Escape to Index of Jordan's Writings.
Escape to Class Web Site.
Restore introductory note text.

How To Become a
Chinese Spirit Medium

DAVID K. JORDAN
Working Draft, June 4, 1977

Almost everyone who has read about Chinese religion is familiar with the phenomenon of spirit mediumship, which has been described by many writers on Chinese religions in general (most notably by De Groot 1897-1910: v.6 :1269-1924 reference), and which has been the subject of a monograph by Alan J.A. Elliott (1955 reference).

The subject has indeed been treated often enough that the Hokkien word tâng-ki 童乩 (or occasionally ki-tông 乩童 ) has even crept from the vocabulary of the China-oriented anthropologists into the vocabulary of our usually Mandarin-purist colleagues in history and philosophy. (The Mandarin cognate is jītóng 乩童.) reference Most writers unfortunately have been innocent of extensive interviewing of mediums, and the number of mediums whose careers are known to us in any detail from the published literature so far are few. reference

In my book Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors (Jordan 1972 reference) I devoted most of one chapter to a discussion of spirit mediums in the farming village I called Bǎo'ān 保安, north of Táinán 台南 City, in the Chinese province of Taiwan. The rural tâng-ki, I maintained, was essentially a means of divination, similar in some respects to such other oracles as divination verses (qiānshī 籤詩) or moon-blocks. The tâng-ki, however, had the advantage that he could talk, and thus provided a uniquely efficient means of communication between god and man.

On the basis of contacts with rural tâng-ki, I showed that tâng-ki were of both sexes and varied widely in age, and that every sort of personality was to be found among their ranks (at least as personality might be viewed non-clinically). And I described the initial possession and the initiation of some rural tâng-ki whom I had seen begin their careers in Bǎo'ān village. I also discussed the rural spirit medium's claim to credibility and the constraints that credibility placed upon his actions. I described the case of one of the Bǎo'ān tâng-ki in still more detail in an elementary anthropology textbook (Swartz & Jordan 1976: 640-650 reference). This paper will focus on urban mediums, who have a much greater potential to develop into full-time specialists. The paper takes the form of instructions for becoming an urban medium, exemplified by the cases of mediums I met and interviewed in southern Taiwan.

If you want to become a Chinese spirit medium, you naturally need (in addition to being Chinese) to be able to go into trance, to speak with the voice of a god (or possibly several gods), and to mortify your flesh without feeling pain.

For moderate success as a medium, you also require a good understanding of Chinese culture and society. You need to know who is in the Chinese pantheon, how human problems may be caused by supernatural forces, and what steps can be taken to solve them in the framework of exorcism or other supernaturalism. You need to understand the social structure in which your clients are engaged, and have a grasp of the kinds of drives and motives that produce their opinions and their behavior. You need to be able, in other words, to make an accurate analysis of a client's problem and to propose a realistic way of dealing with it at the same time that you explain his problem to him using symbols that he can understand and that he is motivated to find credible and to accept.

And these understandings must be managed while you are in trance.

I have already dealt with most of these issues in earlier publications, and so this paper will, be a kind of "advanced course" in mediumship I shall assume that you already know and can do all of what I have mentioned so far, and shall explore what happens to you as you try to make your way as an urban medium, with a clientele coming from distant places to consult you, perhaps with a temple of your own and a small organization to assist you in the management of your growing cult. reference And I shall suggest what you must do when the clientele exceeds your ability to cope with it. I had occasion to interview a number of urban spirit mediums in Táinán City last year [1976], and these observations will be based on those interviews. reference

Urban tâng-ki do not differ from rural tâng-ki in broad outline: they are possessed, mortify their flesh at temple festivals as a sign of the presence of divine forces, answer questions from clients, prescribe medicines (with more caution since legislation on this in 1975), and so on. Some tâng-ki are induced to take on the vocation in invocational sessions conducted by temples, and some are spontaneously struck with their trance. Some resist the work vigorously at first, while others make only a token show of resistance Some become tâng-ki only after a period of severe illness(es); others, while perfectly healthy. Some take disciples or assistants others do not. Some run cults and, build small temples; others have no such ambitions. Some are given to demonstration and miracle, bombast and mortification; others rarely engage in anything beyond charm writing and homey advice.

Nevertheless despite the variation, one can see some trends as well as some inherent constraints in the status of medium. Let me first try to subdivide urban mediums into some manageable categories, based on how they find their clients. I am going to argue that the base of his clientele can affect a medium's success, and that there is such a thing as being "too successful," at least if your goal is to continue being a medium.

Return to top.

Tâng-ki Attached to Major Temples

First, a medium can be closely attached to an existing temple. I do not mean merely that he pays a fee and practices there some of the time, but rather that he is organizationally attached to the temple as a "resident: tâng-ki," in much in the way that some temples have companies of musicians or troupes of professional players attached to them. (The tâng-ki described by Elliott in Singapore seem typically to be of this type.) Such a temple really ought not to be called a "medium temple," since it is neither founded by nor centered on the person of the medium. The tâng-ki merely performs a service in the temple, overseen by regular temple personnel. One such temple in Táinán City is the Bǎo'ān Gōng 保安宮. reference

Founded in 1715, the Bǎo'ān Gōng originally stood in the midst of a shipyard. Today the area has become an active market and a crowded and impoverished quarter of town. Although the temple is particularly noted as the center for the worship of a stone stele base, its principal deities are the Five Kings (Wǔfǔ Qiānsuì 五府千歲), whose cult is often involved with mediumship. In 1976 it had a resident company of musicians, an associated group of processional players, and its own troupe of exorcists (Hokkien: hoat-á 發仔). reference

Early in 1976, however, the Bǎo'ān Gōng was without a medium, though the rear court was well. equipped with mediumistic equipment. The old medium had died, and no new one had come forth. Since I was only in occasional contact with this temple, I did not follow the matter closely, and was a bit surprised when I learned that they had at last replaced the "resident" medium early in April. This happy news was announced with a sign posted in the rear court of the temple, which said (Chinese text.):

Tâng-ki reference séances are conducted every lunar month on the 3rd, 6th, 9th, 13th, 16th, 19th, 23, 26, and 29th. All believers are invited to appear at the appointed times to ask instruction regarding what is felicitous or infelicitous, fortunate or disastrous, regarding sickness, and regarding all family matters. It is imperative that you not neglect to do what is necessary. reference

The tâng-ki practiced about every third day, fitting into a calendar that also included meetings of the temple music society and the exorcists' troupe. Another temple, the Wǔyīng Diàn 五英殿, employs not one but three resident tâng-ki who perform serially or simultaneously on a daily basis in close cooperation with a local medicine shop. reference

Return to top.

Tâng-ki at Home

Far more common than being the resident medium of a temple is for a tâng-ki to hang his own shingle and seek a clientele either among friends and neighbors or more widely. In most instances the tâng-ki seems to serve a particular small ward of the city, and some come to be universally respected on their own streets and a few adjacent streets. In other cases, although he may attract some of his clients from his immediate neighborhood, local belief is not by any means universal, or the tâng-ki's ambitions are wider, and his most important recruitment seems to come from a larger area.

Mr. Hóng reference provides an example of a tâng-ki whose recruitment is virtually entirely limited to his immediate neighbors, among whom he serves as an important decision maker (and source of entertainment) each afternoon. Unlike many tâng-ki, he seems to be regarded as an important community oracle by a very high proportion of his immediate neighbors, and skeptics in the neighborhood do not seem to be many. I asked Mr. Hóng if there had not initially been a problem gaining credibility. There was indeed, he answered, but he was lucky enough to perform a miracle early in his career that solved a neighborhood problem:

When I first became a tâng-ki my neighbors and friends still said a devil [guǐ ] had possessed my body. There was a child, about 6, who had a liver ailment . His family circumstances were not very good, and they had spent a lot of money on the child's illness, but if they were to put him in a hospital it would cost more yet. It was already too late: the liver ailment kept getting worse. As he approached death they placed him outdoors beside the front wall [to prevent pollution of the interior of the home by a death] to wait for the gods of death [sǐshén 死神] to take him off. At this point people in his family came to ask the help of my god, who prepared a prescription or the child to take. Within three days his illness was much improved, and as he continued to take the prescriptions of the Five Kings his liver ailment was completely cured. … (Since King Lǐ of the Five Kings had saved his life, they ceded him to King Lǐ as an adopted father [Hokkien: khè-pē 契父]. On King Lǐ's birthday this child's father happily contributes a little extra money to the merry-making.) This time, when King Lǐ began to exert his power, might be said to be when I finally achieved my mediumship to the Five Kings and could devote myself to saving the world on King Lǐ's behalf. [Translated from a summary transcription of a tape-recorded interview. C'-202f.]

His fame spread, particularly of course among his immediate neighbors, and ha was now well established as a tâng-ki. Unfortunately Mr. Hóng's subsequent record of success in solving his clients' problems was less impressive, and his supporters and patrons are largely limited to his close neighbors, among whom the charter miracle is still remembered.

In addition to tâng-ki attached to established temples and those with purely neighborhood patronage, a third type of urban tâng-ki seeks a clientele that is neither restricted to the visitors to a particular temple nor to residents of a ward, but rather extends throughout the city and perhaps beyond. reference (Obviously either of the first two kinds can become this sort of medium, but the superior administrative position of temple personnel restricts the "resident medium" in some ways. )

Return to top.

Successful Mediumship

Success, for a medium, is hard to define, but a wide geographical spread of clients certainly seems to be a point of mediumistic pride A person does not go into medium business . the way he goes into another business. Mediums are, by my own observation and by all published accounts, more typically rather haunted people, who become tâng-ki because they cannot avoid it. Although they are widely believed to make a good deal of money at this, few of them openly admit to doing so, and most men hold other jobs as well. reference Nevertheless there is a certain pattern of developments that can reasonably be called success without doing violence to the mediums' own sensibilities. And this begins with successfully attracting a following of grateful, convinced, and continuing clients, with a geographical spread that demonstrates they have made some sacrifice to come and have heard of the tâng-ki in distant places. Success then proceeds with the erection of a small temple, typically at the house of the medium.

The first stage of the process is easily seen. Mrs. Zhū has an outsized altar to the Five Kings in her cramped front parlor behind her husband's coffin shop. Picking their way in among the coffins, patrons visit her for charms and small-scale séances. Her trance is undramatic: a few burps, a giggle or two, a scribble on the pad of charm papers, and she is back to her blasé, trance-free self once more. The Five Kings do not permit her to accept personal contributions, but she accepts small amounts of cash for the maintenance of her huge and elaborate shrine and its high demands in incense and fruit offerings.

Rather more ambitious is the setting for the séances of Mrs. Wáng , whose huge altar to the Mysterious Maid of the Highest Heavens (Jiǔtiān Xuánnǚ 九天玄女) not only dominates her front room, but has effectively converted it into a small temple. Before the house a large sign proclaims the building to be the chapel (tán ) of the Mysterious Maid, one of five celestial beings that frequently possess Mrs. Wáng. In the adjacent room Mrs. Wáng stores an expensive carved palanquin, which is used when she takes her god(s) to join processions of large temples having festivals.

(Having more than one possessing presence in one's mediumistic repertoire is unusual, though by no means unknown. Mrs. Zhū was able to be possessed by any of the Five Kings, even as Mrs. Wáng was possessed by several different divinities. This is not related, so far as I can tell, to the success of their businesses, but I have the impression that it is still not the way the better sort of tâng-ki behaves: the most obviously successful tâng-ki of my acquaintance are possessed by but one spirit. Multiple spirits may be a sign of trying too hard.)

Mr. Cài is another tâng-ki whose house has become a temple. Mr. Cài, subject to possession by the Living Buddha of Salvation (Jìgōng Huófó 濟公活佛), has named his house the "Hall of Sacred Heaven" (Shèngtiān Táng 聖天堂) and has invested in a large outdoor incense pot and enclosed his courtyard to make it the forecourt of the temple formed by his front parlor, which has been designed to facilitate temple work.

Return to top.

Independent Medium Temples

Mr. Gāo , also a tâng-ki of the Living Buddha of Salvation, has gone yet a step further. His "neighbors," he told me, decided to build him a temple and. rented an entire apartment. down the street from the one in which he lived in a new district of town. This apartment was converted into a temple, which was entirely independent of his house: a tâng-ki-centered temple. A similar independent tâng-ki-centered temple belonged to Mr. Yáo , whose "Golden Heaven Palace" (Jīntiān Gōng 金天宮) is a reconstruction of an old temple standing in an open space south of the city that is just beginning to be developed. reference

Return to top.

Underlings: Irregulars and Proto-Mediums

When your developing tâng-ki practice reaches this scale of activity, you will find you can no longer operate without assistance. Even the simplest rural tâng-ki depends upon his fellow villagers to see that he is provided with certain minimal equipment while in trance and to be certain that he does not fall when he is released from trance or hurt himself in overly frenzied self-mortification. (For small-scale operators who do not mortify the flesh, this assistance may be dispensed with. Mrs. Zhū typically dispensed with any help, and Mr. Hóng and Mrs. Wáng were assisted only by their spouses.) But to handle a growing clientele certain bureaucratic rationality has to be introduced into the operation to order the questioners, prefabricate charm papers, maintain records, and the like.

A tâng-ki can and does make use of people who are simply "hanging around" his shrine for want of other entertainment, especially those themselves prone to trance. Mr. Yáo's Golden Heaven Palace was attended by a number of neighbors who liked to spend their evenings in the cool of the clearing or who were attracted to mediumistic performances or simply to chatting with other neighbors. One of these was a young man who never talked very much to anyone but who began to have symptoms of trance and was described by somewhat puzzled "regulars" at the shrine as a "student of mediumship" who had simply turned up one day and who was moderately helpful about the place when he was not hazy with incipient possession. (I left Taiwan before he ever succeeded in saying anything while in trance.)

Mrs. Wáng too had assistants of this type, whom she called her "students." Most of them were former clients whose difficulties Mrs. Wáng had diagnosed as being due to possession by spirits seeking mediums and whom she had encouraged to become tâng-ki to the extent that they could manage trance behavior. In this way she had developed a hierarchy of tâng-ki, with herself at the, top, and her numerous "students" below her, some operating small (and so far unprominent) halls in their houses, and all appearing together in processions in connection with Mrs. Wáng's palanquin.

Return to top.

Limitations of Underlings Given to Trance

For a tâng-ki to take on such "students" in his art is unusual, but it is also not a procedure that leads to rationalization of the expanding cult. I do not recommend it if you want to develop your tâng-ki practice on solid business principles. Mr. Yáo's self-appointed "student" was helpful enough, but the expectation of most of the "regulars" was that he would eventually vanish as abruptly as he had appeared and become a competing tâng-ki somewhere else. Mrs. Wáng's "students" contributed to her glory in processions, where they formed part of a company of performing mediums of which she was clearly the head. But they did not form a corps of assistants eager to assist her in her day-to-day work. She had a certain respectability among them as their "teacher" but no realistic authority or even advantage over them. The potential independence of any medium from any other (not to say potential competition) normally seems to militate against cooperation being a stable arrangement, and one does not normally find large and vigorous establishments operated by several tâng-ki in cooperation The problem is that the potential independence of the parts makes it too easy for such arrangements to collapse. reference

Return to top.

Laymen As Underlings

Some tâng-ki in Táinán have developed an increased degree of efficiency by cultivating a corps of lay assistants whose specially marked liturgical relationship to their cults gives them a degree of increased commitment without giving them the potential independence that the incorporation of other tâng-ki would involve. Mr. Cài has a group of 16 "believers," who engage in collective chanting and highly stylized consumption of candied fruits "on behalf of the community of believers" on high holidays (the birthday of the Living Buddha of Salvation and the anniversary of the founding of his cult). Mr. Gāo, the other tâng-ki of the Living Buddha of Salvation, whom we also met earlier, describes his relationship to the Living Buddha as "Golden Son" (jīnzǐ 金子). The Living Buddha himself bears the title of "Master" (shīfù 師父 ), and Gāo has transmitted the Master's orders by creating a temple bureaucracy of 24 "Teacher Siblings" (shī xiōngdì jiěmèi 師兄弟姊妹) (23 female and 1 male), and over 100 "People Under the Censer" (lúxià 鑪下), all but one of them male. reference

Not all of these assistants are in constant attendance. The Fourteenth Teacher-Sister conceded that she attends only when there is someone else art home to tend her apothecary shop on a night when she feels moved to go. Normally there is not, so normally she does not attend the séances. Despite the size of Gāo's "staff," then, only a small number of assistants are on hand at any given séance unless specifically directed to be. (The problem is sufficiently familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a volunteer organization.) I have the impression that creating and filling "staff positions," however, assures him at least some assistance every night and being appointed to an office "captures" the more enthusiastic of his clients for greater emotional and ultimately financial involvement in "their" cult of the Living Buddha.

Gāo operates at what is just about the maximum capacity for a modern spirit medium. By means of his numerous assistants and by working from the time he finishes supper at 5:30 in the evening until 11:00 p.m. or occasionally later every night, he is able to process as many as 100 clients in an evening. (That is an average of 3 minutes 18 seconds per client if he stops at 11:00 o'clock.) This is a grinding pace for a man who occupies another job in the daytime, and he complains that it allows him barely any time for dinner or sleep and none at all for recreation. reference The huge case load requires extensive written records of cases, which Mr. Gāo reviews before going into trance each evening, allowing him to keep in mind the background of clients who return to him. Even with this grinding schedule, he can process so many clients only because his assistants tend to the maintenance of the temple itself and handle the records of cases.

Return to top.

Going Professional

A logical step for a tâng-ki in this position would seem to be to quit his daytime job and give himself over entirely to mediumship, particularly since many mediums regard that as a full-time job from the beginning. We have seen that some tâng-ki are not permitted by their possessing gods to do this, and suffer illness if they appropriate cult money for their personal use. For such individuals, another job is necessary to earn money for their personal and family use. Further, a tâng-ki with another source of income is, I believe, more credible, since he has an immediate answer to the charge that he is using religion to bilk money from the masses, a charge that Chinese skeptics stand poised to hurl as soon as they see the whites of a clergyman's eyes. Holding down another job is therefore a badge of honesty on the part of the tâng-ki. Some tâng-ki do not feel they need this and seem to build perfectly successful practices while devoting themselves full-time to mediumship. But tâng-ki who are able to maintain another source of income typically point to it with pride, and more importantly their clients refer to it as evidence of the genuineness of the miracle.

As more and more legislation confines the activities of the tâng-ki, I would suggest that when you develop your urban tâng-ki business you maintain another job as well, so that you too can be immune from the charge that you are making money off of religion. Whether your possessing god lets you be sticky-fingered with the collection box or not, an outside job helps build credibility.

Mr. Gāo's clientele has grown to the present back-breaking size partly through the effectiveness of large signs throughout that quarter of Táinán advertising the tâng-ki of the Living Buddha of Salvation. And far from taking down the signs now that capacity has been reached, further expansion is planned. Plans are now is progress for the erection of a temple on a city-block of land that would normally hold about twenty townhouses. The land was donated by the First Teacher-Sister, and the temple will be built with contributions from the People Under the Censer and the Teacher-Siblings and with general receipts of more casual clients. Mr. Gāo does not himself attend to the finances of the cult, it is claimed. On the contrary, great stress is laid on the fact that the collection box is directly behind him when he is in trace so that be cannot see it, and that contributions are entirely voluntary. But the belief that the tâng-ki can see behind him as well as the eagle eyes of his assistants standing about no doubt increases the contributions of casual petitioners, and a substantial amount of money seems to have been accumulated which will be committed to the new temple. reference

How, we ask, can Mr. Gāo possibly tolerate further growth? How can he possibly imagine that he has not reached the limits of his success a tâng-ki? Mr. Gāo is already too busy with the cult and has built an organizational and financial base for it that increases his efficiency on the one hand but on the other also has the potential for increasing the number of believers and participants almost indefinitely. But he has only a limited number of hours in a day to devote to the project. The new temple represents the expansion of the cult of the Living Buddha of Salvation. But it cannot represent a further expansion of his mediumship because that is already working at peak capacity, It does not, in other words, solve what seems to be his problem. And I could gather no speculation from him or from others around the temple about what was to happen.

One solution to the problem may lie in the plans for the temple itself. Nobody cared to predict just how the temple would be used, but unlike Gāo's present temple, the new plans seemed not to include provision for tâng-ki activity in any obvious way. It was as though the cult of the Living Buddha of Salvation was about to be separated from its oracular base and launched upon the world as just another rather ugly modern temple. The principle here is that as the temple succeeds, the medium recedes. This seems to be what has already happened to a couple other overly successful tâng-ki temples in Táinán, to which we now turn attention in the hope of seeing what success ultimately brings.

Return to top.

The Big-Time Spenders: Kicking Oneself Upstairs

(At least) two other tâng-ki in Táinán have already faced this problem. They too have built organizations to routinize their activities, but, unlike Mr. Gāo, they have already built their temples. One of these is Mr. Huáng , the famed "Child Immortal" (Hokkien: gín-á sian 囝仔仙), whose temple, the "Celestial Palace" (Tiān Gōng 天宮), was already well along in construction when I was in Taiwan in the mid-1960's. At that time the temple was already so over-subscribed financially that every column had already been paid for, and there were no more parts of the building to which one could make a contribution., The Child Immortal began as a 13-year-old prodigy specializing in fortune telling.

Whether he was a tâng-ki or not I do not know for sure. By the time I first interviewed him in about 1967 he was already a successful temple proprietor in addition to being an oracle, and his fancy was turning to discussions of founding a center for the study of world religions, with a research library and dormitory facilities, among other things. reference The central hall of his temple contains a large tablet dedicated to the "Prime Mover of the Universe" (Tiānshàng Zhǔzǎi Dà Yuánlíng 天上主宰大原靈) and his instrument of divination, a large wheel which is spun rather in the manner of a roulette wheel to establish a number based on which clients receive a printed fortune and its interpretation and application to their cases at a service desk at the side of the chapel. The Child Immortal. himself has in this way released himself from the day-to-day fortune-telling work of the temple and has retired to administrative work, leaving the operation of his roulette wheel in the hands of subordinates. reference

By 1976 the clientele of the temple seemed to me to have dwindled, and on any given night one could see a mere handful of women in the temple. Plagued perhaps by termpaper writers from the Christian seminary down the street, the Child Immortal is even less available for interviews now than in the middle 1960's.

The most striking tale of mediumistic success is that of Guō Dōngmíng 郭東明 who was mentioned briefly in Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors. Mr. Guō Is from Bǎo'ān Village, where he was orphaned, and from which he moved to Táinán City as a destitute urchin to set up as a tâng-ki. By 1967 he had a successful full-time tâng-ki business operating from an outsized altar in the front room of a very fashionable new house he had built, where he was subject to possession by the senior-most of the Five Kings (King Lǐ -the same spirit referred to by Mr. Hóng earlier). Since I had called on him in 1967, I returned in 1976 go see how he was doing. The house, rather the worse for wear, had now been turned over to his younger brother, who appeared to be operating as a spirit medium there, and who had improved the premises by the addition of a furnace in the front court for use in burning paper spirit money. Guō Dōngmíng I was told, had moved just out of town to the site of a new temple he was building. Impressed that the enterprise had been successful enough to allow the construction of a new temple so quickly as this, I made my way to the site of this building.

As I approached I saw in the distance the yellow tile roof of a substantial building and was impressed that the orphan lad of Bǎo'ān Village had ultimately come to build a temple of such imposing dimensions. As I came closer it developed that this roof belonged go a mere outbuilding of the temple itself. The "real" temple, in contrast, was the most imposing pile of concrete I had yet seen in Taiwan. Estimated to cost about two and a half million American dollars before it is finished, Mr. Guō also promised that it would be the highest building in Táinán and the largest single temple in Taiwan. reference

I found Guō Dōngmíng himself living in a multi-storied, air-conditioned house along a very chic new street leading up to the side of the temple clearing. The house boasted marble floors, carved wooden walls, painted ceilings, a private bar on the second floor, and a meditation chamber with an enormous altar and stars painted on the ceiling in the penthouse. The house cost something between 50 and 70 thousand American dollars to build, a Chinese friend estimated. This success was due largely to the patronage of one of Guō Dōngmíng's clients, a large manufacturer in the area, who took Dōngmíng in as a partner in his business. But this was by no means the only source of money for the project. Dōngmíng was unwilling to discuss the finances in any detail, preferring go dwell on the necessity of virtue and morality in the modern world. But the entrepreneur's sense which has driven his cult is revealed by his plans. He has located the new temple beside the site of the new north-south freeway to facilitate expansion of his clientage to include the adjacent cities of Jiāyì 嘉義 and Gǎoxióng 高雄, and he plans a hotel complex in the temple basement to make pilgrimage comfortable. The symbol of the temple will be the mythical unicorn-like animal called a qílín 麒麟. An enormous statue of a qílín will crown the tower on the roof, and fetishes of the qílín will be available for a considerable mark-up in connection with birthday celebrations of each of the Five Kings each year. reference Though it is beneath Guō Dōngmíng's s new found dignity to speak of the crassly commercial aspects of the new temple, it is clear that it is intended to be self-supporting if not a source of income.

Even more than the Child Immortal Huáng, however, Dōngmíng seems to have retired from the business of going into trance. Despite the meditation room in his penthouse, he no longer speaks of himself as a tâng-ki and his back and shoulders no longer show any signs of the scars and sores that brand the practicing medium. "I do not use the word 'tâng-ki,'" he told me. "I merely serve the gods." I took this at the time as a polite refusal to continue calling his work by a term of such humble associations. But in so far as I was able to establish, the astonishing financial success of Guō Dōngmíng's mediumistic enterprise has finally brought about a change in his position to the point where it is no longer practical or necessary for him to be a medium at all.

Return to top.

Success and the Self-Destructing Medium

We may now think back on Mr. Gāo, the Living Buddha's "Golden Son," working at the limit of his abilities day and night and tied hopelessly to his small temple, where an ever-growing clientele is at this point managed only by increasing bureaucratic rationalization of the that help to organize temple activities, leaving him free to remain in trance. We asked ourselves earlier on how he would manage if the construction of the new temple were to increase the patrons yet more.

The solution to the problem that both the Child Immortal and Guō Dōngmíng found was simple: retire as a medium and "move upstairs" to the position of executive manager; live on the temple as a temple. If you are a really successful medium in the sense of attracting a large enough clientele, then being a medium apparently can eventually provide a good enough financial base to finance a temple large enough that, by itself and without mediumistic work, it can generate an adequate income. Perhaps this is the reason why Mr. Gāo's new temple to the Living Buddha of Salvation makes no obvious provision in the plans for mediumship, and why he is so non-committal about how he will handle the crowds.

Return to top.

Retirement

Once one begins to suspect that success as a tâng-ki brings retirement from that same status, it is not hard to see that there are some important practical reasons to retire, quite beyond laziness. A wealthy man is a conspicuous man. He acquires a social dignity which is incompatible with the low-prestige activity of trance. He is also conspicuous in that his utterances acquire greater and greater importance and require greater and greater care. Every ethnographer discovers sooner or later that the best informant in an organization is rarely the head of it. Just as my local school paper can find out more of the "dirt" about campus politics by asking me than by interviewing my university's vastly more discrete chancellor, so the wealthy and mighty of a Chinese city are inclined to speak in platitudes and to leave-the skeletons in their closets. Platitudinous as trance utterances tend to be, most tâng-ki would nevertheless be reluctant to see them printed in the newspaper, and as a man becomes powerful and wealthy his social position comes to make his work as a practicing medium more and more difficult.

Further, the government, ever mindful lest a fraud be perpetuated upon the ignorant or a word be uttered contrary to the best interests of the nation, is inclined to pay particular attention to the activities of the wealthy and respected. The influential conspicuousness of a man of wealth is different in kind from the innocuous pomp of the simple ward medium and incompatible with it.

"It's a funny thing," people in Táinán sometimes remark. "The gods of most temples are more powerful before the temple is built, and they seem to get weaker once they get a beautiful temple." Although this is intended to apply to all temples, and not merely to temples of mediumistic origin, the remark faithfully acknowledges the disappointment of enthusiastic believers when both the self-sacrifice and exhilaration of temple-building are past and the tâng-ki has been put out to pasture.

It appears that as it grows and attracts an ever larger clientele, as it outgrows the front parlor or converted house and moves to a small temple, your mediumship will begin to pose organizational problems. If you are effective enough that your clientele grows to support a larger temple, you may find that like Guō Dōngmíng and the Child Immortal, the tâng-ki in you self-destruct as an active oracle, leaving your clients with a temple and possibly a temple organization, but without the mediumistic talents that were the beginning of the whole process. That is perhaps an odd way to conclude this "advanced course" in mediumship, for it is a little hard to see self-destruction as mediumistic success, quite. But if it is any consolation, it appears that when you reach that stage you will at least be a wealthy and grudgingly respected temple executive.


Works Cited

CHÉN Réndé 陳仁德 et al
1963 Táiwān shěng Táinán xiànshì sìmiào dà guān. [Survey of temples in Táinán county and city, Taiwan province.] Gāoxióng: Xīngtái Wénhuà Chūbǎnshè. 台灣省台南縣市寺廟大觀.高雄:興台文化出版.
ELLIOTT, Alan J. A.
1955 Chinese spirit medium cults in Singapore. (Monographs on Social Anthropology, No. 14.) London: Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science.
GROOT, J.J.M. de
1892-1910 The religious system of China; its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect: manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 6 volumes.
HSIAO Ching-fen
1972 The current situation of new religions in Taiwan. Theology and the Church 10(2):1-24.
JORDAN, David K.
1972 Gods, ghosts, and ancestors: the folk religion of a Taiwanese village. Berkeley: University of California Press. [A copy is available on this web site. Click here to link to it.]
MYERS, John T.
1974 A Chinese spirit-medium temple in Kwun Tong: a preliminary report. (With the collaboration of Davy Leung.) Hong Kong: Social Research Centre, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
1975 A Hong Kong spirit-medium temple. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 15:16-27.
SWARTZ, Marc J. & David K. JORDAN
1976 Anthropology: perspective on humanity. New York: John Wiley & Sons. (The relevant text has been developed into a separate article on this web site under the title A Medium's First Trance.)

Return to top.