The Shamanic Origins of Taoism. The Historical Origins Of Taoism In China

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The Shamanic Origins of Taoism. The Historical Origins Of Taoism In China

The beginnings of recorded historical China lie some 5,000 years ago when a tribal people settled along the banks of the Yellow River -- its source high on the Tibetan plateau, its mouth at the Yellow Sea. These people were hunter-gatherers and farmers. Millet was most likely their first grain cultivated; rice and corn and wheat coming later. Evidence exists that they were also potters and musicians and that they produced the world’s first wine.

The Wu – Shamans of Ancient China

Their relationship to the cosmos was a shamanic one. At least some of them were able to communicate directly with plants, minerals, and animals; to journey deep into the earth, or visit distant galaxies. They were able to invoke, through dance and ritual, elemental and supernatural powers, and enter into ecstatic union with them. The class of people most adept at such techniques became known as the Wu – the shamans of ancient China.

The Three Sovereigns & Five Emperors

The leaders of this pre-dynastic era were the legendary Three Sovereigns, or “August Ones,” and the Five Emperors – morally perfected sage-kings who used their magical powers to protect their people and to create conditions for peaceful and harmonious living. The wisdom, compassion and enlightened power of these Beings were beyond mortal comprehension; and the benefit they bestowed upon those they governed, immeasurable.

The Heavenly Sovereign, Fuxi, is said to have discovered the eight trigrams – the Bagua – which is the foundation of the Yijing (I-Ching), Taoism’s most well-known system of divination. The Human Sovereign, Shennong, is credited with the invention of farming, and the introduction of herbs for medicinal purposes. The Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, is known as the father of Chinese Medicine.

Yu The Great

It was under the reign of Emperor Shun that the legendary “Yu The Great” was challenged to subdue the flooding of the Yellow River, a task which – through some combination of magical and technological prowess – he accomplished with great success. He subsequently designed a system of dikes and canals which proved to be of great and lasting benefit to his people. The “Pace of Yu” – the dance-steps which transported him mystically to the stars, where he received guidance from the deities – is practiced even today in certain Taoist traditions.

Shamanism: The Roots of Taoist Practice

There is much, in fact, from this early period of China’s history, and in particular its shamanic world-view and practices, that is reflected in the subsequent emergence of Taoism. Spirit-travel to planets, stars and galaxies are practices found within the Shangqing sect of Taoism. Taoist magicians use talismans to invoke the powers and protection of supernatural beings. Components of many Taoist rituals and ceremonies, as well as certain forms of qigong, are oriented toward communication with the plant and animal kingdoms. And the practices of Inner Alchemy are designed to produce, from the very bodies of its practitioners, the mystic wine of ecstatic spiritual union.

Zhuangzi’s Butterfly

Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) – one of the earliest and greatest of the Taoist philosophers – wrote about a dream he had, in which he was a yellow butterfly. And then he woke, to discover that he was a man. But then he wondered: now am I a man who just dreamt he was a butterfly; or a butterfly who is now dreaming that he is a man? In this story, we find, again, elements of the shamanic experience: dream-time, shape-shifting, flying, communication with non-human realms of being.

No one knows what Zhuangzi’s answer to his question was. What we do know is that even though historically the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors – with its shamanic world-view and practices -- may have passed, its mythological resonance is still palpable, and its essence quite alive, within the traditions of Taoist worship and practice today.

Perhaps the Taoists are really shamans, just dreaming that they’re Taoists?

Suggested Reading

  • Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.
  • Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990.
  • Kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime & Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1988.
  • Rael, Joseph. Being & Vibration. Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1993.
  • Young, Ed. Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

By Elizabeth Reninger