The confrontation of spirituality and industrial cityscape bridges Inner Mongolia’s past and present.
There is a special basement room at a clinic in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, where shaman master Bai Aolao goes to contact the spirit world. Enclosed spaces are preferable to the outdoors because in rooms like this one, he can more easily contain the spirits he summons to heal the patients.
Bai Aolao is one of the many shaman healers still practicing in northeastern China. Patients seek out care to help ease their physical ailments or mental demons. This ritual healing involves dancing, chanting, and spitting rice wine. For centuries, Mongols hailed shamans as sages and sorcerers of medicine, nature, and religion — some even claim they can speak to the dead. In Mongolian culture they always have played a unique leadership role. In fact, many Mongolians believe Genghis Khan possessed shamanic capabilities.
Shamans were persecuted in Mongolia after the rise of communism there in the 1920s and in Inner Mongolia by the Chinese government under Chairman Mao Zedong; shaman culture dwindled for close to a century. In the 1990s, after the Democratic Union ousted the communist regime in Mongolia and China’s Communist Party adopted less stringent oversight of shamanic practices, they began to resurge.
The rebirth of this traditional practice has contributed to a kind of recovery of a lost history, becoming not only a source of regional pride but also an avenue of professional opportunity in a Chinese state that has long struggled with unemployment. Some, like Bai Aolao, practice in urban sprawls, where grocery stores and highways converge with shaman-run clinics.
Photographer Ken Hermann captured this confrontation of spirituality and streetscape when he traveled to Hohhot in the summer of 2016, setting the age-old shaman tradition against the backdrop of industrial China.
Along with their colorful robes and evocative ritual dances, Hermann observed shamans as they nursed patients with broken bones and open wounds. But Hermann noted a key element. “If you want to get cured by a shaman, you have to believe in it yourself,” he said. “You really need to believe in it.”