Wu: female shamans in ancient China

Excerpted from article © 2011 Max Dashú    Download pdf of full article

‘We rise to heaven and brush away the comets,’ said a shamaness in her song.

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. Here I’ll survey female shamans in China’s earliest written records, its ancient art and ritual culture, classical literature, historical records, legends, and temple practices.

Old sources show the Wu performing invocation, divination, dream interpretation, healing, exorcism, driving off evil spirits, and

Women dancing, Zhou dynasty black-clay figurines

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 lighning. 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. Dallas McCurley interprets it as representing a whirling dance that transported shamans to altered states of consciousness. [McCurley,

Shang dynasty oracle bone signs: hands make offerings being received from above; two figures dance around a central pillar, or a shaman’s arms in a long-sleeved dance robe. The two characters at the right read wu / mo “shaman”; the first is archaic and, at far right, the classic character wu.

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 political prominence of these early wu is underlined by Edward Schafer, who points to “traditions of Shang ‘ministers’ called ‘the shaman(ess) so-and-so’.” [Schafer 1951: 132, 162]

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.” (Schafer 1951: 152-3)]

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 xi, “male shaman,” for “yarrow” (whose stalks were and are used in divination with the I Jing), 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).

The title Wu also figures in legendary place-names. “Snake Wu mountain” 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 immortality. [Birrell 2000:174, 141] Real place-names survive too: the celebrated Mount Wu, dwelling of the Divine Woman, and the famous Wu Gorge of the Yangtze.   …

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[/dess] 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. [Bodde, 390-1]

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.

Lacquer painting of Wu, late Zhou period

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.” Later writers often used the binom nan-wu, “male wu,” because wu by itself still implied female identity, or the collective wu-xi. Other sources continued to reflect a female gendering of wu: “the old songs and rituals found in the Li Sao and the Spring and Autumn Annals … contain descriptions of male shamans impersonating women.” [Laughlin and Wong, 1999 p. 152] Another old source, the I Jing, says of hexagram 58, “Dui is marshy-fertile, a youngest daughter, a shaman.” [Schafer 1951: 155]

The rest of this article is a pdf with many images, which you can download here. It includes sections on:

  • the women who taught Shun how to fly
  • the Shang diviner-priestess Fu Hao
  • cong: Earth jades connected with the queens
  • tigress-shamans and shapeshifting
  • cosmic sleeve-dancers
  • women’s ceremony in late Zhou bronzes
  • Confucian repression and exclusion of female shamans
  • Wu as rainmakers and ritual sun-exposures
  • female shamans in Chinese literature
  • the Goddess of Wu Mountain
  • Aboriginal tiger-women
  • Chen Jinggu, the deified shaman of 8th c. Fuzhou
  • More deified shamans and spiritually realized women