2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Relationship between Music and Shamanic Ritual in China as Seen through a Philological Study of the Phrase "wu- k'ou yan-hsien 巫叩元絃" in the Lun-heng論衡 

Lin Fu-shih

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

The interpretation of the phrase "wu-k'ou yan-hsien 巫叩元絃" in Wang Ch'ung's王充 Lun-heng論衡 has been a source of disagreement among many sinologists. Some consider it merely an erratum or nonsensical phrase, but others argue that the term "yan-hsien元絃" might refer to some kind of stringed instrument. Some Japanese scholars even claim that "yan-hsien" was a bow. This essay presents a detailed philological examination of the phrase "wu-k'ou yan-hsien" in light of what we know about the shamanic cultures of China and its neighbors.  Based on the evidence collected to-date, I maintain that "yan-hsien" was in fact a type of stringed instrument, perhaps even the one-stringed zither (i-hsien ch'in一絃琴) or a related instrument. 

While there is no direct evidence in other Chinese texts which can be used to verify the argument presented above, this account in the Lun-heng is of great value as it enhances our understanding of how shamans (wu) communicated with spirits in ancient and medieval China. This text also reminds us of the extremely important role that music played in Chinese shamanic rituals. Music not only accompanied performances of shamanic rituals but even served as a means to summon spirits to attend these rites.


Keywords: wu, shaman, yan-hsien, music, ritual