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Reflections on the Political Role of Spirit Mediums in Early China: The Wu Officials in the Zhou Li

  • Lothar von Falkenhausen (a1)


Through close analysis of the traditional hermeneutics of the Zhou li sections on the Si 丽(Manager of the Spirit Mediums), Nanwu (Male Spirit Mediums), and Nüzou (Female Spirit Mediums), this article attempts to reconstruct the classical image of spirit mediums during the Zhou dynasty. It shows that spirit mediums, though grouped under the “bureaucratic” hierarchy of the Zhou li, have traditionally been assumed to be distinct in function and activities from the officials with whom they interacted duringceremonies. As specialized religious virtuousi capable of communicating with the supernatural forces, they apparently continued to play a distinguished role in political ritual — possibly derived from Shang court shamanism, and undoubtedly ancestral to the function of mediums in late traditional popular religion.



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1. Mengjia, Chen, “Shangdai de shenhua yu wushu 商代的神話與巫術,” Yanjing xuebao 19 (1937), 91155.

2. E.g. Chang, Kwang-chih, “The Animal in Shang and Chou Bronze Art,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 41.2 (1981), 527554; Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 4455.

3. Keightley, David N., “Royal Shamanism in the Shang: Archaic Vestige or Central Reality?,” paper presented for the workshop on Chinese divination and portent interpretation, Berkeley, 20 06-1 July, 1983; Shamanism in Guo Yu? A Tale of Xi 現and Wu,” paper prepared for the Center for Chinese Studies Regional Seminar, Berkeley, 7-8 04 1989.

4. See Keightley, , “The Late Shang State: When, Where, and What?,” in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, Keightley, David N., ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 523564.

5. Keightley, , “Shamanism in Guo Yu?,” ms. p. 30.

6. On shamans in the Shang, see also Minao, Hayashi 林巳奈夫, “Chūgoku kodai-no shinfu 中域古神巫,” Tōhōgakuhō 38 (1966), 199224. Recently, Victor Mair (in his Old Sinitic *Mgag, Old Persian Magus, and English ‘Magician’,” Early China 15 (1990), 2747) has argued that the word wu 巫 originates in an Indo-European dialect, speculating that early wu practitioners active in Shang and Zhou contexts may have been ritual experts of westerly origin. Even if this is true, it seems safe to assume that spiritmedium practices — whatever they may have been called — were part of the most basic substratum of popular religious activity in ancient China just as they are in most other areas of the world, pre-dating all known occurrences of the word wu. Generally, in Early China studies, one all too easily falls victim to the fallacy of equating a cultural phenomenon with a single lexical item.

7. All my citations are to Sun Yirang 孫飴讓, Zhou li zhengyi 周禮正義, date of preface 1900 (Sibu beiyao ed.).

8. Jiegang, Gu 顧額岡, “Zhou Gong zhi li de chuanshuo he ‘Zhouguan’ yi shu de chuxian 周公制禮的傳說和周官一書的出現Wenshi 6(1979), 140.

9. See Karigren, Bernhard, “The Early History of the Chou Li and Tso Chuan Texts,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 3 (1931), 159.

10. Karlgren, Bernhard, “Legends and Cults in Ancient China,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 18 (1946), 119365.

11. Broman, Sven, “Studies on the Chou LiBulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 33 (1961), 188. Of course, Broman does not mean to conclude from his findings that the Zhou li as a text is of early date. Precisely such a stance — quite untenable, in my opinon—has, however, been adopted by Xueqin, Li 李學勸, who argues (in “Zhou li yu Qinlū - Du Zhou li zhengyi周禮與秦律——讃周禮正義,” Wenzhou Shifan Xueyuan xuebao 溫州師範學院學報 1990.1, 19) that the Zhou li is itself essen-ti ally a Western Zhou text. For a useful overview on the textual history of the Zhou li, see also Boltz, William G., “Chou li周禮,” in Loewe, Michael, ed., Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 2432. I am grateful to Dr. Lionel Jensen for the reference to Li Xueqin's article, and to Li Xueqin for oral communication concerning this issue.

12. Yachu, Zhang 張亞初and Liu Yu劉雨, Xi Zhou jinwen guanzhi yanjiu 西周金文官制硏究 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986); Michiharu, Itō 伊藤道治, Chūgoku kodai kokka-noshihaikōzō 中國古代國家①支配構造 (Tokyo: ChūōKōron, 1987).

13. This term is useful in the present context because the Zhou li is, in my opinion, an excellent example of a text that derives its existence essentially from other texts, and thus is amenable to the line of analysis proposed in Genette, Gérard, Palimpsestes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981).

14. “Liguan zhi Shu 禮官乏屬”, Zhou li zhengyi, 32.

15. Cf. the diagram in Zhang, and Liu, , Xi Zhou jinwen guanzhi yanjiu, 127.

16. Cf. “Siwuw § 1, Zhou li zhengyi, 50.15a-19b.

17. Zhou it zhengyi, 50.15a-19b.

18. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21a.

19. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.15a-17a and 19b.

20. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.17a-19b.

21. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21a-b.

22. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21 a-b. Sun Yirang alludes to the Guo yu “Chu Yu xia” passage discussed by Keightley in “Shamanism in Guo Yu?” (cf. Guo yu [Shanghai: Shanghai Guji chubanshe, 1988], vol. 2, 559560).

23. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a.

24. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a.

25. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a. Compare Guo yu, vol. 2, 559560. The translation follows Keightley, , “Shamanism in Guo Yu?3536.

26. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a-26a. Sun Yirang considers it significant that the word shi 仕 occurs (with the “human” radical) in connection with the dancers attached to the “Official of the Oxtail-Standard” (Maoren 旌人; Zhou li zhengyi, 46.15b).

27. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a-b.

28. Sun Yirang explains (Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25b) why only Male Spirit Mediums can be considered for the more elevated Spirit Medium positions: “The Female Spirit Mediums are in charge only of anointments and ablutions, as well as dancing the yu rite; they do not know the various [other] things [that have to be done].”

29. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.12b14־b.

30. Neither the Zhou li text nor the commentaries specify whether the “Instructors of Spirit Mediums” — supposedly appointed from among the Spirit Mediums — hold their aristocratic ranks hereditarily, like other ranked officials.

31. Zheng's enumeration comes from the Zhou li section on the “Grand Master of the Multitude” (Dasitu 大司徒); Zhou li zhengyi, 19.15b-17a. A similar enumeration, in a slightly different order and with the synonymous yu 奴 for yu 御(“chariotry”), appears in the section on the “Protector” (Baoshi 保氏); Zhou li zhengyi, 26.1a.

32. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21a.

33. Shuowen jiezi zhu 說文解字注(rptv Shanghai: Shanghai Guji chubanshe, 1981), 201. The ellipsis reflects two short sentences left out by Sun Yirang. According to Shi Ji “Yinbenji” (rpt, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 100101, Wu Xian巫咸 (Xian the Medium) and his son Wu Xian巫賢were important court officials of the Shang dynasty, under kings Tai Wu 太戊 (trad. r. 1637-1563) and Zu Yi 祖乙 (trad. r. 15251507), respectively. Sun Yirang (ap. Zhou li “Siwu2§ “, Zhou li zhengyi, 50.17a) cites Wang Zhong汪中(1745-1794) who speculates that their mediumistic practices remained a model for later Zhou wu.

34. Shuowen jiezi zhu, 202. The locus classicus for xi is Guo yu “Chu yu xia” (Guo yu, v. 2, 559); for an extensive discussion of the term, see Keightley, “Shamanism in Guo Yu?”

35. See Duan Yucai's 段玉裁 (1735-1815) commentary on Shuowen, entry xi (Shuo-wen jiezi zhu, 202).

36. See Chunqiu fanlu “Jinghua pian” (Han Wei Congshu ed.), 3:7a; for Sun's critique, cf. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.22a-b (ap. “Nüwu” §2).

37. Harbsmeier, Christoph, “Where Do Classical Chinese Nouns Come From? With Some Notes on a Syntactic Hybrid in Koiné Greek,” Early China 9/10 (19831985), 7981. In Shuowen, “X, B ye-type definitions often seem to denote no more than mental association.

38. Yuan, Ruan, ed., Shisanjing zhushu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), vol. 2, 2205.

39. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21a.

40. For the original locus, see Guo yu, vol. 2, 559560; tr. Keightley, , “Shamanism in Guo Yu?,” 3536. In my understanding, this phrase refers not merely to the Spirit Me diums: it generalizes about the function of all sorts of ritual specialists, including zhu “Invocators” and zong 宗 “Temple Officials.”

41. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.20a-21b

42. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.21b-23a

43. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Nanwu” §1 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.20a-b. The commentators elaborate on the “Dazhuw section (Zhou li zhengyi, 49.6b), which states: “They (sc. the Dazhu) distinguish between the six kinds of honorific titles. The first are called ‘titles of spirits.’ The second are called ‘titles of ghosts.’ The third are called ‘titles of earth-deities.’ The fourth are called ‘titles of sacrificial animals.’ The fifth are called ‘titles of sacrificial vessels.’ The sixth are called ‘titles of sacrificial silks.’ The kinds of prayers in which these titles are to be used are listed in the “Zuzhu” section (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.14a).

44. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Nanwu” §2 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.20b21־a). The present Zhou li text has zeng 贈 “to present,” but Zheng Xuan mentions an old variant that reads zeng 贈 “to shoot arrows.” In the Han dynasty, at the Da Nuo 大灘 exorcism that preceded the New Year's celebration, spirit mediums do appear to have taken part in a shooting ritual (see Bodde, Derk, Festivals in Classical China [Princeton and Hong Kong: Princeton University Press, 1975], 8485). Both commentators refer to the section on the Exorcists (“Fangxiangshi 方相氏,” Zhou li zhengyi, 59.19b), who, at the nuo ritual, “don the hide of a young bear ornamented with four eyes of gold, a dark jacket and a red skirt, holding a dagger-axe (ge 戈)and wielding a shield; thus they lead a hundred menial officials in carrying out the nuo at the appointed times. With them they search the buildings and expurgate diseases [from them],”

45. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Nüwu” §1 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.21b-22a). Zheng Xuan links this passage to the Lustration Festival of the Han dynasty (see Bodde, , Festivals in Classical China, 273288); Sun Yirang extends the reference of this passage to all other occasions when anointments and ablutions are performed throughout the year.

46. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Nanwu3” §3 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.21 a-b). Sun Yirang approvingly quotes the commentary by Hui Shiqi 惠士奇 (1671-1741), who, after briefly paraphrasing portions of the “Dazhu,” “Xiaozhu,” “Nanvvu,” and “Nüwu” sections which, to him, indicate that these respective officials each possess specific healing techniques, cites Huainan Zi “Shuoshan xun” (Sibu congkan ed.), 16.14b: “When sick persons are lying on their mats, physicians (yi醫), using [metal]-needles and stone-needles [for acupuncture], and mediums, using purified grains (xu 精)and reeds (ji 藉)save them.”

47. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Nanwu” §4 and “Nūwu” §3 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.21b and 22b). Sun links this passage with the section on the “Invocator of Funerals” (Sangzhu 喪祝), which states (Zhou Li zhengyi, 50.10a): “When the king offers condolence, they together with the mediums precede him.” This may be derived from an episode in Zuo Zhuan Xiang 29 (Shisanjing zhushu ed.), vol. 2, 2004: When Xiang Gong of Lu was offering condolence on the death of Kang Wang of Chu, “a medium first purified the unburied corpse in its coffin, using a branch of a peach tree and a straw-broom (taolie ).” From a variety of other sources. Sun Yirang concludes that the Spirit Mediums follow the king or queen inside the residence of the bereaved family only when the corpse has not yet been washed.

48. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Siwu” §5 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.19b); for further discussion, see below.

49. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Siwu” § “ and “Nūwu2§ “ (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.15b-17a and 22a-b). The participation of Male Mediums in this ritual is nowhere made explicit in the Zhou li text, but Sun Yirang, to show that males were in fact involved, quotes, inter alia, He Xiu's commentary on Gongyang zhuan Huan 5 (Shisanjing zhushu ed.), vol. 2, 2216), where the yu is described as follows: One lets children, eight boys and eight girls, dance, shouting ‘yu 雩! Hence it is called yu.” In the same context, Sun refutes attempts to justify the use of Female Spirit Mediums through yin/yang speculation (see above).

50. See Zheng Xuan and Sun Yirang ap. “Siwu” §2 and “Nüwu” §4 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.17a and 22b-23a). Against Jia Gongyan, who had postulated that Spirit Mediums perform only in the case of droughts, Sun Yirang thinks that they officiated at a large spectrum of calamities, arguing that neither when the section on the Lesser Ministers of Rites (“Xiaozongbo” 小司樂; Zhou li zhengyi, 36.21a) mentions “great calamities of Heaven and Earth,” nor in the case of the “great miracles, extraordinary happenings, and calamities” mentioned in the section on the Great Managers of Music (“Dasiyue” 大司樂; Zhou li zhengyi, 43.15a) does the context suggest any specific connection with droughts.

51. In what may additionally reflect ritualists' conception of gender rôles (such as a perceived need for females to be directed), the Siwu are associated especially closely with the Nüwu, and somewhat less so with the Nanwu.

52. Zhou li zhengyi, 32.21a.

53. See Zhou li zhengyi, 32.25a.

54. This translation reflects Zheng Xuan's understanding of the term. For alternative explanations of this term, see Sun Yirang ap. “Siwu” §2 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.17a). If Zheng is correct, these “long-standing practices” are likely to be “praying by singing, and wailing” mentioned in an identical context in “Nüwu” §4 (Zhou li zhengyi, 50.22b-23a). Significantly, none of the commentators sees any connection with a locus in Lun-yu “Zi Lu” (Shisanjing zhushu ed.), vol. 2: 2508, where Kongzi approvingly quotes a saying of the “Southerners” (nanren 南人)according to which heng 恒 “constancy” is a key quality of both spirit-mediums and physicians (or, according to Zheng Xuan's Lunyu commentary [ibid.], of their patients). On heng see Carr, Michael, “Shamanic Heng 恆 ‘Constancy’,” Otaru Shōka Daigaku jinbun kenkyū 83 (1992), 93159.

55. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.19b.

56. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.19b.

57. Chu ci buzhu, 2. For a sensitive analysis, see Waley, Arthur, The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955).

58. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.20b-21a.

59. Cf. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).

60. Zhou li zhengyi, 50.20a-b.

61. Cf. Tambiah, Stanley J., Culture, Thought, and Social Action (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985).

62. Carr, Michael, “Personation of the Dead in Ancient China,” Computational Analysis of Asian & African Languages 24 (1985), 1107.

63. Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 1, 467470. See also Karlgren, Bernhard, The Book of Odes (Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1950), 161163. For a more extensive interpretation of the ritual process as described in this ode, see Falkenhausen, Lothar von, Suspended Music: Chime-bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2532.

64. Zhou li zhengyi, 49.18a-20a.

65. In a different context, this has also been suggested by Ichirō, Kominami 小南一 郞, “Sha-no saishi-no shokeitai-to sono kigen Koshi shunjū 4 (1986), 1737.

66. See Chang, K. C., “Some Dualistic Phenomena in Shang Society,” Journal of Asian Studies 24 (1964), 4561.

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Reflections on the Political Role of Spirit Mediums in Early China: The Wu Officials in the Zhou Li

  • Lothar von Falkenhausen (a1)


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