The strong pattern of female shamans in eastern Asia has been erased from the history that most people know. Yet women predominated in shamanism of ancient China, Japan, and Korea, and have persisted into modern times in eastern Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, Okinawa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Today I’d like to talk about the female shaman and sorceress in China’s earliest written Taoist records.
Old sources show the Wu performing invocation, divination, dream interpretation, healing, exorcism, driving off evil spirits, and performing ecstatic rain dances. Dramatic descriptions recount the powers of the wu in their ecstasies: “they could become invisible, they slashed themselves with knives and swords, cut their tongues, swallowed swords, and spat fire, were carried off on a cloud that shone as if with lightning. The female
wu danced whirling dances, spoke the language of spirits, and around them objects rose it the air and knocked together.” [Eliade, 454, citing DeGroot, The Religious System of China , VI, 1212]
The character for wu depicts shamans dancing around a pillar, or the long sleeves of a shaman’s robe swirling as she dances. Some archaic Da Chuan forms show hands making an offering which is received from above. Possibly the oldest glyph from which the wu character arose represents a quadant of the directions (sifang), and was also influenced by a glyph meaning “dance,” showing a person with outstretched arms in long sleeves. Ancient oracle bone inscriptions use wu most frequently in relation to spirit sacrifices and for calls to “bring the wu.” One Shang oracle bone was inscribed, “divination, the wu proclaims…” Another mentions a group of nine wu who did a ritual dance before sacrifices. [Boileau, 350, 355-6] Other inscriptions refer to the female shamans Yang, Fang, and Fan performing rain-making ceremonies. The oldest Chinese dictionary,Shuowen Jiezi ,equates wu with zhu, a ritual invocator, and with ling, “spiritual, divine.” It underlines the female signification of wu : “ wu is a zhu
(invoker or priest), a woman who is able to render [herself] invisible, and with dance to invoke gods to come down. The character symbolizes the appearance of a person dancing with two sleeves.” [Erickson, 52. Another translation of this passage runs, “An Invoker. A woman who can serve the invisible, and by posturing bring down the spirits. Depicts a person with two sleeves posturing.”
The Shouwen also refers to “an inspired shaman serving the spirits with jade.”
Another word with the sound wu (but written with a different character) means “to dance.” The relationship of these two words has been much discussed, since dance looms large in descriptions of the wu.
The shamanic character wu also appears in many compound words, combined with other radicals signifying “woman,” old woman,” “male,” “spirit” and “immortal.” The wu radical also acts as meaning-signifier in the characters for, “male shaman,” for “yarrow” (whose stalks were and are used in divination with the I Ching), and in the most archaic form of the character yi , “doctor” (and here the “shaman” radical was later replaced by that of “wine,” indicating a shift away from ritual to medicaments and alchemy ).
The title Wu also figures in legendary place-names. “Snake Wu mountain” (you don’t have to be Fellini to figure out where that came from) appears in the ancient Shanhai Jing as the home of the shamanic goddess Xi Wangmu. This book also says that wu live on Mount Divinepower, “where the hundred drugs are to be found.” Another passage describes them as possessing the herb of immortalitity. Real place-names survive too: the celebrated Mount Wu, dwelling of the Divine Woman, and the famous Wu Gorge of the Yangtze. Written histories about the archaic Xia-Yin times focus on the powers of shamanic kings like Yao, Shun, and Yü. “It was said that Shun was the first person to journey to the sky, and he was taught by the daughter of his predecessor, Yao.” [Eva Wong, Online] Reading through these masculinizing lines, we deduce that a woman was the first to attain shamanic flight. Elsewhere this female precedence is clearly stated: “The emperor Yao’s daughters, Nü Ying and O Huang, revealed to Shun the art of flying ‘like a bird’.” this explains further that the daughters of Yao came to his aid during his ordeals—imposed by cruel parents—in a deep well and in a high granary. As Granet summarized it,
“Shun knew what awaited him in the granary and the well: he asked advice from his wives, the daughters of Yao. If he descended to the ground without accident, it was because they taught him the Art (Gong) of the Bird ; if he came out of the earth, it was that they had taught him the Art of the Dragon. We even know that Shun succeeded in these magical feats by dressing in the robes of Bird Work (Gong) or those of the Dragon.”[Granet, 127]
The word gong is the same as in chigong and kungfu; it “designates magic, all its techniques, from Alchemy to Dance, have been taught from a goddess or female Witch/Spirit to a male Wu.I’ve found the commentary on Sima Tian saying that the daughters of Yao taught their husband Shun the Art of the Bird. Yet another source says that in his ordeal of the well, the two sisters advised him, “Take off your clothes and put on the Dragon work; [that is how] you will get out of it.” [Granet, 346-47, n. 693] Most Chinese literature dwells on the exploits of Shun and ignores the two shamanic sisters who married him. But they were remembered in much later times in southern Hunan, where they had a temple, and peaks were named after them. By the 9th century they were synchronized with the ancient river goddess known as the Lady of the Xiang. [Schafer 1973: 86-87, 50, 176]
Although she does not seem to have been called a wu, the best-known female ritualist of Shang times deserves a mention. Fu Hao personally inscribed oracle bones and presided over divinations and other rituals. Her personal seal shows a woman making ritual offerings to spirits. Tortoise shells inscribed with the characters “prepared by Fu Hao” prove her status as an important diviner. Married to the king, Fu Hao was also his best general. Her tomb is the richest Shang find ever discovered. It was filled with a massive collection of bronze offering vessels, half of them inscribed with her name, including the colossal Si Mu Wu ding. Hundreds of jade vessels and thousands of other treasures were found in her grave. [http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History10355.html] Among them were “small bronze mirrors and knives” not found in other burials, and little jades with possible ritual functions. Sarah Nelson remarks, “While no evidence points to [the king] Wu Ding performing ecstatic rituals, perhaps Lady Hao was the shaman.” [Nelson, 160]
Jade objects were important in ritual and witchcraft. The Zhouli says, “Blue Jade Bi to worship the heaven, Yellow Jade Cong to worship the earth.” (Cong is pronounced tsoong.) Commentators say that the circular bi and the squared cylindrical cong symbolized Heaven and Earth. The cong has an extremely long history, going back to the neolithic Liangzhu culture (circa 3300 BCE), and replicas persist into the Song dynasty. But while great emphasis is placed on the emperor and his ceremonial acts as Son of Heaven, little attention has been given to the ancient queens who are mentioned as keepers of the cong ( I would love to know more about these queens, so if anyone has any info, stop by and leave a message at the beep)
The cong is said to be a shaman’s tool that ‘encapsulates the principal elements of the shamanistic cosmology.’
[Nelson, 137, quoting Chang 1994a: 66] and I currently carry one around my neck, consecrated by the White Goddess and three pole stars.
Eva Wong, a Professor of Taoist studies and adept that I greatly admire and respect, highlights the wu women as healers. “We are told that, in the healing ceremony, the shamaness grasped a green snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand and climbed into the mountains to gather the herbs that would restore life and health to a sick or dying person.” Wong explains the central importance of dancing and singing in the rainmaking ceremony:
“The Chinese word for spirit (ling ) consists of three radicals: one meaning rain, another (showing three mouths) chanting, and the third, shaman.” [Wong, Online] This word ling is used for shamans in the Nine Songs of Chu. The
Liji (Book of Rites) referred to the ceremonial dances called yue ; they combined music and movement with regalia: “shields, axes, feathers, and oxtails.”
The Lushi chunqiu described the harmonizing and unifying power that arose from these rites. As Dallas McCurley explains, “throughout the cosmos, everything both resonated and responded to other resonations… that if one strikes a bell of a particular note, all other bells of that same note, regardless of octave, will resonate.” [McCurley, 142]
The Chinese used sounding stones and chimes in ceremonies. “When I knock on the musical stones, the hundred animals all dance.” [Karlgren 1946: 258, in Nelson, 114] Many scholars see Chinese shamanism as underlying what developed into Taoism. [Schipper, 6] The Taoist word for ecstasy ,kuei-ju, “coming in of a spirit,” was derived from shamanic possession: “For it was said of a sorceress in trance and speaking in the name of a shen: ‘this body is that of the sorceress, but the spirit is that of the god.” (The word shen is ungendered in Chinese.)
The wu prepared herself to receive divinity by purifying herself with perfumed water, putting on ceremonial robes, and making offerings. Then, “with a flower in her hand, she mimed her journey by a dance accompanied by music and songs, to the sound of drums and flutes, until she fell exhausted. This was the moment of the presence of the god who answered through her mouth.” [H. Maspero, in Eliade, 453] One of the oldest, comprehensive descriptions of the wu appears in the 3rd century BCE Guoyü:
“Anciently, 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 to illumine what is distant and profound. Therefore the spirits would descend upon them. The possessors of such powers were, if men, called [xi] (shamans), and, if women, wu (shamanesses).
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 blessings on the people, and accepted from them their offerings. There were no natural calamities.”
Later, says this old classic, the divine and profane became intermixed, causing misfortune, so that the communication between Heaven and Earth had to be cut. This lost connection to the divine world is an extremely widespread theme. [See Anne Solomon (1997) on the San in South Africa, where the primeval connection is lost between animals and humans, not heaven and earth.] The above translation of the Guoyü neatly reverses the primary gendering of wu as female, using English words that imply that the word “shaman” is masculine and only secondarily applies to women (“shamaness,” “shamanka.”) But in Chinese, the more ancient character wu is incorporated as a signifier into the word xi , demonstrating that the explicitly masculine term is derived from the feminine, and not vice versa. However, not long after the Guoyü was written, we find the authors of the Zhouli
regendering the concept, as “male wu” and “female wu. This is not a well accepted idea in our male dominated western society , yet as a Left Hand Path practitioner, I feel the Yin and female Wu should be brought to light once more. We are born of Goddess, shall learn and die at her feet. Indonesian conceptions of the wu retained a strong female stamp: “Such was the force of tradition in respect to the basic femininity of the shaman, that male shamans in the Far East often impersonated women…. The shamans of Central and Southern Asia, called tuan-kung
and nan-wu [“male-wu”], are men disguised as women… The male shamans (shih-wu) of Kuangtung in the eighteenth century impersonated beautiful girls (Li T’iao-yüan, op. cit., 1.5). Doré observes that the possessed boys of Amoy, with whom he was familiar, were occupied by female spirits…” [Schafer 1951: 159] In modern parlance these would be gay or trans shamans….
But, that is for another time, and a different post. I hope you enjoyed my musings and ramblings, I plan on writing more on this in the future as my studies progress, but my Chinese is still at kindergarten level, so such studies are slow going. I leave you with a Poem from the Yun zhong jun, where the female and male shamans sing and dance, arrayed in magnificent robes and perfumes:
“See the priestesses (ling),
how skilled and lovely,
Whirling and dipping like birds in flight Unfolding the words in time to the dancing,
Pitch and beat all in perfect accord!
The spirits, descending, darken the sun.”[Erickson, 53]
Stay Gold everyone……
Art- Quan Yin and the Lotus- copyright 2015 Vincent Piazza
Wu Ancient Female Shamans of Ancient China© 2011 Max Dashu
Edward H. Schafer, “Ritual Exposure in Ancient China.”
Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (Jun., 1951), pp. 130-184 Published by: Harvard-Yenching Institute ____________
The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens
. San Francisco: North Point, 1980 (1973)
Susan N. Erickson, “ ‘Twirling Their Long Sleeves, They Dance Again and Again…: Jade Plaque Sleeve Dancers of the Western Han Dynasty.”
http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/granet_marcel/A10_danses_et_legendes/danses_legendes.doc Eliade, Mircea,Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy , Princeton
Eva Wong,Teaching the Tao: Readings from the Taoist Spiritual Tradition. Boston: Shambala, 1997 Karen Laughlin and Eva Wong, “Feminism in Taoism,” in Feminism and World Religions , ed. Arvind Sharma and Katherine Young, SUNY Press, 1999 Eva Wong,The Shambala Guide to Taoism. Online:http://www.shambhala.com/html/catalog/items/isbn/978-1-57062-169-7.cfm?
Dallas McCurley, “Performing Patterns: Numinous Relations in Shang and Zhou China.”TDR, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), MIT Press, pp. 135-156
Schipper, Kristofer,The Taoist Body . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Anne Solomon, “The myth of ritual origins? Ethnography, mythology, and interpretation of San rock art.”
South African Archaeological Bulletin, 1997 Online: http://www.antiquityofman.com/Solomon_myth_ritual.html