Fertility Ritual

Hunter Bjornstad, Katie Knutsen, Matthew Malagon


In this clip, a three-minute demonstration of a Daoist ritual in Fujian, China is being performed. While the clip has no sound or color, it still speaks of the rich religious background the province has. The clip starts off with ritual masters dancing with long garments while holding swords. They then proceed by blowing horns on an elevated surface, which serves as the focal point of the ritual. The master then places ritualistic emphasis on children who are joyously running in front of them. Lastly, the clip ends with the masters dancing once again, but instead of with swords, they are dancing with branches. The rituals performed were used to honor an essential aspect of Daoism, fertility goddesses. They incorporate Daoist fertility rituals such as specific dances, chants, and props such as swords, garments, flowers, and horns. These dances and chants were used to cross the gap between humanity and the spirit world. These rituals serve as a basis for communication to gods, ghosts and ancestors for respect and good fortune. One can see an example of this in the video when the children hold the paper with written requests on it. The paper is burned and later read to see a message. The message on the paper is believed to have been burned to the spirit world and transmitted back. Furthermore, a request can be seen in the clip when the ritual of the cutting of the flower is shown. Harry Caldwell’s clip shows us an example of how Daoist rituals are used to honor the supernatural and in the case, a fertility goddess.

Extended Explanation

Harry Caldwell’s film footage is important because it shows different religions, such as Daoism, that are not widely practiced in America. His footage not only allows for comparisons to be made between the religious landscapes of America and China, but also between different cultures in the early 1900s.

The rituals portrayed in this clip come primarily from Daoism, which is not surprising given that the region’s primary religion is Daoism.[1] Daoist rituals apply the concept of yin and yang to the communication of the living and the dead, and communication between humans and gods.[2] In this film clip, the rituals were used to communicate with the spirit world in efforts to have a boy, as male children were preferred during the era. The rituals were used to communicate with a prominent Daoist fertility goddess, Lady Linshui. As Lady Linshui was a prominent figure of the Putian region, many would pray to her in various ways in hopes of a successful, healthy pregnancy and childbirth. In doing so, they would perform rituals using various props including horns, flowers, and symbolic garments. For example, the ritual horn was used to summon spirits and drive out demons.[3]The use of flowers was used by cutting a cherry blossom to not only symbolize the yin and yang relationship, but to indicate what the gender of the offspring may be. If the flower when cut was white, it symbolized male, and if red, female. The garments worn by the ritual masters symbolized Lady Linshui to further aid in the communication of the people to the goddess. The fertility rituals in the clip hold strong correlations to yin and yang as the purpose was used to connect the living and the dead. These traditions all point to Daoism as they are hallmarks in honoring Lady Linshui, the fertility goddess. Although it is important to understand the rituals performed, it is also important to take note of how the rituals connected to the people in the clip as well as the broader landscapes of China.   

In the clip, two ritual masters can be seen wielding ceremonial swords enthusiastically while a small female child is kneeling and holding the corresponding substitute body, which will be burned later.[4] A third ritual master is seen throwing what appear to be wafers or cakes in front of the altar, and multiple children are seen running and laughing while they retrieve the items. The ritual masters shown in the clip seem to understand that the rituals they are performing are a vital part of the integrity of the religious practice and community. Towards the end of the clip, the ritual masters don ceremonial headdresses and are seen with billowing skirts and dancing and moving in rhythmic patterns. By dressing and dancing in this way, the ceremonial masters are giving the ritual an effect of being a “concerted transsexuality” through the transformation of the shaman’s body into the goddess Chen Jinggu.[5] The ceremonial robes and attitudes that surround this ritual demonstrate the communication of the tradition and metaphors associated with Chen Jinggu through the shaman’s body.[6] While the clip is focusing on a Daoist fertility ritual in Fujian, it also connects to the larger landscape of China in the importance of having a male heir. 

There was intense pressure on families to produce male heirs all throughout China. Being without a son meant that the woman would not become an ancestress when she died, and her soul would not have an advocate, which would lead to her eventual obsolescence.[7] Fertility rituals, as seen in the clip, were practiced to appeal to the goddess for the child to be born a male in order to avoid this fate. Though Chen Jinggu (aka Lady Linshui) is a Daoist fertility goddess, her mother, Guanyin is a popular Buddhist bodhisattva and fertility goddess that is worshipped all across China and is not isolated to one region.[8] Specifically, the White-Robed Guanyin would grant sons covered in a white placenta to individuals who chanted the dharani.[9] The theme of white being the yang force can be seen in both the Daoist ritual with the white blossom being the promise of a male heir and in Buddhism with the males born wrapped in a white placenta.

Harry Caldwell traveled to China in the early 1900s with the goal of spreading Christianity. Caldwell believed that Buddhism and Daoism had been failing the community and that Christianity had the ability to end the suffering of people in Fujian.[10] Many of the bad events that happened to the community as a whole were seen as punishments by the gods directed towards the people. This is a main reason why rituals were held for the gods, as seen in the footage captured by Harry Caldwell. The clip relates to Caldwell and his mission because it captured the major differences between the religious practices being performed and the new religion — Christianity — that he tried to spread throughout the villages of Fujian.

[1] Dean, Local Communal Religion in Contemporary South-East China, 338-342

[2] Wu, “The Transmission of Information in Chinese Folk Religion: Reflections on Fieldwork in Putian, Fujian,” 295-315

[3] Lo, “The Legend of the Lady Linshui,” 72-74

[4] Baptandier, The Lady of Linshui, 230-231.

[5] Baptandier, “The Lady Linshui,” 116.

[6] Baptandier, “The Lady Linshui,” 116-117.

[7] Lo, “The Legend of the Lady Linshui,” 71.

[8] Baptandier, “The Lady Linshui,” 109-110.

[9] Yü, “A Sūtra Promoting the White-robed Guanyin as Giver of Sons,” 99.

[10] Chan, “Manly Civilization in China,57


Baptandier, Bridgitte. Kristin I. Fryklund, trans. The Lady of Linshui: A Chinese Female Cult. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Baptandier, Brigitte. “The Lady Linshui: How a Woman Became a Goddess.” In Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China, edited by Meir Shahar and Robert P. Weller, 105-149. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Chan, Ying-kit. “Manly Civilization in China: Harry R. Caldwell, the ‘Blue Tiger’, and the American Museum of Natural History.” Modern Asian Studies 53, no. 05 (2019): 1381-1414.

Dean, Kenneth. “Local Communal Religion in Contemporary South-East China.” The China Quarterly, no. 174 (2003): 338-58.

Lo, Vivienne. “The Legend of the Lady Linshui.” Journal of Chinese Religions 21, no. 1 (fall 1993): 69-96.

Wu, Chongqing. “The Transmission of Information in Chinese Folk Religion: Reflections on Fieldwork in Putian, Fujian.” Modern China 45, no. 3 (2019): 295-315.

Yü, Chün-fang. “A Sūtra Promoting the White-robed Guanyin as Giver of Sons.” In Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 97-105. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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