Popular religious practices in China: Shamanism or “Wuism”

The term „religion“ has a strongly European connotation without a clear definition of its meaning(s). In the Asian context I prefer terms like “spiritual or wisdom traditions” or “belief systems”. For the sake of simplicity, however, I use the word “religion” in the title.

The oldest spiritual traditions worldwide could be put together under the umbrella of “shamanist practices”. Such traditions are based on the belief that “spirits” can be influenced, and actions that aim to influence them to have their support and concrete help e.g. for healing purposes, to predict the future, to bring good luck for hunting etc. The techniques of shamans and the specific aims of their practices are, of course, culture and context bound.

Nikolas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey make a difference between what they call ”vertical shamanism“ meaning esoteric knowledge that belongs to a small elite group of practitioners. (In the old China vertical shamans came from shaman families, the jobs in the royal courts were passed from father to son and the men were carefully trained for their work) and “horizontal shamanism” referring to practices that can be performed by anyone, who is able to come into contact with spirits. They divide Chinese shamans, the 巫 wū, into three categories

或巫師huòwūshí „tribal priests“
男巫 nánwū male shamans, court officers, mediums / vertical shamanism
女巫nǚwū female shamans, healers and magicians, also mediums / horizontal shamanism

The earliest archeological evidence of shamanist activities has been found in the Yellow River area in northern China dating from 4000 – 2200 years before our time. It includes objects like small human and animal statues made of stone as well as oracle bones and percussion instruments made of clay. The first Zhou-King 武王Wǔ Wáng (11. century before our time), is supposed to have been a gifted shaman himself.

Vertical shamans seem to have played a very important role at the courts. Some of them became extremely influential. According to old court records from Zhou-Dynasty the Chinese kings were believed to rule under the Mandate of Heaven. If they ruled well, their kingdoms prospered. If not, they lost their mandate and the result was a change of dynasty. The court shamans were vital members of the court in making sure that “Heaven” was satisfied with the ruling king. Their job was to mediate between the king and the Heaven.

However, the court shamans were not only mediums and advisors. They also served as court “scientists”. They studied the constellations of stars in order to make predictions for the future. They also wrote down genealogies in order to support the claims of rulers and kept careful books about historical events. Such records served additionally the development and standardisation of the language.

The court shamans lost their status in 1912 when the First Republic of China was founded. Confucianism was declared to state ideology and the tasks of shamans were handed over to priests, who replaced shamanic practices through Confucian rites.

It was a time of enlightment and social reorganization. All practices that had to do with the spirit world were forbidden, because they were thought to be remnants of the feudal, superstitious society of before. However, horizontal shamans have always been met in all walks of life. There is a continuous market for their services as healers, interpreters of dreams, know-it-alls and fortunetellers. Their social position may always have been rather weak, but as the rulers have preferred keeping them under control (as well as possible) rather than trying to forbid their activities completely (which they knew would have been impossible) shamans have never been persecuted all too strongly.

Today a paradigm shift can be observed as the current government seeks to establish and strengthen phenomena that they call “the spiritual heritage” of the nation in order to propagate nationalistic feelings of the citizens. For example shamanic practices are being “remodeled” by introducing new potentially helpful spirits such as Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Lei Feng. The regalia of a shaman may now include parts of a Red Guard uniform and modern sport shoes. The traditional chants are sometimes supplemented by the national hymn of the PRC.

Emily Chao (Chao, Emily 1999: The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory. Cultural Anthropolgy 14(4): 505-511.) describes such a new kind of shamanist ritual in her article and points out that in the end it is always the audience that makes their judgment of its effectiveness based only on the result.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215.) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states:

”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era.”


“It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

Benefiz-Konzert am 14.6.2014 mit, unter anderem, chinesischer Musik in Bern

Benefiz-Konzert der SPOG, Schweizerische Pädiatrische Onkologie Gruppe.

Samstag, 14. Juni 2014, 17.00 Uhr, Türöffnung 16.30 Uhr
Französische Kirche, Zeughausgasse 8, Bern

Freier Eintritt, Kollekte zugunsten

Links zur Eilandung und Programm:

Benefizkonzert_14_Juni_2014. Einladung

Benezif Konzert 14.6.2014 Programm

Smoggy and yellow air in Beijing

I have spent many smoggy days in Beijing. However, even more scary than a “nomal smoggy” day was the sandstorm I experienced in the middle of March in 2002. I had just arrived in Beijing and was getting settled in my flat. As I woke up on my second morning and looked out of the window the only thing I saw was yellow air, really yellow air. I could hardly see the wall of the neighboring building.

Then my phone started ringing: “Don’t go out today. You’d better stay at home. It’s a bad sandstorm.” My Chinese friends warned me and it was good they did. I simply didn’t know how dangerous a strong sand storm coming from the Gobi Desert can be.

Millions of trees have been planted since then according to the Green Great Wall project to stop the desert from growing and to act as a bulwark against the wind. However, sandstorms still belong to the Beijing winter.

The People’s Republic of China is a party of the Kyoto Protocol, but being a so called developing country it is only committed to reduce its emissions without having legally binding targets.

The following is part of an article from the New York Times published on February 3. 2014

China to Reward Cities and Regions Making Progress on Air Pollution


BEIJING — Chinese officials announced Thursday that they were offering a total of 10 billion renminbi, or $1.65 billion, this year to cities and regions that make “significant progress” in air pollution control, according to a report by Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

The announcement came from the State Council, China’s cabinet, after it held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, the country’s immense air pollution problem. “Control of PM2.5 and PM10 should be a key task,” the State Council said in a statement, referring to two kinds of particulate matter that are deemed harmful to human health.

The announcement of the financial incentives revealed how difficult it has been for some leaders in Beijing to get many Chinese companies and government officials to comply with environmental regulations. Though central officials have been saying with growing vigor that pollution of all kinds must be curbed, their efforts to force other parts of the bureaucracy and the state-run economy to obey rules have been stymied by the self-interest of some groups.

Last year, more than 100 cities in China had an average of 29.9 smoggy days, which was a 52-year high, China Daily reported, though it did not explain what constituted a smoggy day.

The majority of China’s energy use is based on coal, whose burning, besides being the major cause of air pollution in the country, also contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming. China has surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the biggest coal consumer in the world.

The South China Morning Post introduces a possible new method of controlling air pollution

China to test new smog-busting drone to help clear polluted skies

Published on Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 2:49pm, Updated on Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 4:24am by Darren Wee

New design of unmanned vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze floating particles, allowing them to fall to ground, developer says.

Government agencies are to test a new design of aerial drone to see whether it might help tackle the air pollution that often blankets much of the mainland, state media reported.

Air pollution control drone (South China Morning Post 5. March 2014)

Air pollution control drone (South China Morning Post 5. March 2014)

The vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

The tests would be led by the China Meteorological Administration and carried out later this month at airports and ports, Xinhua said.

The drone has been developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and has a paragliding wing, which allows it to carry three times more weight than the fixed-wing version, making it more efficient and cost-effective.

Happy New Year 2014

According to the Chinese lunar calendar the New Year begins this year on January 31. It is the year of the wooden horse.

In earlier times horses provided an important means of transportation and played a very important role in warfare. Thus horses symbolize speedy travelling, quick success and victory. By the way, I call my electric bicycle 马上 mashang, which literally translated means “on horse back”, the modern meaning being “immediately”. Not that I feel especially noble or elevated on my bike. It does take me to places faster and helps me to manage the Swiss topography better than a bicycle without a battery, though. Riding uphill I beat my husband any time. That is speedy travelling, quick success and even victory.

People born in the year of the horse are supposed to be competitive and passionate lovers of freedom. They are social and make good leaders.

If you would like to read the legend of the dragon horse, here is the link: http://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/RiverDiagram.htm

I wish everyone, particularly the horse people, a very good and successful Chinese New Year.

Christmas in the PRC


Christmas is not a traditional Chinese festival. However, more and more people in the bigger cities have taken over certain holiday traditions from the west. Especially commercial ones. Department stores and big hotels have Christmas decorations. Gift shopping is great and you can greet Santa here and there.

Companies that deal with foreigners give Christmas parties. Afterwards the foreign employees go home for a couple  of days and the Chinese back to work. Most offices, shops and schools stay open. Business as usual.

The number of Christians in China is very small (estimated 1% of the population). However, Christian churches are very popular places during the holiday. I’ve been told that it’s fun to go to a Christian church to listen to the songs. Everybody gets something to eat and a little gift to take home.

I’ve seen Christian churches with Christmas decorations that are never taken down. Such decorations have in a way become a symbol for the religion.

Have a happy holiday season unless you work in China.

CPC’s stance on religious belief

Updated: 2013-10-09 09:18

By Ji Zhebu ( China Daily)

Although social circumstances have changed markedly since China implemented its reform and opening-up policy more than three decades ago, the Communist Party of China’s stance on its members’ belief in Communism has not changed since the Party was founded in 1921.

The Party Central Committee has clearly and repeatedly stated that members are prohibited from believing in religion or participating in religious activities. Those who refuse to adhere to the rules are usually persuaded to withdraw from the Party.

At the National Conference on Publicity and Ideology, held in Beijing on Aug 19 and 20, Party chief Xi Jinping called on CPC members and officials to believe firmly in Marxism and Communism and to apply a down-to-earth approach to their work.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Xi stressed that officials, especially those in the upper echelons of power, should grasp the fundamental theories of Marxism and study Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, The Thought of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development.

In addition, Zhu Weiqun, executive vice-minister of the United Front Work Department of the Party Central Committee, published an article entitled “Party members can’t be religious”.

“The article was just a response to the situation that some Party members believe in religion rather than science. As far as I know, very few opposed (my idea) openly inside the Party, but I know a lot of people are not happy with it,” Zhu told China Newsweek earlier this year.

He listed a number of reasons for maintaining the rule for Party members, pointing out that the Party’s worldview is based on dialectical materialism, which is the cornerstone of all the Party’s theories and practices. He also explained that allowing Party members to practice religion could cause a conflict of interest if they believe they should follow the basic tenets of their religion ahead of Party policy.

Zhu said the principle doesn’t contradict the freedom of religion. “When a person chooses to be a Party member of their own free will, it means he or she chooses to be nonreligious. By the same principle, he or she can quit the Party and be religious,” he said.

Spiritual life in China 2: Dàojiào 道教 Daoism

“The doctrine of the way”

If you’d like to read the whole article with references to sources click here: Daoism article .

The word 道 dào is usually translated as the “way“ or “path“, sometimes also “principle”. The concept itself is beyond description.

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

In the Daoist theory “dao” is understood as the origin of the universe and the basis of all existing things. It is the law governing their development and change. It is also described as the way of the nature, the way of social order and change, the way of self-cultivation and the way of governing a country as well as managing family life.

A yin yang emblemwell-known Daoist symbol is the “ying-yang” emblem that symbolises the duality of all things.

阳 yáng: bright, active masculine.

阴 yīn: dark, quiet, feminine.

Just as there can’t be light without darkness, hot does not exist without its counterpart cold. “Yin” and “yang” are not opposites. They always complement each as parts of a whole.


Daoism is the oldest indigenous Chinese spiritual belief system or wisdom tradition that has been institutionalized. It is based on many practices from ancient shamanistic and other folk religious systems. Daoist rituals have traditionally mostly been conducted by so called 散居 道士 sǎnjū dàoshi, spiritual specialists living in their own homes instead of monasteries.

Daoism is one of the 5 officially sanctioned religions or belief systems in the People’s Republic of China today.

Many, but not all, scholars make a difference between Philosophical Daoism and Religious Daoism.

Philosophical Daoism

Philosophical Daoism emphasizes the way of the nature as the ideal way for a human society as well. The concept of wú wéi 无为 “non-action” or “do nothing and all is done” is essential in Daoist thinking. One could say that it is the only dogma in Philosophical Daoism.

As the nature functions best, if not manipulated by the human hand so society also functions best, if a ruler does not interfere in its workings. A good ruler should forget about his own desires, lean back and let things take their course. Just as a river finds its way back to the river bed after a flood so does a society find its way back to the state of balance after political turbulences.

Philosophical Daoists believed in observing the ways of the nature like a child: learning from them and living according to them. Theoretical thinking and formal learning areactually considered harmful as they divert a person’s attention away from the real world. The general opinion seems to be that too much thinking leads to greed, which is the root of all evil.

Furthermore, philosophical Daoists basically accepts death as part of life. Striving for longevity and the wish to defeat death have always been present especially in the southern traditions. However, such wishes became central only with the development of Religious Daoism.


Religious or Institutionalized Daoism

Daoism began to develop institutional structures during the 6. – 5. centuries BC when China was going through huge social changes and was in a constant state of war. There was a need for clear instructions on how to regain social order. Various social and political thinkers began to offer their services as counselors to rulers and to write down their insights.

These thinkers put together all they knew about the central ideas of good governance that had been handed down orally or found in written records from earlier times. The result was a large treasure of philosophical and pragmatically oriented text collections.

Put in a written form, certain practices with the aim of influencing things on earth by trying to influence the divine beings in heaven, who were held responsible for everything that happened on earth, became ritualized. This gave rise to a class of ritual specialists, who explained the meanings of the rituals to groups of disciples that began to gather around them. With time a class of spiritual specialists or priests developed. These acted as mediators between the living and the spirit world. In this way Daoism (as well as other belief systems) became institutionalized.

The early philosophical works were compiled by many different authors and only later credited to real or legendary personalities such as 老子 Lǎozǐ and 空子 Kǒngzǐ (Confucius). There is no historical evidence that a person fitting any of the descriptions of an ancient sage known as Laotzi actually existed. Legends make him a contemporary of Confucius (around 600 BC). The Daoist teachings, however, were probably put in written form during the 4. and 3. century BC in books like the 道德经 Dào Dé Jīng, the 庄子Zhuāngzǐ and the 易经 I Ching or Yì Jīng, the “Book of Changes

Dao De Jing           Zhuangzi

The Dào Dé Jīng is a collection of aphorisms about all aspects of life. The 庄子Zhuāngzǐ contains long philosophical essays rather than short aphorisms.






I Ching










The I Ching is a book about an ancient divination method. It is a collection of linear signs, so called trigrams, consisting of three either whole or broken linear lines. It includes 64 possible pairs of trigrams, called hexagrams, and a commentary on them. If you want to know, how to use the I Ching just watch this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMj-wgSrJAY .

The I Ching is not only part of the Daoist Canon. It is also one of the Confucian Classics.

The four most important schools of Religious Daoism

1. The 天师道 Tiān Shī Dào, “Way of the Celestial Masters“ actually began as a political movement. It was the first really organized group of Daoists believers. The group was structured and governed like an ideal state. In politically rough times the Celestial Masters offered people a safe haven with support for the weakest. The school still exists in small groups today.

The Celestial Masters lived in the present day province of Sichuan. They did not form an elite group, but welcomed women as well as ethnic minorities.

An important aspect of the Celestial Masters was anew understanding of the causes of illness. Illness was considered to be a punishment for wrongful behavior causing the life energy 气 qì to leave the body.


2. The 茅山 Máoshān also called the上清 Shàngqīng, the “Utmost Purity School of Daoism developed in southern China. It was a combination of local cults as well as certain aspects from  Celestial Masters. It was also somewhat influenced by Buddhist ideas.

The Maoshan introduced new deities and new holy mountains, where spirits and gods dwelled. Ancestor spirits played a very important role as they were believed to actively interfere in the daily life of the living on earth.

In pursue of immortality the Maoshan made use of alchemy and drugs. They contributed much to the development of the science of chemistry. Intensive meditation and visualizations formed an important part of the individual practice.

3. The 灵宝 Língbǎo, “School of Numinous Treasure” was influenced by the Celestial Masters and the Maoshan school as well as Confucianism and Buddhism.

In this school common rituals were generally considered more important than individual meditation. Those seeking to gain enlightenment individually lived in monasteries, where they practiced intensive meditation.

The Lingbao School introduced the concepts of hell and rebirth based on Buddhist texts. These were translated and reinterpreted to fit the Chinese context.

Many present day Daoist rituals are based on Lingbao rituals.

4. The 全真 Quánzhēn, “Complete Truth” was founded in the 12th century AD. Today Quanzhen is the main official branch of Daoism in the PRC. The Quanzhen beliefs and practices do not radically differ from those of other Daoist Schools.

Quanzhen has always enjoyed official protection, because its celibate and communal mode of life has been fairly easy to control. In this position Quanzhen has played an important role in transmitting Daoist texts and practices, especially through the persecutions of the twentieth century.

The Daoist pantheon

The Daoist heaven is inhabited by ancestors, immortals and various kinds of deities. By the 3. century BC there were already many quite differentiated images of immortals.

the eight immortals

Immortals are thought to be human beings, who became immortal through self-cultivation. Their place is between human beings and deities and their task is to act as mediators between the earth and the heaven. The so called Eight Immortals serve as models for achieving immortality through leading a morally faultless life.

In some old texts Laotzi is presented as an immortal. In later texts he is often regarded as a Messiah figure, who in troubled times appears on earth to help the living. Many daoist schools worship Laotzi as a god.

the three pure ones

The highest ranking deities, beside Laozi himself, are (from the left) the Supreme Way Heavenly Worthy, the Primordial Heavenly Worthy and the Spiritual Treasure Heavenly Worthy. These three are regarded as emanations of “dao”, omnipotent and supreme.

One of the oldest known deities of China is 西王母 Xīwángmǔ, the Queen Mother of the Western Mountains. The first mentions of the Queen Mother date back to oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC). She is believed to live in the Kunlun Mountains in the far west at the margin of heaven and earth. Her magic peach tree is a cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth.


An 18th-century woodcut depicts the goddess in her old shamanic form, with tiger’s teeth and bamboo staff, sitting on a mountaintop with various chimeric animals.[1]

[1] http://www.suppressedhistories.net/goddess/xiwangmu.html.

Daoism today

It is very difficult to find any reliable statistics about Daoism in China today. The “White Paper – Freedom of Religious Belief in China 1997” gives the following figures: China now has over 1,500 Taoist temples and more than 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns. As for practicing believers it is simply impossible to give any reliable figures at all for the very simple reason that most Chinese people do not adhere to only one spiritual belief system, but often practice different ones at the same time.

Today the 北京白云观 Běijīng Báiyún Guàn or “The White Cloud Tempel” in Beijing houses the offices of the Daoist Association of China. It represents the Quanzhen School, which is the main official branch of Daoism in the PRC today. It is also the home of the Chinese Daoist Academy, the first national institution that acts as the highest authority in Daoist learning.

Lai Chi-Tim provides the following information: By 1999, 133 regional Daoist Associations had been established at a nation-wide level. They are responsible for the management of temples, training of monks, priests and nuns as well as negotiating with the government. Furthermore he tells about the ordination held at the Baiyun Guan in 1989, the first one since 1949. At the ceremony 75 ordinands, 30 of whom were women, were ordinated. A further ordination ceremony for some 400 monks and nuns took place in 1995.[1]

[1] Lai Chi-Tim (2003). Daoism in China Today, 1980–2002. The China Quarterly, 174, pp 413-427 doi:10.1017/ S0009443903000251.

I was visiting the White Cloud Temple with a local friend when we saw two women burning joss sticks and bowing their heads in front of statues representing the pantheon of Daoist Gods. My friends asked them what they were praying for. The younger woman told us that she was about to take an entrance exam to a university. Together with her mother she had been going thru all the spiritual institutions of Beijing to ask for support. Just to make sure.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17Q4mkyaWXk presents a video film about the temple.

The Daoist Tempel in Dong Bei Yang and the holy 泰山Tài Shān mountain

Dong Bei Yang is the home village of my dear friend Zhao Xiao Yan. It is situated about 400 km southwest of Beijing in the Hebei Provinz. Xiao Yan took me home for an autumn temple fair a few years ago. In addition to being a religious affair, the temple fair also functions as a market.

It was a great time to “go home” as everyone else was there as well. As my friend and I took a stroll in the village we were greeted every few minutes by a relative or a friend. So in addition to visiting the temple, we had tea and watermelon seeds in many houses along the way and heard the latest news.

The temple in the village has a long, rich history. It was used as a school during the Cultural Revolution, but today it is again an important spiritual center of the Tai Shan School of Daoism. They worship the third daughter of the legendary Jade Emperor as a High Goddess.

The priests welcomed Xiao Yan as a daughter of the village and me as her good friend. They patiently answered my many questions about the history of the Temple and its social significance. Very obviously the Temple is an important place for people to consult with the priests about their daily concerns. It is also a spiritual refuge for quiet meditation.

I was taken into the holiest of the holy to see ancient paintings of the highest Gods. This was an honor indeed, as my friend said: “Only priests can go in there !”.

A couple of years later I went up to Tai Shan, one of the five holy Daoist Mountains, together with Xiao Yan. A bus took us to the starting point of the stone stairway to the mountain top. It has about 7000 steps altogether. But we got into a modern gondola and hiked up only the last part of the way, which was heavy enough in the hot, foggy weather.

Stairway to Tai ShanThe area around the mountain top has grown into a small village with souvenir shops and restaurants. Numerous little shrines and kiosks are scattered along the stairway.

A trip up to Tai Shan can probably not be compared with a trip to Mecca. However, it seems to have a certain spiritual meaning for at least some of the visitors. They probably gain quite a lot of merit points by doing the hard climb up and down the “stairway to heaven”.

Tai Shan

Tai Shan was taken to the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1987.  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/437


Dao De Jing: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html
I Ching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMj-wgSrJAY
Deities: http://www.taoistsecret.com/taoistgod.html
Xi Wang Mu: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/goddess/xiwangmu.html
The White Cloud Temple in Beijing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17Q4mkyaWXk

Sources for further reading:
Isabelle Robinet and Livia Kahn’s books on the subject
“Spiritual Traditions of China” Internet Resources Site, compiled by Prof. Ron Epstein http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/China/spiritualchina.html

Verein Freundschaft mit China Bern

Ich möchte hier den Verein “Freundschaft mit China Bern” kurz vorstellen. Dieses Jahr (2013) konnte er das 40-Jahre Jubiläum feiern.


Freundschaft mit China Bern ist ein unpolitischer Verein.

Unser Ziel ist es, freundschaftliche Beziehungen zwischen China und der Schweiz zu fördern. Unsere Anlässe haben kulturellen, sportlichen oder unterhaltsamen Charakter. Sie bieten Menschen aus der Schweiz und China Gelegenheit zum Gedankenaustausch oder auch einfach nur für ein gemütliches Beisammensein.

Wir heissen alle herzlich willkommen, die sich für China und die Aktivitäten unseres Vereins interessieren.

瑞中友好协会 是一个不带政治色彩的民间组织