子) of the gods (their masters) rather than mere channels of communication of the spiritual world to the human plane.[34] Another name used to refer to these ritual masters is xiāngtóu (香頭 "incense heads").[35] Their practice is generally called chuma xian (出马仙), which means "the gods (who) take action" or more literally "riding (for the) great gods", a definition which implies that the gods and their disciples act as an organic whole, and in their action, form and content they express themselves together.[36]

There are two types of possession that the northeastern shamans experience in terms of consciousness:[37]

  • 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.

They also practice a communication with ancestors through an ecstatic experience called guòyīn (过阴 "passing to the underworld").[38] This is part of the practices of both chuma xian and related communal rites of broader Chinese local religion.[39]

Northeastern Chinese shamanism shares similarities with southern Chinese mediumship (jitong), Japanese Shinto, and various other shamanisms in the region (Tungus and Manchu shamanism, Mongolian shamanism, Korean shamanism, broader Siberian shamanism).[40] Historically it is the result of the encounter of Han Chinese and Manchu cultures, especially the Han cult of the fox[41][42] and Manchu "wild ritual"-type (wuwate or (Chinese) yeji) of Manchu religion.[43][44]

Northeastern Chinese shamans are predominantly women, like the shamans of Northeast Asian shamanism, while southern Chinese mediums are almost exclusively men.[45] Moreover, while northeastern shamans are usually independent from formal religious institutions, southern jitong often collaborate with professional Taoists.[46] Another distinction is that while southern mediums can acquire their role through training, and they are possessed mostly by Taoist and strictly Chinese gods, northeastern shamans are "chosen" or "ordained" by gods themselves (through mo, "sickness"[47]) as in other shamanic traditions, and their gods are animal totems.[48] When a future dizi is chosen, she experiences mo ("sickness")[49]

Places of worship and shaman halls

In northeast China terminology for religious places and groups generally follows the common Chinese model, with miao (庙) defining any "sacred precinct" dedicated to a god. Meanwhile, small shrines and worship settings in the northeast are called xiāntáng (仙堂 "hall of the gods")[50] or tángzi (堂子), the latter name inherited from the temples of bolongzi or (in Chinese) jiaji ("ancestral ritual") type of Manchu shamanism.[51] Shamans also hold private worship halls (lìtáng 立堂) in their homes.[52]

Folk religious sects

Red Swastika (Guiyidao)'s headquarters in Manchuria (prior to 1945).

Since Chinese Buddhism and professional Taoism were never well developed in northeast China, the religious life of the region has been heavily influenced by networks of folk sects, characterised by a congregational structure and a scriptural core.[53] During the Japanese occupation they weren't studied, but their role as a moral catalyser for the Han race was emphasised.[54]

The Yiguandao (一貫道 "Consistent Way") had a strong presence in the area,[54] but were especially the Guiyidao (皈依道 "Way of the Return to the One") and the Universal Church of the Way and its Virtue (万国道德会 Wànguó Dàodéhuì) to have millions of followers in Manchuria alone.[55] In more recent times, the sect of Falun Gong was founded in the 1990s in Jilin.

During the period of the Manchurian State also many Japanese new religions, or independent Shinto sects, proselytised in Manchuria establishing hundreds of congregations. Most of the missions belonged to the Omoto teaching, the Tenri teaching and the Konko teaching of Shinto.[56] The Omoto teaching is the Japanese near equivalent of Guiyidao, as the two religions have common roots and history.

See also


  1. Shamans are variously called:
    • Simply dìzǐ 弟子, "disciples (of the gods)";[5]
    • Dàxiān er 大仙儿, "children of the great gods";
    • Tiào dàshén 跳大神, "dancers of the great gods".[6]


  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. 45
  10. Deng, 2014. pp. 45-46
  11. Deng, 2014. p. 3
  12. Deng, 2014. pp. 46-49
  13. Deng, 2014. pp. 50-51
  14. Deng, 2014. p. 52
  15. DuBois (2006), p. 53.
  16. DuBois (2006), pp. 56-57.
  17. DuBois (2006), p. 59.
  18. DuBois (2006), p. 61.
  19. DuBois (2006), pp. 62-63.
  20. DuBois (2006), pp. 63-64.
  21. DuBois (2006), p. 64.
  22. 22.0 22.1 DuBois (2006), p. 65.
  23. Okumura Yoshinobu, Manshu nyannyan ko [Study of Niangniang Temples in Manchuria] (Shinkyo [Changchun], 1940), 242–245.
  24. DuBois (2006), p. 68.
  25. DuBois (2006), p. 69.
  26. Deng, 2014. p. 22
  27. Deng, 2014. p. 22
  28. Deng, 2014. p. 21
  29. Kang (2006), pp. 199-200.
  30. Deng, 2014. p. 75
  31. Liu Zhengai, 2008.
  32. Wang Xue, 2013.
  33. Deng, 2014. p. 29
  34. Deng, 2014. p. 2
  35. Li Weizu (2011)
  36. Deng, 2014. p. 3
  37. Deng, 2014. p. 32
  38. Deng, 2014. p. 8
  39. Deng, 2014. p. 8
  40. Deng, 2014. p. 13
  41. Kang (2006)
  42. Huntington (2003)
  43. Deng, 2014. p. 13
  44. Deng, 2014. pp. 17-18
  45. Deng, 2014. p. 13
  46. Deng, 2014. p. 13
  47. Deng, 2014. p. 23
  48. Deng, 2014. p. 14
  49. Deng, 2014. p. 23
  50. Deng, 2014. p. 2
  51. Deng, 2014. p. 20
  52. Deng, 2014. p. 27
  53. DuBois (2006), p. 70.
  54. 54.0 54.1 DuBois (2006), p. 72.
  55. Ownby (2008). § 23: «the Daodehui eight million in Manchukuo alone (a quarter of the total population) in 1936-1937.»
  56. Stalker, Nancy K. (2008). Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburō, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824832264.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 164


  • Claire Qiuju Deng. Action-Taking Gods: Animal Spirit Shamanism in Liaoning, China. Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University, Montreal, 2014.
  • DuBois, Thomas David (2005). The Sacred Village: Social Change and Religious LIfe in Rural North China. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824828372.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Download .pdf
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  • Kang, Xiaofei (2006). The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231508220.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • 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.