Contemporary Chinese Shamanism:The Reinvention of Tradition
Xu Ma tossed and turned in a disturbed sleep, lost in a land covered with green grass and trees that rolled on and on as far as she could see. Many times in past nights she had witnessed that same scene and awoken in a sweat. An enlarged lump had appeared on her wrist at about the same time the dreams had begun, and she felt a throbbing pain that continued to worsen. The village clinic could do little to alleviate her distress. Neighbors suggested she seek out a woman healer named Wang. Wang advised her to return to her home, buy some paper money, and make a paper house and two paper suitcases. That evening Wang visited Xu Ma’s home to perform a huanyuan (literally, “fulfilling a wish”) service.
Wang explained that when she was possessed, a voice entered through her right shoulder and spoke through her, showing her the cause of her clients’ problems. Through this process, Wang had already identified Xu Ma’s dead parents as the cause of her dreams. She had seen them in the spirit world in rags, donned in hats with no tops and in tattered, foul-smelling clothing covered with dirt and filth. “Her father came to me first, followed by her mother. I was really startled, and did not know who they were in the beginning” Wang said. Since they had no home they had come to their daughter’s house, hungry and cold. Wang asked Xu Ma to prepare the paper house and suitcases to supply her parents in the spirit world.
Wang seemed in good spirits after finishing the special dinner Xu Ma had prepared. She recounted various shamanistic practices until, without warning, she closed her eyes and began humming and let out three prolonged yawns. Someone spoke in a hushed voice, “She is possessed, she is possessed.” Xu Ma immediately got up and moved so as to sit closer to Wang. Wang, eyes still closed, started to sing and chant in a high-pitched, yet audible voice. The spirits had entered into her and she was now speaking in their voices. With this new voice, Wang told Xu Ma that her house had several spirits present, and that she must set up an altar in her bedroom to burn incense and pray to deities who local people had worshipped in the past. Wang told Xu that the spirits had been neglected and were unhappy; consequently they had inflicted her with the painful lump. Setting up an altar to the spirits would protect Xu, bless her with good health, and heal her wrist. Wang then let out another big yawn, opened her eyes, and resumed her normal speech.
Wang continued with her healing by asking Xu Ma to prepare a bowl of water that she chanted over for about a minute. The magic water (fushui) was sprinkled over Xu Ma’s aching wrist and Wang massaged her arm for a few minutes. Finally she asked everyone to step outside for the conclusion of the healing. At an open roadside about 200 yards from Xu Ma’s house, the paper house and suitcases were set on fire and Xu Ma threw paper money onto the fire as Wang chanted instructions to the spirit soldiers to carry these supplies to the nether world. When the fire died, Wang refused a 10 yuan bill that Xu Ma tried to place in her hand; as Xu and her family kept insisting, however, Wang finally accepted the money.
New Shamanism for a New China?
Xu Ma’s healing recalls the traditional Chinese idea that good health and good family fortune are manifestations of harmony with the world inhabited by ancestral spirits and other deities. Discord, sickness, and irregularities are caused by humans’ neglect of the spirit worlds, or their wrong exercise of free will. To avoid misfortune and maintain harmony, humans must make offerings to these spirits. If denied shelter and food, spirits would potentially bring evil to the world of the living.
These ideas have been reframed in post-Maoist China, where economic modernization and criticism of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution take center stage. Xu Ma’s parents died during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when burial rituals and ancestor worship were severely criticized; Xu was not able to engage in the appropriate practices to secure the happiness of her parents in the other world. Popular rituals such as offering food for the spirits and provisioning the ancestors were considered “backward,” “superstitious,” and “feudalistic”; suppression of popular rituals extended to the domestic realm. Local officials and civilians caught in the Maoist frenzy had destroyed family altars for ancestor worship in the home and village temples. The reversal in the late 1970s of these political campaigns made it safe, and even necessary, for Xu Ma to rectify the past and provide a secure place for her parents in the other world. By doing so, she could bring health and prosperity to the living, reestablishing the harmony between this world and the other. In a more prosperous China one could afford to display one’s abilities to provide for others, even those who were no longer alive.
A brief description of these activities in the context of contemporary central China provide a reference for further discussions about the resurgence of various spiritual activities and practices throughout the Chinese countryside. Only in the early 1990s did these practitioners return to public visibility following the severe persecutions of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese peasants refer to these re-emerging practitioners by evoking a traditional term, huo pusha, meaning "living gods" or "buddhas." Such practitioners are conceptualized in English as shamans and spirit mediums.
History and Modernity
The long history of shamanistic spirit mediumship practices in China is riddled with such colorful and diverse practitioners that even a trained historian could not fully document them all. With the unification of China and the rise of a Confucianist hierarchy (approximately from 202 B.C. to 220 A.D., during the reign of the Han dynasty) such practices remained part of local traditions that sometimes conflicted with imperial concerns and beliefs. Shamanism was a crucible for various local beliefs and ideas, some of which the state viewed as unorthodox, even during the communist period. Shamans’ response represents a creative response to tradition, with shamanistic authority depending on personal qualities and abilities to engage the supernatural world of ghosts, gods, spirits, and ancestors, rather than on the institutionalized forms of authority associated with the state.1 These individuals draw their knowledge of the other world from local ideas and tradition, and from the various contradictions, conflicts, and contested fields of power that these ideas voice. These shamans transform tradition in unique ways through a dialogue with the past. In this way they are actually a mirror for social change and accommodation to new economic, political, and historical conditions.
Seeking shamanistic help is a recent phenomenon in the Hubei village in central China where author Hong Zhang conducted fieldwork in the early 1990s with four female practitioners. All four had experienced a major mental breakdown when they were first called to be healers, during which they had lost control of their minds and bodies. Chen said that during her period of madness she ran naked through the village. Wang cried uncontrollably for days. These were testing periods when the spirits had entered the women’s bodies to see if the women could speak for the spirits. There is no question that this madness was publicly humiliating. All the women claimed that the spirits had called them to their profession, but that if they’d had a choice, they would have preferred to not be called. Most practitioners are female, possibly because such public displays of insanity are more acceptable for women than men, and shamanic activities are marginal within the spectrum of religious activities that have opened in China.
On the surface Wang seemed to be just another ordinary resident of the village. She had two children before she was 25 years old, and everything was quite normal until one night in the early 1980s when she burst from a deep sleep into periods of crying and singing. For the next nine days she did not eat or drink anything, and she was either unconscious or would climb onto the wooden door latch and sit singing and crying for hours. Her village thought she had gone mad. The village’s clinicians offered little help. Friends advised Wang’s mother that a shaman might be able to help. No shamans lived in Wang’s village, so a friend introduced her mother to one from a neighboring community. After the first shaman was not effective, the family tried another, named Liu, who was able to treat Wang. When Wang recovered, she knelt before Liu to express her gratefulness. But Liu stopped Wang and told her that the only way she could thank her was to become her apprentice. Wang accepted this offer but nothing changed for the first six or seven years. She burned incense and occasionally spent some time with Liu praying and observing as Liu cured her patients. Not until the early 1990s did Wang begin hearing gods’ voices, seeing gods’ images, and treating patients.
Since Wang’s mental breakdown an explosion of entrepreneurial activity has occurred in the countryside associated with the return of economic responsibility from the state to individual households. Further directives issued by Beijing resulted in a dismantling of collective enterprises and institutions that had provided services and support for local populations; one area particularly hard-hit was healthcare. These days less and less medical care is available at the local level and people must travel far and pay more for these services. To fill this gap, present-day representations of traditional forms of healing are emerging. People feel they need spirit consultations to deal with uncertainties associated with everyday life, economic anxiety, and misfortune when they are left with only their immediate family resources and enterprises. But shifts in the local economy cannot fully explain this phenomenon.
Responding to the Times
Many current Chinese shamanic practices do not conform to all the classic features described by Michael Winkelman as core shamanism. Notably lacking are the soul flight, death-and-rebirth experiences, animal powers and transformations, and sorcery characteristic of core shamans. Instead we find possessing spirits and ancestor worship. Some of their knowledge is gleaned from popular media, movies and films, and other current trends. Local beliefs, as well as faintly recalled and reframed Chinese traditions and fragments of contemporary popular culture and politics, intermingle in their activities. Nonetheless, in all instances we find some classic features that restore the mental wellbeing and health of the individual shaman.
The recent return of shamanistic practices in the Chinese countryside is not simply psychological but simultaneously historical and corporeal. It involves a response to the traumatic engagements that these practices had with the Maoist project and their rebirth in the era of Deng Xiaoping. There is no doubt that most of these activities ceased to function openly during the most radical periods of China’s history.2 In the end, explaining the diversity of practices and practitioners in contemporary China must also address the political and economic functions of those activities.
1. For a more extended discussion on Chinese religion see Thompson (1995).
2. See Potter & Potter, 1990, for the effects of state polices on the Chinese peasantry.
Hong Zhang received her doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University. She is an assistant professor of East Asian studies at Colby College and is currently teaching Chinese language courses and a course on anthropology of China. Her research interests include family and marriage, language and gender, urbanization, population and aging, social reforms, and contemporary Chinese society. Constantine Hriskos has taught anthropology at Hofstra University, the City College of New York, and Colby College. He is also a Columbia University anthropologist whose areas of interest include the development of the social sciences in 20th-century China, Chinese religion, and the history of anthropology. Zhang and Hriskos have co-authored a number of pieces on Taoist alchemy and contemporary Chinese shamanism.
References and further reading
Kagan, R.C., trans. & ed. (1980). The Chinese Approach to Shamanism. Chinese Sociology and Anthropology. Vol. 12, No. 4. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Kleinman, A. (1980). Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland Between Anthropology, Medicine and Psychiatry. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Potter, J.M. (1978). Cantonese Shamanism. In Studies in Chinese Society. Wolf, A.P., Ed. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press.
Potter, S.H. & Potter, J.M. (1990). China’s Peasants: The Anthropology of a Revolution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, L.G. (1995). Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Winkelman, M. (2000). Shamanism The neural ecology of consciousness and healing. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.
Wolf, M. (1992). The Woman Who Didn’t Become a Shaman. In A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press. Pp 93-116.
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