Shamans and Their Changing Role in the Origin of Chinese Civilization

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition) 

No.6, 2020


Shamans and Their Changing Role in the Origin of Chinese Civilization



Li Yujie


With the growing complexity of prehistoric Chinese society, it was mainly male shamans who presided over religious sacrifices. They were not only clan and tribal leaders who controlled divine and military power, but also the defenders of settlement order and primitive morality and masters of knowledge and culture. In the growing complexity of prehistoric society, the aristocratic groups led by shamans gradually took over and controlled public resources using the forces of theocracy and kingly authority, thus promoting the transformation from the early hierarchical society to the early state. With Zhuan Xu’s reform of religion, primitive religion gradually evolved into a hierarchical and familial ritual system within which each clan conducted its own sacrificial ceremonies. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, specialist groups of shamans and augurs were gradually differentiated, with the appearance of shamans, augurs, soothsayers and historians. Female shamans as specialist occupation appeared at this time, and they were sacrificed as a bribe to the gods. During the Western Zhou, the traditional function of shamans in the “unity of shaman and king” and the “unity of shaman and government” were gradually integrated into the state sacrifice and court ritual and musical systems, while folk shamans, divination and medicine continued in rural society and became the carriers of ancient folk religion.