The Heavenly Legacy of the Ancient Manchu Shaman
The Manchu people are an ethnic minority in China sometimes called "red-tasseled Manchus", a reference to the ornamentation on traditional Manchu shaman’ hats. Shamanism was the dominant religion of the Tungusic peoples in northeast Asia, and during the Jin dynasty (1111–1234). The descendants of the Manchu people, the ‘Jurchens’, conducted rituals and rites at shamanic shrines or altars called tangse (“hall” in Chinese). The word tangse originated from portable god boxes, shrines in which the Jurchen hunter shaman placed small figurines of their gods, before beginning to settle into villages where tangse became permanent and central holy fixtures.
The shamanic shrine (tangse) where Qing emperors performed sacrifices to Heaven from 1644 to 1900, when it was destroyed during the Boxer Uprising. ( Public Domain )
In the 1590s, Qing (1559–1626), the chieftain of the Jianzhou Jurchens, installed shamanism at the center of his state ritual, which included making sacrifices to “Chinese heaven” before military campaigns. By the 18th century, shamanism had become firmly lodged at the core of Manchu spiritual life. Mongols and Han Chinese were forbidden to attend these shamanic ceremonies because of their secretive aspects and these mysterious rituals drew the curiosity of Beijing dwellers and visitors to the Qing capital.
Jurchen Shamanic Rituals And Rites
Traditional Manchu shaman typically carried: a drum, a knife, and two wooden sticks with bells affixed to the top. They also wore aprons tied with belts with dangling bells and feathered caps, which denoted their perceived ability to fly to the spirit world. All of these customary attributes were still being observed among shaman from Manchuria and Mongolia in the early 20th century.
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In scholar Mark Elliot's 2001 book, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China , he says “Each clan (mukūn)… had its sacred protective spirits (enduri). The shaman (often a woman) was in charge of placating spirits and dead ancestors and of contacting them to seek a good hunt or harvest, quick healing, success in battle, and other such favors.”
Buryat shaman photographed in 1904 wearing many of the same ritual garments as Manchu shaman, notably an apron, a cap, two wooden sticks, and a ritual drum. ( Public Domain )
And, in Evelyn Rawski’s 1998 book The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions , we learn that two types of Jurchen shamanistic rituals were practiced, corresponding with the two types of shaman. The most common was the “domestic ritual”, which was generally ritual-based sacrifices made in honor of the clan's ancestors and heaven. These ceremonies were normally conducted by hereditary shaman.
The “Primitive rituals,” on the other hand, were only ever performed by people who had undergone what was known as “shamanic illness,” which meant that they had been chosen to be shaman by the spirits. These shaman, who set up altars in their homes, received a different kind of training than hereditary shaman. And when these “transformational” shaman entered trances, they believed themselves to be possessed by animal spirits which helped them heal and perform exorcism.
The Palace of Earthly Tranquility
In scholar Kaye Crossley’s 1990 book, Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World , she informs that “The point of contact between the community and the spirits was the “spirit pole” (Manchu: šomo).
Aside from the daily shamanistic rites conducted in tangse, rituals were also conducted in the Kunning Palace by women. This building had once served as a residence for Empresses under the Ming dynasty and is located on the Forbidden City’s central axis near the north gate. After converting the palace windows and internal features, the Qing installed a “spirit pole” for making sacrifices to heaven. Then these sacred women's quarters became known as ‘The Palace of Earthly Tranquility.’
The Palace of Earthly Tranquility is the northernmost of the three main halls of the Inner Court of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. The other two halls are ‘The Palace of Heavenly Purity’ and ‘Hall of Union.’ ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
In the 1740s, the Qianlong Emperor became worried that the traditional shamanic practices might be lost. Thus in 1741, he commissioned a “Shamanic Code” explaining the use of magical instruments and the meaning of Manchu ritual incantations. The Code was completed in 1747. Then, in 1773, French Jesuit missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot published the first European study of the Manchu Shamanic Code. In 1777, the Qianlong Emperor ordered that text to be translated into Chinese and it was printed in 1778. According to scholar Evelyn Rawski, this compilation of the “Shamanic Code helped systematize and reshape what had been a very fluid and diverse belief system.”
All Eyes on Chinese Heaven
In Mark Elliot’s The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, he informs that the worship of ‘Chinese heaven’ in the imperial tradition was conducted in shamanistic sacrifices made only by the emperor, while ordinary Manchus worshiped a less holy “shamanistic heaven.” Both Chinese and Manchu heavens formed “an all-encompassing principle of cosmic order and human destiny that could be used to give the state legitimacy."
Shamanism is the glue which binds Manchu identity, and the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735), famously reprimanded Manchu converts to Christianity for “worshipping the Lord of Heaven through a foreign religion rather than through shamanism,” which he maintained was the only “proper” way for Manchu to worship heaven.
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The Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735), here portrayed as a Daoist adept, reprimanded Manchu converts to Christianity for worshipping the foreign "Lord of Heaven.” ( Public Domain )
In an edict dated April 17, 1727, the Yongzheng Emperor “opposed Jesuit attempts to convert Chinese and Manchus to Catholicism and singled out Manchu converts for criticism.” According to the emperor, the “Lord of Heaven,” the term for the Jesuits’ God in Chinese, was actually the shamanic Heaven the Chinese and Manchus already worshipped.
With the conquest of imperial power in China (the Qing dynasty), the Manchu people gradually adopted Chinese language and assimilated into the Chinese religion, although Manchu folk religion persists with a distinct character within broader Chinese religion.
Top Image: Hubert Vos' painting of a young Manchu man. Manchu shaman were important cultural icons. Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie
Crossley, Pamela Kyle. (1990) Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Elliott, Mark C. (2001) The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press,
Juha Janhunen. (2005) Tungusic: an endangered language family in Northeast Asia. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1515/ijsl.2005.2005.173.37
Rawski, Evelyn S. (1998) The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions . Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
Yu, Zhuoyun. (1984) Palaces of the Forbidden City. New York: Viking.