Gaoluo: the decline of spirit mediums

liang deshan 95

Liang Deshan, 1995.

This a kind of sequel to my post on the enduring activities of spirit mediums.

On the Hebei plain in the 1990s, alongside the folk religion derived from Buddhism and Daoism practised by the ritual associations, spirit mediums, claiming to heal illness by means of divine possession or assistance, were also quite common in the Laishui–Yixian area, and throughout rural China.

Having encountered many local mediums on the Houshan mountain during the 3rd-moon pilgrimage (see here, and here), I thought there might be some in Gaoluo, but they seems to have become rare in this village since Liberation.

Sun Xiang, who died in the late 1950s, father of opera singer Sun Bowen, was a medium and folk healer, who used to perform exorcisms. He acted alone, not as part of any association or sect, and he never sang while doing exorcisms; he drew talismans and wielded the “seven-star precious sword”. Such was Sun Xiang’s reputation for averting evil and guaranteeing well-being that several parents used to ask him to be godfather (ganye) to their young children; he was even godfather to the eminently rational village historian Shan Fuyi. The mother of ritual performer Cai Futong was also a medium, but since her death in the early 1960s the village itself had no other mediums.

Nonetheless, some Gaoluo dwellers still had recourse to other locally respected shamans when there was a problem. Soon after the 1980s’ reforms, villagers planning to build on the site of the old opera stage had consulted a medium, who advised them not to do so—but they had ignored the advice.

In 1992 a whole tractor-load of sick people went to consult a medium from a village in nearby Dingxing. In 1993 some villagers again enlisted her help when they were building a house and accidentally buried a trowel in the wall—a taboo. By lighting incense she was able to reveal where it was buried. Since then she had been arrested by the police, which had itself given rise to a new story in praise of her psychic gifts: there were long queues outside her door, but she said “I can’t cure you all today, the police are coming to arrest me!”, and sure enough ten minutes later there they were.

Elderly He Yi recalled that the ritual specialists of the ritual association used to recite scriptures for exorcisms, but they had to stop after the arrival of the 8th Route Army in the 1940s. Indeed, exorcisms are still performed by ritual associations in some nearby villages; healing illness, however, is more often the domain of more explicitly sectarian groups, as in Xiongxian.

In this region mediums are called by names like mingren, xiangxiang, or tiaodashenr, rather than the official and derogatory shenpo, wupo, and shenhan. For male exorcists like Sun Xiang, Gaoluo villagers used the term wushi 巫师, like “wizard”, but more commonly they spoke of zhuoyaode 捉妖的 “demon-catcher” or namo xiansheng 南無先生 “namo master”. Domestic exorcisms were called Pacifying the Dwelling (anzhai 安宅 or jingzhai 净宅), for when the “black turtle disturbs the dwelling” (wugui naozhai 乌龟闹宅).

Elsewhere, as you can see from my previous post, mediums were by no means stamped out after 1949, even during the Cultural Revolution, though their activities were doubtless furtive; and they revived strongly in the 1980s.

In 1995 I visited Liang Deshan (b. c1915) in a village in nearby Yixian county. He turned out to be a close colleague of Older Sister Kang, whom we had met on Houshan: they were fellow devotees of the goddess Houtu. He too knew the story of Houtu rescuing a battalion during the Korean War.

A “rich peasant”, he had attended sishu private school. He knew all about the three yang kalpas and the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu, and had copied several scriptures, including “precious scrolls” and a Longhua juan. But I suspect his interest in sectarian religion dated only since the reforms, and he seemed to operate alone. In 1993 he had copied a Baiyang baojuan 白陽寶卷, “revealed” to him by the Baiyang god (Baiyang fo). At my request he donned his ritual costume and posed with his “precious sword” and “five-god hat” (wufo guan). As ever, it would have taken more time with him to learn more about his ritual life, but it made a slender clue to the enduring activites of mediums in the area.

* * *

I can’t perceive why in many regions (including north Shanxi, notably the remarkable ever-thriving scene around Wutai county; Shaanbei; and even quite near Gaoluo) mediums are a major engine of local temple activity, but here they declined. Nor can we quite recreate an earlier picture when they might have played a more prominent role in ritual life. I now wonder if mediums are less common in villages that have active ritual associations, though I doubt if they are clear-cut alternatives.

 

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