Lives of female mediums

Here’s a companion to my post on female spirit mediums and sectarians in Yanggao.

As I observed there, alongside the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China, mediums also play an important role in local society. The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life. [1] For them in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable.

Their abilities often stem from traumatic domestic and psychosocial crises—which the Maoist era provided in plenty. [2] Mediums we met came from a wide age-range: some began their careers under the commune system, others since the 1980s’ reforms.

me-mot

Me-mot spirit mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Perhaps the most detailed research on spirit mediums in China comes from Xiao Mei 萧梅, with her study of me-mot mediums of the Zhuang people in Guangxi in southwest China—including a diary of one medium’s busy healing schedule over a month (a fruitful way of studying the lives of local ritual performers—cf. household Daoist Li Bin).

In this region, as Xiao Mei explains, [3]

Whether mediums are biologically male or female, when performing as mediums they adopt the role of female. But they all have experience of having encountered intractable calamity, either personal (such as incurable illness or mental disorder) or domestic (such as frequent illness or death in the family) [SJ: here Xiao Mei doesn’t consider socio-political aspects], and it is only through becoming a medium that they can be released from such calamities.

In Jingxi county the me-mot have a close relationship with household Daoist priests. The latter not only play a major role during the process of someone becoming a medium, but also need to collaborate with the medium in practising rituals for averting calamity and seeking blessing.

* * *

But mediums are also just as common among the Han Chinese in north China.

For Yanggao in north Shanxi, I’ve just added Wu Fan’s interesting notes from 2003 to my post on mediums there. That post also includes some material (including photos) from the Hebei plain—which is now even nearer Beijing than it was when we were doing fieldwork on ritual groups through the 1990s. In the course of our studies we met many mediums; on and around Houshan they often channeled the goddess Houtu (see also here).

Zhang Zhentao (Yinyuehui, pp.302–4) introduces some of them in his notes from 1995, offering rare glimpses into their activities during the Maoist era:

Liu Derong (b. c1941), from a village near Houshan, used the ritual name (faming 法名) Longding 隆定. As she told us, while giving birth in 1954 and 1961 she “went mad”, clambering up the walls, fearless; in a dream she saw Guanyin of the Southern Seas seated in lotus posture before a table on the kang brick-bed. She would levitate, only coming back to the ground when she called out to the deity. She began healing at the age of 31 sui, around 1971, and had by now healed over a thousand people, notably for gynaecological ailments. We heard her sing “ritual songs” (foge 佛歌) such as The Ten Lotus Leaves (Shiduo lianhua 十朵莲花).

We also chatted with Ren Xiuzhi (then in her 60s), who came from another village in Yixian county. She had begun to “fall ill” in her 20s, and began healing people when 42 sui—in the mid-1970s.

These accounts also suggest that there could be quite a long gestatory interval between the initiatory crisis and the consolidation of healing powers.

Dingxing HTM 1995

Houtu temple, Dingxing Northgate 1995.

Still in 1995, nearby at the Houtu temple (formally called Taining gong 泰宁宫) in Northgate of Dingxing county-town, we met the exceptionally renowned medium Chen Shiying (1907–98), [4] who was still in charge of the temple. Indeed, its popularity rested mainly in her reputation as a healer.

I have supplemented our notes with the 1994 biography (indeed, hagiography) displayed in the temple, which shows a rather distinctive path:

Chen Shiying bio

Unusually for a medium, she came from a successful literate family. This precious old photo of the Chen family is said to date from the 1930s:

Chen Shiying old pic

As always, I wonder what became of them all through the ensuing turbulent times.

After the early death of her husband, Chen Shiying contemplated suicide. But when she was 37 sui (1943) her husband appeared to her in a dream, telling her that her mission was to become a healer.

Chen Shiying continued her story for us. By the age of 46 sui (1952!) she had earned such merit that Houtu occupied her body, telling her that as she had no resting-place, Chen should collect funds to build a temple for her. With collectivization escalating, she now had to persuade the reluctant village authorities. As she tearfully threatened the village chief that she would die if he didn’t give permission, and that he would soon follow her, eventually he had no choice but to allocate a plot of land by the river. She told us that she practised as a medium throughout the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution, though “Granny” (Houtu) didn’t necessarily possess her body then.

Now one would clearly like to learn more about this whole period… When we visited the temple in 1995, Chen Shiying was still living there, healing a regular succession of patients there. A placard was displayed, reading “Holy physician, sacred practitioner” (Shenyi shengshou 神醫聖手). “Granny” had recently told her she also needed an opera stage before the temple, so she was now busy assembling funds to build one.

As Zhang Zhentao observes, the popularity of the cult to Houtu depends largely on the great faith that villagers place in the efficacity of both the mediums and the deity occupying them.

* * *

In Shaanbei, spirit mediums (both female and male) are also ubiquitous (for an introduction to the various categories, see Chau, Miraculous response, pp. 54–6).

Here, again, we find that the waxing and waning fates of temples (not always evident from written sources) may depend largely on the efficacity of their presiding medium. The intrepid Guo Yuhua (Minjian yishi yu shehui bianqian, pp.378–9) gives an interesting illustration of such change over a brief period—in this case referring to a male medium:

On a hill above Yangjiagou village the Lingguan temple (full name Heihu lingguan miao, to Efficacious Officer Black Dragon) was rebuilt in the early 1990s and rapidly became very popular, thanks to the renowned efficacity of its healing matong medium. Villagers throughout the area flocked to its temple fair on 7th moon 15th, making donations of several thousand yuan that financed the new god statues and the performance of a “holy opera” down in the village.

But suddenly in 1996 the temple revenue declined sharply, because the medium died. Villagers explained that the god had departed along with him. Then over the following New Year the temple mysteriously caught fire. burning the “god places”, an offerings table, the door, and windows.

At the same time the village’s Longwang miao and Pusa miao temples were enjoying a revival with their successful rain processions during the droughts of 1995 and 1997. So villagers soon transferred their loyalties. As the “rain opera” at the Longwang temple on 5th moon 15th became popular, the Lingguan temple accordingly moved the date of its own temple fair to combine with it. The villagers even moved the Lingguan god statue, responsible for healing, to the Pusa temple so that they could seek cures before it at the 4th moon 8th fair, and “hang the locket” there for their children—not part of the temple’s original functions.

With this in mind, a return visit to Chen Shiying’s temple in Hebei, since her death, would be interesting.

As Guo Yuhua notes, this is also an instance of the resilience of popular strategies, by contrast with state measures towards religion. Temples are not just timeless ancient vestiges of some ancient cultural heritage, but depend on people—both educated and illiterate, both male and female.

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, now forlorn, Yangjiagou 1999.

* * *

The healing sessions of mediums, while now acting in tandem with (rather than in conflict with) more orthodox medical procedures, are clearly a significant and enduring aspect of folk healthcare. And in all these regions, mediums vocalise in various forms including singing: soundscape is always an important aspect of our ritual studies (see also here, and here).

While it is hard enough to unearth the history of household Daoists under the Maoist era, it’s even more so for the female mediums. Their domestic healing activities never drew much outside attention, so it seems likely that they discreetly maintained their activities under the commune system. But since women tend not to relate their stories to the public life of the society, and such mediums are often illiterate, it will take thoughtful work to explore this topic. Similarly, fieldworkers are unlikely to happen upon the initiatory crises that first trigger their possession, which might also make a revealing study.

 

[1] Note the bibliographies here and here. See also my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese music (2013), pp.32–4 and n.40.

[2] For a fine ethnography of an Yi community in Yunnan, describing possession and exorcism as symptoms of (and strategies to handle) the violent traumas of both Maoist and reform eras, see Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001). For a blunt psychiatric perspective, see Albert C. Gaw et al., “The clinical characteristics of possession disorder among 20 Chinese patients in the Hebei province of China.” Psychiatric services 49.3 (1998), pp.360-65. 

[3] Adapted from Xiao Mei, “Bodies, gender and worldviews: me-mot spirit mediums in the Jingxi region of Guangxi”, in Gender in Chinese music, pp.247–64. For more, see Xiao Mei, “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷) [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, vol.2, pp.328–494; note also the amazing scenes on the DVD). On the initiatory crises, see p.438 ff.; for the diary, pp.455–7.

[4] For her birth-date, the biography gives a Guangxu year of Yiwei 乙未, equivalent to 1895, but then states that she was 88 sui in 1994 (indeed, in 1995 she told us she was 89 sui), so perhaps we should read the year as 丁未。

 

3 thoughts on “Lives of female mediums

  1. Pingback: Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. I am very intrigued by your position that “music” is a misleading category when applied to people eg ringing bells in a Taoist ritual and we should using something less loaded like “soundscape”. It occurs to me a similar argument could be made for “religion”. Is there a more neutral word — akin to “soundscape” — we could use he describe he various phenomena and practices that are now grouped under “religion”?

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    • Thanks for this! I just added a couple more links for the “soundscape” part of your comment
      As to “religion”, good point: others might have better answers, but I might start with Catherine Bell, and perhaps Geertz? (Both feature on this blog, but not so relevantly that I’ll cite them here). Oh, journals on anthropology of religion etc. too…

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