For old shamans in northeast China, drums made from the skin of large fish are not just musical instruments. As researcher Liu Guiteng finds out, drums, or wente as they are known among the locals, could be the vital link to the preservation of the primitive Shamanism religion.
To continue his 20-year study of shamanism, Liu Guiteng made a special trip to Tongjiang, a frontier city at the northern end of the Sanjiang (three rivers) Plain which lies between Heilong, Wusuli and Songhua rivers in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.
The researcher of shaman musical culture from Dandong, a city in Liaoning Province, tried to find traces of shamanism, a primitive religion of local residents.
Converging near Tongjiang and then flowing east in the shape of a fork, the Heilong and Songhua rivers silently witnessed the changing fortunes of the Hezhe people, an ancient ethnic group with the smallest population of any in China.
They are also a minority across the border. In Russian territory, they are known as the Nanai.
Due to shrinking forestry resources and government regulations for the protection of wild animals, the Hezhe people gave up the hunting lifestyle which they had maintained for generations. But they still keep the fishing tradition.
Liu was very amazed by the local people's rich folk customs. Above all, the most fascinating element was the wente fish-skin drum. "It looks very primitive and uncommon both in design and material as it remains primitive from the old times when the Hezhe people relied on fishing and hunting," said Liu.
For example, the drumhead is covered with fish skin, the shaman drum is an oblong-circular-arc and egg-shaped. Such type of drums cannot be found among other ethnic groups in northeast China.
While dancing during sacrificial rites, the shaman beats the drum different from the ordinary way, hitting the drum with the drumstick from an angle instead of hitting straightly as the player's arm is not long enough to hit the drum with the larger drumhead.
The shaman hits different position of the magic drum with various strength, playing the surface a little while, and then on the rim. After beating the drum each time, he or she lets the drumstick down swiftly sometimes, and sometimes on the contrary, put the drumstick on the surface to lower the sound. Thus he or she can make very different sounds: One moment it sounds gentle and harmonious, the next it sounds deep and sonorous.
Shamanism, a folk religious activity linking most closely with the people or a primitive religion originating in Siberia, was once popular among ethnic groups -- Liu classified them as members of the Altaic family -- in northeast China, including Manchu, Xibe, Hezhe, Mongolian, Oroqen, Ewenki and Daur.
Over the past 10 years, Liu waded across rivers and climbed hills to visit more than 200 remote counties and villages for his shaman study.
"The ethnic groups in northeast China have been developing into the current scale gradually by unceasing amalgamation and disintegration among them, but they have a common cultural figure -- shaman," Liu said.
Different from professional priests, shamans are usually ordinary members of a certain social group, enjoying no privileges. They can only mark themselves by dancing in sacrificial rituals.
Manchu shamans, in particular, mainly use shaman drums (magic drums), waist-bells, copper mirrors and swords, in these rituals to show their magical powers.
Shamanism almost disappeared during the 17th century with the establishment of the Manchu power, but vestiges remain alive and well among the Manchu and other ethnic groups in the areas of northeast China and Inner Mongolia which are now about 10 to 20 hours away from Beijing by train.
Liu and his colleagues thought they could get some understanding of the broad and profound influences of shamanism on folk customs in northeast China, Hebei Province and Inner Mongolia by tracing the spread of magic drums and other musical instruments among the local people.
According to Liu, all ethnic groups in northeast China have the same philosophical thinking of shamanism, although there were some differences in detailed substance and methods for sacrificial rites.
Like other kinds of shamanism, "animism" is the philosophical foundation of shamanism among the members of the Altaic family of languages in northeast China. For instance, they worship all deities from nature, such as the sun, moon, star, thunder, lightning, wind, rain, fire, mountain, river and lake.
They worship all animals, such as the hawk, bear, wolf, deer, rabbit, mouse and ermine. They also have phallism and totem worship of hawk, swan, bull and wild boar.
During the long course of history, due to their failure to understand many natural phenomena and looking for something to free themselves from their worries, ancestors were converted to "animism," which formed the origins of philosophical foundation of shamanism.
In his book "Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom" in 1889, Edward B. Tylor said: "Animism characterizes tribes very low in the scale of humanity, and thence ascends, deeply modified in its transmission, but from first to last preserving an unbroken continuity, into the midst of high modern culture."
Tylor's observation is still the authentic depiction of shamanism existing in modern nationalities and in real life.
Like Hezhe people's wente drums, similar drums of other ethnic groups in northeast China are one of the symbolic musical instruments in sacrificial rites, such as the imcin of the Manchu and the wengtuer of the Daur.
According to Liu's study, shamans thought that the drumming is the language communicating with heaven.
Therefore, "drumming" nearly covers the sounds of all shaman musical instruments. In the shaman's world, the traditional concept is still deep-rooted, that is, drumming can convey deity's decree. So drumming is a special language of the shaman.
The sound of the drum is the shaman's innermost thoughts and feelings.
Each member of the Altaic family in northeast China has its different course of historical development, different cultural tradition and different blood relationship.
However, shaman sacrificial rites of the ethnic groups formed of some clear-cut common traits under the influence of frequent national migration, combining military, political, social and cultural factors and the similar natural geographic environment as well as lifestyle.
Documents and field investigation show that there is an unchanged feature of musicology no matter how various shaman spirits were, how flexible shaman rites performed and how shaman history evolved.
The drum (as musical instrument) is the symbol of the shaman of the members of the Altaic family in northeast China; drum language (as sound) is the means of shaman's communications with human beings and spiritual beings. Shaman realizes the intercourse between human being and spiritual beings through "drum language" -- this is often regarded as imaginary language environment.
It is not only the mysterious aureole shrouded over shaman, but also creates a special language system for shaman believers. The system becomes a mode of thinking, which was necessary while holding complicated shaman rites and accepted by the believers.
Although music is an indispensable part of sacrificial rites just like many primitive arts, in the eyes of the shaman, these things called "music" by modern people is actually not the so-called "art" in the concept of outsiders.
Shaman music is still a "technique" for survival or life in essence instead of an independent aesthetic form.
For instance, in many ethnic groups with shamanism in northeast China, the sound of drums often symbolizes thunder. Later, as the implications of whole shaman sacrificial rites and ritual implement have been gradually becoming complicated, shaman drums were assumed some practical meanings, such as symbolizing "boats" or "horses."
The symbolic significance of shaman musical instruments is not only an objective imitation of natural sound by musical instruments, but also a subjective bestowal for the shaman idea. It expresses a very strong supernatural power, which shaman and its believers have been looking forward to obtaining.
Some people regard shaman music as the "living fossil" of music of ethnic groups in northeast China, but few people know more about the cultural relics.
Compared with other popular folk music, shaman music certainly contains more primitive information about the precious ancient music.
But, like all primordial folk musical culture passed on by oral instruction, shaman music is an uninterrupted and practical selection and explanation made by its possessors for their own cultural tradition.
Liu thought as the true records of human being's living process, the information from remote antiquity preserved and conveyed by shaman musical instruments is the cultural inheritable gene of human beings.
"Human being has its own basic mode of thinking for self-examination -- to seek for joys and sorrows in history and to probe prosperity or decline in the past time. That is very different from other species," Liu said.
In this way, human beings can keep their interest in life's journey, maintain cultural marks distinct from others and preserve social group's cohesiveness and sense of identity so as to make culture created by human being influence and surge each other in the colorful boundless universe.
Some people may wonder how to estimate the cultural value of shaman musical instruments with crude craftsmanship, simple sound and plain playing method?
Liu gave a clear reply that if you restore shaman musical instruments to the historical, economic and social background suitable for their living, reproduction and spread, you may find with surprise that what the crude musical instruments have the same meaning to human being just like modern musical instruments and instrumental music.
Because the musical instruments bear the weight of rich feeling (good and evil), simple sounds express the complicated feeling (life and death) and plain playing method deduces the fairy tale world (heaven and nether world).
The unique value of shaman musical culture lies not in the art for arts' sake of musicians but in the art residing aesthetic taste in daily life for ordinary people. "Its significance lies in survival and living demand instead of only in art itself -- it is a cultural form blending aesthetic perspective and life in perfect harmony," Liu said .
"The common features of various forms of 'primitive art' indicate that neither can people shut their eyes to its aesthetic standards nor abstract it from daily life," Liu added.
(China Daily June 18, 2003)