Yin-Yang-Shamanism in Ningxia, China

An unfinished Video-Project by Karl W. Luckert and Zhang Zuotang,
October 2004.

Foreword by Karl W. Luckert


The research project, which I like to display here, began in the Department of Religious Studies, at Missouri State University, during the fall of 1998. Zhang Zuotang, our graduate student from China, needed to write a masters paper for the “history of religions” requirement. We discovered that he knows something about shamanism in his home region, Ningxia -- something about which no Western scholar and no book was able to tell us anything. I encouraged him to obtain additional source materials from his relatives in China and write a paper on that theme.

Zhang Zuotang wrote a paper that opened up to English readers a new window to the history of religions in China. At his graduation I told him that whenever he wants to continue his Yin-Yang Shamanism studies, I would volunteer to help him and come to China. He took me up on this offer three years later, and in the summer of 2002 we did our first round of fieldwork together. We continued this research together in southern Ningxia every summer until 2009. The area in which Zuotang grew up is an impoverished mountainous region, somewhere beyond the upper reaches of the Yellow River, in southern Ningxia.

During the Cultural Revolution shamans were not allowed to perform their archaic rites. They would risk getting killed. Zhang Zoutang, the boy who had survived his own foolish moment, between childhood and death, began to help the shaman who had helped him. He thereby exposed himself to similar public and political dangers.

All the while the villagers, when they suffered life-threatening illnesses—attacks from deamons—needed mediation toward the gods, which the shamans as ecumenical lay-priests did provide. When during the Cultural Revolution the shamans could not do rituals, some of them continued, in secret, to write their intercessory letters to the gods. These letters could then be read during rituals which the client families conducted among themselves, in secret. But there was a problem. These people were illiterate and unable to read shaman-letters. Zhang Zuotang, one of three boys in the village who had learned how to read, would be asked to read such shaman-letters to the gods during private family ceremonies. How could a literate schoolboy refuse to read a letter for neighbors who believed that the survival of a sick family member depended on it?

The boy did well in his regional junior high school and became a village teacher. In 1986 he was chosen by the AFS Intercultural and International Exchange Program to be an “exchange teacher” in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, for a year.

Several decades later, on his own initiative -- after borrowing some money from equally poor friends, and with help from American sponsors in Pennsylvania -- he managed to get into the Minnesota State University at Mankato. After one year of study there, and after university budget cuts, he was left broke and desperate. It was then, that the Missouri State University Department of Religious Studies was able to take him in and help salvage his academic career. Zhang Zuotang has since earned a PhD degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and now teaches Chinese language and culture courses at Georgia State University in Statesboro, Georgia.


The VideoScript

by Karl W. Luckert and Zhang Zuotang

1. Zhang Zuotang under the Care of Shamans -- The opening Scene

Here are the remnants of a watchtower that stood along the western Great Wall. Fanmagou is located just about a kilometer beyond the old boundary. Here is a communal threshing ground. Some of the people have their individual threshing floors. Over there are the women of the village, doing their laundry and washing their clothes.

In the early days, the people of my home village, Fanmagou, all lived in caves that were carved into cliffs of yellow clay. By the time I was born, only one house and two huts had been built in this village. The villagers obtain their water from springs that seep forth in the deep ravine. Fanmagou is my home village. Most people lived on the other side of the ravine, but my family, and another, lived on this side.

This is the homestead where I was born in 1957. My father bought this place before he got married. It consisted of two caves. He built this wall around our courtyard when I was four years old. These are the trees that my father planted. Cadres of the Cultural Revolution accused him of walking the Capitalist Road by planting too many trees. So, reluctantly he agreed to cut some down. With each stroke of his axe I heard him speak curses. He imagined cutting down those cadres who made him do it.

In this courtyard my two brothers and I, and my two sisters, grew up. I was the oldest. The opening to our first cave is now half obstructed by a wall. This cave served as a living room and kitchen. The second cave was our bedroom, and years later it was remodeled into a kitchen. There on the right stood the kang -- a heat-able clay bed. This was home, and it kept us out of the rain.

The third cave was added later. It was initially used as a storage room. When we prospered a little, and when we could afford a few animals, it was made into a barn. There were a donkey, three goats, and two sheep.

Here stood a typical entrance gate, and at this very spot happened something that brought me under the care of a Yin-Yang shaman. But actually, this story begins over there, at the bee-hives. My father also had chosen the Capitalist Road when it came to propagating and selling bees and honey.

One summer day (1968), when I was about ten years old, when my father had gone to the market and my mother was working in the commune fields, my younger brother and I were investigating the bee hives. The preceding day some bees had been swarming and my father had captured them in a basket. There were two queens in that new swarm. He killed one of them and we boys discovered her body lying on the lid of the incense box, in the kitchen. We were curious what a swarm of bees would do with the dead body of a queen. They immediately pulled it into the hive, to consume. At that moment I was beginning to feel responsible. If the bees consumed the dead queen, it would be my fault. So, my brother and I removed the lid of the hive and rescued the corpse -- not without us being generously stung, of course.

Then we faced the problem of replacing the clay lid. It broke. We went to get several spare ones and tried to chip them down to the proper shape and size. Each and every one broke in our hands.

That was a serious matter, I thought, and I told my brother: “Now I must die.”

He asked me: “How?”
I said: “I need a rope.”

We found one. I climbed up the cross-bars of the door, tied the end of my rope around a roof beam, and let myself fall into the loop.

Then my younger brother panicked. He shouted for help. His cries echoed across the ravine and back to a field above us. A man ran to cut my rope, and someone rode a bicycle to get some medicine. One of the villagers immediately hung a red rooster to the roof beam, as a substitute for the demons that had wanted to take me. The next day a man was sent to fetch a Yin-Yang shaman. He performed a rite of exorcism over me and gave me a charm to wear under my left armpit, for protection.

By the way, I am Zhang Zuotang. Several years ago my American professor and I made plans to visit my home in South Ningxia to study Yin Yang shamanism together.

Yes, Zuotang, this is a significant moment in our research together. We are sitting here by the ruins of what used to be your native home. Do we know approximately what was written on the paper, in the charm that you carried under your arm?

Yes, I wore it for at least 100 days. It was intended against the demons who tried to take my life. The shaman placed the bearer under the protection of the three gods.

Might we be able to ask a Yin-Yang (shaman) to reproduce such a charm for us? And might he also agree to sing a song that goes with it?

I have already asked. But so far we have not been far enough away from the people to sing such a powerful song. Threatening the demons out of context is like playing with fire. But we will try again. We can try.


2.  Amulets Simulated in 2002 and 2003

The Yin-Yang shaman who enacted the healing rite over the boy Zhang Zuotang, in 1968, no longer dwells in the Yang World of the living. Nevertheless, in order to learn a little more about the shamanic cure that was enacted back then, we have visited a practicing Yin-Yang in 2002 and asked for an amulet simulation. We arrived in the shaman’s front room as he was engaged in a rite of exorcism by fire.

Afterward he gladly demonstrated to us, how he would have made a suitable amulet for a boy caught up in a similar emergency as Zhang Zuotang was, in 1968.

The first strip translates as follows:
This effective amulet hereby orders that by the power of all the sunrays the three demons shall be decapitated.  The number Three here denotes “all demons.”

The second strip says:
By wearing this amulet the bearer will be protected by the God of Thunder with the help of the Sun-god, Moon-god, and by the two combined -- to defeat the horse demons with the help of the Sun-god, the cattle demons with the help of the Moon-god, as well as the chariot demons with the help of both of them jointly.

And the third strip reads:

Thunderous Order: Firstly, from the upper seat, the Jade Emperor expels the demons and all bad luck under heaven. Secondly, the middle seat protects the body and fortifies the homesteads for all of humankind. Thirdly, the lower seat decapitates the demons and captures malevolent spirits throughout all the lands. The three check-marks at the top of this strip stand for Heaven, Earth, and Humanity.

This shaman belongs to a different tradition than the Longmen, to which the one who treated Zuotang in 1968 belonged. Zuotang remembers clearly, that the amulet that he wore under his armpit for 100 days did invoke the Kitchen-god of their homestead, along with two other deities. This means that gods may be combined into groups or pantheons differently by different shamans and from one amulet to another. Nevertheless, the inherent logic of all of the amulets implies some tangible and strong prayer. Such a tangible prayer tells the gods in no uncertain terms what kind of cooperation their human representative, the shaman, expects of them.


One year after obtaining our first amulet, an opportunity came to film an amulet demonstration by another shaman -- for the same type of emergency. This shaman-friend volunteered to make an amulet for us, after it became clear that Zhang Zuotang, during the present lunar year, lived under the watch of the God of Death. This bit of information is enough to jolt the imagination even of a neutral researcher into asking: Might there be such a thing as extra protection?

As we expected, the amulet of this shaman invoked a unique trinity of gods as well. His divine helpers include the Dou Star, the Buddha, and what he called the “Three Founders” of Daoism.

The first strip of this amulet, at the top, shows triplet check marks which stand for the three founders of Daoism, Yu-Qing, Shang-Qing and Tai-Qing.

And while drawing his amulet, the shaman quietly murmured the text:

“Decapitate! This thunderous order is issued to General Dou Star:
Protect the body and guard the life (of the client) so that a thousand catastrophes shall not happen, and ten thousand calamities shall not intrude!”

Had a woman been the patient, the Star that is invoked would be the Kui Star

Second Strip: “Buddha, decapitate the demons and expel the evils!”

It is obvious that the Buddha, who here decapitates demons upon the request of a shaman, is not the one who has recommended that people walk along the Eightfold Path. Then, the twenty-eight cross lines represent the 28 guardian stars that are on duty on the 28 days of the lunar month.

Third Strip:Divine White Snake Amulet: Hong, Cheng and Ming! Hundred illnesses shall not occur.”

The triplet check marks at the top stand again for the three founders of Daoism, Yu-Qing, Shang-Qing and Tai-Qing. Perhaps these three “founders of Daoism” are founders of the Huahan lineage, to which this shaman belongs. At this point in our research we must entertain the hypothesis that possibly this shamanic tradition may not recognize Laotzu and Zhuangtzu as founders for what they call “Daoism.”

Thirty-six cross lines on this strip represent 36 heavenly guards.

With each brush stroke the Yin-Yang murmurs a line of incantation, and within the microcosm of the amulet his murmurs activate the rhythm of salvation.

“A thousand generals are surprised; one hundred generals rally.

When the light of Sun and Moon turns against them, the hearts of demons tremble and are shredded.

Open the door to Heaven; close the window to Earth.

Leave a path for men; block the road for the devil.

People walk on paths; while demons have no road to escape.”


The square stamp-seal attests to authority that is being derived from the North Star -- which, reliably fixed and positioned in the sky, expels evils. Then, after the amulet is finished the Yin-Yang shaman murmurs:

“A flying amulet comes from Nine-fold Heaven. Father-Thunder and Mother-Thunder give the orders. Shouting and yelling, the twenty-eight Star Generals descend from the Palace of Heaven.”

The square stamp-seal attests to the authority that is being derived from the North Star -- which, reliably fixed and positioned in the sky, expels evils.


3) Empowerment of the Shaman Meng Zhanji

On July 28, 2004, we traveled to the “Western Sea,” which is situated approximately 35 kilometers west of Guyuan. The name suggests that there ought to exist, somewhere in relation to the city of Guyuan, also an Eastern Sea, a Northern Sea, and a Southern Sea. But from among the four directional seas, a location of the Eastern Sea does not exist in physical geography.

The “Western Sea,” actually, is a small mountain lake by which a Daoist temple is situated on one side and a Buddhist temple on the opposite slope. Because these two sanctuaries have become popular goals of religious pilgrims, there has been built between them also a structure for “secular” diversion -- a Chin opera stage. On two occasions during the year people will flock to this lake on a pilgrimage.

In spring or early summer, a rain-requesting ceremony is performed along the shore of this lake. The deity who receives all this attention lives in an underwater palace, in the lake. It is the Rain-deity known as the Dragon-King, whose cult has dominated Chinese piety since the beginnings of agriculture. Thunder-god is the one who noisily orders the cloud-dragons to let go of their rain, and his loud voice gives notice to humankind as well. The deity painted in lighter color, next to him, is the God of Lightning.

On the 12th day of the sixth month of the lunar year, a round of rituals is enacted as well. The people told us that rain will fall today. And it did. It seems, since this is the harvest season, that the request to the Dragon-King in this round includes also a plea for moderation, to hold back some of the rain so that harvesting might be possible.

This year’s extravaganza was staged mostly at the Daoist side of the lake -- namely, the initiation and full empowerment of Meng Zhanji, who had just finished his three-year apprenticeship as a shaman, under his master, Ma Zhonghuai.

In the crowded pavilion of the main Daoist temple a group of Yin-Yang shamans pay their respects. Because the overseer of the main temple was concerned about the revenues that might be lost if a ceremony congests his sanctuary, the group of Yin-Yang shamans went up the hill to a smaller temple where the statues of the God of Medicine and his two helpers are stationed.

Both temples on this side of the lake stand under the divine sponsorship of the same Dragon-King. He is China’s ancient rain-and-cloud deity whose history spans the evolution of Chinese agriculture. As the divine power that has determined the piety and survival of Chinese farmers, the Dragon-King was emulated by some emperors who, in good years, were tempted to take credit for favorable weather.

In the small sanctuary was only enough room for the officiating shamans. A few relatives of the shaman novice squeezed through the doorway to deliver some necessary paraphernalia.

By and large the Yin-Yang shamans are robed like Taoist priests, and they chant songs which remind of Buddhist sutras. They function as ecumenical lay priests for clients who may be inclined to participate in either Daoism or Buddhism as their primary religion. Even a rare Muslim has, here and there, sought the help of a Yin-Yang shaman.

A few persistent unrelated pilgrims availed themselves of the opportunity to approach the gods as well, now that the shamans had gotten their attention.

On the back of the young shaman, under his robe, is fastened the square wooden power-pole on which words of his authority are inscribed. There is also tucked in an old iron sword for threatening and killing the demons during serious rites of exorcism.

In the Buddhist compound, at the other side of the lake, the shamans do present offerings and chant songs before the exterior altar. They do not enter the Buddhist sanctuary to face the statue of the Buddha personally. According to the earlier amulet, which was prepared by the shaman who is being empowered today, he regards the Buddha as one of his helper divinities.

Buddhist monks seem to have been attracted to this lake by the same hierophany. They offer their chants at the same promontory along the lakeshore. Both groups are paying homage to the Dragon-King who lives in the deep waters and who is believed to provide rain.

The anthropomorphic statue of the Dragon-King occupies the central position in the Daoist temple, and for this festival an image of the Dragon-King’s superior, of the Thunder-god, has been brought in to visit the temple.


4.  The Funeral of Wang Fenglian

Wang Fenglian was the maternal grandmother of Zhang Zuotang. She was 92 years old when she died in Summer of 2003. In the grandmother’s ancestral home, in Chi-Village, a candle is lit for her. Incense is burned, and printed ghost-money is burned for her. Libations of tea and sorghum wine are poured on the clay floor.

It turned out that during this particular year the family graveyard, which happened to be aligned east-and-west, was ill suited for a good burial. During this lunar Year of the Ram, the gods of good fortune were in the habit of traveling in northerly and southerly directions. It was decided, therefore, that the grandmother should receive a temporary burial at a location outside the family graveyard, in a grave that is aligned in a north-south direction. It also was agreed that at the first anniversary of her death -- a day which needs to be commemorated anyhow -- she would be reburied in the family’s east-west oriented grave yard.

Upon arrival at the gravesite the coffin is unloaded and dragged to a ready position. The diggers would not come out of the pit until the relatives of the deceased dropped additional money to pay them for their efforts. There is some cajoling going on, between the men who are responsible for the funeral and those who had been digging, regarding the latter’s “greedy expectations” -- all in accordance with established custom and humor.

Food and drink are being offered to the ghost of the deceased who is believed to be lingering nearby. Paper-money, printed superficially as currency for the dead, was soaked by the rain and has nearly disintegrated. It is being loosened up for burning.

Because the coffin had been transported over a considerable distance, and over problematic roadways, the lid was lifted one last time to see whether the position of the body has shifted and needs to be readjusted.

The coffin is rigged to a makeshift wooden beam and then slowly lowered into the grave. It is slid lengthways into the vault that has been carved into the loess. The Yin-Yang practitioner checks the coffin’s north-south alignment with his compass, and the position of the coffin is adjusted accordingly.

Thick bands of braided straw are layered for a column that blocks the entrance to the dug-out vault. East of these activities the Yin-Yang practitioner intones the funeral chant, imploring the Earth-god that he might accept and protect the dead body. As soon as the vault is closed, the men are shoveling in full force to fill the pit. The sounds of wailing grow louder.

Toward the end of the proceedings some of the villagers fetch portions of sacrificial ghost money from the burning site, to carry them to nearby places and to burn them separately as gifts for the ghosts of their own recently deceased who -- it is assumed, have assembled to join the party.

The clothes of the dead person are burned separately. They had been her property all along and were not counted among the funeral offerings.


5) First Anniversary and Reburial of Wang Fenglian

In the summer of 2004 we celebrated Wang Fenglian’s First-Year Anniversary of her funeral. The courtyard of her ancestral homestead was set up for a festive event. According to custom, the gods were approached at a makeshift tent-sanctuary, and Wang Fenglian’s ghost was entertained at her personal shrine -- which was an improvised structure made of a table stacked on another.

Elsewhere in the village, the God of Earth was visited at the place where his temple used to stand. The temple had been destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The earth deity was approached to obtain permission for digging a second grave.

A food give-away and food-scattering ritual, “Shishi,” was performed in the evening. Food is donated and scattered for all living beings, to show the goodwill of those who sponsor the event -- but also to persuade (to encourage) the invited gods to disperse their blessings on the people.

Wang Fenglian’s ghost, represented by her tablet, is hereby enabled to cross the bridge over Nai River, in the Yin-world -- to avoid falling into hell beneath. She ascends to shine in the light of the gods--to be groomed for a while and serenaded by shamans.

The tablet that represents Wang Fenglian is returned again to the Yang-world of the living, to enable her to participate as ghost, back here on the next day, in her re-burial proceedings.

Wang Fenglian’s coffin was dug up. The Earth-god was given a substitute straw doll into the old grave, and in addition the simulation of a chicken sacrifice. Then she was reburied in the east-west oriented graveyard of her family, next to her husband, with full honors and proper gifts.


6.  Zhang Jucai’s Transition from Ghost to Ancestor

In the year 2002, at Fanmagou village, we were able to film the third anniversary of a funeral, held for a relative. It was the occasion at which the ghost of Zhang Jucai was welcomed back to his homestead overnight, one last time. The temporary guest room was stacked with paper gifts, and Zhang Jucai was groomed for his last departure. Shamans were chanting to the gods, and after this they could be seen serenading the kitchen-god of this homestead. Every kitchen in traditional Han households has its own divine overseer, the Kitchen-god. The ghost of Zhang Jucai was sent away with the shaman’s official escort-letter. He was led away from the homestead to his grave-site. And while another shaman there read another escort-letter, and while gifts were being burned to accompany him, and while the survivors lamented one last time, he was made into a bona-fide ancestor. We filmed the event as it could be seen in the Yang world -- but the reception ceremony, which took place in the Yin world of the ancestors, our camera could not see.

To complete our video series on Yin-Yang shamanism, in the course of the next few years, we will need to film some healing rites involving the calling back of souls and spirits, various methods of exorcism, as well as rites for purifying and immunizing entire households and homesteads.