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An Assembly of Bodies
Shaman's Costume image
Shaman’s costume
North East Manchuria, People’s Republic of China. 1930s.
Collected by Ethel Lindgren. MAA 1933.377-379.
This costume is one of a series of elements which allowed a shaman’s body to transform into a ‘vessel’ that received different spirits. Among the Imin Numinchen, shamans were primarily concerned with healing, prediction and with people’s relations with their ancestors.

This costume belonged to a young female shaman who died in the 1930s, aged 25. No two costumes are identical. They are assembled and added to as a shaman becomes more experienced, incorporating materials from different sources. The main part of the costume was probably made by Dagur embroiders. The brass mirrors came from Chinese merchants, and the embroidered lions at the back were taken from her father’s Manchu military dress. These features reflect some of the historical and political concerns of the people at the time.

The heavy mirrors act in a double capacity – they protect the shaman by deflecting harm, while revealing what is normally invisible to the human eye. The number of mirrors on the costume indicates the shaman’s powers and maps a geographical cosmos. By wearing the costume, the shaman is located in the centre of this cosmos.

During performance, a shaman is seized by one or more ancestral spirits, so that what is inside the mirror-costume is the spirits, rather than the shaman’s body. Here, the body is something open to forces that can control it, inhabit its form and shape its physical features.