In Depth

Taoism – In the Beginning A closer look at Shamanism

In previous issues we have looked briefly at the philosophical roots or aspects of Taoism. In this issue we look at the religious and shamanistic aspect of Taoism that has developed into what we know as feng shui

Shamanism is a set of beliefs and practices that see the world being fundamentally divided into two parts: the material, the lower part and the spiritual, the higher part. Every living being has these two parts existing in parallel. Mountains breathe and rocks have a soul.


Yellow Emperor and the shamanistic Taoism

Taoism as Shamanism can be traced back to the time of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti). In fact, the Yellow Emperor can be said to be the first Emperor who played a shamanist role in Chinese history. In ancient Chinese thinking, the emperor is the axis of humanity standing between Heaven and Earth. He alone represented the populace.

Like a shaman, the Emperor was the only person endowed with the capability and power of communicating with the spiritual world, i.e. the forces that permeate Heaven and Earth. Every year rituals were held for the emperor to communicate with the natural forces, appeasing them for actions of the past year, and wishing for fortune and good harvest to come in spring.


These practices were handed down from Emperor to Emperor, and were highly valued during Confuciu time. They were best recorded in The Book of Rites (Li Chi).

The Yellow Emperor ruled around 2500 BCE, and was seen as the earliest ancestor of the Chinese people, the Chinese are often referred to as ‘the offspring of the Yellow Emperor’. He was credited as the inventor of government, as a theorist of medicine and as an expert in warfare. In legends, he was given the book of magic containing the skills of warfare, and these helped him to defeat his enemies. In warfare, the victor was the one who best possessed knowledge of the natural environment and geography, and so feng shui was also a great weapon.

The compass was said to have been invented around this time and the Yellow Emperor used it against one of the feudal lords Chi You, who had attempted to trap the Emperor in the fog. This was said to be the first time that a Chinese emperor militarily conquered his enemy using the knowledge of nature given to him as ‘the son of Heaven’.

Immortality in shamanistic Taoism

The idea of standing between Heaven and Earth as a shamanist (or son of Heaven) is closely linked with the idea of immortality which we mentioned in the last issue. Immortality is a major theme for Taoist philosophers. For an Emperor, the mastery of nature was a prerequisite, and it seems that the final mastery of nature would be to live as long as nature lives. So the search for immortality was a practice common to all Emperors. Those who possess the skills and knowledge of Heaven and Earth, such as the shamanists or fang shih, were seen as important specialists in the imperial court.

The Emperor most well-known for this enthusiasm for the secrets of immortality was an Emperor of the Chin dynasty (220-206 BCE), Chin Shih Huang Ti. Chin was the first dynasty in Chinese history that united (or we can say eliminated) differences within the Emperor’s ruling boundary. Following the chaotic period of the Warring States, Chin Shih Huang Ti set his new order and unified China by establishing standard measures and rules, and most of all, setting the foundation for a unified national written language. Apart from these achievements, Chin Shih Huang Ti was a tyrant who cared about anything but the people he ruled.

The Great Wall, for instance, was constructed by thousands of over-worked labourers under his rule. He was notorious for ‘burning the Classics and burying the scholars’, in which numerous Confucian books were destroyed, and hundreds of Confucian scholars buried alive. Happily, he was kinder to the classics and the manuals that he considered practical and useful for his rule: the Taoist texts and methods of practice. Methods of divination, medicine and knowledge related to nature and agriculture were preserved, and highly valued. Chin Shih Huang Ti recognised the importance of this knowledge as a justification/vindication of his rule. It was in the Chin dynasty that the feng shui expert, was mentioned for the first time.

Chin Shih Huang Ti was extremely obssessed with his personal well-being and the eventual aim of achieving immortality. The story was told of his sending thousands of virgin girls and boys out on the sea to search for the island of the immortals. (According to some legends, they sailed eastward until they reached the Japan and settled there.)


Burial and shamanistic Taoism

One aspect of shamanistic Taoism that was not entirely confined to the imperial court was the practices of burial. The fascination and desire for knowledge about nature and our relationship to nature so much expressed by Chuang Tzu had been developed in a more secular way in the practice of ancestor worship of his time. Burial was the most elaborated aspect of ancestor veneration found in Chinese society of the feudal time. The customs developed around the practice of burial explain some of the origins of feng shui.

Part of the work of a feng shui practitioner, at the time a shamanist, was to discover the best sites for burial, if there were streams of water underneath the ground, if the site had a good balance of mountain and water, if the head of the dead person was at the north and the feet at the south, and if the dead would lie there in peace.

Burial sites followed class lines. At the time of the Chou dynasty (1126 BCE) ordinary people were normally buried on the plains. Princes were buried on low hills, and Emperors were buried on high mountains. The location of a burial was very important because the Chinese believed that, the living could benefit materially from their ancestors if the deceased was buried at a suitable site.

A bad choice of site could bring disturbances to the living and their offspring. This belief was deeply-rooted and has lasted over three millennium, so has the Taoist practice of choosing burial sites, although at the time of Chou the methodology of these practices had not yet been systematically recorded. The systematic recording and practice of feng shui occurred only since the Han dynasty. With the social and political foundation established during Chin Shih Huang Ti’s rule, the following dynasty, Han, was to benefit from it. Chin Shih Huang Ti, did not find imortality and died in 210 B.C.


Apart from inheriting a more unified language and a more established bureaucratic system, early Han Chinese also benefitted from a relaxation of oppression. The banning of various schools of thought was lifted, the conditions for philosophical scholarship were much more liberalised, leading to a period resembling ‘the blooming of a hundred flowers’. The change of rule created a space in which ordinary people felt able to practice more than one belief. Divination became popular, no longer a privilege of the imperial court.

At the same time, Confucianism was revived and elevated to the status of a state religion. It was the first time in Chinese history that Confucius was worshipped like a deity. Since then, Confucius has been venerated as the father of the entire Chinese civilisation. His ideas and teachings were treasured and handed down from generation to generation, and even today they are maintained by the state as a useful ruling ideology.

In the imperial court of the early Han, while Confucian scholars are well respected and used as top advisors for determining state policies, fang shih began to acquire a formalised, indispensible status. They were the astrologists and geological experts for the emperors, and now their jobs in the Han court were even further bureaucratised.

For the first time, the use of feng shui became common in the court and popular among the people. The influence of shamanistic Taoism in the Han court can be seen in the title of ‘Huang Lao”, which is a combination of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) and the idea of immortality in Lao Tzu. These two figures were treated as the origin of shamanist practice in the court.

Confucianism now co-existed with shamanistic Taoism officially as well as unofficially in offering people ways of seeing their relationship with their society and their natural environment. For the Chinese, knowing and maintaining one’s social rank was not in contradiction with following the flow of nature.

The idea of a Perfect Man (jun tzu) is both Confucianist and Taoist, standing between Heaven and Earth in trinity.

This pattern of co-existence was to last through Chinese history, although Confucianism remained the mainstream school of thought. Confucianism since the Han dynasty was no longer just the ethics of Confucius and Meng-Tzu but rather a humanist school tinged with Taoism. Yin Yang and the Five Elements were very much part of Confucian thinking.

The ideas and practices in which feng shui is rooted are categorised as Taoism, with both philosophical and religious or shamanistic strands. These two strands were not two different stages, but they developed with and into each other. They are part of the same thing that gave birth to feng shui.



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