Q: What is your proposed project? What are your intended objectives?
I propose to study Mongolian shamanic ritual and dance philosophy.
I will pursue this from the perspective of an active student of Dongba religion, as well as an American-born artist with Mongolian ancestry. “Dongba” is the traditional animist belief system of the Naxi ethnic Chinese in Southwest China; Dongba is also the name of the shaman-priests who retain ritual knowledge for their communities. I have lived and worked seasonally with Dongba in Yunnan province since 2011. My formal studies in Dongba began in 2013, when I was accepted as a student apprentice and given the name “Wu Zhimi.” Since all Dongba students in recent memory have been male and of Naxi descent (and I am neither), people see Wu Zhimi as an anomaly; The project raises questions of gender, ethnicity/ nationality, and locality within religious/ spiritual practices.
Mongolia specifically interests me because their shamanic practices are closer to my own ethnic heritage than Dongba culture of the West. In the book Shamanism, Mircea Eliade writes that shamanic practitioners have higher success rate if operating under hereditary traditions. I have heard a similar claim from Buddhist teachers- that chanting ancestral mantras is more effective than using the language of a religion to which you have converted. Contemporary artists, in some ways, perform roles in their communities that are similar to those of shamans of the past. I aim to uncover how Mongolian shamanic traditions may shape my identity today, and incorporate that into my visual arts and performance-based work.
Many similarities exist between the practices of Mongolian and Naxi shamans. According to John Matthews in The Shamanism Bible, records indicate of a unified culture that once stretched “across Russia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, and Persia.” (p.76) Although Mongolia lies on the opposite side of China from Yunnan, Dongba text uses specific pictograms for Mongolia and its people. Do Mongolian peoples recognize the Naxi Dongba in a reciprocal way?
I plan to locate Mongolian shamans and converse with them about their practices, using Dongba as a comparative base. The conversation will form as a continuation of the dialogues already taking place in Yunnan and America.
I will interview practitioners informally, observe the ways they live and work (particularly regarding dance, trance, and consultations), and learn about healing methods and herbs.
My main objectives are to learn and exchange information, to immerse myself in the Mongolian shamanic community as an agent of Dongba culture and Taiwanese-American retrospection. I hope to: A) take Dongba outside of the Yunnan area and bring it to other parts of the world; B) reconnect with Mongolian aspects of my heritage, and re-incorporate it into my identity; C) expand my network of international shamans to include those in Mongolia; D) engage Dongba and Mongolian shamanism in a contemporary shamanic conversation; and E) bring this set of exchanges back to North America (where I was born and raised), where I will re-contextualize what I learned, via my own artworks and performances.
Q: What is the impact you hope your project will have on your home community, and/or your artistic field?
According to Oleg Dorzhiyev, a Russian shaman, shamanic worldview accesses the Universal- to see people as part of a single unified network, along with plants, animals, minerals, and other environmental/ cosmic phenomena. This project is part of a long-term exploration that attempts to define and reframe the nature of the universal human condition in our current globalized era.
We might consider the Naxi/ Dongba and Lijiang Studio international network as my “home community.” My studies in Mongolian shamanic practices will provide a cultural framework for WuZhimi to connect and merge with, as well as extend the reality in which we observe a “sister entity” juxtaposed and conversant with Dongba religion of the Southwest. I am curious as to how Mongolian communities receive information about Dongba religion, and how Dongba sources will react towards the exchanges made. Perhaps this may provide support for those who struggle to see how ancient shamanic tradition survives in post-industrial, post-modern circumstances.
I also see certain North American creative hubs as my “home community” (especially Brooklyn, New York, where I am based as a working artist). My deepened understanding of my own cultural identity will serve to inform my work and those who witness and communicate with it, and this can diversify the cultural climate that I participate in. I work mainly in the fields of visual and performance arts, where it is not so common to see voices with a background exactly like mine- though I know many practicing artists out there who relate with different facets of my identity. In part, I will investigate, which aspects of my work appeal more or less to American audiences— and why?
Furthermore, I hope these developments lend to legitimize Wu Zhimi as a Dongba-student-practitioner. It will be interesting to observe what ideas and beliefs I am able to trace conceptually to “original” ancestral sources, and to see how they relate with concepts I have studied in China and America. I want my learning to be useful to others, especially those who can relate with me- whether as Asian-American artists/ diaspora, or as queer/ female spiritualists, or international students of shamanism, etc.
It is fair to say that, since this project is exploratory in nature, and perhaps still in its early stages, I am not ready to discuss its potential social impact. It is possible that this first trip to Mongolia sets groundwork and makes initial connections for further research in the future. Ideally, my experience with this project should contribute toward some level of common identity and our communal understanding of each other as human beings- whether on a cultural/ subcultural, national, or global level.