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The Religious System of China. Volume VI (1910)
Extrait. Extrait : “Wu-ism before and during the Han Period”.

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de l'ouvrage de Johann Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China. its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect. Manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Volume VI : The Soul and Ancestral Worship : The War against Spectres. — The Priesthood of Animism. Édition originale, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 414 pages + illustrations. Réimpression : Literature House, Ltd, Taipei, Taiwan, 1964. Une édition réalisée par Pierre Palpant, bénévole, Paris.


Wu-ism before and during the Han Period

From very early times, or even since the night of time in which China’s Animistic Religion was born, this religion may have had a priesthood, that is to say, persons of both sexes who wielded, with respect to the world of spirits, capacities and powers which were not possessed by the rest of men. A study of ancient books leads us to the conclusion that these priests, either in the main or exclusively, must have been the wu whom we have mentioned in this work many times. We have seen, that in the classical age of Cheu they armed themselves with bundles of reeds and branches of peach, to accompany their prince when paying visits of condolence in cases of death, and to perform then exorcising functions along with so-called Invokers or Conjurers ; and they appeared in the same capacity of devil-expellers in official life in the time of Confucius.

Oldest among all documents in which these persons are mentioned, probably is the speech on the conduct of rulers, which was delivered in the 18th century before our era by the minister I-yin to T‘ai-kiah of the Shang dynasty, in which we find, in the midst of many remarks of the wisest kind, these words :

« The late sovereign instituted punishments for the officers, and warned the men in authority, saying,

— If you dare to have constant dancing in your mansions, and drunken singing in your houses, I call it wu fashion.

From this we are allowed to infer, that wu were in those very early times a kind of chanting and dancing dervishes, not peculiarly esteemed by grandees and ministers.

In the age of Cheu the wu were not the only priests in existence. The book of institutions of that House, entitled Cheu li, acquaints us with the fact, that they shared the sacerdotal position with quite a body of officers of various ranks and grades, who were charged with the maintenance of the Rites and Ceremonies (li), among which those of the Religion of the State or the dynasty were the principal. The description of the functions of these officers fills one section of the six into which the Cheu li is divided, namely the third, entitled ‘Officers of Spring’, certainly one of the richest sources of information on ancient religions matters. Under the direction of a Minister, entitled Ta tsung poh or Superintendent of the Ancestry, and two Siao tsung poh or Subintendents of the Ancestry, those officers had to direct the erection and conservation of the temples and altars of the State and the mausolea and tombs of the reigning House, furthermore, the celebration of sacrifices with music and dances, victims and implements, besides the funeral rites in the royal family, divination and auguration, etc. This ministerial department was undeniably a priesthood of Universal Animism, the gods whose worship they had to maintain and regulate being the shen which animate Heaven and Earth and their constituent parts and phenomena, as also the spirits of the dead. This official priesthood was, according to the Chinese, the prototype of the Ministries of Rites and Ceremonies which were entrusted with the administration of the State Religion under later dynasties to this day, so that we shall have again to pay attention to them in our treatises on that main part of China’s religious system. It was a priesthood different from that of the wu since it was an official creation, and not, like the latter, a spontaneous product of the animistic religion of the people itself. We are not, however, for that reason justified in neglecting the important third section of the Cheu li for it contains a few pages with very valuable information about wu of both sexes, who were employed in the State Religion. It is remarkable to see the Cheu li itself state that these priests and priestesses belonged to the lowest class of officials, so that we hear from this source also, which was written much later than the Shu king, of the slight estimation in which they were held :

« Wu of both sexes, in indefinite numbers ; their masters (shi) are four ordinary officers of the middle rank ; with two store-keepers, four writers, four adjutants, and forty serfs.

« The male wu are bound to turn their faces to the sacrifices and the invited spirits, and to supply the exclamations wherewith to call (the latter) from all sides white waving long grass. In winter (when spectres predominate), they eject (evil) from the halls, and perform the same task all around, without calculation (of directions or distances). In spring they call (gods, or felicity), and avert (demons, or evil), thus warding off diseases. And when the Sovereign pays a visit of condolence, they walk before him with the Invokers or Conjurers.

« And the female wu are directed to perform exorcism at fixed times annually, using ablutions with aromatics. In times of drought they perform dances or gestures during the sacrifices for rain. When the Sovereign’s consort pays a visit of condolence, they walk before her with the (female) Invokers or Conjurers. And at every great calamity in the kingdom they entreat (the gods or spirits), chanting and wailing.

Besides, the Cheu li contains rescripts for certain

« Directors of the wu, that is, two ordinary officers of the middle rank, who had one store-keeper, one writer, one adjutant, and ten serfs.

« They have to maintain the rescripts concerning all the wu. When there prevails a great drought in the realm, they take the lead of the wu to make them dance at the sacrifices for rain. And when the kingdom is visited by a great calamity, they perform the old and customary Wu-ist practices at the head of the wu. At sacrifices they provide the boxes with the soul-tablets, the druggets for the roads, and the boxes with the straw mats. At sacrifices generally they see to the burial (of the offerings). And at funeral rites they are charged with the Wu-ist rites by which the soul descends.

Although there are some slight variances between commentators who have sharpened their wits on the explanation of these passages, we must acknowledge that they constitute a very valuable account of the functions of these priests and priestesses. We now know indeed, that they exorcised spirits of evil and illness, also at royal visits of condolence, and that they performed sacerdotal functions at sacrifices, calling down the gods or human spirits to whom these were presented. At the altars raised to pray and sacrifice for rain, the priestesses, representing the Yin or female part of the Universal Order, to which clouds and water belong, performed dances ; and when disasters prevailed, they conjured the gods by means of chants expressive of grief and distress. Those dances arrest our attention. They suggest indeed that the wu were nothing else than what we might call the Chinese ramification of a large class of priests of both sexes which is distributed over several parts of Asia under a variety of names, such as shaman in Siberian lands, faquir or dervish in the Persian, bazir and balian, respectively of the male and the female sex, among the aborigines of Borneo ; wewalen in Bali, bissoo in south-west Celebes, etc. Of all these priests and priestesses it is well known, that they are occasionally possessed by spirits or gods, and manifest this condition by convulsive distortions of their faces and bodies, twitching movements of their limbs, frantic running, jumping, shivering murmurs and sobs ; it is also known that the possessing spirit endows them with a second sight and a power to drive off spectres.

The identity of the wu with this general priesthood of Asian paganism is corroborated by evidence of the Kwoh yü. This work relates, that king Chao who reigned in Ch‘u B. C. 515-488, asked (his Minister) Kwan Shé-fu, saying,

— The writings of the Cheu dynasty state, that Chung-li was actually sent as an envoy to the inaccessible parts of heaven and earth ; how was such a thing possible ? should no such thing have occurred, then tell me whether there be any possibility for people to ascend to Heaven ?

The answer was,

— That is not the meaning of that statement. Anciently the functions with respect to the people and with regard to the gods were not exercised by the same persons. Those among the people whose vital spirits (tsing) were in a bright and flourishing condition, and not distracted into different directions ; who moreover had the capacity of concentrating all their feelings of reverence, and possessed inward rectitude, — their knowledge was able to rise to higher spheres and descend into the lower, and distinguish there the things which it would be proper to do ; their perfect intelligence then could clearly observe things in the distant future and explain them ; by their sharpsightedness they could see them shine in their brightest light, and by the acuteness of their ears they could hear and scrutinize them. Being in this condition, intelligent shen descended into them ; if a shen thus settled in a male person, this was called a hih, and if it settled in one of the other sex, this was called a wu. As functionaries, they regulated the places for the seats of the gods (at sacrifices), the order of their tablets, as also their sacrificial victims and implements, and the ceremonial attires to be worn in connection with the season.

These instructive lines thus state explicitly enough that the wu and hih were possessed by shen, that is to say, by divinity or spirituality, and that this descended into them in consequence of their own powerful imagination. Their thought, strongly fixed upon spirits on high and below, produced hallucination which allowed them to pierce the future, and to learn within the spiritual world the wishes of the gods in point of the offerings due. We may ask whether it be this second sight which we see depicted in the graphic sign [] hih, which denoted the male wu, a dissection of which gives [], wu, and [], to see. Should this be the case, the character indicates also that such second sight was especially ascribed to the male priests ; which would not be strange for a people which assimilated the male sex with the Universal Yang, the source of light, lucidity and brightness.

The term wu, which, as our extracts from the Cheu li have shown, denoted the male priests as well as the female, has done so in all ages, to this day. Its written form may have had in ancient ages quite another shape, and this point has been an object of speculation to some authors ; but we do not feel tempted to follow them in such idle work.

When attending on a Ruler or a Ruler’s consort at visits of condolence in the capacity of exorcists, the male or female wu were, as we have seen (page 1189), accompanied by [] chuh, ‘Invokers’ or ‘Conjurers’, of their own sex. The functions of these priestly officers are described in the Cheu li immediately before those of the wu, so that we may admit that the wu were below them in rank, but co-operated with them in the exercise of religious functions. This was decidedly the opinion of the learned Wang Chao-yü of the Sung dynasty. Commenting upon the statement of the Cheu li that the male wu attended sacrifices (see page 1189), he wrote these lines :

« The chuh as well as the wu worshipped the shen, and therefore the wu on such occasions acted as assistants of the chuh. At sacrificial ceremonies at which the chuh officiated, the wu had to bring down the gods, and it was on this account that they then turned their faces to the sacrifices and the beings whom they invited.

From the Han dynasty onward, the expression wu-chuh occurs in literature with great frequency as denoting the wu only. From this it is evident that there has taken place a commixture of the two functions, and that the class of the wu has assumed the name chuh for themselves, since it denoted in classical China a function which was higher than their own, and therefore more fashionable.

After this it is almost superfluous to state, that the position of the wu in ancient China as exorcists is to be explained by their possession by shen, since the main principle of exorcism is the universal law that the shen oppose, expel, and even destroy the kwei. Likewise we may admit that it was their possession which, manifesting its reality by their dances, assigned to them a place at the altars for the rain-sacrifices at which the presence of gods was so urgently needed. We read in the Li ki, that

« in a year of drought the ruler Muh (B. C. 409-377) called Hien-tsze, and asked him as follows :

— Heaven has not sent down any rain for a long time ; I will expose some wang to the sun ; do you agree to this ?

— Exposing such unsound children of men in the sun, ran the answer, when Heaven does not give rain, is an act of cruelty ; no, you may not do it.

— Well then, I will expose some wu ; has this your approval ?
The answer was, Heaven does not give rain, and do you expect rain from silly wives ? will you seek it by means of them ? no, that would be still, more wide of the mark.

A similar story is related in the Tso ch‘wen of another prince in a much earlier time, viz. the year 639 before our era.

« In summer there prevailed a great drought. The Ruler would burn the wu and the wang, but Tsang Wen-chung said,

— This is no proper provision against a drought ; what can be done with wu and wang against such a calamity ? If Heaven desired them to be killed, it would probably not have given birth to them ; therefore, admitting that they really can cause a drought, to burn them might greatly increase it.
The ruler followed this advice, and that year there was scarcity, but it did no harm.

These two narratives evidently are different readings of one, and may both be inventions ; nevertheless they have their value as sketches of ancient idea and custom. Those ‘infirm or unsound’ wang were non-descript individuals, evidently placed somewhat on a line with the wu ; perhaps they were queer hags or beldams, deformed beings, idiotic or crazy, or nervously affected to a very high degree, whose strange demeanour was ascribed to possession. I think there is no objection to subscribing to the opinion which Ching Khang-ch‘ing, the illustrious scholar and commentator of the second century of our era, expressed in these lines :

« Muh would expose the Wang to the sun in the expectation that Heaven would compassionate them and send down its rains upon them ; and as the wu had received a shen into themselves, he also expected that Heaven, compassionating the latter, would send down rain upon them.

Wang Ch‘ung, who lived one century before Ching, declared that the cruel measure involved a maltreatment of the Yang which dwelt in the wu, for it was this universal power which caused the drought.

« Popular opinion pretends that boys are yang, and that on this account spiritual revelations come forth from the mouths of boys. Lads and wu contain Yang ; hence it is that at the great rain-sacrifices they set boys to dancing, and expose wu to the sun... When the sun is eclipsed, it is because the Yin vanquishes it ; on this account attacks are then made by man on things which are yin. So also, at the time of a drought, when the Yang predominates, the allies of the Yang are made to smart ; and therefore, whereas the wu are allies of the Yang, Hi of Lu in a time of drought resolved to burn the wu. The wu contain the breath of the Yang in themselves ; hence it is that so many people who live in a yang country (in the sunny south) become wu. The wu thus being affiliated with the spirit-world, they perform spiritual Wu-ism, and the latter has close affinity with the utterance of ditties by boys. The revelations of wu point out what is felicitous or ominous, so that they are fortune-tellers. Thus it was that the phantom of Shen-sheng manifested itself by means of a wu ; indeed, as the wu contain Yang, they can see apparitions of spirit.

That apparition of the crown-prince Shen-sheng has been related by us on page 433.

From these few Chinese lines we learn things which we must not disregard. Long ago, when Wang Ch‘ung lived, young men on account of their strong masculinity were considered to be peculiarly animated with universal yang fluid or shen ; and no doubt the male wu were for that reason preferably young. Therefore also boys stood side by side with the wu at rain-sacrifices, to exhaust and torture themselves with dancing and gestures under the scorching sun. Ghosts of the dead, such as that of Shen-sheng, might be consulted by the wu, and through their mouths reveal felicity and misfortune, and other spirits might do the same thing ; and in the historical books of all times we read, that the t’ung yao or ‘ditties of boys’, of which Wang Ch‘ung speaks, were devoutly listened to in the streets and received as divine revelations, even reported to the magistrates, studied and interpreted as oracles, and afterwards officially recorded in the dynastic annals. Thus the pen of Wang Ch‘ung gives us a plausible explanation of the presence of devil-expelling lads in the no processions of the Han dynasty ; indeed, just as much as the wu who performed their important part therein, those lads possessed exorcising capacity because of their animation by shen. On page 985 we have stated that they appear in such processions up to this day.

As soothsayers, the wu in ancient China no doubt held a place of great importance. This fact is evidenced by the episode of the year 580 before our era, which we have quoted from the Tso ch‘wen on page 678 : a ruler, threatened in his dream by a revengeful spectre, ordered a wu to be called, who proved able to tell him what he had dreamt, and to prophesy his fate therefrom with striking exactitude. Another narrative in the same Tso ch‘wen tells of Ch‘ing, king of Ch‘u from 407-402 B. C., to whom it was foretold by a wu that himself and two grandees would die a violent death ; and indeed, one of the latter put an end to his own life, and the other with the king were slain. The enormous capacity of the wu for prediction was also instanced by Chwang-tsze in the following lines :

« In Ching there was a wu, animated by a shen ; his (or her) name was Ki-hien. He knew everything about the death and birth of men, the continuation and cessation of their lives, their misfortunes and happiness, and whether they would die at a great age or prematurely. He assigned (propitious or unpropitious) years, months, decades, and days, as if he were himself the shen. Whenever people of Ching saw him they shivered and ran away. Lieh-tsze had no sooner seen him than his mind was inebriated.

The powerful influence of Wu-ism in ancient China is illustrated peculiarly well by the historian Ch‘u, writings of whom are bound up with Sze-ma Ts‘ien’s Historical Records.

« At the time of the ruler Wen of the kingdom of Wei (425-387 B. C.) Si-men Pao became prefect of Yeh. On his arrival there he convoked the elders, and asked them what things afflicted the people.

— The worst thing, they replied, is the marriage of the River-lord ; it is on account thereof that we are so poor.
He then asked them to explain the matter, and they answered as follows :

‘When the three elders in Yeh and their officers collect the yearly taxes from the people, they take away several millions of its money ; they then spend three hundred thousand coins on the marriage of the River-lord, and dividing the rest among themselves and the wu-chuh, take it to their homes. When the time for that ceremony is coming, the wu travel about to examine who among the daughters of the people is the nicest ; and this one they order to become the wife of the River-lord. They forthwith betroth her to him, wash her, have an attire made for her of new silk and satin, and let her fast in solitude, in a fasting-house made for her. They then build a brown tent at the river-side, place the girl therein, prepare a sacrificial ox with spirits and food, carry her round in procession for ten or more days, adorn her with white face-powder, make a nuptial bed, tell her to sit down upon it, and launch it into the stream. It will then float away for some dozen miles, and sink. Families with handsome daughters, fearing that the chief wu-chuh will fetch them for the River-lord, take to flight in great numbers to regions far off, taking the maids with them ; thus the city is more and more depopulated, and impoverishment has been the result of these practices for a long time.

Si Men-pao now said,

— Next time the River-lord marries, I want the three elders and the wu-chuh to be there with the old men, to launch the maid into the stream ; then also kindly come and tell me, that I myself may go there to escort her away.

All promised to do so, and when the hour had come, Si Men-pao went to join them at the river-side.

The three elders, the officers with their followers, the notables, and the old men of the wards all had flocked to the spot, with two or three thousand spectators from among the people. The wu was a spinster of seventy years ; ten female disciples, each dressed in a gown of silk, stood behind her.

— Call the wife of the River-lord hither, said Si Men-pao, that I may see whether she is handsome or ugly.

They forthwith fetched her out of the tent, and as she stood before him, he looked at her and, turning to the three elders, the wu-chuh and the old men, said,

— This maid is not nice enough ; chief wu-dame, be so kind as to go into the water for me and tell the River-god that we will try to get one of greater beauty, to send to him another day.
And on his orders the constables lifted up the chief wu-dame, and flung her into the stream. After a while he said,

— Why does she stop in there so long ? disciple, go and tell her to make haste,

and they cast a disciple into the river. Again there was a pause, after which he exclaimed,

— Wherefore does that disciple stay away so long ? despatch another one to hurry her on !

and they flung yet another disciple into the water. Still a third of them suffered the same fate, whereupon Si-Men Pao said,

— Those disciples of the wu-dame are merely women, unable to deliver any message ; the three elders must go into the water and deliver it ;

and they too were cast into the stream.

Now Si-men Pao stuck his writing-pencil into his hair, bent forward towards the river, and remained in this position for a good while, the old men, the officials, and the spectators standing horror-stricken. He now turned towards them ;

— How is it, said he, that the wu-dame and the three elders do not come back ? I will now despatch an officer and a notable to hurry them on.

But they all struck their heads against the ground again and again, so that their foreheads were almost broken and the blood gushed out on the ground ; their faces had an ashy colour of death.

— Yes, said Si-men Pao, let us wait here a few moments more ;

and when these had elapsed, he said,

— Officers, rise ! the River-god detains his visitors so long that evidently they are gone for ever ; let us go home now.

So great a fright thus came on the official class and the people in Yeh that from that moment nobody even ventured to speak of marriages of the River-lord.

These drastic measures of Si-men Pao did not deliver the country everywhere from marriages of gods with daughters of men by the agency of Wu-ism. As late as the year 57 of our era they were in vogue

« in the district of Siün-tsiu (in the present Nganhwui province), where two mountains, named T‘ang and Heu, were worshipped together by the people with sacrifices. The wu carried away boys and girls from among the people and made them the consorts (of those mountains), replacing them every year by others ; and thereafter nobody ventured to marry those persons. None of the prefects who had been in office there had ever ventured to forbid those practices ; but Sung Kiün issued a decree to the effect that thenceforth the women married by the mountains should exclusively be taken from the class of wu, and that the people should no longer be troubled with the matter. In this way that practice was stopped.

We have now had before us many instances of the very old fact which we noted on page 1188, that the wu were by no means always on the best of terms with the ruling class. Indeed, it is in the highest degree improbable that proud grandees, who deemed themselves and their power above gods and spirits, should see any reason to respect mere common people just because certain spirits occasionally descended into them. And yet these people continued to be employed under the Han dynasty by the ruling class for the celebration of official or non-official rites. Even emperors, according to precedent set by the great founder of that House, for this purpose employed wu of various sorts, who were distinguished by names of countries.

« Four years afterwards (201 B. C.), order having been established in the empire, the emperor decreed that sacrifices should be instituted in Ch‘ang-ngan (the imperial residence), with officers for invocation or conjuration and female wu. The wu of the Liang country were to sacrifice to Heaven and Earth, the celestial spirits of the soil, the celestial water, the gods within the rooms and the upper part of the hall, etc. The wu of Tsin sacrificed to the five emperors, to the king of the East (the sun), the gods of the clouds, the rulers of destiny, the earth-divinities of the wu, the (deceased) clansmen of the wu, to the persons who first cooked food, and the like. The wu of Ts‘in sacrificed to the chief among the local gods of the soil, to the protectors of the wu, to Tsuh and Lei, etc. The wu of King sacrificed downstairs before the hall to the ancestors of the wu, to the rulers of destiny, the bestowers of rice, and others. The wu for the nine divisions of the sphere sacrificed to these nine divisions. All those wu sacrificed within the Palace at fixed annual times. The wu of the Hwangho sacrificed to this river at Lin-tsin, and the wu of the southern mountains sacrificed to these mountains, as also to Ts‘in-chung, who is the emperor Rh-shi. Each of these sacrifices was celebrated in stipulated seasons and months.

Liang, Tsin, Ts‘in and King, whence the founder of the Han dynasty gathered his wu for the worship of all those deified parts of the Universe and human spirits, were four large regions with which he deemed the history of his family to be connected. The prevalence of Wu-ism in those four parts of the empire involves the probability that it existed in all its parts. Even the non-Chinese peoples who lived towards the west had it, for we have learned before in this work (pp. 830 sqq.) that in the year 91 B. C. Hunnish wu, probably belonging to foreign troops quartered in the capital, were cruelly employed under Kiang Ch‘ung in the discovery and persecution of sorcerers whom the emperor Wu suspected of attacks on his health and life ; those people were seers, who could discover hidden objects of sorcery, and even the sorcerers and sorceresses themselves when the latter were at work in the dark. Those bloodstained pages of China’s history have taught us at the same time that the Chinese wu themselves had an odious reputation for sorcery, and were openly accused of having in their employ evil spirits which they impelled by means of sacrifices to assail the emperor ; they have also taught us that those people were so readily believed to indulge in the breeding of ku, that wu ku or ‘wu-ist ku’ was the common term to denote this odious practice, and that a persecution of several years’ duration was undertaken for their extermination.

With these facts before us, it is certainly curious to read that the same emperor who ordered that chase had nevertheless himself employed the wu on behalf of his own interests, and paid fervent worship to the gods who descended into them.

« In the next year (118 B. C.) the Son of Heaven was ill in the Ting-hu palace, and his condition became very precarious ; there was no wu, no physician whom he did not call, and yet he did not recover. Then Yiu-shui Fah-ken said,

— There is in the province under Your Majesty’s immediate rule a wu, into whom, ever since a certain day on which she was taken ill, a spirit descends.

The emperor called her, and instituted sacrifices for that spirit in Kan-ts‘üen ; and when he felt ill, he sent some one thither to interrogate the (deceased) princess Shen. This princess said (by mouth of the wu ?),

— The Son of Heaven need not feel concerned about his illness ; but as soon as he feels a little better he must do his best to come to me at Kan-ts‘üen.

The emperor became better, rose, and went to Kan-ts‘üen ; and when he had recovered he proclaimed a general amnesty, and banqueted the princess Shen in the temple of Longevity.
The being which the princess Shen in this temple of Longevity especially esteemed, was T‘ai-yih ; her assistant deities were Ta-kin, the rulers of destiny, and others, who all accompanied her. They could not be seen, yet their words could be understood, for they spoke like human beings. Sometimes they was absent, and sometimes present, and when they came they soughed like the wind, and settled behind the curtains of the tabernacle. Sometimes they spoke in the daytime, but as a rule they did so in the night. The Son of Heaven did not enter but after purification from evil influences. The wu was the directress there, and therefore was provided with food and drink ; and she was the medium through whom the princess spoke.

Moreover the emperor erected a temple to the north of that of Longevity. There he put up long plumes and banners, and set out sacrificial implements for the worship of the princess, and whatever she said he ordered to be written down. Her orders were called written law, but merely told things which even ordinary people knew, and they contained nothing extraordinary ; nevertheless the Son of Heaven extended an exclusive preference to them. They were kept secret, and the world at that time knew nothing of them.

There interesting lines picture to us the wu not only in the garb of sacrificing priests or priestesses, and as possessed mediums by whom the gods gave forth their oracular revelations, but also as professors of the healing art. It is quite a matter of course that they should be physicians, since they were expellers of demons, and illness was ascribed in the main to demoniacal possession. It is then not at all strange that the character [], which denotes the medical art, is to this day so often written [], with the substitution of the radical [] wu for the radical []. The medical position of the wu is also evidenced by the use of the binomium [][] wu-i in all ages, to denote the faculty or its practitioners. This binominal term is even classical, for it is stated in the Lun yü that Confucius said,

— The people of the south have this saying, ‘of a man without constancy nobody can make a wu-i’. This is well said.

Evidently Mencius was thinking of the medical character of the wu when he spoke of them as protectors or prolongers of lives in this passage :

« Are arrow-makers less humane than the makers of armour ? and yet the only fear of an arrow-maker is lest men should not be hurt, while it is the armour-smith’s only fear lest men should be hurt. So it is respectively with wu and coffin-makers.

The Shan-hai king refers to the wu as physicians in two passages, which may be very old.

« On the east of Khai-ming are the six wu P‘eng, Ti, Yang, Li, Fan, and Siang, who carry the corpse of I-yü and have death-banishing medicinal herbs in their hands to drive him away. I-yü had the shape of a snake with a human face, and was killed by a minister of Rh-fu. Within the great desert is a mountain, called the Jasper Gate of Fung-tsü, behind which the sun and the moon set. Ten wu, named Hien, Tsih, Fen, P‘eng, Ku, Chen, Li, Ti, Sié, and Lo, go up and down an animated mountain there, on account of the hundreds of medicinal herbs which grow there.

Nobody in China knows what all these names mean or express, and authors abstain from interpreting them. Hien, the first of those wu, is also mentioned in the Shan-hai king in this passage, no less obscure :

« The kingdom of the wu Hien lies north of Nü-ch‘eu. In his right hand he holds a blue snake, and in his left a red one, and he lives on the Teng-pao mountain, on which all the wu move up and down.

Some authors conjecture that we have to do here not with a wu bearing the name of Hien, but with a realm called Wu-hien, the people of which possessed the curious habit of carrying such snakes.

This Hien, who was either a wu, or simply a bearer of the name Wu-hien, has occupied the attention of scholars because he is mentioned in the Shu king. We read in this Classic, that

« in T‘ai-meu’s time (17th century B. C.) there was Wu-hien who regulated the royal household, and in Tsu-yih’s time (16thcent. B. C.) there was a man like Wu-hien.

Those two names may, of course, as some commentators duly state, be names of offices ; but others maintain that they virtually denoted priests, seeing that it is stated in the Bamboo Annals that

« in the eleventh year of his reign T‘ai-meu directed Wu-hien to pray to hills and streams.

The riddle must be left in its obscurity. Tales and legends have been framed upon those proper names or dignities. The name Wu-hien has also been borne by some valleys and mountains to which attached the fame of having produced or harboured Wu-ist priests and priestesses of significance ; but these things do not inspire much interest. We may, however, take notice of the fact that the term [][] not seldom appears since the Han dynasty as denoting wu of a superior kind or even of ordinary quality, as also that many wu to this day regard the mysterious Wu-hien of antiquity as the patriarch or patron-divinity of their profession, for whom they occasionally make images, and whom they worship with sacrifices.

The historical writings relating to the reign of the famous emperor Wu, rich in details about Wu-ism, confirm also the statement of Wang Ch‘ung that Wu-ism must have flourished particularly in the southern regions, for they tell us, that this monarch specially engaged quite a number from there for the celebration of their religious rites on his own behalf.

« In that time (109 B. C.) the two Yueh states had been destroyed. A man from there, named Yung-chi, said, The people of Yueh believe in kwei, and in their sacrificial services they see them ; these beings are often employed by them with useful results. The king of eastern Ngeu honoured the kwei and lived for one hundred and sixty years ; his descendants neglected their worship, and came to decay and ruin. On this the emperor ordered that the wu of Yueh should institute invocations and sacrifices which were in vogue in Yueh, and lay out a terrace for the purpose, without an altar, and that they should also sacrifice to the celestial deities, the supreme Emperor, and hundreds of kwei, and practise divination by means of cocks.

« The emperor placed his confidence in those wu, and thus the sacrifices of Yueh with the divinations by means of cocks commenced.

We have now had before us sufficient evidence to perceive, that in the second and first centuries before our era the Wu-ist priesthood actually was the priesthood proper of China, even for the highest man in the world under heaven. It was then evidently not yet dethroned by a Confucian state-religion, which in those ages was just being built up from elements mentioned in the Classics, and which was destined to become to this day the only official and orthodox religion, which excommunicates Wu-ist office from its pale. The strength of the position of Wu-ism in that period must appear quite natural to us if we merely admit that it was the pristine priesthood of China, spontaneously produced by the Animistic Religion, which, having been probably the religion proper of its people from the first days of its existence, still bore supreme sway in the age of Han.

If emperors of the Han dynasty were so anxious to employ the Wu-ist priesthood, we cannot be surprised to read that the princes were no less addicted to its services for sorcerous and other designs. Wu had five sons, the fourth of whom was Sü, feudal king of Kwang-ling ; the third had succeeded him in 86 B. C. and is known in history by his posthumous name Chao.

« Under the reign of the emperor Chao, Sü, considering that this monarch was young and childless, aspired to the crown himself ; and as in that Ch‘u region Wu-ist and demonistic practices were in vogue, he fetched a female wu, Li Nü-sü by name, and ordered her to bring down a shen and make incantations. Nü-sü burst into tears as she said,

— The emperor Hiao Wu descends into me ;

and while all the bystanders prostrated themselves she exclaimed,

— It is my strict order that Sü shall become the Son of Heaven.

Many a time Sü gave money to Nü-sü and sent her to the Wu-shan (or hill of the wu) to pray, and — the emperor died (74 B. C.). Sü then said,

— How good a wu this Nü-sü is ;

he slaughtered an ox, to present it as a thank-offering with prayers.

But the king of Ch‘ang-yih (Wu’s fifth son) was called to the throne ; therefore Sü ordered the wu again to use her incantations against this emperor, who after that was deposed. Sü’s confidence in Nü-sü and the other wu thus increased again, and he frequently gave her money and presents ; nevertheless the emperor Süen mounted the throne.

— Why is the grandson of the heir-apparent (see page 842) placed on the throne instead of I ?

he exclaimed, and ordered Nü-sü again to make her incantations in the same way....

Afterwards his son Pao, under-vassal in Nan-li, was found guilty of murder, and divested of his dignity. He returned to Kwang-ling, and there committed incest with Tso-siu, a consort of his father’s. This was discovered ; they were imprisoned, and executed in public. The minister Shing-chi now proposed to the emperor to sequestrate the king’s pasture-grounds on the banks of the Shé, in order to distribute them among the poor ; and the emperor approved of this proposal. Now Sü told the wu again to make her incantations as before. Then the red leaves on some ten branches of a jujube tree in his palace-pack turned as white as silk ; and in the pond the water became red and the fish died ; and rats hopped in full daylight in erect attitude in the queen’s courtyard.

— This strange behaviour of that tree, that water, those fish and those rats is most alarming, said Sü to Ki Nan-teng,

and in fact only a few months elapsed before the incantations were betrayed. Officers arrived to examine the matter, and Sü, seized with fear, imposed silence on the wu and more than twenty of his palace officials by poisoning them. The high ministers proposed that he should be put to death, and the emperor delegated a court-judge in chief with a minister for the State Ceremonial to examine him. Sü avowed his guilt, declared that he had deserved more than death, everything being true, and requested that, as those matters had taken place so long ago, he might be allowed to go home, in order to recall them to his memory. This request was readily granted.

After this interview with the delegates he went home, set out spirits in the Hien-yang hall, called his eldest son Pa and his daughters-in-lave Tung Tsze and Hu Sheng, and passed the night with them drinking. At his command his favourite concubine Kwoh Chao-kiün, his domestic named Chao Tso-kiün and others strummed the psaltery, chanted and danced, and he himself chimed in with a song, which moved to tears all those who were present. They drank wine till the crowing of the cocks ; then he said to his eldest son Pa,

— His Majesty has bestowed favours upon me which I have returned with the greatest ingratitude ; therefore I deserve that after my death my remains should lie exposed to the open air ; but I shall be happy if they are just buried with little care.

He then strangled himself with his seal-ribbons. The concubine Kwoh Chao-kiün and another one committed suicide. The Son of Heaven by way of favour spared his (eight) sons, but they were all degraded to the rank of commoners.

Certainly we are here entitled to assume, that the domination which a wu exercised over the mind of that son of an emperor, rested in the main on his firm belief in her power to call down into herself even the spirit of his late mighty imperial father, whose words, according to the old classical law of filial submission, were to be obeyed by him as sacred commands. We may even draw a general conclusion from the episode, and say that the power of the Wu-ist priesthood to have intercourse with ancestors, even with the most exalted among them, and to reveal their will, was the great source of the influence of that priesthood among every class upon human conduct of every kind. Peculiarly instructive on this head is also the following episode in the history of the same House of Han. In the year 25 of our era, when the troubles resulting from the usurpation of the throne by Wang Mang were drawing to a close, a military adventurer, Fan Ch‘ung by name, had an enormous army in the field, known as that of the Red Eyebrows, as they were wont to dye their eyebrows blood-colour.

« There always was in that army a wu from Ts‘i, who with drumming and dancing sacrificed to King, feudal prince of Ch‘ing-yang (a deceased scion of the House of Han), in order to obtain his blessing and help. This wu said in her ecstasy,

— Prince King bursts into anger, and says that we must appoint a district prefect (a covert term for emperor) ; wherefore else have we raised the standard of rebellion ?

Some who railed at the wu were forthwith smitten with disease, so that she inspired terror in the army... The wu then insisted with greater emphasis, and when the army had invaded Ching, and Fan Ch‘ung consulted her, she said,

— As we are now drawing near Chang-ngan (the capital), and the spirit manifests its will so emphatically, we must look about for a member of the Liu family (i. e. of the House of Han), unanimously acknowledge him, and place him upon the throne.

And in the sixth month they raised Liu P‘en-tsze (a descendant of the emperor King) to the imperial dignity.

Ch‘ang-ngan was then taken by these insurgents, sacked and destroyed ; but Liu P‘en-tsze submitted in the next year to another scion of the House of Han, who founded the Later Han dynasty.

As the Wu-ist priesthood consisted largely, probably even principally, of women, we cannot wonder that its influence was prevalent to a great extent among the female sex. A remarkable testimony to this fact was given in the first half of the second century of our era by Wang Fu, who considered it his duty to disparage this influence in the following reproachful terms :

« The Odes satirized a woman who did not twist her hemp, but sauntered in the market ; yet even now there are so many who do not occupy themselves with the dressing of food at home, neither rear any silk-worms, nor weave, but above everything learn the profession of the wu-chuh. Dancing to the sound of drums, they employ spirits and with this practice cheat the people and mislead its married and unmarried women, to the effect that the weak and the sick, when in distress and sorrow, altogether fear them. They then advise them to flee till felicitous times have come, and to abandon their good houses, and to lodge in ravines or by the roadside, where they are wetted from above, and soaked from below ; there wind and cold hurt them ; there rogues prey upon them, thieves and robbers strike them — the numbers of those on whom such misfortunes and other consequences of their devilish work are heaped to such an extent as to cause the worst thing (viz. death), has reached the utmost limit. There are also people who reject medical help and drugs, but go and employ the spirits (of the wu), thus incurring death without even guessing that they were victims of the imposture of the wu ; on the contrary they regret that they have too late begun to employ the latter. We here have to do with the worst kind of deception of the people.

Wu-ist imposture is denoted in these lines by the character [], composed of [] ‘words’, and [] wu. To this day that character signifies imposture in general. It is even classical, as it occurs in the Yih king, the Lun yü, the Li ki, and the writings of Mencius, as also in the Shu king, in a piece professedly dating from the year 1765 B. C.. May we consider its antiquity and composition as another proof of the contempt which men of letters have cherished for Wu-ism since the remotest times ?

We learn from that passage from Wang Fu’s book, that the Wu-ist practices were exercised by any woman, married or unmarried, who felt able to evoke and employ spirits, and that they were diligently studied within the circle of home-life. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that this state of affairs dates from the Han epoch, in which, Wang Fu lived ; it may have prevailed as long as Wu-ism itself. It prevails at the present day, as we shall have an opportunity of seeing in Chapter VI.

There is no reason to doubt that the shen or kwei, which the Wu-ist priesthood employed for its animistic practices, were for the most part ghosts of the dead. Wang Ch‘ung affirms this in the following lines from his critical pen :

« Among men the dead speak through living persons whom they throw into a trance, and the wu, thrumming their black chords, call down souls of the dead, which then speak through the mouths of the wu. But whatever these people say is always falsehood. If we allow that it is no falsehood, but reflections of the vital spirits of (dead) beings, then it may be objected that such a vital spirit cannot speak, and therefore cannot have any intelligence, since intelligence and speech both require breath. Anterior to a man’s death his intellect and vital spirit are in good order, but as soon as he falls ill his intellect is dimmed and his vital spirit is disorganized ; — death is the last stage of illness ; if they are dimmed and disorganized even during an illness, which is only a small beginning of death, how much more must they be so when the last stage is reached ! A patient whose life-spirit is in disorder has no longer any intelligence ; how will it be when that spirit is dissolved (by death).

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le jeudi 6 décembre 2007 19:55
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

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