Nuo folk religion

Nuo folk religion, or extendedly Chinese popular exorcistic religion, is a variant of Chinese folk religion with its own system of temples, rituals, orders of priests and gods, which is interethnic and practiced across central and southern China but is also intimately connected to the Tujia people.[1] It arose as an exorcistic religious movement, which is the original meaning of nuó (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ), and it spread even outside the boundaries of China exporting such practices in Japan and Korea. It has strong influences from Taoism.[2]

One of the most distinguishing characters of Nuo folk religion is its iconographic style, which represents the gods as wooden masks or heads. This is related to its own mythology, which traces the origin of Nuo to the two very first humans, who were unjustly killed by beheading and are since then worshipped as responsive divine ancestors.[3] Nuo rituals began as efficacious methods to worship them, Lord Nuo and Lady Nuo.[4] Since the 1980s Nuo folk religion has undergone a revitalisation in China, and today is a folk religion endorsed by the central government.[5] Nuo priests are classified as 巫 wu (shamans) and their historical precursors were the 方相氏 fangxiangshi ("masters who assist the (astral) square").

Nuo priests performing ritual at Chiyou Nuo Temple in Xinhua, Hunan
Nuo priests performing ritual at the Chiyou Nuo Temple in Xinhua, Loudi, Hunan.

General theory


Nuo cosmology is based on a yin and yang theory, clearly represented in mythology, otherwise explainable as a world in which potentiality and actuality, supernature and nature, form a complementary and dialectical duality which is the order of the universe. Man is an active participant within this order, interplaying with the world of divinity in a creative manner. Nuo mythology also tells of a highest goddess,Tiānxiān (天仙 "Heavenly Immortal"), who is directly involved since the origin of humanity in triggering this dialogue between the spiritual and the material.[6] The primary form of dialogue is the worship of ancestors, and this is reflected in the patriarchal structure of Tujia society.[4]


Ancestral couple: Nuogong and Nuopo

The highest deities in the Nuo pantheon are Lord Nuo (傩公 Nuógōng) and Lady Nuo (Nuópó 傩婆), the two ancestors of humanity, according to mythology, whose sacrifice gave origin to Nuo practices.[4] When a Nuo ceremony is performed, the ancestral couple is represented by carved wooden statues erected in front of the temple, while all lesser gods are placed behind them. In simpler rituals, they are seen as embodiments of all the other gods.[4]

Three Purities and the Jade Deity

Generally, right below the ancestral couple of Nuogong and Nuopo come the Three Pure Ones (三清 Sānqīng). These are the main trinity of Taoist theology, and were introduced among the Tujia by Han Chinese who moved to their areas. Apart from the trinity and some elaborate ritual styles, Nuo folk religion has not acquired the philosophical contents of Taoism, as the purpose of Nuo practices is mainly to "nourish" Nuo gods.[7] Directly below the Three Pure Ones there is the Jade Deity (玉帝 Yùdì), another deity from Taoist theology, who is invoked by Nuo priests by blowing into a peculiar ritual instrument, an ox horn. The Jade Deity is conceived as the commander of all lesser gods, so in order to communicate with them it is necessary to call upon him first.[8]

Three Worlds' Deities, Five Directions' Deities and the Enthroned Deity

Below the Jade Deity come the Deities of the Three Worlds (三皇 Sānhuáng) and then the Deities of the Five Directions (五方帝 Wǔfāngdì), both groups common to pre-Taoist Chinese religion. The triplet is formed by the patron of heaven (天皇 Tiānhuáng, who is Fuxi), the patron of earth (地皇 Dehuáng, who is Nuwa) and the patron of humanity (人皇 Rénhuáng, who is Shennong).[9]

The other group is formed by the Yellow Deity of the centre of the cosmos, the Green or Blue Deity of the east, the Red Deity of the south, the White Deity of the east, and the Black Deity of the north. As in Chinese religion they have a cosmological significance corresponding to various aspects of nature and are believed to have been incarnated in historical personages.[9]

Below the Three Patrons and the Five Deities there is the Enthroned Deity, who is considered to be incarnated in the present time. The most prominent contemporary government figure of China is believed to be the Enthroned God. In Nuo shrines there is often a tablet with the inscription "a long life to the god on the throne".[10]

Founders of priestly orders

Every order of Nuo priests has its own founders, who are honoured at dedicated altars (师坛 shītán, "order's altar"). The ancestors of the order are invoked during every ritual performance and in the divine hierarchy they come right below the Enthroned Deity. The three earliest Nuo ritualists common to nearly all the orders are Yan Sanlang, Liu Wulang and Huang Wanlang.[11]

There are also a variety of gods of nature and of human affairs, such as the Door Gods, the Well God, the Hearth God, the Land God and the Wealth God, which are those with an immediate relationship with people despite their lower rank in the Nuo pantheon.[12]

Temples and ceremonies

The setting of Nuo activities are distinct temples (傩庙 nuómiào, "exorcism's temple") and private altars (傩坛 nuótán).[13] The main task of Nuo practices is to strengthen the power of gods as much as possible so that they can exorcise malevolent beings.[14]

Nuo ceremonies (傩仪 nuó yí) can involve dance performance (傩舞 nuó wǔ), songs (傩歌 nuó gē), sacrifices (傩祭 nuó jì) and the Nuo opera (傩戏 nuóxì).

Japanese Shinto rituals with Nuo origins

Japanese Shinto ceremonial hōsōshi at Heian Shrine (2010).

During the Heian period (794-1185), the Japanese adopted into Shinto many Tang dynasty (618-907) Chinese customs, including the fangxiangshi (the precursor of Nuo priests) known in Japanese as hōsōshi 方相氏 who would lead a funeral procession and exorcise demons from a burial mound. This practice was merged with traditional Japanese exorcistic rites such as the Shinto ofuda ("talisman with the name of a kami").

The earliest record was the (c. 797) Shoku Nihongi history,[15]:45 which mentions a hōsōshi exorcist officiating at the burial ceremonies for Emperor Shōmu (756), Emperor Kōnin (781), and Emperor Kanmu (806).

The Kyōgen actor Nomura Mannojō noted that Chinese nuo 儺 practices were the 8th-century source for the Japanese tsuina 追儺 or setsubun ("ritual to exorcise evil spirits on the last day of winter"), and proposed that supernatural power links the Chinese nuo performer fangxiangshi and the Japanese gigaku masked character Chidō 治道 ("govern the way") who leads a ceremony.[16]:258 In Japanese tradition and art, the hōsōshi wears a four-eyed mask rather than the original four-eyed bearskin.

See also



  1. ^ Li (2003).
  2. ^ Li (2016), p. 63.
  3. ^ Li (2016), pp. 55-58.
  4. ^ a b c d Li (2016), p. 58.
  5. ^ Li (2010).
  6. ^ Li (2016), pp. 57-58.
  7. ^ Li (2016), pp. 63-64.
  8. ^ Li (2016), pp. 64-65.
  9. ^ a b Li (2016), p. 65.
  10. ^ Li (2016), p. 66.
  11. ^ Li (2016), pp. 66-67.
  12. ^ Li (2016), p. 67.
  13. ^ Li (2016), p. 62.
  14. ^ Li (2016), p. 64.
  15. ^ Gras, Alexandre (2004), "追儺における呪文の名称と方相氏の役割の変化について", Issues in Language and Culture 5: 35-53.
  16. ^ Fukushima, Yoshiko (2005), "Masks, Interface of Past and Future: Nomura Mannojō's Shingigaku", Asian Theatre Journal 22.2: 249-268.


  • Li, Lan (2016). Popular Religion in Modern China: The New Role of Nuo. Routledge. ISBN 1317077954.
  • Li, Lan (2010). "The Changing Role of the Popular Religion of Nuo (傩) in Modern Chinese Politics". Modern Asian Studies. 44 (2): 1–23. doi:10.1017/S0026749X10000090. ISSN 2157-9679.
  • Li, Lan (2012). Nuo (傩): The New Role of Popular Religion in Modern Chinese Politics. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing.
  • Li, Lan (2003), The Reinvention of the Nuo Religion of the Tujia's Ethnic Identity and Identification, Belfast: Queens University
  • Li, Lan (2008), Reinvention of the Belief - An Anthropological Study of the Chinese Popular Religion of Nuo, Kunming: Yunnan People's Publisher
  • Li, Lan (2009), "Who Controls the Fate of an ICH – A Case Study of Nuo (儺) in Southwest China", in Lira, Sérgio; Amoê, Rogério; Prinheiro, Cristina; Oliveira, Fernando (eds.), Sharing Culture, Green Lines Institute for Sustainable Development

Baojuan (宝卷 bǎojuǎn), literally precious scrolls, are a genre of prosimetric texts (texts written in an alternation of prose and verse) of a religious or mystical nature, produced within the context of Chinese folk religion and individual Chinese folk religious sects. They are often written in vernacular Chinese and recount the mythology surrounding a deity or a hero, or constitute the theological and philosophical scriptures of organised folk sects.

Chinese shamanism

Chinese shamanism, alternatively called Wuism (Chinese: 巫教; pinyin: wū jiào; literally: 'wu religion, shamanism, witchcraft'; alternatively 巫觋宗教 wū xí zōngjiào), refers to the shamanic religious tradition of China. Its features are especially connected to the ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture. Chinese shamanic traditions are intrinsic to Chinese folk religion, an overarching term for all the indigenous religions of China. Wu masters remain important in contemporary Chinese culture.

Various ritual traditions are rooted in original Chinese shamanism: contemporary Chinese ritual masters are sometimes identified as wu by outsiders, though most orders don't self-identify as such. Also Taoism has some of its origins from Chinese shamanism: it developed around the pursuit of long life (shou 壽/寿), or the status of a xian (仙, "mountain man", "holy man").

Chinese spirit possession

Chinese spirit possession is a practice performed by specialists called jitong (a type of shamans) in Chinese folk religion, involving the channelling of Chinese deities who take control of the specialist's body, resulting in noticeable changes in body functions and behaviour. The most famous Chinese spirit possession practitioners took part in the Boxer Rebellion in the 1900s, when boxers claimed to be invulnerable to the cut of a sharp knife, gunshots, and even cannon fire.

De teaching

The De teaching (Chinese: 德教 Dejiao, "teaching of virtue", the concept of De), whose corporate name is the Church of Virtue (德教会 Déjiàohuì), is a sect rooted in Taoism, that was founded in 1945 in Chaozhou, Guangdong. It is popular both in China and amongst expatriate Chinese populations.


Fenxiang (分香), literally the incense division, is a term that defines both hierarchical networks of temples dedicated to a god in Chinese folk religion, and the ritual process by which these networks form.


Huangjidao (皇极道 "Way of the Imperial Pole" or "Imperial Ultimate") or Huangjiism (皇极教 Huáng jí jiào) is a Chinese folk religious sect that as of the 1980s was a proscribed religion in China as testified by the arrest of various leaders and members in those years.


Huazhaidao (华斋道 "Way of Flowers and Fasting") is a Chinese folk religious sect of Henan that as of the 1980s was a proscribed religion in China as testified by the arrest of various Communist Party members who joined the sect in those years.


Jiugongdao (九宫道 "Way of the Nine Palaces") is a Chinese folk religious sect centered in the Wutai County of the province of Shanxi. The name of the sect is based on the jiugong diagram of esoteric cosmology.

Flourishing in the Qing dynasty, but rooted in earlier times, the Jiugongdao developed greatly on Mount Wutai thanks to the efforts of Li Xiangshan, also known as Puji, his name as a Buddhist monk who was close to the Manchu court. With his contribution, Jiugongdao took over more than twenty run down former Buddhist monasteries on Mount Wutai and rebuilt them thanks to the donations of its strong following, especially concentrated in northeast China. The monasteries were reformed into Chinese temples dedicated to indigenous deities and the cosmological Lords of the Five Peaks. The sect also gathered a following among Khorchin Mongols.The Jiugongdao declined on Mount Wutai in the 1940s, as a Han Chinese-acquired tradition of Tibetan Buddhism took power. With the campaigns against religion in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution, Jiugongdao and other folk religious sects focused on Mount Wutai, Huanxiangdao and Houtiandao, were persecuted and went underground. They have revived since the 1980s.

Maitreya teachings

The Maitreya teachings or Maitreyanism (Chinese: 弥勒教; pinyin: Mílèjiào; literally: 'Maitreya teachings'), also called Mile teachings, refers to the beliefs related to Maitreya (彌勒 Mílè in Chinese) that penetrated China together with Buddhism and Manichaeism, and were developed in different ways both in the Chinese Buddhist schools and in the sect salvationist traditions of the Chinese folk religion.

Maitreya was the central deity worshipped by the first folk salvation religions, but in later developments of the sects he was gradually replaced by the Limitless Ancient Mother (無生老母 Wúshēng Lǎomǔ), although Maitreyan eschatology continued to have a place in their doctrines.

Folk Buddhist movements that worshipped and awaited Maitreya are recorded at least back to the years between 509 and 515 (6th century). A notorious event was the rebellion led by monk Faqing from Jizhou City, then Northern Wei, in the name of a "new Buddha". Later, Maitreyan beliefs developed conspicuously outside the boundaries of Buddhism. By 715, as testified by an edict, wearing white clothes, that was originally a practice common to lay Buddhist congregations, had become a distinctive feature of Maitreyan sects.


Miaohui (庙会), literally temple gatherings or translated as temple fairs, also called yíngshén sàihuì (迎神赛会 "collective rituals to greet the gods"), are Chinese religious gatherings held by folk temples for the worship of the Chinese gods and immortals. Large-scale miaohui are usually held around the time of the Chinese New Year, or in specific temples at the birthday of the god enshrined in the temple itself. Activities usually include rituals celebrated in the temple, opera on a stage facing the temple, processions of the gods' images on carts throughout villages and cities, performance of musical and ritual troupes (of Taoists, sects and Confucian ritualists), blessing of offerings brought to the temple by families, and various economic activities.Geography and local customs lead to great differences in the nature of festivals dedicated to the gods. In northern China miaohui are usually week-long, with ceremonies held in large temples, and attended by tens of thousands of people; while in southern China they are a much more local practice, organised by village temples or clusters of temples of different villages.

Ming yun

Ming yun (Chinese: 命運; pinyin: mìng yùn) is a concept of the personal life and destiny in the Chinese folk religion. Ming is "life" or "right", the given status of life, and yùn defines "circumstance" and "individual choice"; mìng is given and influenced by the transcendent force Tiān (天), that is the same as the "divine right" (tiān mìng) of ancient rulers as identified by Mencius. Personal destiny (mìng yùn) is thus perceived as both fixed (the status of life) and flexible, open-ended (the individual choice in matters of bào yìng).


Nuo, NUO or nuo may refer to:

Nuo folk religion, a variant of Chinese folk religion

Nuo opera or Nuo drama, a Chinese folk opera and ritual performance

Nguồn language, spoken in Vietnam and Laos (ISO 639 code nuo)

Patrick Nuo, a Swiss singer, songwriter and model

Taigu school

The Taigu school (太谷学派 Tàigǔ xuépài), also Great Perfection (大成教 Dàchéng jiào) or Yellow Cliff teaching (黄崖教 Huángyá jiào), is a mystical folk religious sect of Confucianism spread especially in Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong. It was founded by Zhou Xingyuan, a man with shamanic skills entitled Taigu (太谷 "Great Valley") by followers.The purpose of the school is to help those who practice it to develop a clear and enlightened state of mind, in which man apprehends his true nature and recovers original simplicity.


Tianguangdao (天光道 "Way of the Heavenly Light") is a Chinese folk religious sect that as of the 1980s was a proscribed religion in China. Particularly active in Heilongjiang and Anhui, there are records of detentions of leaders and members easpecially from the former province.

Tianxian miaodao

The Tianxian miaodao (天仙庙道 "Way of the Temple of the Heavenly Immortals"), incorporated as the Church of the Way of the Temple of the Heavenly Immortals (天仙庙道会 Tiānxiān miàodào huì) is a Chinese salvationist religious sect centered in Henan. It was founded in the mid-19th century and flourished in the early republic and was known for its rebellious aptitude towards the state. Despite systematic efforts of the later communist republic to suppress it in the 1950s and 1960s, it has persisted to the present day.

Wu (awareness)

Wu (Chinese: 悟) is a concept of awareness, consciousness, or spiritual enlightenment in the Chinese folk religion. According to scholarly studies, many practitioners recently "reverted" to the Chinese traditional religion speak of a "new awareness" (kāi wù 開悟 or jué wù 覺悟) of the interconnectedness of reality in terms of the cosmic-moral harmony—mìng yùn, bào yìng, yuán fèn. This spiritual awareness works as an engine that moves these themes from being mere ideas to be motivating forces in one's life: awareness of mìng yùn ignites responsibility towards life; awareness of yuan fen stirs to respond to events rather than resigning. Awareness is a dynamic factor and appears in two guises: a realisation that arrives as a gift, often unbidden; then it evolves into a practice that the person intentionally follows.In Latin alphabetical transliteration of the Chinese, it's a homograph of the wu-shaman.


The xiezhi (Chinese: 獬豸) or haetae (Korean: 해태, often spelled haitai or haechi) is a legendary creature in Chinese and Korean mythology.

Yellow Dragon

The Yellow Dragon (traditional Chinese: 黃龍; simplified Chinese: 黄龙; pinyin: Huánglóng; Cantonese Yale: Wong4 Lung4 Japanese: Kōryū or Ōryū Korean: Hwang-Ryong Vietnamese: Hoàng Long) is the zoomorphic incarnation of the Yellow Emperor of the centre of the universe in Chinese religion and mythology.The Yellow Emperor or Yellow Deity was conceived by a virgin mother, Fubao, who became pregnant after seeing a yellow ray of light turning around the Northern Dipper (in Chinese theology the principal symbol of God). Twenty four months later the Yellow Emperor was born and was associated to the colour yellow because it is the colour of the Earth (Dì 地), the material substance, in which he incarnated.


Zhongyongdao (中庸道 "Way of the Golden Mean") is a Chinese folk religious sect that as of the 1980s was a proscribed religion in China as testified by the arrest of one of its leaders, Tang Tianxu, in Sichuan in 1981.

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