The History of the Shang-ssu Festival in China and Japan

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The History of the Shang-ssu Festival in China and Japan

Festivals are important times in religious history and in a nation’s cultural heritage. We can see this in the history of Shang-ssu, or Joshi, festival. The Shang-ssu is a purification rite which dates back to ancient times when purification rites would take place at riverbanks or on the seashore.

The Shang-ssu appears to have originated in China, but scholars are unclear as to when and where exactly. We have only a little information on it by commentators such as Cheng Hsuan who tell us that it was performed by the river on the “uppermost ssu day of the third month”; hence, shang-ssu (“uppermost ssu”), ssu being the sixth in the duodecimal cycle symbolized by the animal “serpent”.

Cheng tells us that the individual would bathe oneself with fragrant herbs. The purification rite was performed as early as the Chou Dynasty when it was conducted by nu-wu (“woman shamans”) or hsi (“shamans”). In ancient Chinese, the word wu or his meant someone “who sees the ghosts”.

In the Sung Dynasty (c. 420 – 477 CE) it was recorded in the the Sung shu, that “In Han shih it is said, “It had been the customs of the State of Cheng [774-500 B.C. in what is now Honan Province] on the first ssu day of the third month, on Rivers Chen and Wei to summon souls and carry [back]the shades, to hold fragrant grass to ward off evils.” … [The rite may be] held in autumn…. Since Wei [A.D. 220-264] onward what had been used was the third day (san-jih), instead of [the first]ssu [day]”.

In the later Han period it is unclear as to whether the purification rite was still performed by the wu or the his. The purification rite was performed then to rid the individual of the evils or un-cleanliness that was attached to oneself.

In Japan, the purification rite was being performed, centred on their own native religion, Shinto. Purification features heavily in Shinto and in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matter, compiled in c. 712 CE), it tells of how Izanagi, after an encounter with his dead wife, purified and exorcised himself.

The Japanese purification rite and the Chinese rites are very similar – they were both meant to rid oneself from the uncleanness of body and features seeing the deceased. However, the two should not be confused with each other.

It is a little unclear as to when the Shang-ssu festival emerged in Japan. By the 11th century, the Shang-ssu (or the Joshi as the Japanese called it), had become a ceremonial occasion in the Japanese court known as “mi-no-hi” or jo-shi (“first snake day of the third month”). The rite was performed by an on’joji (“diviner; sham-an”) on the third day of the third month on the seashore. The rite did not necessitate that the participant (Genji) be physically engrossed and cleansed in the water; instead, the ritual “consisted in the loading of a little boat with a number of doll-like figures and letting it float out to the sea”.

The Shang-ssu rite continued to thrive in China and Japan, becoming an integral part of both nations’ religious beliefs. The festival seems to be an ancient reflection of using shamans to as a medium to eliminate uncleanness or evils associated with the body and will continue to be performed in the future.


Yen, Alsace (1975) “Shang-ssu” Festival and Its Myths in China and Japan, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.


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