Tattooing – Gift of Okikurumi Turesh Machi, ancestral mother deity of the Ainu

Ainu woman with tattooed lips (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ainu woman with tattooed lips (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Imekanu, Kindaichi Kyōsuke, and Nami” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The following lines are excerpted from Lars Krutak excellent work,


Article © 2008 Lars Krutak To view the above gallery click here

The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.

Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.

Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.

Ainu Tattooing

Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.

Ainu Tattooing

Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.

Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.

At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.

Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.'” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”

The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1890. The embroidery, like tattooing, was believed to keep evil spirits from entering the body.

Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren“, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.

While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonialsbecause communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent herspiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.

Ainu Tattoos, Girdles, and Symbolic Embroidery

According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”

Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.

After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.

The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.

Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.

As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.

Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.

Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.

However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsorgirdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.

But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest

Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.

Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.”

Museum photo gallery of these images may be seen here and at Ainu Tattoo

The photos on the page have not been uploaded, to view the gallery click here. The photos appended above are from the Wikimedia Commons in the public domain


Note on Okikurumi Turesh Machi and her relationship with Okikurumi

Okikurumi Turesh Machi is the according to some versions, the younger sister of Okikurumi, the creator god.

Legend of the water-wag-tail bird delivering a message to Aheterehai to look kindly upon the lovesick creator deity, who is equated with the soul of the Ainu land.  “A little bird flies to the cause of this affliction—the object of his affections. Word is brought to her of his deep-seated love and critical condition. The pretty little bird wags its tail and whispers in the lady’s ear that, if Okikurumi dies, the soul of Ainu-land will also depart. Therefore the bird begs her to have mercy upon poor Okikurumi for the sake of Ainuland.”–“The Legend of Okikurumi in Love” from Sacred Texts 

Okikurumi may have been a deified ancestral father of the Ainu who taught the Ainu many skills such as how to fell  trees rather than a creator deity…see Okikurumi

Burn baby burn! The Shinto inferno of Japan’s Dondo Yaki ceremony

Featured Image -- 10426


Fire rituals were likely transmitted by religious ascetics from Central Asia or Southeast Asia, the mayu balls have a counterpart in the traditions of the Southern Chinese who served them during birthdays and certain festivals to signify longlife and good health.

Originally posted on RocketNews24:

DY 5

When entering the grounds of a Shinto shrine in Japan, it’s customary to first stop by the water basin near the gate and rinse your hands, and sometimes your mouth, in order to cleanse them. Water isn’t the only classical element held to have purifying properties in Shintoism, though, since the same can be said about fire.

Obviously, worshippers aren’t called upon to put fire on their palms or inside their mouths. Instead, Shinto priests light pyres of charms and decorations during the Dondo Yaki ceremony, with the towering blazes regularly reaching 15 meters (49.2 feet) into the air.

View original 453 more words

Kumano’s Indian gods and tales, and the Japanized view of the Other World(s)


Kumano no honji emaki = The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine, Handscrolls, scroll 2; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

Kumano no honji emaki (Picture Scroll of The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine), Handscrolls, scroll 2 scene 1; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

The Kumano-no-Honji handscrolls are a set of three. The handscrolls belong to a genre of illustrated religious literature that describes the Buddhist origins of local Japanese deities (kami). The scroll recounts the genesis of the gods as Indian Buddhist royalty who experience treachery and persecution, fly to Japan, and apotheose as the deities of the Kumano Shrines.

Since prehistoric times until the present, the Kumano area has been regarded as a sacred, mystical abode of the gods and a place for miraculous healing. To read more about prehistoric nature worship and pre-medieval Kumano, see Descent of deities in the land of Kumano 

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

In the 11th century the Grand Shrines of Kumano Sanzan became a pilgrimage destination for the imperial family and aristocrats. By the late 15th century, the majority of pilgrims to Kumano were commoners. The Kumano Shrines are located in the Kii mountain range south of Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. Three main shrines, are connected by a pilgrimage route, Shinto indigenous beliefs linked the Kumano region with the origin of the Japanese people. Buddhist missionaries later imagined the area of the shrines as the earthly paradise of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Kannon in Japanese), incorporating Buddhist beliefs and tales of Indian origin into the local religious landscape.

One of the most famous paths of the Heian period - the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

One of the most famous paths from the Heian period – the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

The Kumano Shrines were unusual in cultivating, rather than excluding, female pilgrims. Addressed to a largely female audience, this illustrated tale was one of the visual media used by Kumano nuns in their itinerant preaching to attract funds and pilgrimages to their shrines. According to Alison Tokita, the bikuni had a key role in disseminating the Buddhist oral tales and traditions: “Japan’s oral narrative performance practices, no longer extant, were often the preserve of itinerant women entertainers in the medieval era”. The handscroll ends by praising the miraculous benefits of pilgrimage. The calligraphic text translates: “If you once travel there, you will be protected from all afflicting boils and painful disasters. The ten evils and the five sins will vanish when you once set foot on that holy site. And peace, in this world and in the next, is guaranteed to whomever makes pilgrimage there.”

“Kumano bikuni, or the nuns of Kumano, were the female counterpart of etoki hoshi. Very little is known of their origins, but it may be assumed that these nuns, like most professionals with religious names, started their activities at a religious center. As their name suggests they were probably associated with the three sacred mountains of Kumano,  one of the most important centers of popular religion during the middle ages. In spite of the geographical isolation and the difficulty of the roads, Kumano attracted pilgrims in all walks of life, from the Emperor on down; a popular saying at the time likened the swarms to “ants on pilgrimage to Kumano” (ari no Kumano mairi)… and Tendai shodo priests from the Agui center in Kyoto included in their proselytizing texts their version of the origins of the divinities at Kumano.17 Much of this popularity was unquestionably due to the active missionary campaigns which the three shrines of Kumano had conducted at least as far back as the middle Heian period. Agents from these shrines toured the whole country seeking donations, and Kumano bikuni were no doubt among them…” (source: Barbara Ruch’s “Japan in the Muromachi Age“)

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

The following passage excerpt throws a great deal of light upon Medieval Japanese thought and worldviews, it is taken from Kazuhiko Komatsu’s chapter “The image of India in the Popular Literature of Japanese Medieval Period: with Special Reference to Pictorial Expressions in Otogizoshi Tales” from the book compilation of essays, “East Asian Literatures: Japanese, Chinese and Korean : an Interface with India

…Otogizoshi-tales flourished in Japan during the medieval period. India was known to Medieval Japan as the place where Buddhism and its originator, Shaka (Lord Buddha). As a result, proper nouns like India (Tenjiku) and names of places were found mostly in the Buddhist context.

The first story to be introduced in the is paper is called ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’. This is a story that traces the origin of the Gods in Kishu (presently Wakayama Prefecture in Japan) from India (Tenjiku) to Japan. The worship of Kumano Sanzan (Three Sacred Shrines of Kumano) was started in the imperial family of Kyoto and the nobilities after the mid-Heian Era and spread in the masses during the medieval period. Situated in the Kii Peninsula that lies to the South of Kyoto, the three shrines of Kumano Honsha, Kumano Shinha and Kumano Nachi Taisha were worshipped since olden times. They were not considered as one set right from the beginning, but were grouped up in course of time. They were worshipped and with the syncretism of Budhdism and Shintoism, the Gods from Kumano Sanzan were also provided with a Buddhist explanation.
‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is a story that has been created considering the confluence of Shintoism and Buddhism. “Honji” is a concept devised by Japanese Buddhists that explained the correlaton between Buddha and Japanese Gods (Kami). Japanese Gods (Kami) that existed in the soil of Japan before Buddhism arrived were considered to be reincarnations of Lord Buddha who came to salvage the masses. Thus, the explanation stressed that Kami was Buddha and Buddha was a reincarnation of Kami. However, following the popularization of the concept, ‘Honji’ was considered to be “A story that depicts how a human being, after undergoing various difficulties, was able to become Buddha due to the divine protection of Kami and Buddha”. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ means “The story that explains how the Kumano Gods became Gods”.

There have been indications that ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ was originally written by propagators of the Kumano thought in order to spread the Kumano thought of worship. However, it became more of a fairy tale that had a germ of popular amusement in it, thus separating it from a religious context in the process of popularization. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is the story of the Gods of Kumano. However, the scene of the story is set at Magadha, a kingdom in central Tenjiku (India) and the characters are also Indian people. A brief outline of the story is given below:

Zenzai, the King of Magadha, situated in central India, had 1000 wives, but was not blessed by a son. Senko, a queen who lived in the Gosui palace, prayed to Goddesss Kannon-Bosatsu (Avalokiteshwara) in order to be blessed by the king’s affection. The Buddhist Goddess of mercy blessed her, and she conceived a baby on receiving the King’s affection. The King was overjoyed as he was able to have the long cherished Prince, but the other queens were jealous of Senko. They cast a charm on Queen Senko and brought an astrologer who gave a false prediction that the “child in Queen Senko’s womb will bring about the fall of the empire”. These plans failed , but the thousand queens disguised into witches and attached the King’s Gosui Palace, and the King left Queen Senko. The queens called the knights, forged a false royal order, and took Queen Senko into the deep forests of the mountain for execution. The Queen delivered a son just before being executed, who grew on the milk of his dead mother, protected by animals of the jungle.

When the prince was three years old, the Queen’s elder brother Chiken, who was a priest, entered the jungle and found out the prince. He took him to a monastery at the foothills of the mountain, educated him and planned a meeting of the father and son when the prince became seven years old. Soon the Queen was also brought to life by the magical powers of the priest; the lot of the queens was disclosed and all of them were punished. King Zenzai, along with Queen Senko, the prince, priest Chiken, and the retainers, decided to travel to Japan, rode on a vehicle that flew in the sky, reached Kumano in Japan and became the Gods of Kumano. The king is beleied to be the reincarnation of Amida Nyorai (Lord Amitabha), the Queen that of Kannon-Bosatsu (Goddess Avaokiteshwara) and priest Chiken of Yakushi-Nyorai (Bahasajhyaguru). It is said that Amida-Nyorai is worshipped as the Honji at the shrine of Kumano ongu, Kannon-Bosatsu at Kumano Shinu and Yakushi-Nyorai at Nachigu.

The brief outline of the story mentioned above shows that if the sentence “Zenzai, the king of Magadha stayed in central India…,” is not found at the beginning, it is hard to distinguish that the story takes place in India and the characters are people of India. It can also be mistaken as a story that has the Chinese or Japanese royal family as its main characters. This is because the actual story does not have any elements that would make the presence of ‘India’ felt in it.

What would be the situation if the illustrations that accompany this story are considered? Let us see the depiction of Tenjiku (India)given in ‘Kumano-no-Honji Emaki’ (The Picture Scroll of Kuma-no-Honji) which is preserved in the Kumata Shinto shrine.

Picture 1

Picture 1-A The Palace of King Zenzai, Kumano-no-Honji


Picture 1-A (shown above) shows the scene when the queens, disguised as witches, are annoying the King who has come to stay at the Gosui Palace where Queen Senko lived. King Zenzai and Queen Senko are surprised at the appearance of the witches. And Picture 1-B and Picture 1-C are the same scenes from another text of Kuma-no-Honji.

Their apparel of Picture 1 seems to be a mixture of Japanese and foreign (Chinese or Korean style) clothes. The palace architecture too, can be called as Japanese except for the use of red color paint that can be seen in one portion. This color can be called as an effort to distinguish the palace from the Japanese Palace. Picture 2 shows the scene when Queen Senko is taken away by the knights for decapitation. The weapon of the soldiers have somewhat foreign shapes, but their appearance is more or less similar to Japanese soldiers.

In other words, it can be said that India’s image depicted in these pictures is more of a mixture of Japanese and Chinese imagination of India. If we consider this as reality, then that would mean that the medieval Japanese were not able ot form a concrete image of India. It was an image that was neither Chinese nor Japanese – and of course completely different from reality –an image of country that medieval Japanese called as ‘India’.
The Concept of ‘The Other World’ in Japan

Here, I would like to deliberate from a different perspective on the pictorial depiction of the foreign style palace architecture and costumes. The image of India seen in the aforesaid story of ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’ seems to originate from a blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture and clothing. However, this blending does not stop at the image of India only, but continues further a a broader image that was common in the depiction of ‘The Other World’ by medieval Japanese.

The ‘Other World’ means a world that is on the other side of the everyday world of living beings. Beyond the day-today world, the Japanese have been imagining a world where Gods and goblins live. For example, they believed that there was a world above the sky that differed from the human world. At the same time, there existed worlds in the mountains, under water, on the other side of the sea, underground and even after death, a country (kingdom) of the dead existed for them. These worlds were even depicted in paintings throughout.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Amewakahiko Monogatari’ depicts one of Otogizoshi-tales that deals with royal palaces in the heavens. Amewakahiko was the son of the King of the world above the skies and the story is as follows.

Amewakahiko goes to the human world in the form of a snake and asks a princess to marry him, after which he changes into a beautiful youth and appears in front of her. Both of them do spend the married life together, but Amewakahiko soon goes back to the skies. The princess who loves her husband follows him to the celestial world, goes through various tests that his father gives and finally there is a reunion.

When we have a look at the illustration that depicts the royal palace of the celestial world, the architecture is of Chinese style (Picture 3), and the King in the Palace (Amewakahiko’s Father) is shown as a scary demon (Picture 4).
I would like to deliberate slightly on the point that the royal palace of the celestial world is ‘Chinese -styled’. It seems that when it came to depiction of a world without human beings, the medieval Japanese were not able to imagine it independent of the image of Chines, which was a country that had a lot of cultural interaction with Japan since ancient times.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’ is a piece that depicts the royal palace in deep mountains (Oeyama). The king of this palace is also a demon as in the earlier story. The story is as follows:

In the deep recesses of Oeyama, situated in northwest of Kyoto, a group of demons had their palace and a demon called Shuten-Doji was their chief . These demons would frequently appear in the capital of Kyoto and attack princesses and women of the royal families. The Emperor sends a general called Minamotono Raiko, who completely exterminates the menace of demons and is welcomed back to the capital after his triumph. The Picture 5-A and Picture 5-B are the same scenes from another text of ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’. The palace in either text is Chinese- styled.

‘Momotaro’, another famous Japanese fairy tale also has a similar scene of extermination of demons, which had a castle similar to that of Shuten Doji.

The works that depict Water World (World of Dragon King) include picture scrolls of ‘Urashima Myojin (Urashima Taro’) (Picture 6, Picture 7), ‘Tawarano Tota’ (Picture 8, Picture 9), and ‘Hikohohodemino Mikoto’ (Picture 10). The story of ‘Urashima Myojin’ is given below:

Urashima, a fisherman who saves a turtle, is guided to the Dragon Kingdom by the turtle. He marries and settles there, but is reminded of his hometown after enjoying for some time and begs to return to his hometown to spend some time. He is given a small treasure chest as a souvenir and is told that he should not open it. When Urashima returns to his hometown he finds out that a few centuries have passed and the world has changed. A sad Urashima opens the treasure chest. As soon as he does this, a cloud of smoke arises from the chest and Urashima turns into an old man.

If we see the pictorial depiction of the Dragon Palace that is described in this story, it is identical to that of ‘Amewakahiko’s Story’ or to Oeyama Shuten-Doji’, i.e. Chinese styled architecture and the residents of the palaces are people who are wearing Chinese style clothes. ‘Tawarano Tota’ is again a story of the hero saving the serpent (An Apparition from the Dragon World) and in turn being taken to the Dragon world, there he experiences the warm hospitality of the Dragon King and returns laden with gifts. However, the image of the palace in this story is still centered on the Chinese image.

And what would be the world after death? Somehow, Japan has many pictures of Hell that depict the world after death. The enshrined deity of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto is supposed to have existed in reality. ‘The Charm of Kitano Tenjin’, a tale that describes the origin of this shrine says that Sugawarano Michizane was enshrined in this shrine as God in order to pacify his revengeful ghost. The smae story has an illustration depicting the Emperor suffering in Hell as he died of Michizane’s curse. The Master of Hell is God Yama, and his palace too is depicted as a Chinese-styled one (Picture 11, Picture 12).

There is a distinct similarity in all these pictorial depictions and the illustrations provided in the story of ‘Kumano-no-Honji’. India, for the medieval Japanese, was a distant country–a different world altogether almost like the Celestial World or the Water World.

The Image of India found in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’

I will introduce another piece from the genre of fairy tales. It is a story called ‘Shaka-no-Honji’. there are numerous works in Japan that include anecdotes about Shaka (Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, also known as Shakuson or Shakyamuni) and references to His biography that is known as ‘ Butsuden’ in Japan. These tales were already popular in the masses in India, Chines, Korea and Japan, and were even converted into illustrated stories. The Buddhist biographical scriptures that the ancient Japanese used were mainly those written in Chinese and even they were introduced as illustrated biographies. ‘Eingakyo( (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect) is one of the most famous ancient works that was imported to Japan in the Nara Period (8th century AD).

Butsuden assumed significance among the believers of Buddhism as is mentioned in the first volumes of Konjau-Monogatarishu and Shiju-Hyaku-Innenshu, Setsuwa collections of medieval Japanese literature. Otogizoshi-Tales, which are a form of popular literature, were influenced by this trend and ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ Otogizoshi-Tales in a single-novel form, was created. A brief outline of the story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is given below:

King Jobon, who lived in a castle named Kabira in India, did not have a son even at the age of 50. He got a prediction made about the way to obtain a son. As per the prediction, he invited Maya Bunin from the heaven to be his queen. She conceived the child in her sleep, and the baby was born. Buddha had come riding on a white elephant and entered the womb from the right side of her stomach.

However, the mother died seven days after the birth of the baby and it was brought up by its aunt. At the age of seven, when the child saw a small bird bring up a chick, he got to know that he did not have a mother and felt a strong urge to become a priest and attain Buddhahood. On hearing this, the King invited 500 astrologers to predict the Prince’s future, out of which 499 predicted that he would become a king, except for one who predicted that he would become a priest shunning all pleasures and strive for the salvation of all living creatures. The King still tried to persuade the prince and built a beautiful garden — Garden of Four Seasons –that would in full bloom throughout the year.

But when the Prince was enjoying his life in the garden, he met an old person who became ill and died as the time passed. The Prince was deeply moved on seeing the cremation of the old man who ultimately turned into bones and ashes. He visited a monk and felt futility of the human world after discussion with him. He told his father about his intentions to renounce the worldly pleasures. The King tried to persuade him by marrying him to the famous beautiful princess called Yashudara, who was his minster’s daughter. However, the minster put forth a condition that whoever wanted to marry his daughter had to piere seven iron targets by his arrow. Many suitors participated in the competition amongst which King Jobon’s nephew, Debadata, pierced five targets, but as the Prince’s arrow went through all seven, he got the beautiful princess in marriage. But as the Prince still had a very strong aspiration for Buddhahood, the Princess was unhappy. When the King promised the Prince that he would allow him to enter priesthood only when he got a son, he pointed at the Princess’ stomach and she conceived a child. At the age of 19, the Prince headed toward Mount Dantoku, leaving his palace behind. He met a saint (Saint Ararakarara), became a monk and continued penance for 12 years under his guidance.

After that, he was given the Lotus Sutra and was told to go back and preach it at the foothills of Mount Kaya in the kingdom of Magadha. He became Shaka Muni at the age of 30 years. Devils started disturbing his penitence over there. After attaining Buddhahood, he met Shudatsu the millionaire who built the Gion Monastery for him. At the age of 80, his forehead showed a ray of light. He told his disciples that the time for his Nirvana had arrived and attained Nirvana in the night.

As the story of Shaka-no-Honji’ is the biography of Lord Buddha, many Japanese know that the story is based on an Indian background. However, the understanding of the contents was done through a filter of ‘ Japanese Culture’. In other words, the story was adapted in such a way that if the names of characters and places are changed in to Japanese names, it would become a story of a Japanese Prince who is in search of Truth and Realization.

The outline of this story of ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ is based upon Buddhist Scriptures from China. A similar outline can be seen in Buddha’s biography depicted in the wall paintings at Dunhuang in China. In that sense, ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ can be called as the Japanese versions of Buddha’s biography from China. The Castle of Kabira is Kailavastu in Nepal, King Joubon is Shuddhodhan, his Queen Maya Bujin is Goddess Maya, Buddha’s wife Yashudara Yashodhara and Debadata is Devadatta. The names have been quite similar to the original Sanskrit names as they were assigned Chinese characters considering their meaning and pronunciation.

Let us see the pictorial depiction of Shaka and his Royal Palace as depicted in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ which is preserved in Kotohira Shinto shrine. At a glance we can understand that the depiction is almost similar to those images of ‘The Other World’ that we have seen so far, i.e. Chinese styled palaces with people wearing Chinese styled clothing (Picture 13, Picture 14). The story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is an important piece of knowledge for the Buddhists and was passed on through various mediums. For example, the ‘Depiction of Buddha’s Nirvana’, a painting that depicts the scene of Buddha’s death, was painted as wall paintings in temples and also used as hanging scrolls. Even the ‘Painting of Eight Scenes’ that depicts eight major scenes selected from Buddha’s life was often drawn.
In spite of this, Buddha’s story and India’s image were already depicted in China in the Chinese manner. They were adapted in such a way that it suited the Japanese context and were depicted in an increasingly Japanized manner.

These concepts were visualized on the basis of the Cosmology of the Japanese people of those days, that is ‘ The Other World’. Nothing could really broaden the image of India more than that of being a far off land where Buddhism was born. Thus the images of ‘The other World’ and India found in the fairy tales were drawn with the help of images of China, the sole neighbouring country whose reliable knowledge was available.

Thus I would like to put forth some simple conclusions through this paper. Medieval Japanese painters, who were asked to draw illustrations for fairy tales, particularly those having India as their background, tried to depict buildings, hair styles and costumes of characters with reference to the paintings drawn on the ‘Other World’. Moreover they tried to evolve an image that was all much more India, or rather all the more unworldly, there is an impression that they must have visited temples and referred to Chinese traditional paintings, Buddhist paintings or illustrations from Buddha’s biography.

However, no matter how hard they tried to give it an Indian look to emphasize the exotic features , they could not come out of the impressions of the famous Chinese style paintings (including Korean style as well). Moreover, if you see the chronology of illustrated fairy tale stories with India in it – perhaps that would be because Modern Japan had closed its doors for outsiders – it seems that the imagination about India gradually turned into Japanese style images with the passage of time. It was not until the modern times when a lot of information about India reached Japan that there was change in the Japanese image of India. It started from a change in the name – ‘Tenjiku’ became ‘Indo ‘ (India). It seems that until that time, India’s image visualized by the Japanese people could not shake itself off from the eclectic image that was a blend of the Chinese and the Japanese style images.”


Further reading:

Kumano Sanzan

Communing with nature in Kumano’s land of ancient gods (Japan Times, Jan 11, 2014)

TOKITA, Alison, “Performance and Text: Gender Identity and the Kumano Faith“, Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 16, March 2008

Ikumi Kaminishi. Explaining Pictures: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. x + 284 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2697-0. Reviewed by Monika Dix here

For those interested in Heavenly Hiking: Exploring Japan’s abode of the gods via the Kumano Kodo by Daniel Allen

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, 'The variety of Kumano Kodo,' in Kumano Kodo "Ise-ji route": What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, ‘The variety of Kumano Kodo,’ in Kumano Kodo “Ise-ji route”: What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:


An excellent opportunity to examine and study the Art of Hiten (celestial beings) should not be missed…at the Suntory Museum from November 23rd (Sat.), 2013 to January 13th (Mon.), 2014

Suntory Exhibition: In commemoration of the completion of the Heisei renovations to the Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Celestial Dance: The Art of Hiten

National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds South figure 1
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

1.Origins and Transmission: From India to Japan

Hiten are essentially celestial beings classified at the highest level of the realms of karmic existence known in Buddhist belief as the Six Paths. Since celestial beings are able to float in mid-air, in the Buddha realm they soar overhead and scatter flowers, playing musical instruments, burning incense, and otherwise exalting the enlightened beings. It is in this capacity that images of Hiten have accompanied depictions of Buddhas from the birthplace of Buddhism in India, through Central Asia, to China and its Western Regions. Each place engendered its own particular style of expression: In Gandhara they were influenced by Western Hellenism. In China and its Western Regions they were melded with indigenous traditions and magnificently adorned the walls of temple grottoes. Thus, Hiten advanced on a grand, continental scale along the axis of the Silk Road, eventually making their way to Japan, even while retaining components from distant Europe. This section traces one segment of the development of the Hiten form through a small but revealing selection of examples from regions from India to China. Upon reaching Japan, they exhibit a diversity of forms that reflects this evolutionary path. Of these, the former wall paintings from the Horyu-ji Main Hall inner sanctuary (No. 21) and the East Pagoda finial from Yakushi-ji (No. 25) are celebrated as classic examples illustrating what one might imagine to be the prototypical form of Hiten.



Relief carving of scenes from the life of Buddha:“The Temptation of Buddha by Mara,”“Subjugating the Demons and Achieving Enlightenment,” “The First Sermon”
Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century
Ryukoku University

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site) Asuka period, 7th century  Asukamura Board of Education

Buddha Triad (uncovered from the Kawara-dera temple site)
Asuka period, 7th century
Asukamura Board of Education

2. Scenes of the Heavenly Realm: From Images of the Pure Land to Ornamentation

The Buddhist sutras recount that not only Hiten, but also figures such as sacred Karyubinga and Gumyochobirds also dance in his honor, while the trees and earth of the Paradise glitter with the Seven Treasures. These are just some of the many ways that the wondrousness of the Buddha realm is expounded. Scenes of this heavenly world are illustrated in Pure Land paintings, through which it is possible to see in concrete form the ideal paradise to which the people of the times aspired. At the same time, sculptural images of Hiten, dancing bodhisattvas and other figures, jeweled canopies, glowing nimbuses, and the various decorative ornaments adorning the icons were not only fitting accoutrements for the Buddha; they also served as three-dimensional expressions of the Pure Land in our own world. This section examines the landscape of the Pure Land world, starting with painted depictions of the Western Paradise and continuing with examples of groupings of bodhisattvas, Karyobinga and Gumyocho birds, and other beings that worshipped the Buddha with the Hiten. The Hiten-covered nimbuses and pataka banners, keman ornaments, and other sacred adornments can further be seen as a means of expressing and recreating the scenery of the Pure Land in the present world. Through works such as the banner cap(No. 53), keman sanctuary ornament (No. 54) that are said to have decorated the Konjikido Golden Hall of Chuson-ji, the resplendent heavenly world idealized by the people of the time, will surely take shape before your very eyes.


National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

National Treasure
Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments
Heian period, 11th century
Nara National Museum

3. Development of the Hiten: Divine Attendants of the Amida’s Descent

By the latter half of the Heian period, the deeply held desire to be reborn into paradise brought about the rapid spread of belief in a “coming of Amida” in which the Amida Nyorai and various sublime bodhisattva attendants descended to this world to receive a person into the Pure Land paradise on his deathbed. This belief inspired paintings and sculptures depicting the descent of Amida attended by bodhisattvas. Their brilliant dancing and exquisite music-filled figures surely gave strength to those who hoped to be reborn and at the same time served as assurance of the pleasures of rebirth into the next life. The Hiten and bodhisattvas, which originally should have supposedly been different kinds of beings in the Pure Land, both worshipped and served the Nyorai and both drifted through the air on floating clouds, grew more and more alike. Hiten also evolved into members of Amida’s entourage along with the bodhisattva attendants and took after the 25 bodhisattvas that were believed to accompany Amida in his descent to welcome the spirits of the dead. In addition, the clouds that had long been associated with Hiten became a convention for expressing movement through space. This section follows the development of the image of the Hiten through paintings of Amida’s descent as well as through sculptural representations

National Treasure Keman Buddhist sanctuary ornaments Heian period, 11th century Nara National Museum

Important cultural property Descent of Amida with twenty-five bodhhisattvas Kamakura period, 13th -14th century
Fukushima Museum

4. The Byodo-in Phoenix Hall: The World of the Pure Land Paradise and Dancing Hiten

Built in 1053, the National Treasure Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in, together with its gardens, has as a whole been celebrated since the Heian period as an Amida Hall that replicates the Pure Land paradise. Framed by architectural elements echoing the pagodas depicted in Pure Land paintings, the figure of Amida Nyorai is enshrined atop a dais that was once bedecked with mother-of-pearl, and covered by a double canopy patterned with magnificent Hosoge flowers. The surrounding doors and pillars are painted with images of the Nine Levels of Rebirth in the Pure Land replete with dancing bodhisattvas, and on the small wall above the horizontal top beam are carved figures of worshipping bodhisattvas on clouds in various forms of dance and playing musical instruments. Figures of Hiten are also fitted onto the nimbus behind the principal Buddha image, creating an interior space overflowing with images of Hiten that surround a central Amida Nyorai figure in a display truly befitting of a sacred Buddhist space. In special tribute to the completion of the restoration of the Phoenix Hall for the first time in nearly a half-century, this section presents all fourteen figures from the National Treasure Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds (No. 70) as well as the National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai (No. 69) which adorn the nimbus of the principal image and are being shown outside the temple grounds for the first time ever. These Buddhist images and the resplendent hall interior resulting from the recent restoration work can be considered the crystallization of the Japanese interpretation of the Pure Land and Hiten that were transmitted along the Silk Road, demonstrating a maturity of form that historical records have termed a “solemnity of Buddha statuary unparalleled in all history.”

National Treasure Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4 Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1) Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto

National Treasure
Hiten from the nimbus of Seated Amida Nyorai South figure 4
Heian period, 1053 (Tengi 1)
Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto



Amida’s descent upon clouds, celestial beings, and the use of cloud motif – an artistic convention

Cloudsoul, chinkonsai, soul-binding, soul-summoning and soul-shaking practices – origins and theories

Emperor  the Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the emperor. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) when the court-ceremonials were designed

The Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the Emperor Komei(r. 1846-1866). Cloud-mountain peak motif seen across the middle. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) Imperial Collections of Japan  Source: Japanese Symbols of Government

From our previous post “Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud“, we traced the use of the cloud motif and symbolism in conjunction with deities or divinities, ancestors, sages and heroes to their early use both in art and in concepts in genealogies and myths of the peoples of the Northeast Eurasia or Far East.

From Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority” by David T. Bialock, comes an understanding of the origin of the “chinkon” and tama “cloudsoul” concept and the rites, and the purpose behind it and the cosmological framework that surrounded it:

Although Nihon shoki’s entry on Temmu’s rite is regarded as the earliest extant mention of the chinkon (spirit pacification), the graphs glossed as “mitama-furi” in the text are actually shokon, also read tama-yobai (“soul-summoning”). The conventional chinkon reading of the passage together with its vernacular gloss “mitama-furi” probably dates from a commentarial tradition transmitted by the Urabe lineage. Thus, according to a secret kun-reading given in the twenty-first scroll of the Shaku nihongi, the graphs were intended to be read “mitama-furi,” a ritual elsewhere represented in Shaku nihongi by the graphs chinkonsia. This eading of the graphs, now well established, was also argued for by Ban Nobutomo in his classic study Chinkon den, where he noted that the phrase “should be recorded as , but one can surmise that it was written in conformance with the usual Chinese practice.”51
… turn to some descriptions of the chinkon rite in the law codes and their commentaries, which have been the basis for most attempts to construct its ancient ritual function. These include the Taiho Code o 701 (extant only fragmentarily in the later Yoro Code), the Ryo no shuge (selected in 833), and the Ryo no guge (selected prior to 868). According to the Taiho Code , the chinkonsai was held in midwinter in the Eleventh Month on a tora no hi (days o f the tiger), and followed by the daijosai on a u no hi (day of the rabbit), a period that coincided with the winter solstice. In Chinese yin-yang five agents thought, both of these days were identified with the agent wood (the beginning of the cycle), which corresponded to the direction east and the season spring. Both the month and days were a time when the positive yang pneumas were believed to mount upward and all things were held to be in a state of movement. It was thus an ideal time for intiating activities such as royal accessions. 52
turning to some actual definitions of the chinkon rite, we find the following explanation in the Ryo no gige under the heading chinkon: “The graph means to pacify. A person’s yang spirit (yoki) is called soul (tama). The tama moves about, meaning one summons back the tama that wanders about in a state of separation and pacifies it inside the body (literally “bowels”.] Therefore it is named “chinkon” (to pacify the soul), another definition from the Ryo no shuge contains some additional details: A person’s yang spirit is called ‘kon’ it moves about. A person’s yin spirit is called ‘haku’ it is white. Therefore one calls back the white soul wandering about in a state of separation and causes it to be pacified inside the bowels. Therefore it is called chinkon.
The exact source for the ideas contained in these descriptions remains uncertain, but the language recalls ancient Chinese ideas about the fate of the soul after death. According to the Li ji: the yang qi of the “cloudsoul” (hun) rises up to the sky (tian) after death, whereas the yin or dark elements associated with the body or “whitesoul” (po) return to the earth. 55 Another passage in the Li Ji , on the rites of mourning , speaks of summoning back the cloudsoul and returning it to the body (po)56. It was under the influence of such commentaries, according to Watanabe Katsuyoshi, that modern scholars developed the idea of a “soul that wanders about in separation from its body” and interpreted chinkon as a rite primarily aimed at preventing such separation by placating the “tama” and thereby obviating the illness and death that were held to result from such separation57.
The yin-yang five agents principles and the related concept of “qi” which informed the ritual setting (temporal and geomantic) of the chinkonsai and the descriptive language of the law doctors, were fundamental, of course to Chinese philosophical thought. In Daoism, the induction of qi into the body and its proper regulation became one of the basic practices for achieving longevity, a central concern of later Daoist literature, as in Xiang’er’s commentary on the Daodejing, which also functioned as a guide to the enlightened ruler.58 thus in Bokenkamp’s paraphrase of one Xiang’er passage “the pneumas of morning and evening should be caused to descend into the human body , where they should be mixed with the body’s own pneumas so that they are evenly distributed throughout.” On the other hand, this time citing directly from the Xiang’er “When the heart produced ill-omened and evil conduct, the Dao departs, leaving the sack (belly) empty. Once it is empty, deviance enters, killing the person.”60 As these citations make clear, the principle of balacning and harmonizeing qu was of paramoutn importanecce; deviancce” (xie) on the other hand, arose from a a failure ot achieve a proper balacne or mixing o pnemas resulting in illlness and death. … The emphasis in the Xiang’er passage on the belly, for example, recalls what Watanabe characterizes as the peculiar language of the law commentaries where the aim of the rite was to draw the erring “tama” back into the “bowel“.  A related notion found in the Chuxue ji, a Tang period encyclopedia compiled at the order of Emperor Xuangzong (r. 712-756), states that on the winter solstice the yang qi is restored to the belly and hot things placed in qi are easily digested.61 If this Daoist medical advice offers a parallel to the ideas of the law doctors in their attempts to describe the chinkon rite, recipes for the production of immortality elixirs provide a suggestive context for understanding the relationship between the medicinal herb and Temmu’s spirit-summoning rite. An entry from scroll seventy-seven on “elixirs” in Yunqi qiqian (Seven Lots from the Satchel of the Clouds), an encyclopedia of older Daoist texts and extracts compiled under the Northern Song, describes a life-extending elixir called lingwan that allows one to “pacify the cloud souls, coagulate the white souls, and fly off into the seventy-four directions,” and in another passage “to sport about on the Five Mountain Peaks.” Not least interesting here is the combination of graphs chinkon, “pacify the cloud souls”) the same two graphs that are used for the Japanese chinkon or “mitama-furi” rite.  Another entry from the Inner Transmission of the Purple Sun Master (Ziyang zhenren neichuan, 399), collected in scroll 106 of the Yunji qiqian, relates that the consumption of zhu over a period of five years–the same medicinal herb ingested by Temmu–produces a glow in the body, gives one a vision that can see right through to the five viscera, and enables one to become an immortal.

By now it should be evident that Temmu’s ingestion of the herb hakuchi cannot be fully accounted for by a straitforward medical reading. The calendrical and yin-yang principles that informed its consumption and the accompanying shokon rite belonged to the same sphere of symbolic activity that would soon be housed in the Yin-Yang bureau and Medical bureau and as the following notice from Jito’s chronicle makes clear: “The Yin-yang Doctors, the priest (shoshi) Hozo and Doki, received twenty of ryo of silver.”64 The date of this third reference to Hozo, just prior to the establishment of the official Yin-Yang Bureau, indicates that he was one of than important group of technical experts who mediated the cultural assemblage transmitted from  the continent. Although the ingestion of the herb zhu (hakuchi) and its efficacy as both a medicinal and immortality elixir are well documented in Daoist lore and herbals the practice seems to have especially flourished in the period of the Southern dynasties (420-589) when Tao Hongjing composed his herbal and Daoist works.65  It can be assumed that Hozo, a Paekche immigrant would have been knowledgeable about this tradition–its influence having reached the Korean kingdom–as well as conversant with practices from Tao honjing’s region that were outside the written transmission.66  In the early Tang work Qianjinyaogang (Essential Prescriptions Worth a hundred Weight in Gold), composed by the Daoist master and physician Sun Simiao (d. 682) sometimes between 650 and 658. Predating the Tang medical reforms , this text transmitted a tradition very close to the earlier Southern dynasties ‘ tradition and contained detailed discussions on the preparation of zhu and its capacity to harmonize in accord with yin-yang five agents principles.67

The cosmological theory of resonance, much of which is recorded in the Gogyo taigi that reached Japan no later than the end of the seventh century invests Temmu’s ingestion of the elixir and the shokon rite with its reliopolitical significance. Held in the Eleventh Month on a a tora no hi (day of the tiger), the rite’s timing corresponded to the agent wood and the direction east. In Daoist medical lore pertaining to the five viscera, the cloudsoul (kon) resided in the liver (kan), which was identified with the element wood and controlled the eyes, hair, nail, and muscles. The liver was also known as the Office of the General, the faculty responsible for wise counsel; and its element wood was identified with “virtue” (jin) that actifies the myriad things making its analogous to the ruler.68 According to another text cited in Gogyo taigi, The lineage of Thearchs (DIXI pu), “Heaven and earth first arose, then generated the Heavenly Thearch (tenno) who rules through the virtue wood,” a formulation that derives from the symbolism of the hexagram zhen, identified variously with lightning, the dragon and the dark springs. The Yijing states that the thearch and myriad things arise from zhen, with zhen identified with the direction east.69 Although these correspondences add weight to the medical aim of this  hybrid rite, they do so by locating Temmu at the center of a radiating cosmological order, which gains additional significance because the rite took place at a critical juncture when the tenno was being newly adopted as a title of authority.70

The belief of musubi – binding the soul to keep it from wandering off (see also The symbolism of knots and Frazer on the separable external soul)

During the Chinkonsai,

“The chief officiant counts eight times from one to ten, knotting the yufu each time. By tying knots in this symbol of the emperor’s life span, the officiant keeps his tama from slipping away. the eight times and eight knots refer to the eight musubi (binding) tama of deities.
As one can see by these examples, the mitamashizume or chinkon-sai was a ritual means to fix the emperor’s tama so that it would not leave his body. the ancient Japanese greatly feared wandering tama and made the utmost efforts to affix them. A similar ceremony is still being carried out secretly each year at the Isonokami shrine (Renri City, Nara prefecture). This ritual may have to do partly with the Kyujiki, a text which gives much more importance to the Mononobe clan whose ancestral deity is enshrined at Isonokami, than the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.
Such tamafuri and tamashizume rituals were often popularly called iki-bon, the Bon of living spirits. the Buddhist Urabon festival of late summer, however, a festival primarily concerned with the souls of the dead, has now superseded in importance this ceremony for the souls of the living.”

Source: Rethinking Japan Vol 1.: Literature, Visual Arts & Linguistics (by Adriana Boscaro, Franco Gatti, Massimo Raveri)

The Taoist concept of soul summoning may have been transmitted via Korean immigrants, or directly by Chinese immigrants, or both.

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on a bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833  Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on an ancient bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833 Photo source: Imperial Japanese Commission to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: Japanese Temples and their Treasures (The Shimbi Shoin 1915) Wikimedia Commons


Chinkon rituals of “shaking the soul”

From Ze’ev Erlich’s Torifune and tama furi:

TAMA FURI/ Furitama-no-Gyo
Tama(soul) Furi (shake) basic meaning is the self Chin-kon and relates directly to the furube-no-kamu-waza of Chinkon Saho.
Furitama ( Soul Shaking)
1. Stand with your legs apart about shoulder width .
2. Place your hands together with the right hand over the left. Leave space between them big enough for an imaginary ping pong ball.
3. Place your hands in that position in front of your stomach and 0shake them vigorously up and down.
4. While shaking them concentrate and repeat the words: Harae-do-no-Okami – an invocation to the kami of the place of harai.
The Object Furitama-no-gyo
The purpose of shaking the soul is to generate awareness of it within yourself. Kon, (the soul), in Shinto, is one of the four important elements along with Mei (life), Rei (spirit) and Ki (which means Spirit in its causal aspect – Ki is a kind of energy source). Kon is the most important of the four since human beings can also be described as Waketama (separated individual souls), which is another way of saying “children of the kami”.

In Chinese art, an ancient cloud “meander” motif is related to the Hun and Po concepts of the afterlife. The cloud is a commonly seen design and when repeated in a pattern symbolizes never-ending fortune.

Clouds, sometimes referred to as “auspicious clouds” (xiangyun 祥云), represent the heavens and also “good luck” because the Chinese word for cloud (yun 云) is pronounced the same as yun (运) meaning “luck” or “fortune”. Auspicious clouds may be seen on coins and charms or amulets.

The cloud motif or form often resembles the auspicious shape of the lingzhi “fungus of immortality”. These are concepts that are related to thunder and the ability to call down rain, and also closely related to dragon and star symbolism.  (Source: The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols)


Theories on the Taoist concepts of Hun and Po souls

Chinese Taoist or daoist texts

Hun controls yang spirits in the body,
Po controls yin spirits in the body,
all are made of qi.
Hun is responsible for all formless consciousness,
including the three treasures: jing, qi and shen.
Po is responsible for all tangible consciousness,
including the seven apertures: two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, mouth.
Therefore, we call them 3-Hun and 7-Po.

Master Hu continues with an elaboration of these dynamics; and ends by pointing out that, like all of cyclic existence, the relationship between Hun and Po is a seemingly “endless cycle,” which is transcended “only by the achieved,” i.e. by the Immortals (in their transcendence of all duality):

He Yin-Yang’s Framework For Understanding Hun & Po

Another way of understanding Hun and Po is as an expression of Yin and Yang. As Twicken points out, the Yin-Yang framework is the foundational model of Chinese metaphysics. In other words: it is in understanding how Yin and Yang relate to one another (as mutually-arising and inter-dependent) that we can understand how — from a Taoist perspective — all pairs of opposites “dance” together, as not-two and not-one: appearing without actually “existing” as permanent, fixed “entities.”

In this way of viewing things, Po is associated with Yin. It is the more dense or physical of the two “spirits,” and is known also as the “corporeal soul,” since it returns to earth — dissolving into gross elements — at time of the time of the death of the body.

Hun, on the other hand, is associated with Yang, since it is the more light or subtle of the two “spirits.” It’s known also as the “ethereal soul,” and at the time of death leaves body to merge into more subtle realms of existence.

In the process of Taoist cultivation, the practitioner seeks to harmonize the Hun and Po, in a way which gradually allows the Po (the more dense) aspects to more and more fully support the Hun (the more subtle) aspects. The outcome of this kind of refinement process is the manifestation of a way-of-being and way-of-perceiving known by Taoist practitioners as “Heaven on Earth.”

Staying & Moving In The Mahamudra Tradition

In the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition (associated primarily with the Kagyu lineage), a distinction is drawn between the “staying” and the “moving” aspects of mind.

The “staying” aspect of mind refers more-or-less to what is sometimes also called the “witnessing” capacity. It is the perspective from which the arising and dissolving of various phenomena (thoughts, sensations, perceptions) is observed. It is the aspect of mind which has the capacity to remain (and is quite naturally) “continuously present,” and unaffected by the “objects” or “events” that arise within it.

The “moving” aspect of mind refers to the various appearances which — like waves on an ocean — arise and dissolve. These are the “objects” and “events” that seem (at least initially) to have a space/time duration: an arising, an abiding, and a dissolution. As such, they seem to undergo change or transformation — in opposition to the “staying” aspect of mind, which is unchanging.

A Mahamudra practitioner trains, first, in the capacity to toggle back and forth between these two (“staying” and “moving”) perspectives (known also as the “mind-perspective” and the “event-perspective”). And then, eventually, to experience them as simultaneously-arising and indistinguishable (i.e. nondual) — in the way that waves and ocean, as water, actually are mutually-arising and indistinguishable.

Taoism Meets Mahamudra, For A Cup Of Tea

The resolution of the moving/staying polarity, I would suggest, is basically equivalent (or at least opens the way for) the transcending of what Master Hu refers to as the tangible-consciousness/formless-consciousness polarity; and the absorption of the more densely-vibrating Po into the more subtle Hun.

Or, to put it another way: the corporeal Po “serves” the ethereal Hun — in Taoist cultivation — to the extent that mind’s appearances become self-aware, i.e. conscious of their source & destination in/as the Hun — like waves becoming conscious of their essential nature as water.

Source: Hun and Po

Hun (ChinesepinyinhúnWade–Gileshun; literally: “cloud-soul”) and po (ChinesepinyinWade–Gilesp’o; literally: “white-soul”) are types of souls in Chinese philosophy and traditional religion. Within this ancient soul dualism tradition, every living human has both a hunspiritual, ethereal, yang soul which leaves the body after death, and also a po corporeal, substantive, yin soul which remains with the corpse of the deceased. Some controversy exists over the number of souls in a person; for instance, one of the traditions within Daoism proposes a soul structure of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄; that is, “three hun and seven po“. The historian Yü Ying-shih describes hun and po as “two pivotal concepts that have been, and remain today, the key to understanding Chinese views of the human soul and the afterlife.”[1]

The Chinese characters 魂 and 魄 for hun and po typify the most common character classification of “radical-phonetic” or “phono-semantic” graphs, which combine a “radical” or “signific” (recurring graphic elements that roughly provide semantic information) with a “phonetic” (suggesting ancient pronunciation). Hun  (or 䰟) and po  have the “ghost radical” gui  “ghost; devil” and phonetics of yun  “cloud; cloudy” and bai  “white; clear; pure”.

Besides the common meaning of “a soul”, po 魄 was a variant Chinese character for po  “a lunar phase” and po  “dregs”. The Shujing “Book of History” used po 魄 as a graphic variant for po 霸 “dark aspect of the moon” – this character usually means ba 霸 “overlord; hegemon”. For example, “On the third month, when (the growth phase, 生魄) of the moon began to wane, the duke of Chow [i.e., Duke of Zhou] commenced the foundations, and proceeded to build the new great city of Lǒ” (tr. Legge 1865:434). The Zhuangzi “[Writings of] Master Zhuang” wrote zaopo 糟粕 (lit. “rotten dregs”) “worthless; unwanted; waste matter” with a po 魄 variant. A wheelwright sees Duke Huan of Qi with books by dead sages and says, “what you are reading there is nothing but the [糟魄] chaff and dregs of the men of old!” (tr. Watson 1968:152).

In the history of Chinese writing, characters for po 魄/霸 “lunar brightness” appeared before those for hun 魂 “soul; spirit”. The spiritual hun 魂 and po 魄 “dual souls” are first recorded in Warring States period (475–221 BCE) Seal Script characters. The lunar po 魄 or 霸 “moon’s brightness” appears in both Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BCE) Bronzeware script and Oracle bone script, but not in Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE) oracle inscriptions. The earliest form of this “lunar brightness” character was found on a (ca. 11th century BCE) Zhou oracle bone inscription (Yü 1987:370).


The po soul’s etymology is better understood than the hun soul’s. Schuessler (2007:290, 417) reconstructs hun 魂 “‘spiritual soul’ which makes a human personality” and po 魄 “vegetative or animal soul … which accounts for growth and physiological functions” as Middle Chinese γuən and pʰak from Old Chinese *wûn and *phrâk.

The (ca. 80 CE) Baihu Tang 白虎堂 gave pseudo-etymologies for hun and po through Chinese character puns. It explains hun 魂 with zhuan 傳 “deliver; pass on; impart; spread” and yun 芸 “rue (used to keep insects out of books); to weed”, and po 魄 withpo 迫 ” compel; force; coerce; urgent” and bai 白 “white; bright”.

What do the words hun and [po] mean? Hun expresses the idea of continuous propagation ([zhuan] 傳), unresting flight; it is the qi of the Lesser Yang, working in man in an external direction, and it governs the nature (or the instincts, [xing] 性). [Po] expresses the idea of a continuous pressing urge ([po] 迫) on man; it is the [qi] of the Lesser Yin, and works in him, governing the emotions ([qing] 情). Hun is connected with the idea of weeding ([yun] 芸), for with the instincts the evil weeds (in man’s nature) are removed. [Po] is connected with the idea of brightening ([bai] 白), for with the emotions the interior (of the personality) is governed. (tr. Needham and Lu 1974:87)

Etymologically, Schuessler says  魄 “animal soul” “is the same word as”  霸 “a lunar phase“. He cites the Zuozhuan (534 BCE, see below) using the lunar jishengpo 既生魄 to mean “With the first development of a fetus grows the vegetative soul”.

, the soul responsible for growth, is the same as  the waxing and waning of the moon”. The meaning ‘soul’ has probably been transferred from the moon since men must have been aware of lunar phases long before they had developed theories on the soul. This is supported by the etymology ‘bright’, and by the inverted word order which can only have originated with meteorological expressions … The association with the moon explains perhaps why the  soul is classified as Yin … in spite of the etymology ‘bright’ (which should be Yang), hun’s Yang classificiation may be due to the association with clouds and by extension sky, even though the word invokes ‘dark’. ‘Soul’ and ‘moon’ are related in other cultures, by cognation or convergence, as in Tibeto-Burman and Proto-Lolo–Burmese *s/ʼ-la “moon; soul; spirit”, Written Tibetan cognates bla “soul” and zla “moon”, and Proto-Miao–Yao *bla “spirit; soul; moon”. (2007:417)

Lunar associations of po are evident in the Classical Chinese terms chanpo 蟾魄 “the moon” (with “toad; toad in the moon; moon”) and haopo 皓魄 “moon; moonlight” (with “white; bright; luminous”).

The semantics of po 魄 “white soul” probably originated with 霸 “lunar whiteness”. Zhou bronze inscriptions commonly recorded lunar phases with the terms jishengpo 既生魄 “after the brightness has grown” and jisipo 既死魄 “after the brightness has died”, which Schuessler explains as “second quarter of the lunar month” and “last quarter of the lunar month”. Chinese scholars have variously interpreted these two terms as lunar quarters or fixed days, and (Shaughnessy 1992:136–145) Wang Guowei‘s lunar-quarter analysis the most likely. Thus, jishengpo is from the 7th/8th to the 14th/15th days of the lunar month and jisipo is from the 23rd/24th to the end of the month. Yü (1987:370) translates them as “after the birth of the crescent” and “after the death of the crescent”. Etymologically, lunar and spiritual po <pʰak < *phrâk 魄 are cognate with bai < bɐk < *brâk 白 “white” (Matisoff 1980, Yü 1981, Carr 1985). According to Hu Shih (1946:30), po etymologically means “white, whiteness, and bright light”; “The primitive Chinese seem to have regarded the changing phases of the moon as periodic birth and death of its [po], its ‘white light’ or soul.” Yü (1981:83) says this ancient association between the po soul and the “growing light of the new moon is of tremendous importance to our understanding of certain myths related to the seventh day of the months.” Two celebrated examples in Chinese mythology are Xi Wangmu and Emperor Wu meeting on the seventh day of the first lunar month and The Princess and the Cowherd or Qixi Festival held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The etymology of hun < γuən < *wûn 魂 is comparatively less certain. Hu (1946:31) said, “The word hun is etymologically the same as the word yun, meaning “clouds.” The clouds float about and seem more free and more active than the cold, white-lighted portion of the growing and waning moon.” Schuessler cites two possibilities.

Since  is the ‘bright’ soul, hún is the ‘dark’ soul and therefore cognate to yún 雲 ‘cloud’ [Carr 1985:62], perhaps in the sense of ‘shadowy’ because some believe that the hún soul will live after death in a world of shadows [Eberhard 1967:17]. (2007:290)

Both Chinese hun and po are translatable as English “soul” or “spirit“, and both are basic components in “soul” compounds. In the following examples, all Chinese-English translation equivalents are from DeFrancis (2003).

  • hunpo 魂魄 “soul; psyche”
  • linghun 靈魂 “soul; spirit”
  • hunling 魂靈 “(colloquial) soul; ghost”
  • yinhun 陰魂 “soul; spirit; apparition”
  • sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “soul; three finer spirits and several baser instincts that motivate a human being”
  • xinpo 心魄 “soul”

Hunpo and linghun are the most frequently used among these “soul” words.

Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, eminent historians of science and technology in China, (1974:88) define hun and po in modern terms. “Peering as far as one can into these ancient psycho-physiological ideas, one gains the impression that the distinction was something like that between what we would call motor and sensory activity on the one hand, and also voluntary as against vegetative processes on the other.”

Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein (2008:521) cautions about hun and po translations: “Although the term “souls” is often used to refer to them, they are better seen as two types of vital entities, the source of life in every individual. The hun is Yang, luminous, and volatile, while the po is Yin, somber, and heavy.”


Based on Zuozhuan usages of hun and po in four historical contexts, Yü (1987:370) extrapolates that po was the original name for a human soul, and the dualistic conception of hun and po “began to gain currency in the middle of the sixth century” BCE.

Two earlier 6th century contexts used the po soul alone. Both describe Tian 天 “heaven; god” duo 奪 “seizing; taking away” a person’s po, which resulted in a loss of mental faculties. In 593 BCE (Duke Xuan 15th year, tr. Legge 1872:329), after Zhao Tong 趙同 behaved inappropriately at the Zhou court, an observer predicted: “In less than ten years [Zhao Tong] will be sure to meet with great calamity. Heaven has taken his [魄] wits away from him.” In 543 BCE (Duke Xiang 29th year, tr. Legge 1872:551), Boyou 伯有 from Zheng (state) acted irrationally, which an official interpreted as: “Heaven is destroying [Boyou], and has taken away his [魄] reason.” Boyou’s political enemies subsequently arranged to take away his hereditary position and assassinate him.

Two later 6th century Zuozhuan contexts used po together with the hun soul. In 534 BCE (Duke Zhao 7th year, tr. Legge 1872:618), the ghost of Boyou 伯有 (above) was seeking revenge on his murderers, and terrifying the people of Zheng. The philosopher and statesman Zi Chan, realizing that Boyou’s loss of hereditary office had caused his spirit to be deprived of sacrifices, reinstated his son to the family position, and the ghost disappeared. When a friend asked Zi Chan to explain ghosts, he gave what Yu (1972:372) calls “the locus classicus on the subject of the human soul in the Chinese tradition.”

When a man is born, (we see) in his first movements what is called the [魄] animal soul. [既生魄] After this has been produced, it is developed into what is called the [魂] spirit. By the use of things the subtle elements are multiplied, and the [魂魄] soul and spirit become strong. They go on in this way, growing in etherealness and brightness, till they become (thoroughly) spiritual and intelligent. When an ordinary man or woman dies a violent death, the [魂魄] soul and spirit are still able to keep hanging about men in the shape of an evil apparition; how much more might this be expected in the case of [Boyou]. … Belonging to a family which had held for three generations the handle of government, his use of things had been extensive, the subtle essences which he had imbibed had been many. His clan also was a great one, and his connexions [sic] were distinguished. Is it not entirely reasonable that, having died a violent death, he should be a [鬼] ghost?

Compare the translation of Needham and Lu (1974:86), who interpret this as an early Chinese discourse on embryology.

When a foetus begins to develop, it is (due to) the [po]. (When this soul has given it a form) then comes the Yang part, called hun. The essences ([qing] 情) of many things (wu 物) then give strength to these (two souls), and so they acquire the vitality, animation and good cheer (shuang 爽) of these essences. Thus eventually there arises spirituality and intelligence (shen ming 神明).”

In 516 BCE (Duke Zhao 20th year, tr. Legge 1872:708), the Duke of Song (state) and a guest named Shusun 叔孫 were both seen weeping during a supposedly joyful gathering. Yue Qi 樂祁, a Song court official, said: “This year both our ruler and [Shusun] are likely to die. I have heard that joy in the midst of grief and grief in the midst of joy are signs of a loss of [xin 心] mind. The essential vigor and brightness of the mind is what we call the [hun] and the [po]. When these leave it, how can the man continue long?” Hun and po souls, explains Yu (1987:371), “are regarded as the very essence of the mind, the source of knowledge and intelligence. Death is thought to follow inevitably when the hun and the p’o leave the body. We have reason to believe that around this time the idea of hun was still relatively new.”

Silk painting found in the (168 BCE) tomb of Lady Dai at Mawangdui, interpreted (Yü 1987:367) as depicting her hun soul ascending to heaven and her family performing the zhaohun“summoning the soul” ritual below.

Soon after death, it was believed that a person’s hun and po could be temporarily reunited through a ritual called the fu 復 “recall; return”, zhaohun 招魂 “summon the hun soul”, or zhaohun fupo 招魂復魄 “to summon the hun-soul to reunite with the po-soul”. The earliest known account of this ritual is found in the (3rd century BCE) Chu Ci poems Zhaohun 招魂 “Summons of the Soul” and Dazhao 大招 “The Great Summons” (Csikszentmihalyi 2006:140–141). For example, Wu/Shaman Yang 巫陽 summons a man’s soul in Zhaohun.

O soul, come back! Why have you left your old abode and sped to the earth’s far corners, deserting the place of your delight to meet all those things of evil omen?

O soul, come back! In the east you cannot abide. There are giants there a thousand fathoms tall, who seek only for souls to catch, and ten suns that come out together, melting metal, dissolving stone …
O soul, come back! In the south you cannot stay. There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth, they sacrifice flesh of men, and pound their bones to paste …
O soul, come back! For the west holds many perils: The Moving Sands stretch on for a hundred leagues. You will be swept into the Thunder’s Chasm and dashed in pieces, unable to help yourself …
O soul, come back! In the north you may not stay. There the layered ice rises high, and the snowflakes fly for a hundred leagues and more…
O soul, come back! Climb not to heaven above. For tigers and leopards guard the gates, with jaws ever ready to rend up mortal men …

O soul, come back! Go not down to the Land of Darkness, where the Earth God lies, nine-coiled, with dreadful horns on his forehead, and a great humped back and bloody thumbs, pursuing men, swift-footed … (tr. Hawkes 1985:244–5)

Hu (1946:31–32) proposed, “The idea of a hun may have been a contribution from the southern peoples” (who originated zhaohun rituals) and then spread to the north sometime during the sixth century BCE. Calling this southern hypothesis “quite possible”, Yu (1987:373) cites the Chuci (associated with the southern state of Chu) demonstrating “there can be little doubt that in the southern tradition the hun was regarded as a more active and vital soul than the p’o. The Chuci uses hun 65 times and po 5 times (4 in hunpo, which the Chuci uses interchangeably with hun, Brashier 1996:131). [On the other hand, it has been shown that that cloud symbolism and the cloudsoul hun has been a staple belief of all the northeast Asians and Central Asians since prehistoric times which suggests a much earlier northern provenance with the tumuli-building peoples.]

The identification of the yin-yang principle with the hun and po souls evidently occurred in the late fourth and early third centuries BCE (Yü 1987:374), and by “the second century at the latest, the Chinese dualistic conception of soul had reached its definitive formulation.” The Liji (11, tr. Legge 1885:444) compounds hun and po with qi “breath; life force” and xing “form; shape; body” in hunqi 魂氣 and xingpo 形魄. “The [魂氣] intelligent spirit returns to heaven the [形魄] body and the animal soul return to the earth; and hence arose the idea of seeking (for the deceased) in sacrifice in the unseen darkness and in the bright region above.” Compare this modern translation (Yü 1987:374), “The breath-soul (hun-ch’I 魂氣) returns to heaven; the bodily soul (hsing-p’o 形魄) returns to earth. Therefore, in sacrificial-offering one should seek the meaning in the yin-yang 陰陽 principle.” Yü summarizes hun/po dualism.

Ancient Chinese generally believed that the individual human life consists of a bodily part as well as a spiritual part. The physical body relies for its existence on food and drink produced by the earth. The spirit depends for its existence on the invisible life force called ch’i, which comes into the body from heaven. In other words, breathing and eating are the two basic activities by which a man continually maintains his life. But the body and the spirit are each governed by a soul, namely, the p’o and the hun. It is for this reason that they are referred to in the passage just quoted above as the bodily-soul (hsing-p’o) and the breath-soul (hun-ch’i) respectively. (Yü 1987:376)

Loewe (1979:9) explains with a candle metaphor; the physical xing is the “wick and substance of a candle”, the spiritual po and hun are the “force that keeps the candle alight” and “light that emanates from the candle”.

The Yin po and Yang hun were correlated with Chinese spiritual and medical beliefs. Hun 魂 is associated with shen 神 “spirit; god” and po 魄with gui 鬼 “ghost; demon; devil” (Carr 1985:62). The (ca. 1st century BCE) Lingshu Jing medical text spiritually applies Wu Xing “Five Phase” theory to the Zang-fu “organs”, associating the hun soul with liver (Chinese medicine) and blood, and the po soul with lung (Chinese medicine) and breath.

The liver stores the blood, and the blood houses the hun. When the vital energies of the liver are depleted, this results in fear; when repleted, this results in anger. … The lungs store the breath, and the breath houses the po. When the vital energies of the lungs are depleted, then the nose becomes blocked and useless, and so there is diminished breath; when they are repleted, there is panting, a full chest, and one must elevate the head to breathe. (tr. Brashier 1996:141)

The Lingshu (Brashier 1996:142) also records that the hun and po souls taking flight can cause restless dreaming, and eye disorders can scatter the souls causing mental confusion. Han medical texts reveal that hun and po departing from the body does not necessarily cause death but rather distress and sickness. Brashier (1996:145–6) parallels the translation of hun and po, “If one were to put an English word to them, they are our “wits”, our ability to demarcate clearly, and like the English concept of “wits,” they can be scared out of us or can dissipate in old age.”

Jade burial suits were believed to delay the bodily po soul’s decomposition.

During the Han Dynasty, the belief in hun and po remained prominent, although there was a great diversity of different, sometimes contradictory, beliefs about the afterlife (Hansen 2000:119; Csikszentmihalyi 2006:116–117, 140–142). Han burial customs provided nourishment and comfort for the po with the placement of grave goods, including food, commodities, and even money within the tomb of the deceased (Hansen 2000:119). Chinese jade was believed to delay the decomposition of a body. Pieces of jade were commonly placed in bodily orifices, or rarely crafted into jade burial suits.

Generations of sinologists have repeatedly asserted that Han-era people commonly believed the heavenly hun and earthly po souls separated at death, but recent scholarship and archeology suggest that hunpo dualism was more an academic theory than a popular faith. Anna Seidel analyzed funerary texts discovered in Han tombs, which mention not only po souls but also hun remaining with entombed corpses, and wrote (1982:107), “Indeed, a clear separation of a p’o, appeased with the wealth included in the tomb, from a hun departed to heavenly realms is not possible.” Seidel later (1987:227) called for reappraising Han abstract notions of hun and po, which “do not seem to have had as wide a currency as we assumed up to now.” Pu Muzhou surveyed usages of the words hun and po on Han Dynasty bei 碑 “stele” erected at graves and shrines, and concluded (1993:216, tr. Brashier 1996126), “The thinking of ordinary people seems to have been quite hazy on the matter of what distinguished the hun from the po.” These stele texts contrasted souls between a corporeal hun or hunpo at the cemetery and a spiritual shen at the family shrine. Kenneth Brashier (1996:158) reexamined the evidence for hunpodualism and relegated it “to the realm of scholasticism rather than general beliefs on death.” Brashier (1996:136–137) cited several Han sources (grave deeds, Houhanshu, and Jiaoshi Yilin) attesting beliefs that “the hun remains in the grave instead of flying up to heaven”, and suggested it “was sealed into the grave to prevent its escape.” Another Han text, the Fengsu Tongyi says, “The vital energy of the hun of a dead person floats away; therefore a mask is made in order to retain it.”

The divisible and wandering hun and po soul concepts in Daoism 

Hun 魂 and po 魄 spiritual concepts were important in several Daoist traditions. For instance (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522), “Since the volatile hun is fond of wandering and leaving the body during sleep, techniques were devised to restrain it, one of which entailed a method of staying constantly awake.”

The sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” were anthropomorphized and visualized. Ge Hong‘s (ca. 320 CE) Baopuzi frequently mentions the hun and po “ethereal and gross souls”. The “Genii” Chapter argues that these dual souls cause illness and death.

All men, wise or foolish, know that their bodies contain ethereal as well as gross breaths, and that when some of them quit the body, illness ensues; when they all leave him, a man dies. In the former case, the magicians have amulets for restraining them; in the latter case,The Rites [i.e., Yili] provide ceremonials for summoning them back. These breaths are most intimately bound up with us, for they are born when we are, but over a whole lifetime probably nobody actually hears or sees them. Would one conclude that they do not exist because they are neither seen nor heard? (2, tr. Ware 1966:49–50)

This “magicians” translates fangshi 方士 “doctor; diviner’ magician”. Both fangshi and daoshi 道士 “Daoist priests” developed methods and rituals to summon hun and po back into a person’s body. The “Gold and Cinnabar” chapter records a Daoist alchemical reanimation pill that can return the hun and po souls to a recent corpse: Taiyi zhaohunpo dan fa 太乙招魂魄丹法 “The Great One’s Elixir Method for Summoning Souls”.

In T’ai-i’s elixir for Summoning Gross and Ethereal Breaths the five minerals [i.e., cinnabarrealgararsenolitemalachite, and magnetite] are used and sealed with Six-One lute as in the Nine-crucible cinnabars. It is particularly effective for raising those who have died of a stroke. In cases where the corpse has been dead less than four days, force open the corpse’s mouth and insert a pill of this elixir and one of sulphur, washing them down its gullet with water. The corpse will immediately come to life. In every case the resurrected remark that they have seen a messenger with a baton of authority summoning them. (4, tr. Ware 1966:87)

For visualizing the ten souls, the Baopuzi “Truth on Earth” chapter recommends taking dayao 大藥 “great medicines” and practicing a fenxing 分形 “divide/multiply the body” multilocation technique.

My teacher used to say that to preserve Unity was to practice jointly Bright Mirror, and that on becoming successful in the mirror procedure a man would be able to multiply his body to several dozen all with the same dress and facial expression. My teacher also used to say that you should take the great medicines diligently if you wished to enjoy Fullness of Life, and that you should use metal solutions and a multiplication of your person if you wished to communicate with the gods. By multiplying the body, the three Hun and the seven Po are automatically seen within the body, and in addition it becomes possible to meet and visit the powers of heaven and the deities of earth and to have all the gods of the mountains and rivers in one’s service. (18, tr. Ware 1966:306)

The Daoist Shangqing School has several meditation techniques for visualizing the hun and po. In Shangqing Neidan “Internal Alchemy”, Baldrian-Hussein says,

the po plays a particularly somber role as it represents the passions that dominate the hun. This causes the vital force to decay, especially during sexual activity, and eventually leads to death. The inner alchemical practice seeks to concentrate the vital forces within the body by reversing the respective roles of hun and po, so that the hun (Yang) controls the po (Yin). (2008:533)

Number of souls

The number of human “souls” has been a long-standing source of controversy among Chinese religious traditions. Stevan Harrell (1979:521) concludes, “Almost every number from one to a dozen has at one time or another been proposed as the correct one.” The most commonly believed numbers of “souls” in a person are one, two, three, and ten.

One “soul” or linghun 靈魂 is the simplest idea.[2] Harrell gives a fieldwork example.

When rural Taiwanese perform ancestral sacrifices at home, they naturally think of the ling-hun in the tablet; when they take offerings to the cemetery, they think of it in the grave; and when they go on shamanistic trips, they think of it in the yin world. Because the contexts are separate, there is little conflict and little need for abstract reasoning about a nonexistent problem. (1979:523)

Two “souls” is a common folk belief, and reinforced by yin-yang theory. These paired souls can be called hun and Three “souls” comes from widespread beliefs that the soul of a dead person can exist in the multiple locations. The missionary Justus Doolittle recorded that Chinese people in Fuzhou

believe each person has three distinct souls while living. These souls separate at the death of the adult to whom they belong. One resides in the ancestral tablet erected to his memory, if the head of a family; another lurks in the coffin or the grave, and the third departs to the infernal regions to undergo its merited punishment. (1865 II:401–2)

Ten “souls” of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” is not only Daoist; “Some authorities would maintain that the three-seven “soul” is basic to all Chinese religion” (Harrell 1979:522). During the Later Han period, Daoists fixed the number of hun souls at three and the number of po souls at seven. A newly deceased person may return (回魂) to his home at some nights, sometimes one week (頭七) after his death and the seven po would disappear one by one every 7 days after death. According to Needham and Lu (1974:88), “It is a little difficult to ascertain the reason for this, since fives and sixes (if they corresponded to the viscera) would have rather been expected.” Three hun may stand for the sangang 三綱 “three principles of social order: relationships between ruler-subject, father-child, and husband-wife” (Needham 1974:89). Seven po may stand for the qiqiao 七竅 “seven apertures (in the head, eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth)” or the qiqing 七情 “seven emotions (joy, anger, sorrow, fear, worry, grief, fright)” in traditional Chinese medicine (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522). Sanhunqipo also stand for other names.

Source: Hun and Po

Chinkon is still a revived Shinto practice today in Japan, as a soul-binding or soul-summoning procedure or rite for healing (an ancient shamanic calling back the wandering soul spirit) Chinkon  kishin and as a ‘Chinkon’  (‘Pacifying and Deepening the soul’ exercise, which is “a quiet journey into  the interior. This involves meditation, and focusing on specific  mental images. These three elements, purification, spiritual movements, and meditation, are the bases of Shinto training” see Green Shinto’s “Spiritual exercises: misogi, furitama and chinkon” article. The chinkon ritual practice was revived by Shinto scholar Honda Chikaatsu who based the practice on the Chinkonsai court ritual and the Kojiki account of Okinaga Tarashi Hime’s medium spirit possession, see Birgit Staemmler’s “Chinkon Kishin: Mediated Spirit Possession in Japanese New Religions” at p 117.

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

The cloudsoul hun, we theorize, was likely a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan as well as the Amur populations(see Ainu cloud motif), although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud-symbol-associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all of East Asian civilization, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol“.  Cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud spiral and storm/thunder meander patterns. We may surmise that while the cloud-soul meaning was lost during the cloud motif’s diffusion westwards, cloud symbolism associations with a divinity’s descent, and particularly that of sky-storm gods, remained.



Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun. Nov 15, 2014

Ainu creation folklore and cloud symbolism

According to Ainu mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five-colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining gods—the Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.

Source: Ainu (

The above myth represents just one of the many folkmyths transmitted by their epic poetic oral traditions.

The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

This myth showing the tradition of divine descent on a cloud, as well as a long tradition of using cloud patterns on their clothing show the Ainu’s connection to the Far Eastern or Northeast Asian tradition where cloud symbolism and descent from the sky or heavens of deities, sages and ancestral heroes, is a strong and widespread genealogical and mythical traditional motif associated with the ancient Mongols, Udegeys, Manchurians, and the Jurchen Tartars, Han Northern Chinese (spiral motifs better known as thunder patterns) and possibly proto-Mongol-Tartars before them. The concept must have disseminated across Eurasia along trade routes in fairly early prehistoric times as India’s Krishna and other deities, and Buddhist imagery of divinities, sages and the Dunhuang celestial beings, depicted as descending or seated upon clouds, are later disseminated back to East Asia and Japan (see Amida’s descent, celestial beings, and the use of the cloud motif as an artistic convention).

Jomon "dogu" ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif

Jomon “dogu” ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif Photo: Heritage of Japan archives

It may have been a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan, although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all through East Asia, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol.”

Katsurano,Yamanashi prefecture, Middle Jōmon(2500-1500BC), Fuefuki City Board of Education

This cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol” as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud and storm/thunder meander patterns.