East Asia

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Siberia, Mongolia, China, Japan, South-East Asia

Beyond the Great Wall of China a nomadic way of life has always prevailed. Across the endless wastes have roamed the herds belonging to the people of the north–the Mongols, the Turks, the Tartars, the Tungus, the Huns. A world apart, the steppe was until the beginning of the nineteenth century a constant source of anxiety for Asia and Europe, whose civilizations have always rested upon intensive agriculture and urban settlement. From the steppe mounted raiders had descended with such fury that the nomad terror was legendary. Most notorious was Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), who laid down the rule that any resistance to Mongol arms should be punished by total extermination. ‘The greatest joy’, he once said, ‘is to conquer one's enemies, to pursue them, to seize their belongings, to see their families in tears, to ride their horses, and to possess their daughters and wives.’ Although the Mongol onslaught of the thirteenth century failed to establish a world imperium, the devastation wrought in the numerous campaigns was immense, China bearing the brunt of the attack.

Yet the Mongol conquest of China (1279–1365) did result in the introduction of Buddhism to Mongolia and Siberia because the Tibetan form was adopted as the official religion of the nomad empire. The ‘yellow faith’ began to replace the old ‘black faith’, the original animist-shamanist religion of the north. Many old folk-customs were tolerated by giving them new meanings and the early myths were preserved by the art of the story-teller, but the authority of the shamans declined. No longer was the only custodian of the soul the shaman, the ‘medicine man’. Previously these spirit-possessed men were used to seek out and recover the lost or abducted souls of the sick. In trance and frenzy the shaman raised himself to the world of the spirits, where he gained control over certain incorporeal beings, especially those of disease and death, in order to exorcize them from people. The Buriat tribesmen living on the shores of Lake Baikal, for example, declare that Morgon-Kara, their first shaman, was able to bring back to earth even the souls of the dead. So perturbed was the lord of ‘the land of beyond’ that he complained to the high lord of heaven, who decided to put the shaman to a test. He got possession of the soul of one man and placed it in a bottle, stopping the opening with his thumb. When the man fell ill and his relatives asked Morgon-Kara to help, the shaman rode on his magical drum and searched every corner of the universe, till at last he observed where the missing soul was held. Then the wily shaman changed himself into a wasp, and flew to the deity's forehead, which he stung hard enough for the thumb to jerk away from the mouth of the bottle. The king of heaven, however, was not prepared to allow Morgon-Kara a complete triumph. The shaman's flight with the recovered soul almost became a headlong fall as the angered god split his drum in two. Afterwards, Buriat tradition explains, magical drums were only fitted with a single head of skin in token of the diminished power of the shaman.


Subjects: Religion.

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