Shaanbei: spirit mediums

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, Yangjiagou, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

Spirit mediums are common throughout China; note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar. Among many posts, I’ve introduced studies on activity in Henan; Guangxi, Wenzhou, Hebei, and north Shanxi, focusing on the latter region hereShanghai; and Amdo (here and here). And here I discussed the decline of mediums in Gaoluo.

A recent article,

  • Adam Yuet Chau and Liu Jianshu, “Spirit mediumism in Shaanbei, northcentral China”, in Caroline Blyth (ed.), Spirit possession and communication in religious and cultural contexts (2020),

supplements research on both spirit mediums and Shaanbei-ology, building on Chau’s previous work.

In many regions women comprise the majority of most mediums, but in Shaanbei they are mainly men; their tutelary deities may be either male or female. The Shaanbei mediums (generally known as “horse lads” matong 马童—horse imagery is often heard) belong to two main categories, wushen 巫神 (“medium deity”) and shenguan 神官 (“divine official”). The wushen are possessed by “proper gods”, often wielding a three-pronged sword; the shenguan are vehicles for “low-level” deities, and often use a heavy drum of wrought iron and goatskin, suggesting a link with Mongolian shamanism just north.

Among many problems for which mediums are consulted, they are mainly consulted for “wayward illnesses” (xiebing 邪病)—as well as for protecting children, a circumstance that Chau and Liu illustrate with a vignette about a family consulting a wushen for help curing the eye ailment of their young son.

Mediums often initiate the building of temples for their tutelary deities; séances are held both in domestic settings and in the temple.

Seance

Evening séance at the home of a medium (possessed by the Ancient Buddha 古佛).
His wife (on the left) serves as the attendant, burning incense and paper money and preparing ritual implements. The medium has in his hands a cleaver and a dough-kneading rod; he also uses the three-pronged sword for exorcism. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

The authors describe a kind of managed spirit possession:

The initial choice by the deity to possess a person is not willed or predictable, but once the person agrees to serve as the medium of the deity, subsequent possession episodes are all managed; the deity is invited to “come down” and possess the medium for planned séances, such as during a general consultation session or at the bequest of a particular client/worshipper.

The chapter also discusses the process of “medium succession”:

Becoming a medium is not a matter of personal desire. Only the deity can choose who will serve as his or her medium. Sometimes a person suffers from a serious and inexplicable illness (the kind that cannot be diagnosed or treated by the hospitals) [cf. Henan], and a deity might ask him or her to be the spirit medium in exchange for getting cured of the illness (in other words, the person is fulfilling a vow once they are cured). Sometimes a person is chosen by the deity because of karmic connections between the two. Even though serving the deity as a medium is seen as an honour for the person and the whole family, most people would rather not have such an honour because the medium is perceived to suffer a lot, especially the frequent exhaustion resulting from séances. Sometimes the deity decides that one family will have two or three generations of mediums serving him, in which case one of the male descendants will “take up the baton” when the older medium retires, in which case there is no need for a fresh search for a successor medium.

Palanquin

A divination palanquin carried by four men. A worshipper, kneeling, consults the Sanguandadi outside the temple hall. Standing in front of the palanquin, behind the worshipper, is the temple cult leader, who addresses the deity with questions. Shaanbei, 2016. Photo: Adam Chau.

When the previous incumbent becomes too weak or dies, a ritual consultation is held, led by the temple cult leader with the aid of a divination palanquin (as in rain rituals).

An individual chosen by the deity to be a medium may sometimes try to decline the privilege. During the Maoist period, [the deity] Sanguandadi chose a [villager] to be his medium, but this person pleaded to Sanguandadi to let someone else do the job. He was working for the government and was afraid of any conflict between his work and his medium duties due to the government’s attitude towards all “superstitious” practices. Sanguandadi let him off the hook and eventually chose another person. But normally, it is very difficult to refuse “the calling.” Although high social status is not an official prerequisite for becoming a medium, there are times when the community refuses to accept the deity’s choice of medium by virtue of the person’s questionable repute or some other factors. In these cases, the deity’s choice can be challenged, such as by insisting on further confirmations of the choice by divination. Sometimes the person chosen can be so obsessed with the idea of becoming a medium, or the potential profit to be gained from this role, that he will defend his newly-acquired status against any challenges.

During the 1960s and 70s only a few courageous spirit mediums and yinyang masters practiced their trade clandestinely. Whether they had to be jailed and re-educated depended on the relationship he (usually he) had with local officials. One medium claimed that, while nine out of ten “practitioners of superstition” had to go to jail, he did not because he had cured the relatives of many of the top officials so they protected him. Also, very poor (thus of good class background) yinyang masters and mediums were not bothered too much by the campaigns. Chau also outlines the ability of mediums and their patrons to circumvent state control.

This kind of study was already suggested in the 1970s by David Jordan for the self-mortifying tang-ki mediums in Taiwan.

In another article, yet unpublished, Chau and Liu explore the theme of the attendants who serve the mediums’ deities, providing notes on a temple complex in Hengshan county and a local family of mediums, as well as a 1962 rain procession during the brief lull between campaigns.

As they describe (spoiler alert…), the role of attendant is largely voluntary. He will be a pious devotee of the temple association, quite active in helping with all its affairs. Serving as attendant is a rather onerous task: being around the temple so much, and sometimes traveling away from the village, the chores of his own family will often be left unattended; he should be brave enough to work with both the deity and the medium, as well as to confront evil powers; and he should be comfortable communicating with people. Normally he will be at least semi-literate, since an important task is to take down all the instructions from the medium during the séance. The attendant serves as intermediary between the medium and the client, translating the utterances of the deity, and acting on the medium’s instructions.

Echoing his remarks in Religion in China: ties that bind, Chau observes:

Some scholars and readers will look upon the religious practices discussed in this chapter as “magic,” “sorcery,” or “superstition,” not quite belonging to the category of “religion.” However, this kind of distinction between “proper religion” and “primitive magic” is a product of epistemological biases that privilege particular “modalities of doing religion” and hinders greatly a broad-based understanding of religious life in any society. Such a bias grants more dignity and legitimacy to religious traditions that are believed to be “higher” on an imagined evolutionary trajectory of religions, denigrating those that are supposedly less institutionalised, less systematic, more “ritualistic,” therefore “primitive” and “lower” (if not barbaric and repulsive). This is a well-known Protestant triumphalist prejudice that unfortunately still pervades most understandings of religion. Discarding this prejudice is essential for any sympathetic yet objective understanding of religious life.

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