Elements of Daoism imported into Japanese culture

Comparing key characteristics of Daoism as practised in Japan

Below are listed the various key aspects of Daoism (outlined in the article excerpted below) that have been imported into and become entrenched in the cultural life of Japan historically.

  • The Way
  • Performance of sacrificial rituals
  • Heroes, monks who could fly
  • The summoning of the wandering sick soul (eg., at the Chinkonsai, the tying of soul knot to secure the wandering soul of the Emperor)
  • Snake cult
  • Immortality, healing and sages, Xiwangmu and peaches
  • Demon expulsions
  • Shamanic rain dances
  • Ritual dances to solar gods and goddesses
  • Talisman and talisman writing
  • Daoist priests who wear black hats, dance rituals according to classical music


Excerpted from the “Encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices and cultures”



“To understand the connection between Daoism and Shamanism it is necessary to examine the shamanic nature of early Chinese religion. Shamanism in China is said to extend back to the mythical past when rulers relied on special powers to end drought, solicit rain, and im- prove the harvest. Shaman kings with the sur- name Wu reigned during the Shang dynasty (1600–1027 B.C.E.), using divination and sacri- ficial rituals to connect with the spirit world, as suggested in oracle bone inscriptions and ani- mal-like designs in art (in bronze, jade, lacquer, and wood) (Chen 1937; Chang 1983).

But in recent years some scholars have voiced concerns about the use of the term shamanism to de- scribe early Chinese kingship. The chief com- plaint has been that there is no evidence pro- viding specific details about the nature of the shaman king’s experience, such as whether the king took spirit journeys, became possessed, or spoke the words of the deity (Keightley 1983). Others, such as Edward Davis, are concerned about the proliferation of works that describe shamanism as the substrate of Chinese religion (2001, 2). Those who subscribe to the view that rulers of the Shang dynasty were shaman kings note that following the Shang dynasty, when the dy- nasty was overthrown by the Zhou, shamans suffered a decline in social status. The Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), a Chinese ritual classic, tells how the wu (a term referring to both male and female mediums or shamans) became part of an idealized feudal bureaucracy that may have ex- isted in the late Zhou dynasty (1027–256 B.C.E.). During this period, shamans belonged to the Ministry of Rites, presiding over funer- als, performing exorcisms and rain dances, and sometimes becoming possessed during trance. Only those who did not enter trance enjoyed the rank of ministry official. These ranked male shamans were charged with the training of the other shamans in the rain dances. In addition to the male and female shamans, there were also shamans charged with caring for horses.

Among all of the early rituals that shamans performed, rituals to summon rain were the most important and most coveted for proving a shaman’s power. The Han dynasty lexicon, Shuowen jiezi, defines the shaman (wu) as a priest or invoker, who is female, and also dances for rain with two sleeves raised in dance posture. Explanations about the importance of rain dances and flood control in Chinese shamanism often include a reference to the myth of Yu, the flood controller and sage king, and King Tang. After five years of flooding and severe famine, Yu exhausted himself while he was trying to stop a raging flood. An illness fol- lowing his successful efforts crippled him, and for the rest of his life Yu walked with a limp that history records as the gait of yu, or the shaman’s gait. The shaman’s gait became the name of a dance performed by Daoist adepts in later Daoist religion.

The story of the sage King Tang also illus- trates the combined role of king as political ruler and shaman, and the precedent for later shamans to perform rain prayers and dances. After several years of drought, King Tang as- sembled a funeral pyre in the mythical Fusang grove, and prayed to di, the ghosts and the spir- its. He was on the verge of searing his flesh when it began to rain. Miraculously, the down- pour extinguished the flames and saved King Tang from sacrificing himself. Reflecting the importance of self-sacrifice in securing rain, early Chinese rain rituals in- volved the rain (yu) sacrifice, in which the fe- male shaman (wu) and the cripple called the wang, as well as sick children, were burned either by fire or by the heat of the sun (Schafer 1951). Later rain rituals in the Han dynasty in- troduced different elements believed to im- prove the chance of rain during times of drought, such as the substitution of dragon ef- figies for the sacrifice of a human being (Loewe 1987).


Early Daoism is usually defined by two texts: The Way and Its Virtue (Daodejing) and the Zhuangzi. The Zhuangzi is attributed to Zhuang Zhou, who lived in the district of Meng within the State of Song near the border of Chu during the reigns of King Liang and Qi. In the Zhuangzi, shamans named wu are not depicted favorably, and are instead portrayed as charlatans who fool people into believing they can divine the future, and as outdated practi- tioners of cruel sacrificial rituals. These individ- uals have many of the traits of shamans: They are able to fly and ride on the clouds and mist, they enter trances, and they are masters of fire and the other natural elements. They are recognizable by their names (the true man, the daemonic man, the perfect man, the sage, the nameless man) and by their unusual appear ances (hunched backs and skinny necks). These individuals become shaman-like individuals through experiences such as the one had by Ziqi of the south wall: His breathing changed, his body seemed like a tree that had withered, and his mind seemed like ashes. Master Yu is an example of an ideal human being who ac- quired his unusual appearance—becoming a hunchback—during illness.

In addition to the Zhuangzi, early texts of- ten associated with Daoism include the Elegies of Chu (Chuci), and the Classic of Mountains and Waters (Shanhaijing). Wang Yi (d. 158 C.E.), an imperial librarian who wrote the earliest commentary on the Elegies of Chu, attrib- utes the text to Qu Yuan (fourth century B.C.E.), a loyal official betrayed by his ruler and banished to the south of China. Although Wang Yi’s commentary downplays the shamanic origins of the songs, contemporary commentaries and scholarship have mined the work for its detailed information about shamanism in southern China before the sec- ond century C.E. (Waley 1955; Hawkes 1959; Sukhu 1999). One of the best examples of shamanism is found in the section called the Nine Songs. In the first song of this work, “Great One, Lord of the East,” a ling, “shaman,” performs a ritual dance to Taiyi, the great sun god. The shaman’s dance to a cacophony of drum beats, pipes, zithers, and the jingling of the jade pendants on her waistband sends her into a trancelike state that enables the deity to descend and possess her. In other songs, a ling takes spirit journeys, riding in chariots pulled by dragons. Another section of the Elegies of Chu, Zhaohun (The Summons of the Soul), tells about a shaman named Wu Yang (wu being the name of the traditional shaman in China), who summons the soul of a sick or dying person to return, warning the soul of the terrifying things that await it if it continues to wander, and tempting the soul with the celebration that awaits its return (Hawkes 1959).

The authorship and dating of the Classic of Mountains and Waters (Shanhaijing) is shrouded in debate, with some saying the text is a traveler’s guide or geographical gazetteer of the ancient Chinese terrain and others saying that the text is the work of shamans (Yuan Ke 1982, preface, 1). Shamans called wu are healers, and bring the dead back to life. There is also the suggestion that their practices are related to the snake cult and the cult of the Queen Mother of the West, who is later associated with immortality. The shamans of the Classic of Mountains and Waters also search for medicinal herbs believed to extend one’s life, and transform one into an immortal, like the fangshi, “magicians,” who are known to have traveled in search of immortality elixirs for the first emperor of China (259–210 B.C.E.) and Emperor Wu of the Han (141–87 B.C.E.).

Later Daoism

Daoist religion is traditionally seen as having developed out of these Daoist texts and the pursuit of immortality, as well as shamanic exorcism, healing, and spirit possession, during the latter part of the Han dynasty. For most of the Han dynasty, shamans performed rain dances and exorcisms and acted as spirit mediums in court circles, but unlike the shamans of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, shamans during the Han dynasty seldom held official positions (Lin Fushi 1988).

Daoist schools were influenced by the rituals of the Celestial Masters as well as Buddhist texts and practices, and by shamans, who were seen as competitors by the early schools of Daoist religion. Like the Daoist movements before them, the new texts and practices of the Highest Clarity (Shangqing) and Numinous Treasures (Lingbao) Daoist schools incorporated shamanistic techniques such as spirit possession and spirit journeys, rain dancing, healing, exorcism, and talisman writing. Between 367 and 370 C.E., the scriptures of the Highest Clarity school of Daoism were revealed to Yang Xi during visions of Lady Wei, an immortal. This new school of Daoism also absorbed many shamanistic aspects into its practice, such as the use of talismans, the pursuit of longevity and immortality through inner cultivation, and meditative techniques. Daoist adepts took spirit journeys to the stars, and while they were there performed the dance of yu, or the shaman’s gait. In this dance, the adept would drag one foot behind him, mimicking the way in which Yu walked after he stopped the flood (Robinet 1993, 200–226).

The Numinous Treasures (Lingbao) school of Daoism became a unified school during the middle of the fifth century. The term Numinous Treasures refers to the one who “sum- moned and controlled the numinous souls of the dead” (Yamada 2000, 226). The term ling- bao came to represent those who became guardians of the spirits during rites of spirit possession and may have originated in the song “Lord of the East” in the Nine Songs, where the lingbao is a type of shaman who communicates with the spirit world (Hawkes 1959). Numinous Treasures scriptures emphasized liturgy and developed out of the scriptures of the Highest Clarity school and southern traditions (such as those discussed in the Elegies of Chu and the Classic of Mountains and Waters), as well as Pure Land Buddhism (Bokenkamp 1983).

Daoism Today

Daoism today combines rituals, divinations, beliefs, and practices from the many schools of Daoism (Celestial Masters, Highest Clarity, Numinous Treasures, Quanzhen [lit., “whole truth”]) and shamanism. Formally, Daoist rituals and practices are divided into two groups, but in practice there are variations in southern China and on Taiwan. There are the Daoist priests (daoshi) and the Daoist ritual masters (fashi), who are distinguished by the color of their hats and the kind of rituals they perform. Daoist priests belong to the literati class and in- herit their positions. They wear black hats and use classical Chinese during communal rituals in which trance and exorcism do not play a part, and they do not serve a local community. Daoist ritual masters, in contrast, do not be- long to the literati class and do not inherit their positions. They wear red hats and use vernacular Chinese during rituals for the local communities they serve.

The Daoist ritual master provides a link between the formal aspects of Daoist religion and the local traditions, often taking on the role of the shaman who is a spirit medium and performing exorcisms (Davis 2001, 11). Shamans, often associated with Daoist practice, have many names and can be found in southern China and on Taiwan. Some have names like the wu of Chinese antiquity, such as the wupo, “granny shaman,” the wushi, “shaman teacher,” and the shenwu, “daemonic shaman.” Others have names that imply childlike qualities such as the tongzi, “youths who are mediums,” the ji- tong, “divining youths,” and the matong, “horse youths.” There are other male and female shamans called lingji, “diviners of the spirit,” and shamans who are female called the hongyi.”

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