The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city's boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. Then he gets to work.
The hill is on the shaman's ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep's milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind.
"I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they've improved very quickly," the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flatscreen TV. "He said right now, you've already arrived – you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain."
Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongolians, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role – he became a shaman in 2009 – thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongolian, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.
Despite his success, Erdemt's status as a shaman inChina is uniquely precarious. He's an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.
TheInner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the sprawling northern borderland that Erdemt calls home, is one of the country's most rapidly developing areas – its GDP grew an average of 17% annually between 2001 and 2011, faster than any Chinese province. Its greatest asset is its natural resources – copper, rare earths, and especially coal. State-owned mining companies have arrived en masse, and they have changed the region indelibly.
The region's native Mongolians, many of them nomadic herders, have largely paid the price. Strip mining has devastated large swaths of pasture land, forcing them to move into newly built cities with few economic prospects. Mongolians now account for less than 20% of the region's 24 million people, and they own only a fraction of its wealth. Ethnic tensions simmer and occasionally explode.
Protests rippled across the area in May 2011, when Han drivers killed two Mongolian herders as they tried to block a caravan of coal trucks. Inner Mongolian authorities deployed riot police and barricaded university campuses. The drivers were hauled before a judge; they confessed, and one was promptly executed. The protests ended as quickly as they began.
Erdemt's hometownXi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-storey red-brick homes.
Shamanism is among the world's oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt's clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. "In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature – to absorb its energy," said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongolian wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman's living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. "But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic." The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China's Mongolians have lost. "He's like a short cut," he said.
Experts say that this sentiment – the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past – is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. "Because of modernisation, and now urbanisation, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realise that these things are worth protecting," saidTian Qing, the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs.
Erdemt, a former herder, centre, with his wife, Oyuunbileg, far left, son Enkheebold, left, and his cousin Baater, right. Photograph: Jonathan Kaiman for the Guardian
"Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it's boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that's not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There's pressure. There's difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort."
Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: "Even a prairie fire can't destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows."
While Erdemt's social role may be timeless, his professional duties – the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals – are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross.
"The government, they don't formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions," he says. "But as long as I don't do anything illegal – or at least, what they'd consider illegal – they won't limit me." Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he's careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They're angered by weak returns.
Erdemt's son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region's capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace.
The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle – they'd be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. "These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things – I feel their hearts are empty," he said.
Bao wants to be a shaman – for weeks in a row he'll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. "He thinks it'd be best if I find my own career," said Bao. "Even if I don't become a shaman, I'll still be a shaman's son, and I'll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life's mission."
Erdemt himself knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao's Cultural Revolution,the religion was dubbed "feudal superstition" and banned. One of his neighbours was beaten for practising it openly, and decades of silence followed suit.
The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks.
His wife bought buckets of sheep's milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongolian snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands.
Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends.
One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus toOrdos, a gleaming new city in the area's arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country's capital, Ulan Bator.
Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman's house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorised ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future.
The decision has served him well, he says. Moving back to the grasslands is no longer a priority.