ANIMISM AND SHAMANISM IN EAST ASIA (JAPAN, KOREA, CHINA)

ITAKO SHAMAN OF JAPAN

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Itako shaman
There are still shaman in Japan.. Itako are shaman or mediums that have traditionally been blind or sight impaired old women that were called upon by bereaved family members to communicate with the dead. They embrace folk religion and animist traditions but also call upon Buddhist and Shinto gods for help. Each itako has her own gods that she calls upon. Some use aids such as beads and stringed bows to call the gods.

Itako have traditionally been looked down upon as little more than beggars. They were persecuted in the Meiji period and they sought refuge in remote places. They often dress in ragged clothes. When other people saw them they threw horse dung at them.

Itako were once common throughout Japan. According to one researcher there may have been 1 million of them roaming the countryside, working as mediums and healers, 150 years ago. They usually traveled with yamabushi (See Buddhism). Only about 20 or so itako remain, they are mostly in Aomori.

Onmyoji are traditional shaman trained in Taoist, Buddhist and Shinto magic. They are sometimes called on to perform exorcisms, which are done by convincing the spirits they should leave rather than forcing them out.

Book: Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan by Carmen Blacker (Japan Library, 1999). The name of the book refers to a single string instruments used by Japanese diviners to communicate with the spiritual world.

Itako Shaman in Aomori

Itako shaman Entsuji, a Buddhist temple near a crater lake in Osorezan, a composite volcano in the middle of Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, hosts a four-day festival in late July that features itako who communicate with the dead.During the festival the women sit in blue tents and people who want to communicate with dead loved ones form lines to meet with the old women, who charge ¥3,000 per spirit per 30 minute session. Some work at shrines and others work at their homes outside the festival times. Some moonlight as fortunetellers.

One itako told the Daily Yomiuri that when she was a child her poor eyesight kept her from attending school and “people thought I was strange because I said strange things.” She started to became aware of her itako powers when she discovered she could predict future events, such as natural disasters and accidents that would affect people and was able to find things people lost.

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Itako shaman
Itako train as an apprentice for five to seven years and then go through an initiation and series of tough endurance tests. The itako above began learning scripture by ear when she was a teenager from an itako master and stopped eating meat and eggs. She became an itako at the age of 18.

Kokhan Sasaki, a professor at Komazawa University, told the Daily Yomiuri that itako dress for 100 days in white kimono before their initiation ceremony and stop eating grain, salt and avoid artificial heat. As part of their training they pour cold water on themselves in the middle of the winter and memorize scripture, a time-consuming task especially when considering they have difficulty seeing.

During the ceremony itself an itako initiate dresses as a bride and is married to a god in a ceremony that involves chanting to bells and drums, whose sounds induces a trance, Sometimes it takes a long time for the initiate to go into a trance. When she does, the master itako that is present determines which gods has possessed her. During the whole process the new itako is not allowed sleep and is only given minimal amounts of food.

Itako Seances in Japan

During a seance with an itako known as Kuchiyose, the itako receives the death date of deceased person and it relation to the customer. She than rattles prayer beads, goes into a trance and sings to call the spirit to possess her. The spirit usually thanks the petitioner, wishes good fortune and life and discusses personal matters.

Itako usually claim they don't know what is said while they are in a trance. They say that while they are in a trance it feels like they have been grabbed by a powerful force and moved to someplace where they can watch themselves.

The seances last about 10 minutes. Through the medium, the spirit usually says something like, "I am very sorry for having died before my parents, but I am glad that you have come here. I am OK, and hope you are too."

Describing Japan’s only male itako, Miki Fuji wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “I ask Narumi to contact my grandmother. He closes his eyes and begins to chant Buddhist scriptures while rubbing black beads in his hands, until his speech suddenly becomes addressed to me...”I rest peacefully on a lotus with grandfather. Your mother may become ill in December and this may develop into pneumonia if she doesn’t take care. But it won’t be serious if she takes precautions early enough.”

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Korean Minhwa-Sansindo
Doctors are studying subjects who have participated in Kuchiyose to see if they have had a healing effect from the ritual. In survey of 670 people with chronic diseases in the Aomori area, 35 percent of them said they had taken part in a Kuchiyose ritual. Of those 80 percent said the experience was beneficial. Thirty percent said they felt mentally healed and 27 percent said they felt calm after speaking to the shamans. One doctor involved in the research told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Kuchiyose has an effect of giving people a sense of comfort and encouragement to live thinking about the future.”

Korean Shaman

Shamanism is Korea's oldest indigenous belief system. Originating from the North, it is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shamanist rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines or in village homes. Traditional Korean shaman religions that existed before the introduction of Buddhism include Ch'ordogyoisn and Taejonggyo , both of which are still practiced today. Ancient kings in the Shilla Dynasty were regarded as shaman as well political rulers.

Shamanism has experienced a rebirth in recent years more as an expression of nationalism and culture than religion. Most shaman are women. Shamanistic rituals are widely performed before ticket-buying audiences. Many shaman are women. Often their spiritual power is so great that they have to be separated from society in some way.

About 40,000 shaman are still active in Korea today. The are called mudang or manshin (literally "ten thousand spirits," a reference t number of spirits they can summon) and their rituals are known as kut . Nearly all of them are women who become shaman after being possessed by a spirit or god during a life-threatening illness. To maintain their rapport with gods they do things like rub rosary beads, consults old texts, and take cold shower, even in the winter time.

One shaman told the New York Times that she became a shaman after to being chronically sick beginning at the age of 43. "I went to hospital, but they couldn't cure me," she said. "I felt something bottled up inside me, and I couldn't get it out." She tried Christianity for three years and then went through initiation rites at the age of 49. "Ever since then," she said, "we've been happier and we've been making money."

Shaman Beliefs, Techniques and Exorcisms in Korea

Koreans often visit shaman if they are inexplicable sick, have marriage problems or need help producing children. Shaman charge about $2,000 for a ritual dance and usually require that the money be paid up front.

The majority of villages in South Korea have shaman. Because villagers have often grown up with shaman in their village and sometimes doubt they really possess spiritual powers, they usually visit a shaman in another village if they need help.

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Mudang performing hut
Shaman rituals in Korea are often held in front of shrines or altar in the shaman's house, where the shaman goes into trance, is possessed by spirits, shakes and trembles, and speaks in strange languages. They often dance to the rhythm of gongs and drums, and ring a bell, and sometimes perform feats such as walking on the blades of knives without hurting themselves.

To drive the evil spirits out of a sick person shaman in Yosu in South Cholla Province lead a fake funeral with a straw effigy dressed like a patient. Evil spirits are appeased with food and dances and then caste away by shaman assistants wearing demon masks.

Korean shaman call on and are possessed by spirits such as Sam-shin Halmoni (the "Birth Grandmother"), Chesok (the Buddhist King of Heaven), San-shin (a mountain spirit), Yong Wong (the Dragon King), Iljik Saja (the messenger of the King of Hell), the White Horse General, the Elder Brother of the Seven Stars, and the Lightning General.

Shaman exorcisms, called salpuri (literally agony removal but also a pun on arrow removing), can be quite brutal. In the mid-1990s, two Koreans were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for stomping to death a woman during an exorcism ritual in Malibu, California. During the hours-long ritual the victim was repeatedly struck, stomped and stood on by several men. The exorcism was only stopped when the woman stopped breathing. Around the same time a female shaman and three others were arrested in the Kyonggi province of South Korea for the death the shaman's mentally retarded niece who was severely beaten and forced swallow salt and powdered red pepper.

Shaman on the East Coast of Korea

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Kim Sok Chu'l, a male shaman in his 70s from the east coast town of Yangsan, was designated by the Korean government as Cultural Asset No. 82. In his region marrying a shaman entails becoming a shaman oneself and most of the members in his family are shaman. Periodically Kim and other shaman in east coast towns preside over festivals in which the souls of the dead are appeased with offerings and prayers to bring about bountiful catches and safe journeys for the fishermen. The festivals are usually held around the Lunar New Year and they last for several days.

The Tonghaean Pyolshinku, a shaman festival held every four years in Yangsan, is divided into 12 "inner segments" for grandmother spirits and 12 "outer segments" for grandfather spirits. The ceremony begins when women, hypnotized by beating drums, place six-meter-long bamboo poles at an altar to help guide the spirits. When the women's hands and bodies begin shaking it means the spirits have arrived.

The poles are taken to the house of a shaman, who has prepared for the ceremony by bathing only in cold water for an entire year. Shaman taken turns leading the 24 segments of the ceremony. In one segment a woman does a fan dances while her husband drums. As the rhythm picks up the woman becomes possessed and starts jerking around and chanting in a strange voice. In another segment a shaman sings a soul-stirring lament while in a trance.

Between the segments the participants sing songs, eat special foods, get drunk, burn paper flowers, perform comic skits, pray to the seas gods, and play drum music. While the shaman are doing their thing, people stuff banknotes in their waistbands, headbands, hats and instruments. Similar rituals called Chilmori Tangku are performed on Cheju Island.

Shaman Ritual on Chindo Island in Korea

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Korean Hyewon-Munyeo
A shaman funeral rite called the Sikkim Kut is still performed in Chindo, an isolated southern island that developed its own unique culture. It is most often held the night preceding a burial. Its purpose is to cleanse the spirit of the deceased. [Source: The Smithsonian]

Before the ceremony begins, candles and incense are burned for purification purposes. An altar with offerings of food is prepared to satisfy the spirits, and objects symbolizing different ancestral spirits are carefully set out as the shaman performs choreographed ritual actions that incorporate drama, dance, song and mime.

Accompanied by percussive and dramatic music, the shaman begins to dance and appeals to the spirit while singing. The performance intensifies and reaches its climax when a knotted white cloth is untied and unfolded to symbolize the cleansed spirit's road to the afterworld. On Chindo the role of shaman is passed down from mother to daughter-in-law.

Describing the ritual, Asami Nagai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The deep-voiced Kim began chanting and loosening the knots by moving the cloth up and down, finally disposing of it....Musicians then appeared and Kim danced while holding a bundle of paper strings in each hand. The ornaments represent money...which cleanses the spirit of the dead as well as enriches the givers.”

Shamanism in Central Korea

A shaman, who supplemented her earnings by raising eating dogs and running a farm, told the New York Times that a large number of the people who come to her had various kinds of marriage problems. Describing one of her successes, she said, "one person had a lot of daughters even though she wanted a son. So I prayed, and then I explained to her that there was a young spirit who was giving her trouble. So I prayed to the spirit to ask her to give the couple good luck instead. Later they had a son." [Source: Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, December 11. 1995]

"Another villager came to me because he'd had a lot of bad luck," she said. "He was sick a lot and someone owed him a lot of money and wouldn't pay." After performing a ritual dance she said, "Now he's not sick anymore" and the debt is "being paid little by little."

Many of her neighbors claim she is a fraud because she picked ashes instead of cold water during an initiation ritual, and say, "If she has special powers, why is she cleaning up pig manure." The related the case of a woman who visited another shaman to seek help for her husband, who returned from a friend's funeral sick and demented. They said she paid $700 for a ritual dance and her husband died anyway.

Ten-Year-Old Shaman in Central Korea

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Korean shaman mask
A 10-year-old shaman named Park Hye Ji, who began practicing her trade at the age of seven after years of communicating with the spirit of her deceased grandfather, told the New York Times, "I'm not very happy about it, but it happened to me and if I'd rejected it I'd probably be dead by now." She said that being a 10-year-old shaman is rather lonely: she has no friends to play with and didn't even attend school. "When I'm in school," she said, "the kids talk a lot, and they get jealous...Then when I come home I feel uncomfortable."

The owner of a noodle shop who sought help from Park to improve business said she indeed possessed special powers, but when asked if business was good, he said, "Well, not so good. So maybe that means she doesn't have special powers. But you don't have to look at it that way. I mean, that's just how life is."

Park said that she earned about $40,000 a year, after expenses, but her parents didn't allow her to spend her money. When asked if her parents spank her she said, "The only time the god is in me is when I'm in the shrine and ready to receive him. Most of the time I'm just an ordinary 10-year-old girl. So when I'm bad, yeah, they spank me."

Miao Religion and Spirits

The Miao are a colorful and culturally- and historically-rich ethnic minority that lives primarily in southern China, Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and Thailand. Originally from China, the Miao are animists and ancestor worshipers and have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet. The Miao are known in Southeast Asia as the Hmong (pronounced mung).

The Miao (also known as the Hmong) are animists, shamanists and ancestor worshipers whose beliefs have been shaped somewhat by Chinese religions, namely Taoism and Buddhism, and, more recently in the case of some groups, Christianity. Within a house there are special altars for the spirits of sickness and wealth in the bedroom, the front room, and loft and near the house post and the two hearths.

Male household leaders are usually in charge of the domestic worship of ancestor spirits and household gods. Part time specialist act as priests, diviners and shaman. They don special clothes when the preside over rites and employ chants, prayers and songs they have memorized. They are paid in food for their services. Shaman are generally called upon on cure illnesses by bringing back lost souls. They play a key role in funeral rites and are called upon to explain misfortunes and preside over rites that protect households and villages.

Miao spirits, known as tlan, are thought to live in high concentrations in places like sacred groves, caves, stones, wells and bridges. Household ancestor spirits (dab) are distinguished from spirts called up by shaman (neeb). The spirts that protect homes and villages are sometimes thought of as dragons.

The Miao pantheon of gods and spirits include Saub, a beneficent deity often invoked for help; Siv Yis, the first shaman; and the two malevolent underworld kings, Ntxwj Nying and Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem.

Some Miao groups believe in a pre-eminent spirit that presides over all earth spirits; some do not. A few believe in a kind of cargo cult in which Jesus will arrive in a jeep and military fatigues and bring all kinds of wonderful things.

Miao Superstitions

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Manuscripts with shaman texts in
in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum
Superstition affects almost every aspect of the Miao's daily life. If a bird flies into a person's house and roosts, for example, it means it is time to start thinking about moving. Hunters are supposed to wipe their crossbows or rifles with the blood of the animals they kill to appease trail spirits which cause sprained ankles and other injuries.

Pregnant women are not supposed to enter some houses through the front door lest they bring great misfortune. Using the backdoor is alright. Sickness is thought to result from evil spirits luring the soul from the body and can only be cured of the soul is brought back through the front door of a house. To ward off evil spirits and keep the soul in the body, the Miao, like many ethnic minority people in Southeast Asia, tie cotton strings around their wrists.

In the 1970s, foreign teachers tried to teach their Miao students that a lunar eclipse were caused by the earth passing between the moon and sun. The students laughed at this implausible idea. Everybody knows, they said, that eclipses are caused when the frog spirit swallows the moon. The Miao also believe that the best way to avoid getting struck by lightning is not to avoid standing on high ground, but rather to avoid drinking milk.

Miao Festivals and Sacrifices

Many Miao groups have their own festivals and ceremonies, which vary from village to village. Many also celebrate Han Chinese holidays. Some celebrate the new year according to Han Chinese calendar Others celebrate it in the 10th lunar month following the harvest. Other important festivals include the Dragon Boat festival, the Mountain Flower festival, which are important in bring in young couples together, and Drum Society festivals, which are held only in some years to honor ancestors.

The Miao New Year is generally celebrated on the first four days of the tenth lunar month. It is the biggest event of the year. New clothes are put on, feasts are held, antiphonal songs are sung by courting couples, courting games are played, and ceremonies are held to honor household and ancestral spirits. Each household sacrifices domestic animals and holds a feast. Weddings are often held. Some villages stage bullfights. Other have cockfights.

San Yue San is three day festival celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Yao, She, Mulao and Geleo minorities in China's southern and central provinces. Sometimes called Venus Day, it is a time when boyfriends and girlfriends are chosen and villages celebrate the occasion with singing, dancing, archery, wrestling, playing on swings, tug of wars, pole climbing and other activities.

The Dong and Miao celebrate the first day of the festival by eating and drinking milky white wine. On the second day girls give baskets of shrimp and fish to the boys they fancy. On the third day everyone meets in the town square to participate in "drum treading" and "reed-pipe" dances. On the night of the third day girls dress up in their most beautiful tribal costumes and go upstairs in their bamboo houses to sing to the boys who are waiting downstairs. Boys then follow the girls to the gate of the bamboo houses and sing their reply.

All of the minorities perform the Money Bell and Double Daggers Dance. In this dance one man holds two daggers in his hand. Another man holds a money bell. The man with the daggers tries to stab the man with the money bell, who in turn tries to run away.

Miao Sacrifices

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Manuscripts with shaman texts in
in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum
Animal sacrifice ceremonies are held by the Miao to help sick relatives and assure that good tlan watch over their children. During the big ceremonies a cow is sacrificed in honor of relatives who died fighting in Laos.

Eighty percent of the pigs in an average Miao village end up being consumed at spirit ceremonies. When the ceremony is over the animals are eaten (the spirits only take the souls of the pigs not the meat) The remaining 20 percent of the pigs are slaughtered at weddings, funerals and christenings. The guest of honor at a ceremony is usually given the head, which is considered a real delicacy. Proper etiquette requires the guest of honor to suck out the brain. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

Each year the Miao hold four major sacrifices in which a cow or buffalo is offered. All four honor the rice spirit, Yang Coi. The first sacrifice is held before the land is cleared, the second before the seeds are planted, the third when the rice is half-grown and the forth after the harvest.

The sacrifice ceremony takes two days. On the first day the sacrificial cow is lead by a shaman, a group of children and six musicians with a gong into a field. Pieces of the cow's ear are cut out and buried near the borders of the field while a shaman chants a prayer.

During the second day a huge bamboo pole is erected in the field and decorated with bamboo cut-outs of cows and people. At the base of the pole is an alter which holds offerings of rice, bananas, and eggs. After a prayer is said a cow is killed with a ceremonial ax. Village women anxiously collect the spurting blood in bamboo containers which are later placed in the house to ward off evil spirits. While everyone sits around an drinks a rice beer called room they cow is cooked---hooves, hide and all---and later it is butchered and divided equally among the villagers.

Miao Funerals

After death, the Miao believe, the soul divides into three parts: one remains in the grave, a second joins his or her ancestor in the next world and the third returns to protect the home as an ancestor spirit. The dead have traditionally been cremated by lighting branches piled on top of the body. Funerals generally last a minimum of three days and are attended by all male kin within the household of the deceased. The ceremonies are often wailing affairs with mournful songs played by reed pipes to guide the dead on his or her journey to the other world. Cattle are sacrificed and the dead are buried in a place with auspicious feng shui.

Funerals may be presided over by ritual specialists but shaman are preferred because they are more skilled in making sure the soul of the deceased is given a proper send off to the other world and doesn’t become a malevolent spirit.

On the third day after the burial the grave is renovated. On the 13th day after death a ceremony is held for the ancestral soul so it will protect the household. A final memorial service is held a year after death. Later the deceased spirts may be invoked to help cure illnesses or misfortunes. When an ancestor soul returns to its village it must collect its placenta which has been buried beneath his house. This journey is described in funeral songs in which parallels are drawn between its journey and the journey of the Miao out of China.

Miao Healing Ceremonies

Sickness, many ethnic minorities believe, results when evil spirits lure the soul from the body. The Miao believe that the soul can only be taken through the front door and potential evil-spirit carriers such as pregnant women are supposed to enter through the backdoor. Wrist-tying is a custom performed by almost all the ethnic minorities do to keep an individual's 32 to 64 souls (depending on the tribe) within its body.

The Miao rely on shaman and female herbalist to treat sickness. During a ceremony that offers thanks to the gods for healing a sick baby, a Miao shaman known as tu-ua-neng mix rice and corn mix rice and corn liquor with herbs and folk medicine and offer it to chanting participants. The shaman then goes into frenzied trances to make deals with evil spirits in the clouds, at the bottom of a pond, in China to exorcize evil spirits from a house. Deals with the spirits are usually sealed with a pig or cow sacrifice from a rich customer and chicken sacrifice from poor one. [Source: "The Miao of Laos" by W.E. Garret, January 1974]

In another kind of healing ceremony a spider is dropped on the sick person's head. The Miao believe that a spider spirit is the most important spirit to have near one's head. Each night the spider spirit leaves the head when a person sleeps, the Miao say, and it returns when he or she wakes up. Sickness occurs if the spider's spirit leaves the body when a person is awake. To become healthy again the spider's soul is encouraged to return to the body.

Dong Religion

The Dong are related to Thais and Lao and live primarily in the hills along the border of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in China. A 1990 census counted 2,514,000 Dong in China. They have their own language, Kam, a Sino-Tibetan tongue, and had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. [Source: Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008]

The Dong believe in spirits, ghosts and supernatural being such as the ganjin, a gremlin-like creature that has backward feet and lives in the mountains and is blamed for causing illnesses and trouble. When a child gets sick offerings of rice, chicken eggs, wine and anyu fish paste are made to ganjin to leave the sick child’s body.

Coffins are carved from trees selected for their future owners when they are born and cut down and carved when they reach old age. Amy Tan wrote that the coffins look like decorative cabinets resting on their sides.

Major feasts and festivals are held on holidays and to commemorate births, weddings and funerals and the raising of the central beam in new houses. They usually feature slaughtered pigs and ceremonies with anyu fish paste.

Dong Feng Shi Masters

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Oroqen shaman costume
Ceremonies and healing rites are often conducted by village feng shui masters, who have learned their trade from a senior family members and serve as herbalists and village doctors. Feng shui masters often receive patients in their kitchen may see a half dozen to a dozen people an hour.

Describing a feng shui master at work in the village of Dimen, Amy Tan wrote in National Geographic, “One woman reported that her grandson had developed sudden pains in the head and stomach. The herbalist burned paper and floated ash in water with rice grains. He said an incantation counted on his fingers the names of gods who might have answers---God of Kitchen, God of Bridges, God of Injury, The diagnosis came back, The boy had seen the ghost of his great-grandmother. As a remedy the woman should make the great-grandmother a feast of rice wine and anyu, then invite her to eat week before the journey to the world of Yin, the underworld.”

“Another patient woke up with a stabbing pain in her throat,” Tan wrote. “The herbalist told her she was inhabited by the ghost of a man who had been hanged. A woman whose body hurt all over was inhabited but an ancestor who was unhappy that he never had a tombstone these past 200 years.”Prepare the anyu and bow. I’ll come tonight, and the ghost will be gone.” For a baby with diarrhea caused by drinking unboiled water he headed to a hillock, where he picked various leaves and long grasses to make a potion.

“He charged nothing for his healing services. But his grateful patients gave small gifts, an egg, some rice. He argued with one woman, who tried to give him two kwai, about 2 cents, for a rice fortune that would tell her future.” Most of the feng master’s patients are old people. A singing teacher in her 20s told Tan, “It’s superstition. It’s just old people who believe in ghosts.”

Patients that go to clinics are inevitably given IV drips for whatever is wrong, whether it be a hacking cough, a stomach ache. If that doesn’t worker they visit the feng shui master.

Dong Fire Ritual

A divination ritual called Guo In—“Pass into the World Yin”---that was held in 1979 was conducted again to restore harmony after the fire. Describing it Tan wrote in National Geographic, “In the dim light of an assembly hall, 11 blindfolded men sat on black benches. The Chief Feng Shu Master called out incantations from the Book of Shadows. As fragrant rattan burned under the benches, an assistant gave the men a rope of twisted straw to hold. More incantations were murmured, two bells rang, bowls of wine were stirred, and the 11 men slapped their bouncing knees, as if goading a horse to move forward.”

“Soon they were galloping in a frenzy, and the oldest of them, a 73-year-old man, whining like a spooked horse, shot up , and leaped backward onto the bench,” Tan wrote. “He had mounted a ghost horse and was racing toward the World of Yin. Assistants kept the frenzied rider from falling. Soon more riders mounted their ghost horses. The Chief Feng Shui Master sprayed water from his mouth to light the way. With more incantations he ghost-horse riders could go to deeper levels. At each level they could see more.”

“In 1979 the riders had gone to the 19th level, where they saw their dead mother and fathers. Stay with us, their parents urged. If the Feng Shui Master provided the wrong incantation, the riders would not return. This time, the master would take them no further than the 13th level. It was still possible for them to find the illegal burials. At that level they could also see the backs of maidens, the Seven Sisters, as beautiful fairies. Chase them, the Chief Feng Shui Master said, to urge them to go farther into the underworld.”

The riders discovered where the illegal burial that was located. It lie in a wall at the top of a hill. After the ceremony participants climbed the hill and found a ball, filled with ashes, imbedded in the wall in such a way that ball received good feng shui but disrupted the feng shui of other graves in the area. Feng shui masters surmised the ball had place there by people from another village. They broke it open, removing the ashes and mixing them with rice wine, human and pig feces and tung oil and threw the mixture down a public latrine.

Yi Religion

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Last Oroqen shaman in July 1994
The Yi are one the largest minority groups in China and the largest group in southwest China. They are uplands farmers and herders who live mostly in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the areas of the Greater and Lesser Liangshan mountain ranges at elevations of between 2000 meters and 3500 meters. They are particularly associated with the Hong River and Xiaoliang Mountains in Yunnan and the Daliang Mountains in Sichuan.

The Yi are also known as the Axi, Lolo, Loulou, Misaba, Nosu and Sani. The 1990 census counted 6,572,000 Yi in China. About 3 million live in Yunnan and 1.3 million live in Liangshin Li Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. Another 560,00 live in Guizhou. There are also significant numbers in Guangxi.

Tiger man The have traditionally honored a pantheon of spirits and gods---including ones representing animals, plants, the sun, the moon and the stars---and incorporated elements of Buddhism and Taoism into their spiritual belief system. Sacrifices have been made to ancestors and ghost have been placated. According to the Yi creation myth: “In the beginning there was only women.” Protestant and Catholic missionaries had some success converted the Yi in the early 20th century and some of these communities remain alive today.

Yi shaman are known as bimo. Highly respected, they carry out sacrifices and perform healing rituals with incense and bowls of chicken blood. Headmen are responsible for controlling ghosts with magic. Often bimo were the only ones who could read the sacred texts that included clan histories, myths and literature.

The dead are believed to travel to another world where they can continue their lives. Special care is taken to placate the dead to make sure they don’t become malevolent ghosts. The Yi of Liangshan, Sichuan cremate their dead.

The chicken is an important totemic animal to the Yi. It is honored in a special dance performed at night by dozens of people wearing hats with strung beads arranged in the shape of chicken combs. To the accompaniment of a moon guitars, the dancers execute fast tempo steps from the knee down that mimic the movements of a chicken.

Lisu Religion

The Lisus, along with the Hmong, have traditionally been one of the Golden Triangle's largest opium-producing tribes. They are a fairly large ethnic minority that lives in southwest China, northern Thailand, northern Laos, eastern Myanmar and northeast India. Traditionally slash and burn farmers, they reside in villages widely scattered among other groups and are regarded as one of the most colorful ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia.

The Lisu are also known the Aung, Che-nung, Khae, Lisaw, Khae Liso, Lasaw, Lashi, Lasi, Le Shu O-op---a, Lesuo, Leur Seur, Li, Li-hsaw, Lip---a, Lipo, Lisaw, Li-shaw, Lishu, Liso, Loisu, Lusu, Lu-tzu, Shisham, Yaoyen, Yawyen, Yawyen, Yawyin and Yeh-jen. They are known by so many names because the live among so many groups, many of which have their own names for the Lisu.

About two thirds of the Lisu live in western Yunnan Province in China in the mountains between the Salween and Mekong River. According to censuses taken around1990 census, there were 481,000 Lisu in China and 18,000 in Thailand. There are an estimated 250,000 Lisu in Myanmar; and several hundred in India.

The Lisu have traditionally believed in a spirts associated with natural phenomena and deceased human beings. Great care was taken not to offend the spirits thought to have the power to cause illness and bring misfortune. Each village has its own primary spirit. Divinations with pig livers, chicken femurs and bamboo dice were traditionally performed before important activities such building a house or embarking on a hunting trip.

Most traditional villages have a priest who is chosen through divinations. He keeps track of events scheduled by the lunar calendar and presides over rituals. Some villages have a shaman. His primary responsibility is contacting deceased ancestors and spirits to seek their help to cure the sick. In a typical healing ceremony a shaman goes into a trance, invokes the spirt associated with the disease the person is suffering from and calls on the family of the sick to sacrifice a pig or chicken.

At funerals, prayers are recited and ritual offerings are made with the aim of speeding the soul on its journey to the next world. Those who died in violent deaths or accidents are given exorcisms. The Lisu believe the spirit of dead person is potentially dangerous for three years. Ancestor spirits are honored with regular offerings of rice liquor, joss sticks and ragweed.

Festivals and holidays are set to lunar calendars on schedules that often differ from village to village. Lunar New Year is the is the biggest celebration of the year. It last several days and includes feasting, courtship rituals, displays of fine clothes and jewelry. Tree-renewal ceremonies are held to purge malevolent spirits and create a comfortable environment for protector spirits. .

The Sword-Pole Festival is held on the eighth day of the second lunar month. Participants climb a ladder made of swords in their barefeet.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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