Local Belief Systems


Earthgod shrine, Yunnan, China

Earthgod shrine with incense offerings, Yunnan, China (Yi ethnic group)

One of the most pervasive beliefs still common in many parts of East Asia is what anthropologists call “animism,” or the belief in nature spirits. In the animist view, many objects and creatures such as unusual rocks, waterfalls, heavenly bodies, old trees, and sometimes animals are thought to be the abode of spirits. In some cases, spirits may even inhabit dwellings or be incarnate in special people. The best-known of these traditions are the Shinto beliefs of Japan that predate yet still co-exist with Buddhist traditions that arrived by the sixth century AD from the Asian mainland. Animistic beliefs and shamanism (discussed below), have ancient roots and many diverse expressions all over the globe. In many parts of East Asia today, especially in rural areas, close observers may find offerings of incense or wine left at small altars in front of ancient trees, or shrines built on mountainsides to house the local mountain spirit. Although some modern governments in the region have at times suppressed expressions of animism and shamanism as forms of “superstition,” many people in East Asia continue to acknowledge the beliefs in daily life, often alongside or integrated with, other belief systems.

secrate tree

Large trees, such as this one from a village in South Korea, are thought to be the abode of spirits. Offerings of wine and incense are often left on small altars to these local dieties.

Example 1: Animistic Beliefs of the Miao in China

Miao girls holding a sister-rice festival

Teen-age girls of the Miao ethnic group in Guizhou province, China hold a "sister's rice" festival promoting harmony and bonding. Female characters are featured in many Miao creation myths.

The Miao ethnic group numbers over six million people, most of whom live in mountainous areas. Rice is the most important crop, and many fields are located along river bottoms or on steep hillsides. In some areas bamboo windmills are used to irrigate the hillside fields. One of the ancient beliefs of the Miao living in Southeast Guizhou province, China concerns a female creator figure known as Butterfly Mother (Mai Bang). According to the myth, a lovely butterfly was flying along a river, when the foamy waves rose up and impregnated her. Finding refuge in a hollow in an ancient sweet gum tree, she laid twelve eggs. After many eons, the eggs hatched, and out popped the ancestors of tigers, dragons, humans, and many other things. Such myths are part of the oral tradition of the Miao people. During festivals, weddings, and house-raisings (when new houses are built) pairs of male and female singers will sing the myths in a sort of song competition, each pair singing a few lines and asking a question about what comes next to the opposing pair. In this way the ancient stories are recounted for new generations.

The ances for god, Butterfly Mother

Some myths of the Miao people tell the story of Butterfly mothere, a diety who played a major role in the creation of humans.

This passage from the epics tells how Butterfly Mother found a mate while flying along a river.  Notice how the actions of people are reflected in the behavior of the butterfly and other things in nature, including the wave foam on the river.  As a result of her “marriage” the butterfly produced the twelve eggs that held dragons, tigers, and the early ancestors of humans. Such epics are sung as a kind of conversation between two pairs of singers (pair A and pair B).

Some people are born at favorable times,
and can easily find a mate;
but Butterfly was born at an unlucky time,
so it was hard for her to find one.
With whom could she court?
She courted with Wave Foam;
they played beside a clear water pool;
in a muddy pool, fish and shrimp frolicked.

Butterfly and Wave Foam courted,
and later became a couple.
For how many years was Butterfly married?
She was married for twelve years,
and laid the Twelve Eggs.


Dr. Bender will publish a complete translation of the Butterfly Mother epics in Autumn, 2006.

Example 2: Animistic Beliefs of the Ainu in Japan

Ainu people conducting a bear worship ritural, Hokkaido, Japwan

Ainu people conducting a bear worshipping ritual, Hokkaido, Japan

The Ainu people are the indigenous people of Japan and until recently led a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Most Ainu today live on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Traditional Ainu beliefs are strongly animistic. Spirits are thought to reside in all living things, as well as in rocks, mountains, waterfalls, and other "inanimate" phenomena of the natural world. Certain powerful spirits are regarded as divinities called kamui (similar to the kami in Japanese Shinto beliefs, but with some differences). One important idea is the inter-relationship between the world of the spirits and the world of humans. Animals are thought to be kamui in disguise. They come to the human world in animal form (hayokpe) and are considered a gift of meat and hides. Hunters kill animals with this understanding in mind. Thus, when a deer or bear is killed, feasts are held to celebrate the gifts. A special seat is left vacant for the spirit to sit in and songs and dances are sung in its honor. Specially trimmed sticks (called inau) are also presented to the spirits as gifts to take back to the spirit world. It is hoped that the kamui divinities will make a good report and encourage other spirits to bring more meat and hides to the humans. Thus, a balance between humans and spirits of the natural world was maintained for centuries before natural resources began to be over-harvested in the late 19th century as a result of population inflow and the needs of an industrializing country. (Various aspects of Ainu song, dance, and culture are introduced in Module 1 and Module 7, Performance in East Asia.)

Example 3: Animistic Beliefs in Korea

A mask representing the smallbox spirit

A mask representing the smallbox spirit. Such masks were used in dramas held in villages to insure protection from harmful forces. (South Korea)

Many cultures in East Asia recognize the existence of spirits that live within the house. In the rural areas of South Korea, belief in house spirits (kashin) has a long tradition that is still followed in many places. When a traditional-style house is built, a special ceremony is held when the main roof beam is put in place. A piece of cloth is wrapped around the center of the beam, sometimes containing images of "Mr and Mrs. Roof Beam Spirit." These spirits contribute to the welfare and harmony of the household.

Other spirits populate the home as well. These include the courtyard spirit, the doorway spirit, the pickled vegetable crock spirits, the kitchen spirit, the well spirit, and even a toilet spirit (said to be quite ugly). Tiny pictures or images, including constellations of stars associated with a particular spirit, are sometimes placed near the objects where the spirits reside. In some homes incense is regularly burned to gain favor of the spirits.

A young woman adds a stone to a rock pile for good luck in South Korea

In South Korea, a young woman adds a stone to a rock pile for good luck.

In some mountain areas, small piles of stones can be seen near temples, ancient trees, waterfalls and other sacred places. A visitor may add a stone to a pile or tie a piece of colored cloth to a tree branch as an offering to the local spirit, such as the Mountain God. Also, wooden totem poles, representing the General of the Sky and the General of the Earth (male and female respectively) were carved and placed at the village gate, insuring protection from evil forces.

Korean totem poles

Carved wooden totem poles representing the General of the Sky (left) and the General of the Earth (right).


A male shaman, South Korea

A shaman (mudang) conducting a ritual (kut) in honor of the mountain god, near Seoul, South Korea

Shamanism shares many features with animism and in some cases it would be difficult to attempt to clearly distinguish between the two. The word "shaman" is derived from the Manchu (Manju) language of northeast China. The term literally means "one who knows" and refers to a shaman's knowledge of the unseen supernatural world. The basic function of shamans is to directly communicate between the present world of humans and the unseen world of the spirits. Shamans often use percussion instruments such as drums or brass gongs to enter a trance state. Though practices vary widely, shamans are found in many cultures worldwide. An alternative term for shamans and similar traditional practitioners is "ritual specialists."

A female shaman, South Korea

Another shaman (mudang) conducting a ritual (kut) in rural South Korea

A Shaman may invite a spirit into his/her body and act as its mouthpiece, communicating the spirit's advice to human clients. In other cases shamans may enter trances in order to journey to spirit worlds in search of a client's deceased relatives or escort the souls of the dead to the afterworld. In many cases a shaman is recruited to the profession by a dream or a sickness that can only be cured by becoming a shaman. In their sťances, shamans draw on deep psychological symbolism in their costumes and movements, employing repetitive rhythms, special dance movements, and dramatic actions to create situations that powerfully focus the audience on the proceedings. Some costumes of shamans in North Asia have metal deer antlers, heavy brass mirrors, brass bells, colorful streamers, and bird effigies that stress relations with animal and bird sprits and the powers of flight. Among the Manchu, lengthy shaman rituals involving the entire clan were once held in times of natural disasters.

Oroqen shamans

Two female shamans of the Oroqen ethnic group from northeast China prepare for a ritual. Their costumes are similar to those of Manchu shamans. Note the brass mirror on the waist of the shaman on the far left. The white wigwam represents tents once made of birchbark by this formerly forest-dwelling people.

The traditional worldview of the shaman divides the cosmos into three planes: the upper spirit world, the human realm of earth, and the lower spirit realms. In shamanist cultures, practitioners find their way through life with the aid of various spirits that may be worshipped daily or at special times. While male shamans are still found in a few places in northeast China, many shamans (mudang) practice in South Korea, the majority of whom are women. Shamanism is quite popular in South Korea today, though engaging a shaman and holding an elaborate ceremony (called a kut--pronounced like "coot" ) can be very expensive.

A Yi(Nuosu) Shaman-priest from Sichuan province of China, holding a purification ceremony

Yi (Nuosu) shaman-priest (bimo) from Sichuan province of China, holding a purification ceremony for guests entering a village. Such priests do not go into trances, like shamans do.

In recent years a small revival of shamanism has taken place in northeast China and Inner Mongolia after decades of government suppression. Forms of ritual activity that can be considered shamanism are also found throughout other parts of China, though these practices differ in many respects from northern styles. One example is the su-nyi and bimo, shamans and shaman-priests among the Yi people of Southern Sichuan Province of China. Many Daoist priests in Taiwan and other Chinese areas function in ways similar to shamans, especially in the conducting of séances and funeral rites. Traces of shamanism are still found in some rural Japanese communities today, where shamans were once part of Shinto practices.

Ancestor Reverence

Korean children greet their grandparents on the 1st day of the new year

Korean children greet their grandparents on the first day of the new year

Attending on ancestor's grave in rural southern China

Attending on ancestor's grave in rural southern China

Ancestor reverencing, sometimes called “ancestor worship,” is a common aspect of worldview in East Asia and has implicitly survived even in North Korea where religious expression is still strongly suppressed. Linked in many ways with the ethics of Confucianism, the practice is based on the idea that living people are a link between the realm of those yet born and the realm of those who once lived on earth, and are now part of the spirit world. The specific conceptions and practices vary between cultures and locales like other traditional beliefs in East Asia. In many cases ritual offerings at home or clan altars honor deceased ancestors. In such cases, such as the O-bon festival of Japan, spirits of the dead are invited home in late summer to participate in the ceremonies to remember them. During the Chusok Festival, held in Korea in early fall, family representatives go to the hillsides and clean off the ancestral grave mounds overgrown with weeds, holding a special banquet with the dead. Similar rituals are conducted in China at the spring “Grave-sweeping” festival each year. Such activities involve family get-togethers, feasting, and in some cases, the burning of incense, the offering of ritual foods, and ritual bowing at home or clan alters. Family connections are also reinforced at other festivals on the Lunar calendar, especially at Spring Festival in China and Korea, where it is common for youngsters to bow or otherwise honor their older relatives, who in turn present them with small gifts or money.

Attending on ancestor's grave in urban China

Attending on ancestor's grave in urban China

Shintoism in Japan

When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in AD 552, the local animistic beliefs were given the name “Shinto,” or “Way of the Gods,” to differentiate them from the new religion. Although at times there was competition between advocates of the two beliefs, overall they have existed in harmony over the ages. In many cases Buddhist temples were built on or near the site of earlier Shinto shrines, and it is very common to find both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine in close proximity in many of the temple sites (such as in Nara) today.

Torii marking a Shinto shrine in Japan

The "bird-perch" or torii marking a Shinto shrine in Japan

Among the most important beliefs in Shinto concern the kami (nature spirits). Kami can be anywhere – in waterfalls, rivers, mountains, strange rocks, unusual glens, or even embodied in unusual people. If treated with respect, kami can aid human beings thus small shrines buit for local spirits are everywhere in Japan, including urban streets, parks, hills and stream banks. Among the most revered of the thousands of kami is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, who was a key player in the mythical creation of Japan.

While the interiors of Buddhist temples are often highly elaborate, displaying huge statues and paintings, the interiors of Shinto temples (many made of cypress wood) are noted for near emptiness. Although lacking an abundance of artwork and religious imagery, a powerful presence can often be felt in Shinto shrines, which are regarded as the residence of the local spirit.

Fox-spirit shrine in downtown Tokyo, Japan

Fox-spirit shrine in downtown Tokyo, Japan. Note the white paper gohei on the left and the sacred ropes.

A key idea in Shinto is that of purity, and all visitors must be properly purified before entering a shrine. To this end, a feature commonly encountered outside Shinto sites is a spring at which visitors can rinse their hands and mouths before proceeding into the grounds. In some instances, a Shinto priest may whisk visitors with a white paper wand as part of the purification process. This emphasis on purity is a strong theme in Shinto, and carries over into everyday Japanese life. The mirrors sometimes seen in Shinto shrines represent the pure, unspotted mind of the resident kami.

Visitors will notice stands of zig-zag white paper (gohei) set before the doors of the sacred inner chamber of a shrine. The papers, attached to slim wooden wands acts as an offering and as a marker of the presence of the spirit. Another common feature is a twisted rope (shimenawa) from which folds of paper and small bundles of flax dangle. This rope (and specially twisted ropes hanging at entryways, the base of sacred trees, or other special places) marks the boundary between sacred and non-sacred. Within the inner shrine, and always unseen, is at least one divine symbol or object, in some cases it is a hidden mirror. Other symbols that may be present are a sword and jewels. In front of the inner shrine is a space for the presentation of offerings. Purification wands may also be present. In some cases visitors can pull on a rope to ring a brass bell-gong; nearby may be an offering box for monetary contributions. Visitors to Shinto shrines can find their way by looking for a torii (“bird-perch”), which indicates that a shrine is nearby, often marking the entry pathway.

Inside the shrine to a fox spirit in downtown Tokyo

Inside the shrine to a fox spirit in downtown Tokyo. Note the water dippers for purifying one's mouth when entering.

During WWII, Shinto was given the position of a state religion in Japan and special emphasis was put on the emperor, whose family is believed to be descendants of Amaterasu. In the post-War era, however, the political sanction of Shinto was withdrawn. Today Shinto has special meaning for many, if not most, of the Japanese people and is an important reference point in understanding the culture.