SHAMANISM IN CHINA
Manchu shaman in the early 20th century
Shamanism is China's oldest indigenous belief system. It is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shaman rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines and in village homes.
Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.
Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors. Shaman have traditionally had a serious illness followed by a a deep religious experience before they become shaman.
Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets the shaman will die.
Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Society fengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com ; Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com
Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979); 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961); 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4,; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).
Ancient Texts and Shamanism in China
Ancient historical texts described shamanist rituals in southern China in the forth century B.C. that honored mountain and river goddesses and local heros with erotic ceremonies that climaxed with fornication with the gods. The following poem describes such a ritual, performed by men and women shaman, who wore colorful clothes and doused themselves in perfume:
Strike the bells until the bell-stand rocks!
Let the flutes sound! Blow the pan-pipes!
See, the priestess, how skilled and lovely!
Whirling and dipping like birds in flight...
I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of heaven;
I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine.
Then holding my reins I plunge down to my setting.
According to a 4th century B.C. Chinese text Discourses of the State, "Ancient men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below and their insight [enabled them] to illuminate what is distant and profound Therefore the spirits would descend into them."
"The possessors of such power were, if men call xi, and if women, wu," the text continued. "It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters...as a consequence the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessing on the people, an accepted from them offerings. There were no natural calamities."
Becoming a Shaman and Shaman Techniques
Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.
Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.
Ancient shaman likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Ancient Chinese believed that there ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments.
The status of individuals in ancient China was determined by the perceived degree of his or her association with the supernatural. Ancient li rituals were used to communicate with spirits and promote harmonious relations in society. These tituals were held at ancestral shrines and meetings with rulers and vassals.
Shaman in an Inner Mongolia Mining Town
Reporting from Xi Wuqi city in Inner Mongolia, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongolians, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role – he became a shaman in 2009 – thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongolian, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]
“Erdemt's hometown Xi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-storey red-brick homes. ^^^
“Shamanism is among the world's oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt's clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. "In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature – to absorb its energy," said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongolian wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman's living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. "But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic." The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China's Mongolians have lost. "He's like a short cut," he said. ^^^
Experts say that this sentiment – the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past – is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. "Because of modernisation, and now urbanisation, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realise that these things are worth protecting," said Tian Qing , the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs. "Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it's boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that's not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There's pressure. There's difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort." Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: "Even a prairie fire can't destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows." ^^^
Shaman Ritual in Inner Mongolia Mining Town
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city's boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]
“Then he gets to work. The hill is on the shaman's ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep's milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind. ^^^
"I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they've improved very quickly," the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flatscreen TV. "He said right now, you've already arrived – you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain." ^^^
“While Erdemt's social role may be timeless, his professional duties – the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals – are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross. ^^^
Becoming an Inner Mongolia Shaman
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, Erdemt “knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the religion was dubbed "feudal superstition" and banned. One of his neighbours was beaten for practising it openly, and decades of silence followed suit. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]
The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks. His wife bought buckets of sheep's milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongolian snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands. ^^^
“Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends. One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus to Ordos, a gleaming new city in the area's arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country's capital, Ulan Bator. Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman's house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorised ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future. The decision has served him well, he says. Moving back to the grasslands is no longer a priority.” ^^^
Perils and Attraction of Being an Inner Mongolia Shaman
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Despite his success, Erdemt's status as a shaman in China is uniquely precarious. He's an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.”[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]
“"The government, they don't formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions," he says. "But as long as I don't do anything illegal – or at least, what they'd consider illegal – they won't limit me." Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he's careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They're angered by weak returns. ^^^
“Erdemt's son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region's capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace. The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle – they'd be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. "These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things – I feel their hearts are empty," he said. ^^^
“Bao wants to be a shaman – for weeks in a row he'll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. "He thinks it'd be best if I find my own career," said Bao. "Even if I don't become a shaman, I'll still be a shaman's son, and I'll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life's mission." ^^^
Shaman in Taiwan
Jonathan Adams of New York Times met with Chang Tin a jitong, or Taiwanese shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station. In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits. [Source:Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man seek help from Chang told the New York Times,”The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.”
Most often, Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk. Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the third prince), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy. But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her.
“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples” questions, she said. When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.” She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.” My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said.
In an interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it. “When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds, she said. They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.” When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did.
Shaman Ritual in Taiwan
One Sunday a month Chang invites those contacts to her office for an openspirit medium session. The day that Adams visited she answered petitioners’ questions as several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts. Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway. As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
Describing a shaman ritual, Adams wrote in New York Times, “After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left...Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.”
“A visibly relaxed Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease.
The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking. i Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on the other side. Give me your heart, and I’ll open it, Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman..”That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously. “I was just kidding; only you can open your heart, Ji Gong said. If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.”
Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual, and gently upbraided the man.” Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.)
Shaman Ritual Adapted to 21st Century
Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, told the New York Times that forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to private practice, often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
In the southern Taiwanese village that Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none. Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service, Ting said. But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized. But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks.
Chang is one of a small number of people who aremaintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters. To keep her clients abreast of what is happening she regularly sends out text messages to about 300 people. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old.
Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted. She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness. So now they give a different type of guidance, she said. The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
Evil Spirits and Demons in China
In an article in the London Daily News, Mrs. Montague Beaucham, who had spent many years in China in educational work, wrote: in China, people have been “conversing with evil spirits from time immemorial." She lived in a province known as demon land,."There is a real powerin this necromancy. They do healings and tell fortunes." She personally knew of one instance that the spirits through the plan-chette had foretold a great flood. The Boxer uprising was prophesied by the planchette. These spirits disturbed family relations, caused fits of frothing at the mouth, and made some of their victims insane. In closing she declared that "Chinese spiritism was from hell," the obsession baffling the power of both Christian missionaries and native priests. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
John Livingston Nevius (1829-1893),was an American Protestant missionary in China. He sent out a circular communication with the aim of finding out the beliefs of the Chinese regarding demonism. In response to Nevius's circular, the missionary Rev. Timothy Richard wrote: "The Chinese orthodox definition of spirit is, 'the soul of the departed'; some of the best of whom are raised to the rank of gods…. There is no disease to which the Chinese are ordinarily subject that may not be caused by demons. In this case the mind is untouched. It is only the body that suffers; and the Chinese endeavour to get rid of the demon by vows and offerings to the gods. The subject in this case is an involuntary one….
Wang Wu-Fang, an educated Chinese, said: “"Demons are different kinds. There are those which clearly declare themselves; and then those who work in secret. There are those which are cast out with difficulty, and others with ease. In cases of possession by familiar demons, what is said by the subject certainly does not proceed from his own will. When the demon has gone out and the subject recovers consciousness, he has no recollection whatever of what he has said or done. This is true almost invariably.
Possessed by Evil Spirits and Demons in China
In response to the Nevius circular, Wang Wu-Fang, the educated Chinese, wrote:“"Cases of demon possession abound among all classes. They are found among persons of robust health, as well as those who are weak and sickly. In many unquestionable cases of obsession, the unwilling subjects have resisted, but have been obliged to submit themselves to the control of the demon…. In the majority of cases of possession, the beginning of the malady is a fit of grief, anger, or mourning. These conditions seem to open the door to the demons. The outward manifestations are apt to be fierce and violent. It may be that the subject alternately talks and laughs; he walks awhile and then sits, or he rolls on the ground, or leaps about; or exhibits contortions of the body and twistings of the neck…. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“W. J. Plumb, a public teacher in Chen Sin Ling, said: "In the district of Tu-ching, obsessions by evil spirits or demons are very common...There are very many cases also in Chang-lo. When a man is thus afflicted, the spirit (Kwei ) takes possession of his body without regard to his being strong or weak in health. It is not easy to resist the demon's power. Though without bodily ailments, possessed persons appear as if ill. When under the entrancing spell of the demon, they seem different from their ordinary selves. In most cases the spirit takes possession of a man's body contrary to his will, and he is helpless in the matter. The kwei has the power of driving out the man's spirit, as in sleep or dreams. When the subject awakes to consciousness, he has not the slightest knowledge of what has transpired.
“"The actions of possessed persons vary exceedingly. They leap about and toss their arms, and then the demon tells them what particular spirit he is, often taking a false name, or deceitfully calling himself a god, or one of the genii come down to the abodes of mortals. Or, perhaps, it professes to be the spirit of a deceased husband or wife. There are also kwei of the quiet sort, who talk and laugh like other people, only that the voice is changed. Some have a voice like a bird. Some speak Mandarin—the language of Northern China—and some the local dialect; but though the speech proceeds from the mouth of the man, what is said does not appear to come from him. The out-ward appearance and manner is also changed.
“The missionary Rev. Timothy Richard wrote in in response to Nevius's circular: "Persons possessed range between 15 and 50 years of age, quite irrespective of sex. This infliction comes on very sudden-ly, sometimes in the day, and sometimes in the night. The demoniac talks madly, smashes everything near him, acquires unusual strength, tears his clothes into rags, and rushes into the street, or to the mountains or kills himself unless prevented. After this violent possession, the demoniac calms down and submits to his fate, but under the most heart-rending protests. These mad spells which are experienced on the demon's en-trance return at intervals, and increase in frequency, and generally also in intensity, so that death at last ensues from their violence.
“"Now we proceed to those, who involuntarily possessed, yield to and worship the demon. The demon says he will cease tormenting the demoniac if he will worship him, and he will reward him by increasing his riches. But if not, he will punish his victim, make heavier his torments and rob him of his property. People find that their food is cursed. They cannot prepare any, but filth and dirt comes down from the air to render it uneatable. Their wells are likewise cursed; their wardrobes are set on fire, and their money very mysteriously disappears. Hence arose the custom of cutting off the head of a string of cash that it might not run away…. When all efforts to rid themselves of the demon fail, they yield to it, and say 'Hold! Cease thy tormenting and we will worship thee!' A picture is pasted upon the wall, sometimes of a woman, and sometimes of a man, and incense is burned, and prostrations are made to it twice a month. Being thus reverenced, money now comes in mysteriously, instead of going out. Even mill-stones are made to move at the demon's orders, and the family becomes rich at once. But it is said that no luck attends such families, and they will eventually be reduced to poverty. Officials believe these things. Palaces are known to have been built by them for these demons, who, however, are obliged to be satisfied with humbler shrines from the poor….
“"Somewhat similar to the above class is another small one which has power to enter the lower regions. These are the opposite of necromancers, for instead of calling up the dead and learning of them about the future destiny of the individual in whose behalf they are engaged, they lie in a trance for two days, when their spirits are said to have gone to the Prince of Darkness, to inquire how long the sick person shall be left among the living….
Exorcists in China
“W. J. Plumb, the public teacher in Chen Sin Ling, wrote: "In Fu-show [Fujian Province] there is a class of persons who collect in large numbers and make use of incense, pictures, candles, and lamps to establish what are called 'incense tables.' Taoist priests are engaged to attend the ceremonies, and they also make use of 'mediums.' The Taoist writes a hand, stands like a graven image, thus signifying his willingness to have the demon come and take possession of him. Afterward, the charm is burned and the demon spirit is worshipped and invoked, the priest, in the meanwhile going on with his chanting. After a while the medium spirit has descended, and asks what is wanted of him. Then, whoever has requests to make, takes incense sticks, makes prostrations, and asks a response respecting some dis-ease, or for protection from some calamity. In winter the same performances are carried on to a great extent by gambling companies. If some of the responses hit the mark, a large number of people are attracted. They establish a shrine and offer sacrifices, and appoint days, calling upon people from every quarter to come and consult the spirit respecting diseases. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
"There is also a class of men who establish what they call a 'Hall of Revelations.' At the present time there are many engaged in this practice. They are, for the most part, literary men of great ability. The people in large numbers apply to them for responses. The mediums spoken of above are also numerous. All of the above practices are not spirits seeking to possess men; but rather men seeking spirits to possess them, and allowing themselves to be voluntarily used as their instruments.
“"As to the outward appearance of persons when possessed, of course, they are the same persons as to outward form as at ordinary times; but the colour of the countenance may change. The demon may cause the subject to assume a threatening air, and a fierce, violent manner. The muscles often stand out on the face, the eyes are closed, or they protrude with a frightful stare. These demons sometimes prophesy.
“"The words spoken certainly proceed from the mouths of the persons possessed; but what is said does not appear to come from their minds or wills, but rather from some other personality, often accompanied by a change of voice. Of this there can be no doubt. When the subject returns to consciousness, he invariably declares himself ignorant of what he has said.
Rev. Timothy Richard wrote in response to Nevius's circular: "Let us now note the different methods adopted to cast out the evil spirits from the demoniacs. Doctors are called to do it. They use needles to puncture the tips of the fingers, the nose, the neck. They also use a certain pill, and apply it in the following manner: the thumbs of the two hands are tied tightly together, and the two big toes are tied together in the same manner. Then one pill is put on the two big toes at the root of the nail, and the other at the root of the thumb nails. At the same instant the two pills are set on fire, and they are kept until the flesh is burned. In the application of the pills, or in the piercing of the needle, the invariable cry is; 'I am going; I am going immediately. I will never dare to come back again. Oh, have mercy on me this once. I'll never return!'
“"When the doctors fail, they call on people who practice spiritism. They themselves cannot drive the demon away, but they call another demon to do it. Both the Confucianists and Taoists practice this method…. Sometimes the spirits are very ungovernable. Tables are turned, chairs are rattled, and a general noise of smashing is heard, until the very mediums themselves tremble with fear. If the demon is of this dreadful character, they quickly write another charm with the name of the particular spirit whose quiet disposition is known to them. Lutsu is a favourite one of this kind. After the burning of the charm and incense, and when prostrations are made, a little frame is procured, to which a Chinese pencil is attached. Two men on each side hold it on a table spread with sand or millet. Sometimes a prescription is written, the pencil moving of its own accord. They buy the medicine prescribed and give it to the possessed…. Should they find that burning incense and offering sacrifices fails to liberate the poor victim, they may call in conjurors, such as the Taoists, who sit on mats and are carried by invisible power from place to place. The ascend to a height of twenty or fifty feet, and are carried to a distance of four or five li (about a half mile). Of this class are those who, in Manchuria call down fire from the sky in those funerals where the corpse is burned….
“"These exorcists may belong to any of the three religions in China. The dragon procession, on the fifteenth of the first month, is said by some to commemorate a Buddhist priest's victory over evil spirits…. They paste up charms on windows and doors, and on the body of the demoniac, and conjure the demon never to return. The evil spirit answers: 'I'll never return. You need not take the trouble of pasting all these charms upon the doors and windows.'
“"Exorcists are specially hated by the evil spirits. Sometimes they feel themselves beaten fearfully; but no hand is seen. Bricks and stones may fall on them from the sky or housetops. On the road they may without warning be plastered over from head to foot with mud or filth; or may be seized when approaching a river, and held under the water and drowned."
Exorcisms in China
Wu-Fang wrote: It was common...to send for exorcists, who made use of written charms, or chanted verses, or punctured the body with needles. These are among the Chinese methods of cure.” There are “demons are different kinds. There are those which clearly declare themselves; and then those who work in secret. There are those which are cast out with difficulty, and others with ease. In cases of possession by familiar demons, what is said by the subject certainly does not proceed from his own will. When the demon has gone out and the subject recovers consciousness, he has no recollection whatever of what he has said or done. This is true almost invariably.
“"The methods by which the Chinese cast out demons are enticing them to leave by burning charms and paper money, or by begging and exhorting them, or by frightening them with magic spells and incantations, or driving them away by pricking with needles, or pinching with the fingers, in which case they cry out and promise to go. I was formerly accustomed to drive out demons by means of needles. At that time cases of possession by evil spirits were very common in our villages, and my services were in very frequent demand…." [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
W. J. Plumb wrote: "The Chinese make use of various methods to cast out demons. They are so troubled and vexed by inflictions affecting bodily health, or it may be throwing stones, moving furniture, or the moving about and destruction of family utensils, that they are driven to call in the service of some respected scholar or Taoist priest, to offer sacrifices, or chant sacred books, and pray for protection and exemption from suffering. Some make use of sacrifices and offerings of paper clothes and money in order to induce the demon to go back to the gloomy region of Yanchow … As to whether these methods have any effect, I do not know. As a rule, when demons are not very troublesome, the families afflicted by them generally think it best to hide their affliction, or to keep those wicked spirits quiet by sacrifices, and burning incense to them."
Image Sources: Shaman, Crystal Punk blog; Asia Obscura ; hermit: daoist wandering blog; hermit hut: View of China
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021