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

13 Responses to Wu: female shamans in ancient China

  1. David says:

    All of this is very enlightening and makes better sense of traditional Chinese religion. Chinese religion is the one I know least about among world religions. Usually when I most most folks think of Chinese relgion we think of Taosim, yet I’ve learned from some Chinese friends of mine that Taoism is actually derived from what they call the ‘Old Religion’ or Shenjiao. Shenjiao is usually practiced among rural communities compared to the predominant Taoism which is found everywhere especially in urban settings. According to my Chinese friends, the rituals and customs of Shenjiao are usually presided women especially older women in the community who among other things are known to perform exorcisms and drive out bad spirits. There is even a custom practiced by these women called ‘beating the demon’ where they make an effigy of a demon and and hit it with a stick or a shoe to drive it away. One thing I noticed about the Tao religion is its more nationalistic view with not only more patriarchal themes but its obvious political themes that reflect the imperial or royal courts. The Taoist cosmology for example replete with its heavenly gods with its divine emperor and court officials. Shenjiao was more a locality based religion with the various shamans sacrificing and appeasing local gods and ancestors of the community. The Taoists with their predominantly male priesthoods and sages (with occasional female sages) remind of Brahmanic Hinduism, but the more I study Taoism, the more I see its older Shenjiao shamanistic roots even primal female origins. The symbol of yin-yang for example is attributed to the mother-goddess Nu-wa. There is even a Taoist belief that females possess more chi that is latent within their bodies. Some suggest this maybe the reason why they are better at communicating with Shen and gods and readily to be possessed by them. There was once even existed a Taoist male practice of men having sex for long periods of time with women to steal their laten chi!

  2. David says:

    Of all the world’s religions, native Chinese religion is what I know the least about despite having read a good portion of material. I don’t know if its just me but I find there to be not as plentiful resources on Chinese religions as others. Most of what I’v read are about Taoism, but from what I gather from you and even my Chinese friends, Taosim as most people understand it is just the surface. I agree that Taoism has its roots in older shamanist forms. According to my Chinese friends this older shamanist form is called ‘Shenjiao’ and it is still practiced today particularly in more local and especially rural communities whereas mainstream Taoism is practiced in more urban more populist settings. They tell me that many Shenjiao rites and customs are still presided by women, particularly elder women in the community who are popularly known as exorcists and mediums. There is one custom for example called ‘beating the demon’ where an effigy of a demon is made and the old shaman would beat it with a stick or her shoe to drive it away. I noticed the Taoist religion aside from being more patriarchal is more nationalistic compared to the more localized Shenjiao which varies from region to region and community to another. Also the Taoist religion is obviously more heavily politicized with the whole cosmology of deities being reflective of that of the imperial court complete with a celestial emperor and his officials of heaven. The predominantly male priesthoods and sages (with occasional female sages) of Taoism remind me of Brahmanic Hinduism. I have noticed hints of female origins like the symbol of yin-yang being attributed to the mother-goddes Nu-wa or regional myths of goddess origins for certain cultural aspects though nationalistically they are attributed to male deities. Another thing I noticed is that there is a Taoist belief that females contain more chi energy albeit latent in their bodies. This was their reason why females are able to communicate with gods and other shen and why their bodies were so readily able to be possessed by them. Ironically in the power-seeking traditions of many male Taoist, there was actually a belief that a man could steal some of this chi for himself by having sex with a woman for long periods of time without making himself come!!

  3. admin says:

    Yes, it is much harder to find good coverage of core Chinese religion, although that is changing. Shenjiao, “spirit religion,” has hung on through all the millennia of changes. Early Taoism seems closer to it, since it later moved in more patriarchal directions (the early form has many anti-hierarchical aspects, in spite of the Confucian editors who got in the way of our view of the I Jing and other texts). The pantheon was increasingly masculinized and women lost ground in Taoist institutions as well, though it seems to me they fared much better than in the Abrahamic religion, or even Hindu priesthoods, which got rid of female pujaris. Taoism is complex, because the mystical streams continue to emphasize Xuan Nü (translated as the Mysterious Female or Dark Woman). There is of course the vampiristic Qi-stealing mentality with a clambering to the (perceived) top that is antithetical to the old principles. I’ve learned a lot from some of the translations of Taoist classics like Understanding Reality, The Book of Balance and Harmony, and so on, which are based on actual experience and personal transformation to expand awareness.

  4. admin says:

    The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper is an excellent book that clarifies the female-positive roots of Taoism, highly recommended. Other good books are Transcendence and Divine Passion: the Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, by Susanne Cahill, and the works of Edward Schaeffer and Thomas Cleary (who has translated many Taoist classics).

  5. David says:

    Thanks for the sources. Yes, I forgot to mention how Shenjiao basically focuses on achieving harmony with one’s self and with nature or one’s surroundings. The shamans were the spirtual leaders or adepts who communicated with shen such as ancestors or gods and discerned their will upon the people. I understand that Taoism at its most basic tenants is no different with its focus on nature, balance, and harmony etc., but then you have the later beliefs that a living entity whether animal or human could use the force of the Tao to achieve greater power and states of being. I notice that this is contradictory with basic Taoist notions of moderation and humility. And in my research I have notice a masculinization of the pantheon where many deities that were once female became male, especially celestial divinities. This is why I am so glad we have scholars like you who can shed much light on the histories of these religions and cultures that is hard to find in mainstream sources.

  6. NiHao David, Max!
    hadn’t heard about the ShenJiao before, google searching now.
    and, yes, all the Daoists and Daoism that I have seen were a patriarchal construct to destroy the wisdom, the knowledge of the personalities and powers, of all our relations — the TRUE focus of harmony (quite distinct from the ‘harmonies’ of conforming to the city-state!)
    if you can suggest any keywords, cultural phrases, including the Chinese characters, for taking the wisdom back a few thousand more years, from say 3,100BC to 24,000 BC — to help me get a handle for sharing the ancient Matriculture of Song, Ceremony, Moon, Star, Planet and Spirit.
    a few phrases/subjects which today I am following up, to try and take me back a step or two further into Chinese/Korean/Japanese oral, sung, sculptured Music-Herstory are “Bird Prophecy”, Yin-Yang Magic, and the Five Planets … i.e., I am looking to the era of greater consciousness, of the song ritual economy that preceded the destructive Taoist and Buddhist, etc. … when ‘directionology’ was not about a contrived ‘metric’ of the relationships of priests and warlords cementing their ownership of the rivers, mountains, commerce, music and stars … but rather the direction and timing of the Wu-people’s relationship with the rivers and forests, plants and animals, herbs and flowers, stars and planets, the VAST light and shadow world-spirit-scape of sun and moon and all our relationsions, neighboring clans and their cultural animal-totems and sky-constellation deities, music-scales, tribal-colours, foods, artistry, musical instruments, gifts …
    I do find it instructive that city-state period was built upon a musical foundation where each change of sovereign was accompanied by a selection of a new fundmental note of the pentatonic scale of (the birds? and) the planets, from which the associated four (and later seven, twelve) were constructed by using the ratios 2/3 and 4/3 etc. to create the new scales, to which everyone in the ‘kingdom’ then had to tune to.
    from this I deduce that the earlier Wu-matriculture had a musical-magic-economy based on unique scales, bird/animal sounds, tribal songs for each clan — to sing the songline of their particular territories, landscapes, spirit-worlds — a spirit-economy which would/must be shared with adjacent song-spirit-cultures in order to journey and harmonize there.
    these thoughts then suggest to me that I need to find the old Chinese and Korean words which are equivalent to the words ‘Kami’ 神 in Japan, the ‘Kamuy’ カムイ of the Ainu (the Spirits, Personalities); and the Songline, the Dreaming of the Aboriginal Australians.


  7. admin says:

    I consider Taoism to have conserved the old ways to a much greater degree than the religion of any other patriarchal society. Have you seen the translations of classics like Understanding Reality? some very profound teachings in there.
    The early dynasties had a shamanic foundation but cannibalized it (to borrow Jack Forbes’ phrase) to a great degree, with high levels of human sacrifice for example. However i think we have to look to what people did outside the state structures, where these ways persisted much longer, and even to present times in the Shen Jiao that David has pointed up.
    The use of tone is certainly a big part of the picture for ancient Chinese, who had sounding stones and bronze gongs and bells and jade chimes, some of which show up in scenes of the Wu ceremonies on Warring States period bronzes.

  8. David says:

    I agree with you Max. The Taoist religion despite male dominant and elite influences still preserve at its core spiritually enlightening teachings descended from the shamanic tradition. I have only heard of the work ‘Understanding Reality’ and it sounds just as interesting as ‘The Inner Teachings of Taosim’ which I’m longing to read. I also have noticed the shamanic foundation of early dynasties as well as the high status of women in these dynasties. In fact, I’m really interested in the theory that Chinese writing itself developed from the jiǎgǔwén or oracle bone scripts of the Wu. Even earlier evidence of pictographic characters come from pottery and jade ornaments likely produced by women. I can’t help but notice later legends or stories that tend to steal credit away from women and give it to men like the legend that Chinese writing was invented by a man named Cangjie who was bureaucrat of the lengendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi. Ironically it is said Cangjie was inspired by the veins of a tortoise which was the animal whose shell was used in divination by the Wu. Many other important sciences and forms knowledge are attributed to males but originally came from women, like agriculture and herbology which are credited to the king Shennong and cooking which is credited to Fu Xi. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bagua or 8 trigrams of Taoist cosmology originally came from Fu Xi’s sister Nu Wa who founded the Yin-Yang symbol or rather more realistically the Wu themselves.

    To Millennium Twain as well as Max, the use of tones and sounds like bells and drums are indeed a deep part of the shamanic heritage and they remind me of the cosmogony described in the Korean Budoji where the great goddess Mago herself was born from a primeval “music” as it was described. This sounds somewhat similar to the Hindu concept of Om or the sound of creation. Music was viewed as a very important symbol of the cosmos itself and dance reflected it in the body.

  9. admin says:

    On development of oracle bone script and neolithic pottery predecessors of same, I’m now reading Sarah Nelson’s Shamanism and the Origins of States, which goes into current scholarship on this, several pp of summary. You might want to take a look at it.
    Yes, you’re right about the extensive revisions to masculinize the culture heros (Nu Wa still gets credit for inventing music however). These were multiple and go back and back in time. The Confucians had their way with the lit, the Zhou rulers having already altered and bureaucratized the way wu ceremonies were carried out, and the Chin emperor destroyed as much of the old records as he could get at (missed the tombs).

  10. David says:

    Yes, you’re right about the distorted picture from literature alone. I read from many sources on Chinese history about the countless editing of texts from Confucians and Imperial bureaucrats alike, as well as different periods of book-burnings for whatever political or propaganda reasons. It’s because of this that when it comes to ancient Chinese history, the folk orature seems far more reliable than the literature.

  11. [...] Female Shamans seem to have begun as a universal fact of most cultures, and then steadily disappeared under various kinds of pressure, including attempts by major western researcher Mircea Eliade to present them as degraded versions of “real, male shamans”… (Here is an excellent overview in Woman Shaman by Max Dachu.) Shamans in eastern Asia have been erased from the history that most people know. Yet women predominated in shamanism of ancient China, Japan, and Korea and persisted into modern times in eastern Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, Okinawa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines (See Wu: Female Shamans of Ancient China.) [...]

  12. [...] Female Shamans seem to have begun as a universal fact of most cultures, and then steadily disappeared under various kinds of pressure, including attempts by major western researcher Mircea Eliade to present them as degraded versions of “real, male shamans”… (Here is an excellent overview in Woman Shaman by Max Dachu.) Shamans in eastern Asia have been erased from the history that most people know. Yet women predominated in shamanism of ancient China, Japan, and Korea and persisted into modern times in eastern Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, Okinawa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines (See Wu: Female Shamans of Ancient China.) [...]

  13. Sheila Broun says:

    Many thanks for this scholarship and conversation. From my visionary experience of the Sheng and many years study of the Chinese Arts, as well as study of women’s culture, I have had a longing to find out more about the Wu. Blessings.