Ancient Shamanism

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Animism and spirit worship were characteristic of the primitive religion of archaic China, and were the cultural foundation from which Daoism developed. At the time, shamans and priests were the major religious specialists, possessing the ability to communicate with spirits, to appeal to them to dispel evil, to explain the turns of fate, and to transmit the instructions of spirits. In Yin and Shang times, the ideogram for 'shaman' as inscribed on divinatory implements bore a strong resemblance to the character for 'spirit'. In those times, shamans resorted to a series of songs and dances, spells and talismans to communicate with spirits. 'Invocators' ( 祝 Zhu ) were another type of religious professional, responsible for conducting rituals of offerings and prayer to spirits. Finally, divinatory specialists conducted divinations in order to predict fortune and misfortune. Shamans, priests and divines were important figues in society, enjoying relatively high status. Belief in shamans was expecially prevalent during the Yin dynasty. During the Spring and Autumn period (770 - 476 BC), which witnessed the rise of rationalism, the status of shamans gradually declined, although shamanism remained deeply rooted in society. Especially in the Chu State, primitive shamanism did not disappear and continued to flourish among the common people.

Many aspects of ancient shamanism were inherited by Daoism. The Master of Incense ( 司香火者 Sixianghuo Zhe ) in Daoist temples holds the title of "Shrine Priest" ( 廟祝 Miaozhu ), a title inherited from the ancient religion. Ancient people believed that illness resulted from the victim being possessed by evil demons, and that one needed to resort to the shamans' Magical Skills ( 方術 Fangshu ) of talismans, incantations, and exorcism to dispel illness. Talismanic Water ( 符水 Fushui ), Exorcism ( 驅鬼 Qugui ), and Demon-Expelling Implements ( 斬鬼品 Zhangui Pin )referred to in later Daoist scriptures reflect the influence of the ancient shamanistic religion. Early Daoist movements, such as the Five Pecks of Rice ( 五斗米道 Wudou )and the Supreme Peace Traditions ( 太平道 Taiping Dao ), show an even stronger shamanistic coloration. The Five Pecks of Rice disciples were called 'the Rice Witches' ( 米巫 Miwu ) by some, and Buddhists disparaged the sect by calling it the 'Demonic Skills of the Three Zhangs' ( 三張之鬼法 Sanzhang Zhi Guifa ). The practises of killing and expelling demons with the aid of charms and incantations, invoking spirits, holding Ritual Offerings ( 濟醮 Jijiao ), and presenting written memorials to spirits with the aid of a medium, can all be said to be inheritances from ancient shamanism ( 巫教 Wujiao ).