Background to the accounts of old Miao spirit worship

The rituals and incantations described in these two manuscripts are those that used to be practised by the Ahmao before the coming of Christianity and before the political upheavals of the second half of the twentieth century. Very probably there were a number of religious ideas which were held in common by all the Miao groups, but the detail in the sections that follow refer in particular to the Ahmao.

Early in 1947 I received a manuscript, (Document B), written by Wang Ming-ji at my special request, describing the spirit worship of the pre-Christian period. In 1950, when Yang Yung-xin issued his second duplicated book of Miao songs, (Document F), he included his own version of Wang Ming-jiís work. He abridged much that had been written, re-arranged it, and added a little new material. Neither manuscript may be regarded as a complete account of the old spirit worship, and at a number of points questions emerge which are not answered. It is possible that future research will throw further light on the subject, but since, in 1950, memory of these matters was already fading, some of the facts may now be irrevocably lost.

It will be observed that the order in which the rituals are described by the two writers is different. They both deal first and at length, with the worship of the Spirit Zu-gi-za and the ancestors, but thereafter their arrangements diverge, and are quite arbitrary. The spirits described do, in fact, fall into two groups, those which had to be pacified by sacrifice, and those which had to be exorcised. All might cause sickness, those of the first group because they had been slighted or had taken offence, those in the second group because that was their nature. Spirits of the first category, however, when they had been properly propitiated, had it in their power to bestow wealth and prosperity, the increase of family, of cattle and of crops, together with protection from misadventure, sickness and enemies.

In both manuscripts numbers are freely used to mark the divisions of the material, together with a certain predilection for the use of brackets, though, in these matters, neither writer is entirely consistent. Since, however, there is also no consensus in the order in which the material is set down, the reader requires a more logical framework into which the various sections may be brought by cross-referencing. In the following scheme, Roman numerals have been used to save confusion with the numbering in the Miao manuscripts.

Outline scheme of the Ahmao spirit worship.

Section I

Lists of the spirits


  1. Spirits to be propitiated
  2. Section II

    The Spirit Zu-gi-za and the ancestors.

    M352 to M354

    Section III

    The spirit of the door.


    Section IV

    The venerable and the old. (Rocks and trees)


    Section V

    The worship of drao-bo. (A sacred tree)


    Section VI

    Yeu-jio-dlang-hnu. (A benevolent spirit)


    Section VII

    Sowing souls. (A fertility rite)


    Section VIII

    Ritual cleansing of a house after a birth.


  3. Spirits to be exorcised

Section IX

Bi-jio-a-su. The shaman-healerís spirits


Section X

Bi-nzao. The spirits of restlessness.


Section XI

Water ki-zo. Spirits that attack women.


Section XII

A-she. Spirits that attack children


Section XIII

Zi-qiao-bao. The spirit that causes fits.


Section XIV

Ti-shao-ma. Black magic; ill-wishing cattle.


Section XV

Nao-nao. Black magic; ill-wishing people.



Diagnosis of sickness using an egg.


The rituals of "sowing souls" and "cleansing the house", Sections VII and VIII, have been included in the first category because they have to do with fertility and the preservation of the family line.

The Miao word "dlang" appears in the titles of both manuscripts, and Wang Ming-ji suggests that the Chinese equivalent is "zung jiao" meaning "religion" or "worship". However, although the Miao word indeed has this connotation, its meaning is much wider. Basically it has to do with being alive, or living beings. In the songs it is regularly prefixed to the names of animals and birds, while in ordinary speech it means "spirit", "ghost" or "demon", and is also used for magical objects, particularly those designed to bring sickness or misfortune. It is almost invariably something to be feared, so that "bi-dlang" which means "a spirit" is also the common word for "a devil". "A dlang" is a verb which means to carry out the rituals of spirit worship or to practise black magic.

It was believed that the activities of the spirits constantly impinged on human life, and the result was almost always sickness. When this occurred it was necessary to call in the "a-yeu nw", that is the "nw" man. (There were female practitioners of the art called "a-po nw", "nw" women, but they were less common than the men.) The task of the "nw" was to diagnose the cause of the sickness, and to prescribe the cure. He was, in fact, a shaman-healer, whose activities are well illustrated in these accounts of the spirit worship. The "nw" was also to be feared, because from time to time he might choose, or might be hired, to employ his powers in more sinister ways, in ill-wishing people and causing sickness or even death to families, cattle or crops.