As a skeptic of the legitimacy of shamanistic practices; naturally, I decided to research shamans. The supernatural has always been a topic of fascination for me, even if I do not believe. We live in a world where supernatural beliefs tend to get suppressed. In the past, spirits were used to explain the unexplainable; to give answers to life’s questions. I wanted to explore the roles of shamans today, that went beyond the “crazy people who are possessed by spirits.” Shamans must hold some value in cultures otherwise, they would not still be around.
The form of my project is a research paper. The focus is on Chinese shamans and various ethnic minority groups found in China. The focus is specifically China because that is the focus of this course, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors. I believe that shamans fill a similar role in other cultures. I wanted to research the nuanced roles of shamans and I felt a paper would do the best job at conveying that. Other forms, such as a game pitch, would be better at conveying the common view of shamans – one who communes with the spirits to perform supernatural feats.
In academia, there are two main interpretations of the meaning of the word “shaman.” There is debate on what the Manchu-Tungus word “saman” is derived from. The first translation is a person who dances because they are excited. This comes from an analysis which believes “saman” was derived from “sam,” the Manchu word for “exciting.” The second translation is a person who knows everything or a title meaning “the wise one.” This comes from an analysis which believes “saman” was derived from “sa,” the Manchu word for “knowing.”
Both translations have some merit in understanding the current role of shamans. The first translation can be seen through the various rituals that shamans are known to conduct. To understand the importance of rituals, I looked at a study that involved a Chinese nationalist shaman who went to a Naxi ethnic minority village to cure a villager who went mad.
The ritual the shaman performed was largely unsuccessful. The reactions were also not very positive. Many of the villagers were confused as to what the shaman was doing. The incantations were supposed to invoke nationalistic feelings, such as calling upon Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping as the “gods” to help her drive out the demons in the madman. Those names are not traditional gods found in Naxi culture or in traditional Chinese culture; they are the political leaders of China after the revolution.
The Naxi people had a particularly unpleasant experience with Mao, the communist leader of China, and here was someone calling symbols from that time. After Mao’s death, his influence in this village diminished and the villagers felt very little from the performance of the shaman. It is no wonder that the villagers felt very little from the performance.
The second translation can be seen in history through influential leaders and scholars who were considered shamans. Emperors of the Jin Dynasty were thought to have supernatural powers because they made military and political decisions based on their dreams. Wanyan Xiyin was an advisor who was renowned as a shaman because he created laws and a written language for this people. Shamans like these were not considered shamans due to extraordinary supernatural talents, they were just incredibly intelligent for their time. People thought they must have gotten help from the supernatural; it was how they contextualized an uncommon occurrence.
I took the ideas of shamans being ritual leaders or people who carried the wisdom of their culture and applied it to various ethnic minority groups in China. You see similar roles of shamans in these groups. Shamans tend to lead the ceremonies, for events like holidays because they understand the importance of these events and carry on the traditions from the past. If an outsider were to lead these events, the people would not feel as connected. Shamans are typically not leaders anymore, but they carry on the teachings of old and pass it down to future generations.
In my mind, the importance of shamans comes from the preservation of a culture. This way of thinking and acting typically are not taught in school anymore because it is seen as archaic. This coupled with the fact that most older tribes are oral in nature. Shamans are needed to continue passing down this knowledge or we could see cultures completely vanish overnight.