Magic: Magic in East Asia

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Magic and mantic arts are endemic in Chinese life and prominent in the religions of China, both in popular religion and in Buddhism and Daoism. The same is true of Korea and Japan, where indigenous beliefs have been overlaid by the cultural influence of China. The magical practices of China found ready acceptance in Korea and Japan. Although many of the practices traveled on their own, religionchiefly Buddhism, which had already absorbed elements of Chinese popular beliefs and of Daoismwas an important vehicle for the transfer of Chinese magic. The result was an amalgam of magical lore in East Asia, with Chinese knowledge often providing a frame to which specifically Korean or Japanese practices and permutations were affixed.


In general, one should distinguish between magic, which provides a means to accomplish specific ends (through spells, gestures, amulets, talismans, and the like), and various occult sciences (such as yarrow-stalk divination with the Book of Changes, astrology, hemerology, geomancy, and alchemy), even though this distinction was not strongly maintained in the traditional Chinese schema of magic and the occult. There was in fact a fluid boundary between magic (where there was no cause for rationalization) and occult sciences, which were elaborated in terms of a theory of symbolic correspondence based on the concepts of yin-yang dualism and of Five Actions (wuxing: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). Not only was this theory the product of prior conceptions of the magical power of fire, water, and other primary forces in nature (e.g., wind), but even after its full elaboration the symbolic correspondences did not negate the validity of magical practices. Not infrequently, occult theory supplied a modus operandi for magic and religious worship. For example, an astrological instrument designed to calculate the position of the Big Dipper (Chinese archaeology has recently brought to light a second-century bce specimen of the device) was used by the usurper Wang Mang to direct the power of the Dipper against his enemies in 23 ce. From the beginning, this astrological instrument served as one means for conjuring the god of the Dipper and polestar (talismanic replicas of the constellation cast in metal were also used). The same instrument was influential in Daoist star magic, and it was the model for an astrological maala in the esoteric Buddhism of the Tang period (618907 ce). Similarly, the hemerological symbols of the calendrical cycle were not simply neutral signs marking the passage of time; they constituted a succession of spirits whose magical powers could be summoned through spells and talismans.

The Warring States (403221 bce), Qin (221206 bce), and Han (206 bce220 ce) periods were the formative age for Chinese magic. Earlier, magic was employed in dealings with the spirits and was important in the royal ancestral religion of the Shang and early Zhou (c. sixteentheighth centuries bce). But the proliferation of magical arts, and an increasing differentiation between magic as employed in archaic religion and magic for its own sake, began during the Warring States and continued to develop in Qin-Han times. The history of Chinese magic in later centuries followed from the developments of this period. It was during the same period that the theory of symbolic correspondence was formulated, and developments in occult sciences paralleled significantly those in magic.

Before the Warring States the principal practitioners of magic were the wu, a class of female (and in lesser numbers, male) shamans who mediated between the human and spirit worlds. Their methods included trances in which spirits might descend into their bodies or in which the shaman might journey into the spirit world, invocations and maledictions, and the utilization of magical materials to either attract or repel the spirits. Their functions overlapped those of incantators (chu ) and other ritual officiants; however, the latter did not engage in ecstatic trances. The Warring States and Qin-Han periods witnessed the decline in prestige of these shamans, who came to be increasingly associated with witchcraft; the rise of occult specialists (fangshi, literally "masters of recipes"), whose skills extended to magical operations; and the formation of a Daoist clergy, who adapted magic to fill the needs of the newly emergent religion (organized Daoist religious communities made their first appearance in the second century ce). The general populace also practiced forms of superstitious magic in the course of daily life.

Historical records of Han rulers who favored shamans and masters of recipes provide an important source of information about ancient Chinese magic. Liu Che (posthumously titled Wu Di; r. 14087 bce), for example, established cults for shamans and made his court a gathering place for masters of recipes who claimed to possess magical powers and the secrets of immortality. One master of recipes, Li Shaoweng, was a psychopomp who gained Liu Che's favor by conjuring the ghost of the ruler's recently deceased concubine; he was executed after he was exposed for fabricating portents. Near the end of Liu Che's reign the court was paralyzed by an outbreak of a type of shamanic witchcraft known as gu. The word gu referred to a demonic affliction that attacked its victim as the result of witchcraft. According to some accounts, gu was a poison produced by sealing certain creatures in a vessel until only one remained, which became the gu. The tradition that the gu is a magical potion cultivated by women and passed down through generations is still alive today. Those who ingested the gu were believed to die and become the demon-slaves of the gu and its keeper. In two of the witchcraft incidents at Liu Che's court the gu agent was discovered to be a wooden effigy buried in the ground, where it was intended to bring harm to the ruler. There were other cases of witchcraft during the Han period in which shamans were hired to work black magic.

Accusations of charlatanism against masters of recipes and fear of shamanic witchcraft were widespread during the Han period. A negative perception of magical practices crystallized around the government's concern for its own political and spiritual authority. All magic and occultism were potentially subversive. They incited social unrest and infringed upon the holiness of the monarch, whose position as the Son of Heaven made him the only legitimate authority to oversee dealings with the spirit world. Popular religious cults not under the direct control of the government were branded "abusive worship" (yinsi ), and ordinary citizens could be executed if caught illicitly performing magic or uttering imprecations. Such practices were identified as the "way of the left" (dso-dao ). The word left did not connote the sinister aspects Western cultures associate with the left. Rather, in cosmo-ritual symbolism the left was the ruler's position of honor, and those who practiced the way of the left were abusing powers belonging properly to the ruler.

The Daoist sects that arose in the second century ce inveighed against those who placed their faith in shamans, worshiped demons, and believed the occultists' shams. These practices were an offense to the true deities of the Dao. Daoist liturgy incorporated many elements of popular worship, however, and the clergy engaged in many of the magical practices that they condemned in others. Indeed, in the eyes of the Han government the Daoist sects were rebel organizations whose religion represented simply another outbreak of "abusive worship." For the Daoist sects the fundamental issue was heterodoxythe use of magic not sanctioned by religious authority. But in the continual process of syncretization that occurred over the centuries as Daoism interacted with popular religion and with Buddhism, the standard of orthodoxy fluctuated.

The Buddhist attitude toward magic was similar. Illicit magical practices fell under the category of the "arts of Mara" (moshu ), Mara being the tempter and chief of malevolent demons. Moshu parallels other Chinese terms such as "shamanic arts" (wushu ) and "way of the left" in referring to the forms of magic prohibited by the orthodox church (and the government). However, as early as the fifth century ce there was a tradition of Buddhist spell-casting in China rivaling the Daoist practices. Buddhist magic was most prominent in the esoteric practices of Tantrism. The Tantric literature contained magical formulas to be used to gain prosperity or harm adversaries; Tantric mantra s, mudrā s, and maala s were utilized as instruments for working magic. Tantric magic incorporated elements of native Chinese magic and occultism, while at the same time enriching Daoist and popular practices.

Most existing knowledge of actual magical procedures in premodern times comes from Daoist and Buddhist writing, which naturally reflect the practices of Daoism and Buddhism. Recently, Chinese archaeologists have discovered manuscripts from the third and second centuries bce that describe magic as it was practiced in the ancient popular religion and occult tradition. Two of the manuscripts are almanacs that are strikingly similar to Chinese almanacs in use today and attest to a continuity in magic and occult practice. The Chinese almanacs combine information on portents to watch for during the year with material on spells, talismans, and other magical devices.

Many of the common forms of magic described in premodern sources are still practiced. There are spells to summon deities and to drive off demons (versions of popular, Daoist, and Buddhist spells are preserved). Spitting and spouting water over which a spell has first been uttered is another common device (sometimes Daoist or Buddhist priests will spout ignited alcohol). Substances believed to have magical properties are often identified in traditional materia medica. Amber, for example, wards off nightmare demons and is used in making headrests. Amulets to be hung in the open or worn on the body exist in many forms. Peachwood amulets are perhaps the most ancient. Talismans (fu ) made from strips of silk and inscribed with undecipherable writing have been discovered in a second century bce tomb. A medical manuscript discovered in the same tomb includes a recipe for curing gu witchcraft by burning a talisman, scattering its ashes over sheep broth, and bathing the victim with the brew. Water over which the ashes of talismans have been scattered has been used in Daoism to cure sickness since the time of the earliest Daoist sects. Daoism talismans inscribed with symbols and magic writing have many uses. The deities are summoned with talismans, which may be used in conjunction with spells. And, in addition to using the ashes, Daoists may wear talismans as phylacteries or swallow them in order for them to take effect. Love magic is represented in a second century bce manuscript that provides recipes for two philters with which a person can "obtain the object of desire." Another example in the same manuscript is a recipe that instructs a person engaged in a lawsuit to write the opponent's name on a slip and insert it in a shoe, magically trampling the opponent.

Korea and Japan

In Korea, cults formed around female shamans were a source of native Korean magic. This popular religion is known as Mu-sok ("shamanic customs"). Contacts between Korea and China began well before the Tang, but increased markedly during that period. Knowledge of Chinese magic and occultism was part of the general flow of Chinese culture into Korea. And the initial impact of Chinese religionbefore, for example, there was a more sophisticated understanding of Buddhist theologywas an admiration for its great magical power as compared with native practices. Chinese political institutions and ethics were also influential in the formation of the early Korean kingdoms. In general, the antagonism between government and practitioners of magic, and between Buddhism and popular religion, followed along lines similar to the situation in China.

In the native religion of Japan, which came to be known as Shintō ("way of the spirits") after Buddhism took hold, there were two categories of religious personnel. The miko (female shaman) was a medium into whose body a spirit might descend, sharing essential characteristics with shamans throughout East Asia. The kannushi (spirit controller) was more in the nature of a priest who oversaw the worship of the spirits. As with the shamans in China, the miko were increasingly associated with witchcraft, whereas the kannushi came to function as officiants in the state cult. Esoteric tantric Buddhism had a strong influence in Japan, leading to a syncretism of Shintō and Chinese-Buddhist magic. Buddhist ascetics called hijiri (sage) and yamabushi (mountain recluse) traced their origins to the eighth century ce and were renowned for their magical powers. As in Korea, in Japan other forms of Chinese magic and occultism were absorbed into the culture.


Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow. London, 1975. A well-documented and groundbreaking study of shamanistic traditions in Japan, both from a historical and contemporary perspective.

Chang Chu-keun. "Mu-sok: The Shaman Culture of Korea." In Folk Culture in Korea, edited by Chun Shin-yong, pp. 5988. Seoul, 1982. A more popular account of Korean shamanism.

Groot, J. J. M. de. The Religious System of China (18921910). 6 vols. Reprint, Taipei, 1967. A comprehensive description of religion in China, valuable for its copious translations of primary sources.

Haguenauer, Charles M. "Sorciers et sorcières de Corée." Bulletin de la Maison Franco-Japonaise (Tokyo) 2 (1929): 4765. A scholarly examination of shamanism and magic in Korea.

Ngo Van Xuyet. Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne. Paris, 1976. An excellent study of magic and occultism in the formative Qin-Han period, including a translation of the chapter of biographies of occult specialists in the Hou Han shu (Documents of the Later Han).

Sieffert, René. "Le monde du sorcier au Japon." In Le monde du sorcier, "Sources orientales," vol. 7, pp. 355389. Paris, 1966. An excellent survey of the practice of magic in Japan, with a detailed discussion of magic in Buddhism and Shintō.

Donald Harper (1987)