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Eufunctions, Dysfunctions,
and Oracles: Literary
Miracle-Making in Taiwan

The following paper is copied from my computer file of the draft version. The text has been checked against the published version with which it agrees except for a couple of very minor corrections. In addition, all Chinese words have been respelled into the now universal Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system of romanization and Chinese characters have been added. I have also broken some paragraphs into shorter ones to facilitate reading on the web. The original printed version, now out of print, may be found in David K. Jordan & Marc J. Swartz (eds.) 1990 Personality and the cultural construction of society. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.


Outline

  1. Eufunctional & Dysfunctional Analysis
  2. A Case Example: Sectarianism in Taiwan
  3. A Functional Analysis of Taiwan Sectarianism
  4. Possession Trance and Dissonance Reduction
  5. Conclusions
  6. Bibliography

I. Eufunctional & Dysfunctional Analysis

This chapter takes its inspiration from Melford Spiro's article, "Social Systems, Personality, and Functional Analysis" (1961). Like much of his work, it is about the functions and motivations of social behavior. By "function" we usually mean eufunction. Human customs nearly always also involve dysfunctions, and the present paper attempts to expand Spiro's scheme of functional analysis to incorporate dysfunction by presenting most human activity is both eufunctional and dysfunctional, a sort of vector sum of causes producing a wide range of effects. I begin with eufunction.

To explain the persistence of a custom or institution (as against its origin), we must refer to its functions, Spiro argues. For Spiro, following Merton, a human institution may have manifest or latent functions. Unlike Merton, Spiro contrasts manifest and latent (which he somewhat redefines as conscious and unconscious, recognized and unrecognized), with two other, orthogonal oppositions. In the full scheme, a function may be recognized (conscious, manifest) or unrecognized (unconscious, latent), but it may also (and separately) be intended or unintended, and it may be personal (psychological) or social (sociological).{1} Only on the intended functions, conscious or not, does responsibility for institutional persistence fall, but in his article, Spiro demonstrates that all eight permutations of these dichotomies are meaningful.

1-In some other papers, Spiro introduces additional distinctions as well. For example, in "Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation" (1966: 109), he distinguishes real (ethnographically discoverable) from apparent (scientifically unconfirmable) functions.

One example he gives is Sioux warfare (pp. 111-113), which brings individual prestige (an intended, recognized, personal function) and protects Sioux society from enemies (an intended, recognized, social function). But an important human drive is hostility, which has aggression as a means of its reduction. It would be destructive to focus aggression upon group members, including ego. Accordingly, an unrecognized but intended personal function of Sioux warfare is the reduction of an individual's hostility, while an unrecognized and unintended personal function is the deflection of aggression from the self. An unconscious, intended, social function, the analysis continues, is solidarity, while the deflection of aggression from the in-group is an unintended, unrecognized social function.

Spiro's analysis makes us realize how complex social behavior became when one takes unconscious motivation into consideration, but how essential it nevertheless is to consider unconscious motivation in a methodical way.{2}

2-In a sense, many schools of social analysis, including "materialist" ones, depend upon the notion that people are motivated in unconscious ways. But functional analyses by leading spokesmen (of materialism, say) are usually unconvincing because they fail to address the problem of how unconscious motivation works.

One of the central human drives, we noted, is hostility. That was a cornerstone of the Sioux warfare analysis. Another is dependency. So important are these two that, in Spiro's models at least, they inevitably get pride of place. Not all individuals experience dependency or hostility to the same degree or in the same way, and different individuals obviously utilize different cultural resources in relieving these impulses. One important institution for their relief is religion. In a variety of papers and books, Spiro has shown how religious systems serve all his full typology of functions by providing the "raw material" for behaviors that are psychologically satisfying and socially either harmless or eufunctional.

But religious systems can have dysfunctions as well as eufunctions. One dysfunction is a tendency to generate interpretations of the world that are somewhat discrepant from mundane experience, potentially producing dissonance. At least some religious customs thus require a more or less constant system of legitimation by which the believer can justify his belief to the non-believer, or to semi-believers, and by which he can specifically neutralize the non-believer's objections and reduce dissonance for himself. Dealing analytically with dysfunction as well as eufunction allows us both (1) to account for the tremendous variation in saliency of various customs making up the same cultural system, and (2) to approach the problem of "change" that has always troubled functionalist analysis.

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II. A Case Example: Sectarianism in Taiwan

In China miracles are one device by which religious legitimation is accomplished. By "miracles" I mean any events that believers interpret as demonstrating that something is happening in violation of the nature of the mundanely known universe. A miracle, naturally, is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition includes magic tricks believed by observers to be "real." In China miracles are the stock in trade of various priests and exorcists who peddle liturgy for a living.

In recent years I have been concerned with sectarian societies in Taiwan (Jordan 1981, 1982, 1983a; Jordan & Overmyer 1986). Since miracles are part of how they attract and hold members, they can provide the context for an example. Membership in a sect is a self-conscious undertaking, and it is unusual rather than universal. (Much of non-sectarian folk religion in Taiwan involves the whole community and has an inevitability about it that makes the notions of "individual membership," recruitment," or "retention" largely irrelevant to it.{3})

3-For English book-length treatments of folk religion in Taiwan, see especially Ahern (1973), Baity (1975), Harrell (1974, Jordan (1972), Sangren (1987), and Weller (1987). For a book-length work on Taiwan sectarianism, see Jordan & Overmyer (1986). For folk religion in sectarian hands, see Seaman (1978).

4-See Seaman (1978) and Jordan & Overmyer (1986). Not all groups do automatic writing, but most do, and we shall assume such activity for the rest of this article. For other new religions in Taiwan, see a summary article by Hsiao (1972).

5-The literature on this last is large, but the most useful Chinese accounts are Lii (1948) and Su (1979). In English, see Deliusin (1972), Grootaers (1946), Jordan (1982a).

6-This goddess is an historical derivative of the "Mother Queen of the West." For most Chinese she is associated with the garden where the Peaches of Immortality grow, with which she provisions a periodic banquet for the fairy world of immortals. See Werner (1932: 1963f); (Cahill 1982). For her sectarian associations, see Naquin (1976: 9-18) and Overmyer (1976, 1981).

Chinese religion is broadly polytheistic, and devotion to one god does not exclude worship of others. There are differences in the frequencies of appeal to different deities in different personal or group pantheons, but the overlap of membership in the pantheons is substantial in fact and nearly total in theory. On the concept of personal pantheons, see Roberts, Chiao, and Pandey (1975).

A sectarian society --a common Chinese name is "phoenix worship" (bàiluán 拜鸞)-- is made up of individual members engaged in meritorious religious exercises, nearly always centering on the creation of religious texts through automatic writing séances. {4} Some groups possess their own temples; others use private houses or public temples. A few economically successful sectarian organizations extend two or more temples, constituting, in a sense, "denominations" of the sectarian religions tradition.

At least two sectarian "denominations" maintain island-wide organizations with hundreds of local congregations. One of these is the Compassion Society (Cíhuì Táng 慈惠堂), briefly described by Overmyer (1977); the other is the Celestial Way (Tiāndào 天道).{5} Both sects center on the worship of a figure known under a variety of similar names, including "the Unborn Mother" (Wúshēng Lǎomǔ 無生老母), "the Golden Mother of the Jade Lake" (Yáochí Jīnmǔ 瑤池金母), or simply "mother" (mǔ ).{6} The sectarian tradition in general and the sectarian tradition in combination with the Golden Mother cult in particular are the late twentieth century derivatives of much longer Chinese traditions of automatic writing and sectarian organization (Jordan & Overmyer 1986). The mother sects are generally more successful than the others, probably due to their selection of the nurturant Golden Mother as their object of special attention.

Participation in a sect involves acknowledging the legitimacy and authority of an automatic writing oracle that is normally its center. The oracle is operated by a medium in trance, who traces characters on a bed of sand or incense ash with a forked stick, called a . Chinese characters written by are clear for any literate Chinese to decipher, and often the process is watched by a number of attendants and visitors.{7}

7-Contrast other popular writing oracles, where the characters are ambiguous. See Jordan (1972: 64-67), Swartz and Jordan (1976: 644-45).

The characters are always read out loud by an official reader and transcribed by a secretary. The finished written revelations may be personal instructions to individual petitioners (regular worshippers or visitors), but in sects they are more often general mythological and hortatory texts exhorting the group to good works and congratulating it on its virtue. Such revelations may be assembled into collections and published for free distribution as books and magazines to members and to anyone else willing to read them.

Sectarian groups meet in the evening several times a month. In the Compassion Society and most other groups, membership is marked by the revelation to each regular member of a "chapel name" (tánghào 堂號) by the oracle. Members are appointed to positions in a hierarchy of functionaries. Since the revelation task itself requires only a few people (usually mostly men), other members (usually mostly women) spend the sessions reverently standing, sitting, or kneeling, depending upon the group. Before the medium enters trance to begin the revelation, many groups provide musical invocation chanted by one or more cantors. Incense is also burnt, and flowers and other offerings are presented. In the most societies each of these tasks is assigned to a designated "officer," so that most members have titles and specific obligations. After the trance has ended, the newly revealed text, if not directed to individuals, is read out and explicated by a senior sectarian.

8-Accordingly to this mythology, the Golden Mother is the creator of the universe and of humanity, but is distressed to find humanity straying from the true Way and bringing doom upon itself. To try to lead her wayward children back to her, she has sent the buddhas of the past. The appeal is that of a mother seeking the welfare of her children, one who asks the children to recognize her concern for them and her superior understanding of what is good for them. Since my analysis will be strengthened by this myth and worshippers' concern with it, it is important to stress again that not all sects center on the Golden Mother. On the contrary, many groups select other "patron" gods or none at all.

9-Members of the more extreme Celestial Way condemn nearly all popular religion as "superstition" (míxìn 迷信) and wage an unrelenting and entirely reciprocal propaganda war against organized Buddhism, household and community rites, and popular shrine processions.

An evening's revelations normally come from a wide variety of divinities, usually of the ordinary, popular pantheon, occasionally from unknown minor gods known only to the group, and sometimes from the Golden Mother herself. In Golden Mother sects, other gods often make reference to her and to the mythology relating to her.{8}

All sectarians exhibit a strong tendency to sense a benign presence overseeing their daily lives. Members of sectarian groups are expected to offer these groups their primary religious loyalty. A member may be scolded by the oracle for consulting a spirit medium unconnected with the group. Some congregations participate in processions connected with celebrations of other temples or shrine centers; if so, members are expected to participate with the sect, rather than independently or with other groups.{9} Membership in a sect, in short, involves subordinating one's general religious participation to one's sectarian membership, sometimes at a social cost.

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III. A Functional Analysis of Taiwan Sectarianism

10-Like the preceding ethnographic sketch, the summary analysis here is necessarily brief. For fuller treatment, see Jordan & Overmyer (1986).

Returning to Spiro's scheme of intended and unintended, conscious and unconscious, and personal and social functions, we may produce a convincing analysis of the role of bàiluán in the psychic and social economies of its members.{10} The consciously intended, personal function of participation is salvation, or at least gaining religious merit toward that eventual end. The consciously intended social function (reflected in the publication of hortatory revelations, for example) is the promotion of virtue, which turns out to mean value continuity with the Confucian past. Unintended but recognized personal functions are the avoidance of anxiety-producing behavior --people speak of behaving "better" because of their membership-- and recognition (such as by holding offices). An unintended but recognized social function is the creation of social support networks, which provide financial and moral support to participants in time of crisis. (My informants report cases of emergency housing or loans, for example. For some individuals this can, presumably, become an intended personal function, as it does in some American churches.)

The analysis of unconscious functions is chancier, given my available field materials. The stress on dependency, particularly clearly illustrated by the success of the Golden Mother congregations and by the intimacy and frequency that informants report in their dealings with her, leads me to conclude that an intended personal function is the expression of this dependency, and an intended social function may be the relief of these dependency needs in ways that are socially valued (namely conformity to a traditionalistic society stressing socially eufunctional behaviors such as filial piety). Another intended but unrecognized personal function seems to me to relate to status anxiety. Chinese child-rearing practices involve punishment for misbehaving but little reward for conformity. The treatment of children, moreover, constantly stresses the extent to which they are "under observation" by a critical world concerned about their conformity.{11}

11-The theme is common in folklore and children's literature, but can readily be elicited from informants as well. It has recently been documented for school socialization in an undergraduate honors thesis by S. Miron (Miron 1984). See also King & Bond (1985), Li (1985), Song (1985), and Zēng (1972).

12-See Wu (1985), Ho (1986). Cultural traditions associated with such anxiety might include (1) the system of elaborate etiquette designed to mask criticism and stress recognition of statuses, (2) high cultural evaluation of titles and labels, and (3) preoccupation with cultivating social "links" (guànxì 關係). See Chiao (1981), Jacobs (1980, especially chapter 3), ; Zēng (1972), Wilson (1973).

13-See Jordan (1981). For other treatments of the management of hostility through features of Chinese popular religion, see Jordan (1983b), Li (1985), McCreery (1979). In Spiro's analysis of Sioux warfare, he distinguishes between the reduction of hostility (an unconscious intended personal function) and the deflection of hostility away from the self (an unconscious unintended personal function) and from the in-group (an unconscious unintended social function). The same general logic would apply here.

My general model hypothesizes that these influences are conducive to generating anxiety about one's success at fulfilling the demands of a status.{12} Sectarian revelations congratulate members on their virtue, provide religiously meritorious tasks, and accept members without regard to their normally significant reference groups. The groups, in other words, reassure members of their inherent worth as the pantheon does what Chinese children wish parents would do: praise them.

Another unintended unrecognized personal function concerns hostility. Sectarian societies provide opportunity for hortatory exhortation of outsiders to join the society or to perform good works. They provide an outlet for the expression of hostility felt toward a wide range of people, diverting the aggressive feelings generated by this hostility away from the individual.{13} The act of converting the expression of aggression into traditionalistic exhortation in defense of socially approved traditional values also diverts it from socially destructive channels; this provides an unintended, unrecognized, social function.

Given all of the eufunctional features of sectarian life, why are there Chinese who do not join up? One answer is that some of the features are not functional for all potential members. Not everyone requires or receives the personal satisfactions we just listed as sectarian functions. Not everyone in Taiwan intends its intended functions or has personal needs effectively met by its personal functions. Even for participants, there are in fact dysfunctions. Our functional analysis is not really finished unless we also take account of dysfunctional features, of the burden that one assumes in participating. If there are benefits, there are also costs.

If we envision the social world as the sum of various vectors, a compromise among conflicting forces, or the product of the joint operation of costs and benefits, we arrive at a "functional" analysis that must be as concerned with dysfunction at various points of analysis as with eufunction. Using Spiro's differentiation of intended and unintended, conscious and unconscious, and personal and social functions once again, we find that it can be used to guide a study of dysfunction as well as of eufunction.

Beginning with consciously recognized, personal dysfunctions, we find that members end up contributing money, sometimes considerable amounts of money, whether to buy incense and flowers for the altars or to build a new temple. (The charge most often made against sectarian activity by non-members is that it diverts money from the family bank account.) Second, members find that they are subject to criticism from outsiders for being obsessively concerned with religion. Furthermore, membership, being exclusive in many sects, can also preempt participation in much folk religion, including many community rituals. The result is a certain alienation from (earlier) friends and family. These costs, while almost certainly unintended, are recognized by members and held to be unfortunate.

Some widely recognized personal dysfunctions of sectarian membership can have a eufunctional aspect as well, and may in fact be intended. Membership takes time away from other affairs, mostly a dysfunction, but (especially for women) membership is also an excuse to escape from the family and its labor demands (a personal eufunction, if a familial dysfunction).

Holding office in the sect or becoming practiced in its scripture or rituals brings prestige either with reference to a (hypothetical) reference group of all meritorious people or in the eyes of fellow members. But a case can be made that there is general recognition that there is something distinctly "second-rate" about this esoteric knowledge, simplified as it is from far more complex historical precedent. Sectarian chanting of Buddhist texts, for example, is not quite as prestigious as Buddhist chanting of them. Furthermore, despite lip service, esoteric traditionalistic knowledge is not in fact as widely or highly valued a commodity in modern Taiwan as the modern knowledge conveyed by the system of schools and universities and connected with the world of high-paying jobs. Physics and accounting, not geomancy and fortune telling, are widely perceived to be worthy occupations for the young. {14} Thus eufunctional prestige is dysfunctional superstition in some contexts.

14-See Jordan (1983a). My notes include several instances of failed students who, barred from continuing in the higher-prestige, modernist school system, subsequently turn their attention to traditional pursuits ranging from meditation and martial arts to bàiluán. Low level (traditionalist) prestige is in these cases associated with the corrosion of higher level (modernist) aspirations. /p>

15-Many Chinese use the term "White Lotus Sect" (Báilián Jiào 白蓮教) as a cover-term for such groups, and some seem to imagine that all of them are connected through a vast underground system of authority links to create a gigantic rebellious organization. The Celestial Way, operating in secret for many years, is inevitably charged with being a "White Lotus" sect; so common and troubling is this charge that the Celestial Way initiation liturgy specifically denies such affiliation.<

Members and non-members also recognize some other unintended social costs to sectarian activity. Within the wider society, sectarian societies of all sorts have an unsavory reputation for attracting rebels, and indeed the most vivid Chinese popular image of the sect is that it is a rebel cell.{15}

Another recognized social dysfunction, probably unintended in most cases, is the subversion of the religious mainstream by sectarian activity. Buddhism is the commonest case in point, but for a Western observer perhaps the most vivid example of this may be the appearance of Jesus in -writing séances, resulting in the sectarian claim to supersede mission Christianity. Most sectarians do not deny that the effect of Christians taking such revelations seriously would be, in the end, the dismantling of the Christian organizations and their assimilation into the divination groups.

Unrecognized dysfunctions, because they are unrecognized, do not enter directly into the rhetorical efforts for or against sectarianism. They are nevertheless real. At the social level, an unintended and unrecognized social consequence may be to associate traditionalist, "Confucian" morality with the overlay of sectarian liturgy and text production. To the extent that non-members see bàiluán as "superstition," such an association would erode the legitimacy of the traditionalist moral system promoted by the present government and corresponding to many of the private moralities of most Chinese in Taiwan.

At a personal level, an unrecognized, probably intended, but ultimately destructive effect of revelation societies (as of many similar religious activities) may be to divert attention into putative solutions rather than real solutions, exchanging short-term comfort for long-term efforts to cope. A common example is the use of medical treatment prescribed by a writing medium in place of more expensive, time-consuming, or uncomfortable therapy by a doctor.

Clearly unintended, and usually not directly recognized is the sense of personal dissonance that is inspired in individual members by the need to suspend disbelief about the sect and its revelations in the presence of constant challenges to its claims by non-members. I have saved this dysfunction for last because it seems to be especially pervasive, and for many it is the prime factor which seems to determine whether they will or will not participate in sects. The dissonance associated with believing what others doubt is clearly a personal dysfunction of membership. An important concern of sect leaders (and tradition) is the attempt to resolve this dissonance by providing evidence that the disbelieving world is wrong. The expectation of dissonance may be one of the principal reasons why non-members remain non-members: who wants to join up with crackpots?

This summary treatment of the eufunctions and dysfunctions of membership in Taiwan sectarian societies shows that a functional analysis proceeding along the lines suggested by Spiro in his 1961 article can be rendered yet more productive if it is paralleled by a consideration of the simultaneous dysfunctions of the institution under examination. In the next section we take up the problem of dissonance and dissonance reduction, which I take to be a peculiarly important issue in the functional analysis of religious sectarianism.

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IV. Possession Trance and Dissonance Reduction

16-The most complete description of the cultural trappings of speaking mediums in Taiwan is Sheau (1977), but there are many shorter investigations in Chinese and Japanese. See also Liú (1975) and Sòng (1976). For a psychodynamic and medical analysis, see Li (1976), Tseng (1972), and Wang (1976). In English see Jordan (1972: 67-86).

17-I use the term "medium" as a cover term for both speaking and writing mediums. There is some difference of opinion about whether it is the person holding the stylus --the writing medium-- who is possessed or whether it is the stylus itself. For our purposes it makes little difference, and I shall follow what is, for my informants, the majority opinion: namely that it is the writing medium who undergoes possession, since it is clearly the writing medium who goes into trance.

18-The only other major culturally valued trance behavior in Taiwan is that of the necromancer (Hokkien: khan-bông). See Potter (1974) for a Cantonese example. Another category of possession occurs less often and, unlike the possession of mediums, is not culturally valued. This is the "random" trance that some people suffer when they are exposed to events or places of great supernatural significance, such as temples or religious processions. The exact interpretation of this varies widely with context. Some instances are thought to be divine possession, as when a god is forcing a new speaking medium to adopt the calling. Others are taken as demonic, as when procession dancers or actors are seized temporarily by the characters they are painted to represent (Jordan 1983b). Such negatively valued trances produce attempts at exorcism.

19-There are probably differences between the revelations of urban speaking mediums, who often do not know their clients, and rural speaking mediums, who normally do.

20-For example, see Sheu 1941; Graham (1961: 103), Doolittle (1865: II: 112-114), Jordan & Overmyer (1986), and Xǔ (1941). The distinction was apparently not always made the same way in all parts of China. Even in Taiwan some tâng-ki produce written revelations, while some writing mediums break into speech. And not all writing mediums are attached to bàiluán groups. Similarly, a few tâng-ki become centers of revelation societies. Elliott (1955) provides a close study of a Singapore example.

Simplifying a bit, the central focus of sectarian claims to significance is the oracle: the written revelations and the process by which they are produced. Insiders must believe that the medium (or the stylus) is possessed by gods to produce divine writ. Outsiders either believe that the possession is by rather darker forces or (much more commonly) that there is no possession at all. The issue is resolved by evidence, and the evidence is the miraculous character of the writing. Believers point on the one hand to the self-evident "godliness" (read: traditionalism and stereotypy) of the revelations, but also to differences between them and everyday writing. In China, and probably elsewhere, proof, general or specific, comes through the medium's ability to do in trance what he or she cannot do ordinarily.

Trance (dis)abilities represent enough difference from workaday experience to be especially pre-adaptive to the role of sacred manifestation. Possession trance occurs in various forms in Taiwan, as in China as a whole. The forms most conspicuous to the casual visitor are speaking mediums, known in the English literature by their Hokkien name: tâng-ki. These men and women, in their miraculous mode, mortify their flesh dramatically and, in their oracular mode, provide advice to inquirers.{16}

Closely related to these are writing mediums, who are responsible for the production of text.{17} Other instances of possession and trance are not normally involved in the problems we are considering here.{18}

A speaking medium, in trance, is believed to speak with the voice of a god that is usually also thought to occupy the body of the medium temporarily. Sometimes it is the fact of the god's presence, rather than what he or she says, that is most important. Possessing a medium allows the god to be a participant in a ritual or procession or to utter oracles for individual or community edification. Most commonly, a speaking medium acts as a community counselor, operating from a small store-front temple or from his front parlor.{19} The trance of a writing medium, in contrast, is most often the channel by which an organized revelation society receives divine instruction. Speaking mediums tend to be scorned by traditionally minded educated people, whereas spirit writing societies have often attracted the interest of some literati.{20}

21-Several variants of this are part of a general repertoire of "proofs" for the speaking medium, including climbing sword ladders without cutting one's feet, walking on hot coals without being burnt, and the like. Some of these are extremely impressive. During my work in Bao-an the high point of a speaking medium initiation occurred when the new medium washed his face with boiling oil, scooped from a pan with his hands. It develops that, under certain circumstances (which may include trance), human beings are able to do this without inflicting injury on themselves. Handling boiling oil is also reported by Larry Peters (personal communication) for the Tamang of Nepal, for example, among whom people in trance may plunge their hands into it. (See also Peters 1978, 1987.) Eugene Anderson (personal communication) reports that one medium in Singapore lined up members of the community, including Anderson, and plunged the hands of one person after another into boiling oil. I do not know how hot various kinds of commonly available Asian oils actually are, how well one is protected by a layer of perspiration, and all the rest. Whatever the physical aspects of the matter, it is a thing which people can do, but which is sufficiently contrary to everyday experience that being able to do it without getting burned can be interpreted as an exception to the normal course of nature, and hence as a sign of divine protection. It is thus more compelling and more easily sustains belief in the legitimacy of a possession. A review of cross-cultural evidence on behavior in trance states would be burdensomely long here. For overviews, see Bourguignon (1968, 1976, 1990) 1990, Peters & Price-Williams (1980), Wedenoja.

Every medium has the logistic problem of providing evidence both of the reality of his trance and (especially) of the legitimacy of his possession. The usual way for a speaking medium to demonstrate his legitimacy is mortification of the flesh by cutting or piercing his back or forehead or by burning his arms or chest with hot incense, all without any evidence of pain.{21} For many or most, this is unusual trance behavior, occurring only on festival occasions, but periodic mortification is nearly compulsory if a tâng-ki is to retain credibility.

A second (and more common) way for a speaking medium to make miracles is to produce revelations that include knowledge people believe the medium himself does not have. If he lacks the ability to speak fluently in Mandarin, for example, or to write characters, or to compose verse, or to remember names, the production of revelations which contain any of these characteristics provides an evidence that he is truly possessed by another, higher intelligence.

Mortification of the flesh is incompatible with the class associations of literary activity. Writing mediums seek to incorporate miracle with oracle and to produce in trance a text that not only contains expressions of divine opinion or will, but that the writer would be incapable of producing "on his own," i.e., when not in trance. The miracle, then, as for speaking mediums, lies in the discrepancy between trance and non-trance abilities.

The miracle of the rarely lies in the actual content of the revelations{22}, and rarely in the absolute level of literary accomplishment. What constitutes a miracle is not even consistency of the literary style or level from one medium to another in the texts attributed to the same god.{23} Rather, the medium's legitimacy lies in the relative literacy of his revelations, that is, in the agreement that his revelations are beyond his out-of-trance ability.

22-A partial exception is revelations containing the personal names of visitors. Visitors to writing séances are often impressed at this, since they believe that the medium would not have known their name. In fact, such revelations rarely occur at the first visit, when the visitor is normally asked his name by a sect attendant or records it in a guest book.

23-Logically, one could argue that, if the texts are composed by gods, there ought to be consistency in the competence and style of each deity's writings, regardless of the medium. To accommodate that logic in face of obvious differences in the same god's texts from medium to medium, some believers maintain that the medium does not actually produce a text composed by a god; instead he experiences the content of the revelation and is responsible for putting it into his own words. That is not the usual view, however.

24-The same process occurs with speaking mediums, despite their custom of legitimating themselves through painless mortification of the flesh. For example, one speaking medium, whose possessing spirit speaks Mandarin (the official language and majority mainland variant of Chinese), claims to have forgotten all his schoolboy Mandarin as an adult and speaks only in Hokkien (The language of everyday communication in most of Taiwan) except when possessed. Enthusiastic clients can then point to his ability to speak Mandarin while in trance as evidence that the possessing presence is indeed the Mandarin-speaking god it claims to be.

25-Just as the boiling oil strains the ethnographer's understanding of just how the logistics of the thing must work, the prodigious talent that is required to produce some of these compositions strains his understanding of what is possible for a mind in an altered state of consciousness. Interesting papers bearing on this are Ryan & Foster (1967), and Gellhorn & Kiely (1972), and Wedenoja (1990).

26-Since it is the form of these that is germane to the present argument, the content is not analyzed here. Briefly, Figures 1 and 3, using distinctively sectarian language, stress the blindhopelessness of the human condition and the necessity of cultivating virtue to escape disaster. Figure 3 incorporates more specific sectarian references. For an extensive analysis of such sectarian writing, see Jordan & Overmyer (1986), Overmyer (1985).

Given the role of a discrepancy between trance and non-trance performance, both mediums and believers seek to depreciate the medium's non-trance abilities as well as to magnify the virtuosity of his trance productions; the interested skeptic does just the opposite.{24} Such an amplification of the difference between abilities in trance and abilities out of it is predictable on the basis of a theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, Rieken, and Schachter 1956): people try to make the world the way they have publicly committed themselves to its actually being. There is nothing at all surprising about minimizing the medium's out-of-trance abilities so his in-trance abilities can benefit by the comparison.

The universalization of literacy in Taiwan has cheapened traditional village hen-scratching and has raised standards for possession essays. Since one would expect educated writers to produce reasonably well-turned essays, the standards of evaluation rise accordingly, and "inspired" essays, to be seen as supernatural manifestations, must incorporate features that no ordinary person, however literate, would be able to produce on the spot. Not only are they expected to be in verse, but the verse is sometimes expected to conform to complexities that make its composition especially difficult. {25}

Some of the resulting productions therefore are prodigious in their form, particularly bearing in mind the rapidity with which they are revealed. Let me turn to some examples, in order of their formal complexity.{26} In a typical revelation from a spirit writing society, the text may be composed in simple prose, or it may be in rhymed lines, usually of five or seven characters each. . Chinese syntax is free enough that this is not particularly difficult. Sometimes the lines are composed so that the first character of the first line, when combined with the first characters of the second and third (and sometimes subsequent) lines, forms a separate message, typically the name of the revealing god, the name of the person to whom the revelation is directed, or the name of the hall where the revelation is taking place. The process of composition is more complex, but not beyond the capacity of educated Chinese, particularly given the tendency of the audience to look indulgently upon shortcomings of the syntax or small inconsistencies in the style or content.

With Figure 1, however, we enter a new world of difficulty. The inscriptions in Figures 1 and 3 were presented to me by an extremely fervent believer in the Celestial Way sect. The believer argued that the "superiority" of the Celestial Way was clear from the revelation type illustrated in these figures. He claimed that it was the "high quality" of these revelations that led him to join and remain in the sect.

Figure 1
Figure 1

As he understood the situation and explained it to me, the revelations in Figures 1 and 3 were received in columns. In that form they made little sense. In order to convert Figure 1 from nonsense to sacred writ, it is necessary to start reading with the middle character and to follow through the text Greek-key-fashion, winding out from the middle. (Figure 1 adds overprinted guidelines to indicate the correct path.) The reader who proceeds in this way discovers a verse made of seven-character lines. But in addition, the last character of each line is a complex graph, containing within it the first character of the next seven-character line. (The first part of the text is analyzed in Figure 2 to illustrate. It reads left to right starting at the top left corner.)

Figure 2
Figure 2

Thus each line shares its first and last characters with the adjacent lines, linking the poem together into the long chain that winds from the center of the page. The Greek-key format is in fact especially appropriate for this, since this interlocking feature would be less obvious in the conventional multi-column presentation of verse.{27}

27-Texts of this intricacy, referred to as "brocade" (jǐn ) verses, have long been playthings of the literati. To the best of my knowledge, none this intricate have formerly been attributed to automatic writing séances. For similar "linguistic diversions" with Chinese characters, see Smith (1914: 171-178). Smith's descriptions of "hidden head verses" (cángtóu shī 藏頭詩) do not suggest that informants attributed the encoding to divine agencies, but rather that they were often devised as entertainment by "educated Chinese ladies" (p. 172).

28. Accommodating the double use of the seventh character of each line as incorporating the first character of the next (here underlined), the verse therefore begins: "Tiān shén gōng jià jiù shēng chuán; zhōu fāng jiāng hú dù nǚ nán; qiáng dǎ wén mí hún zhèn; chē mǎ qīng qiú bú yuàn guān." ("Celestial gods pilot the barque of salvation, which navigates the rivers and lakes to save women and men; with strength they strike down the spirits who would mislead us.") The full translation is obscurely sectarian and beside the point here. The characters H3 and I3 taken together read "Tiānrán 天然," the usual designation of the most recent patriarch of this sect. This name appears through a cross-reading in addition to the significance of the two characters in the text as it coils through them.

Figure 3 is the most complex revelation text I have encountered. One side of a Greek key layout like Figure 1 contains columns some of whose characters are in the same order as they would be if one simply took the text column by column. The message is therefore partially intelligible without following the Greek key order. Figure 3, however, is perfect gibberish until one has the solution to its puzzle. It is read starting in the middle and moving obliquely until a border is encountered. One reasonable place to start (not the only one!) is at character H3. One then reads down through I4, J5, and K6. Here one hits a border, turns counterclockwise to take in L6, and then angles up again to M5, N4, and O3, hitting a border again at P2. One makes another turn to take in P1. Since that is a corner, one must turn again to O1 before moving down to N2, M3, L4, and so on. {28}

Because of the hexagonal shape of the text, such a procedure eventually loops through all of the characters and returns to the beginning, where one may continue round again indefinitely, in an infinite loop. As in figure 1, the last character of each verse line incorporates the first character of the next. Furthermore, not only is the path of interpretation through the design extremely complex, but the message closes back upon itself, with the first and last characters of the poem interconnected just like the first land last characters of all the lines.


Figure 3
Figure 3

The verse is therefore effectively infinite, so that one may begin with any line, progress methodically over all characters (with the same overlapping of poetic lines), and continue round and round indefinitely. To the believer, the symbolism of this closure may be as appealing as the complex coding itself. What believing informants stress, however, is the improbability of such a text being written in columns by an unaided human being. What dazzles is not only the symmetrical intricacy of the pattern of decipherment, but the fact that it was putatively revealed out of order, and that the path of decipherment had to be puzzled out after the text had been set down.

Leaders of the Celestial Way have been charged by apostates (including at least one apostate medium) with faking revelations by composing them in advance, then requiring the mediums to memorize them and write them with great flourish in ritually charged surroundings but not in a real trance and not spontaneously (Wen 1977). Such a deception is perfectly possible. It is hard to imagine very many people being capable of composing these puzzles out of order, off the tops of their heads, while in a dissociated state. Most sectarian revelations, including Celestial Way revelations, are far less elaborate and ingenious.

Celestial Way informants were impressed not by literacy --these days anybody can achieve that-- but by literary stunt driving. They were possibly (probably) also being deceived. Whether or not the remarkable puzzles were in fact composed in trance, the attempt to present them as trance productions shows a clear and mundane awareness of the general inflation in form requirements for revelation text, and of the strategic necessity of one-upping both other religious societies and skeptical outsiders in the competition for belief.


V. Conclusions

The exercise of examining the diversity of eufunctions and dysfunctions of the Chinese sectarian tradition, however, enables us to see Taiwan sectarianism in relation to its individual and collective costs and benefits, to appreciate why it is more compelling to some than to others, and to understand why "miracles" should be so central a part of its activity and rhetoric. Identifying the production of miraculous form for revelations as serving to resolve dysfunctional dissonance in a generally eufunctional sectarian membership puts it into perspective with respect to the other functions of these societies in late XXth century Taiwan society.

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