Date: the 6th to 16th day of the 6th lunar month every year
Location: Tongren in Qinghai Province in Western China
The Tongren Shaman Festival is celebrated by the Tibetan and Tu ethnic minorities in the villages of Tongren County in western China's Qinghai Province, located about 2 hour’s drive from Xining, the capital of the province. It is a grand and festive occasion for the local people to demonstrate their devotion and gratitude to the Mountain God. The Tibetan and Tu people in Tongren County has long worshipped the Mountain God as an immortal who protects them. The belief is understood to date back to the ancient worship of totems in the pre-civilization era of this part of China.
The Tongren Shaman Festival
The kids in the festival
During the festival, villagers dress up in their very best. The females are particularly awe-inspiring, wearing ornate, dazzlingly embroidered holiday costumes adorned with gems. From one side of the head to the other, they dangle long strands of red wood ball strands, a truly authentic look. The women then assemble at the Temple of the Mountain God, singing and dancing to entertain the Mountain God.
Of all the activities of the Tongren Shaman Festival, the most amazing, if not shocking, practices are the Shangkouqian, Shangbeiqian, and Kaishan rituals. They are each conducted by a shaman, or ancient religious leader, who also presides over the entire festival.
The first, Shangkouqian, means to pierce steel needles through the mouth. The process goes as follows: the shaman, on behalf of the Mountain God, pierces 1 or 2 steel needles about 25 centimeters long which somewhat resemble trussing needles, horizontally into either cheek. They generally pierce both cheeks at the same level of the mouth. This unusual and somewhat morbid practice, at least to outsiders, is believed to prevent diseases from entering the mouth. A few minutes later, the shaman pulls out the needles and blows on the "wounds" as a symbolic act of healing the punctured flesh. This ceremony is not a sight for the faint-hearted to witness, yet the many young males who submit themselves to being pierced in this way do so eagerly. Up to 4 needles may be inserted in the cheeks, 2 from either sides of the face. Throughout the ritual, the participants show no signs of pain or suffering, but remain calm and collected. Perhaps surprisingly, no blood seeps from the "wounds" created.
Another traditional activity of the Tongren Shaman Festival is Shangbeiqian. It is quite similar to Shangkouqian, except it is even more incredible: a bundle of about 20 long needles are inserted into a male dancer’s back. Again, though onlookers unfamiliar with the ritual may shrink in horror, the participants consider it an honor and a privilege to practice their ancient religion in this way. This ritual is performed exclusively by male dancers during the Tongren Shaman Festival. This somewhat bizarre form of "acupuncture" is believed to impart strength to those who endure it. As such, the dancers continue their performances ecstatically, seemingly feeling no pain.
The third ritual, Kaishan, marks the end and also the climax of the festival. Kaishan means "to cut an opening." At the end of all the celebrations, the shaman makes a slit into his forehead with a knife and uses his own blood as a sacrifice to the Mountain God.
The graphicness of these ancient traditions are perhaps not so special. There are some Christian believers in certain parts of the world who have been known to practice self-flagellation in a spirit of piousness and reverence. The ancient customs of the Tongren Shaman Festival are similarly used to pay tribute and honor towards the patron saint of the Tibetan and Tu people, the Mountain God.