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“Causes and Effects” Tales in Sectarian Revelation

Preface to the web edition.

The following paper is a case study of religious salience, that is, in the way that broadly shared and conventionalized religious symbols can be applied by a religious practitioner to treat the problems of a patient/client completely or mostly unknown to him or her.

After an introduction describing the world of divination-based religious societies (bàiluán 拜鸞) in Taiwan in the 1970s in order to provide context, it discusses one religious practitioner’s use of salient cultural symbols in the treatment of a patient whom he does not know, and it describes her strong, culture-bound responsiveness to them. The practitioner is simultaneously attenuative to the sociology of the group.

The paper was originally published in Proceedings of the International Conference on Sinology, Section on Folklore and Culture, October, 1981. Taipei, Taiwan (中央研究院國際漢學會議論文集。 中華民國七十年十月·臺灣·臺北。). Pp. 73-99. This web version has been scanned and revised from that source.

As in the original publication, no Chinese characters are provided for personal pseudonyms. However, for the web presentation:

“Causes and Effects” Tales in Sectarian Revelation
A Case Study on Religious Salience

David K. Jordan

Page Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Folklore & Anthropology
    2. The “Causes and Effects Tales” Genre as Folklore
  2. Fújī Divination and Bàiluán Sectarianism
    1. Divination & Automatic Writing
    2. Automatic Writing Societies
    3. Liturgy & “Denominations”
  3. Tables: Bàiluán Denominationalism
  4. The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part I: Joining the Compassion Society
    1. Finding Comfort
    2. “Training”
    3. Difficult Times & Escape to Gāoxióng
    4. Return to Táinán
    5. The First Incarnation: A Filial Daughter in a Poor Family
    6. The Second Incarnation: A Rich Male Wastrel
  5. “Causes And Effects” Tales & Chinese Morality
    1. Motif: The Filial Child
    2. Motif: The Spoiled Wastrel
    3. Jī Wielding Pragmatics
  6. “Causes And Effects” and the Compassion Society Itself
    1. The Magic of Texts
    2. The Magic of Maternal Nurturance
    3. Keeping Current
  7. The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part II: A Spiritual Visitor
  8. The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part III: Life After Revelation
  9. Other Groups and Other Revelations
  10. Conclusions
  11. Works Cited


Folklore & Anthropology

Folklore is both traditional and salient [Note 1]. Although for students of folklore much of the appeal has tended to lie in its being traditional, for actors it is the salience which matters most. Folklore exists because it is used: tales are told, songs are sung, proverbs are spoken, festivals are held, explanations are used to understand. Both tradition and salience are necessary issues for analysis. Tradition and salience are not entirely independent issues. Something may be salient in part because it is understood to be traditional. And something may become traditional because it is salient. Perhaps that is the only way that a cultural element can become traditional.

Note 1. By folklore I understand genres, themes, and, and symbols of a culture as isolated by folklorists for individual or comparative study. By traditional I mean that folklore is understood by the “folk” whose “lore” it is to have existed over a comparatively long time and to be part of what makes the life of their group stylistically different from that of another. By salient I mean that for these same folklore is psychologically vivid, seeming to be peculiarly significant or meaningful.

Cultural anthropologists inevitably become involved with folklore. Because of its traditionalism, folklore can be an important source of information to the culture historian. But folklore is especially important to most cultural anthropologists because it encapsulates cultural themes of theoretically significant stability. Similarly, folklorists inevitably become involved with the questions raised by cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists can contribute to our understanding of folklore because of their attention to psychocultural and (to a lesser extent) social-structural aspects of folklore: the occasions of its use, the motivations of those who perform it, and the effect it has on those who observe it.

The anthropologist’s interest in Chinese folklore derives from his conviction that it can tell him much about the pervasive themes of Chines culture as a whole. What he can contribute to the study of Chinese folklore is (hopefully) insight into the way in which some folkloric elements fit into their wider psychocultural and social-structural contexts. [Note 2]

Note 2. The use of the term “psychocultural” is more appropriate than either “psychological” or “cultural” alone, since we are concerned so importantly with the individual (psychological) use of collective (cultural) materials. Folklore in itself is cultural; folklore in use is psychocultural.

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The “Causes and Effects Tales” Genre as Folklore

The present paper is concerned with a type of story that occurs repeatedly in Chinese morality literature and folk religion: sānshì yīnguǒ 三世因果, or “causes and effects of three incarnations”. Such a tale tells of three incarnations of the same person. It attempts to show how the subject’s present circumstances are the result of moral merit gained or lost in his previous life, which was in turn affected by the life before that. Stories of this kind are frequently revealed by mediums for the moral instruction of their listeners, especially of those whose past lives are laid out in this way.

Our focus will be upon the human context of revelation, including strategies which may lead to a medium shaping his revelation as he does and the nature of the salience which the revelation has for its recipient. At issue is not a particular story, but rather a type of story and a context for storytelling. The procedure will be to devote our attention principally to a case study of one such revelation, as experienced by a woman whom we will name Chén Xiùhuá 陳秀華, whose revelation was delivered to her by an organization known as the “Compassion Society”. [Note 3]

Note 3. I am grateful to Marc J. Swartz and Daniel Overmyer for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to Academia Sinica for providing the conference opportunity for which it was written. The fieldwork on which it is based was carried out in southern Taiwan in 1959-65, financed by the (United States) National Institute of Mental Health and in 1976, financed in part by grants from the University of California and from the Chinese Cultural Center (of New York). I am most grateful for all of this assistance.

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Fújī Divination and Bàiluán Sectarianism

Divination & Automatic Writing

Divination is a central part of Chinese folk religion. In Taiwan today, freedom of religion has resulted in the proliferation of small-scale religious societies, many of which are centered upon divination (Hsiao 1972). Among the most interesting of these are the groups whose activities center about fújī 扶乩 or automatic writing. means “to support”. refers to the instrument of divination, in this case normally a forked branch of peach or willow wood. [Note 4]

Note 4. Some writers prefer the homonymous character , which refers to a kind of winnowing basket, believed formerly to have been used as an instrument of revelation (Chao 1942, Xǔ 1940). This leads to translation of the term fújī by the neogrecism coscinomancy, “divination by means of a sieve”. At least today, no sieve is involved, and such a translation is misleading.
[Subsequent research has made it clear that some groups in fact do use an actual winnowing basket, and some a sieve. No particular significance is attached to the difference other than that one or another form is “more authentic” or merely the custom of the group involved. —DKJ 2023-04-02]

As usually used in Taiwan, the forked end of the branch serves as a handle: one of the two sides is held by a zhèngshēng 正生 or primary wielder, normally in trance, and the other is held by a fùshēng 副生 or ballast man, who usually is not in trance. The long shaft of the is used as a stylus or has a stylus fastened to the underside of it. The stylus traces characters on a bed of sand or incense dust or on the surface of a table. These are read out by a reader and transcribed by a copyist to provide the written text of the revelation.

Automatic writing is very ancient in China. Some of its adherents (quoted by Zēng 1964: 39) trace it to the Hàn dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 219 [period 6]). Chao (1942: 12) and Xǔ (1940) associate it with the custom of the invitation of the “goddess” Zǐgū 紫姑in the Liúsòng 劉宋 dynasty (A. D. 420-478 [period 10c]).

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Ethnographic descriptions suggest that in our own century·fújī has occurred in a wide variety of contexts, from being an activity of red-head Taoist priests who were simultaneously spirit mediums (Groot 1892-1910, vol. 6: passim) to being a center of sectarian activity (Elliott 1955: 140-146, Graham 1951: 103) or a project of an otherwise traditional local temple (Hsu 1948: 169, Seaman 1978). It is nearly always associated both with literate life and with receiving moral advice from benevolent supernaturals.

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Automatic Writing Societies

In modern Taiwan, automatic writing may occur in any of these contexts but is most often associated with sectarian societies. Such groups have no single, generic name. They are sometimes referred to as shénjiào 神教 or “spirit religion” (Zēng 1964: 39). They often refer to themselves as bàiluán 拜鸞 or “phoenix worship” groups, and to the practice of fújī and its associated ceremonialism as bàiluán. That name will be used here. [Note 5]

Note 5. Daniel Overmyer of the University of British Columbia is currently collaborating with me on a book dealing with these societies in Taiwan. It will contain more detailed material on these topics. See also Jordan (in press) for a general description with special reference to folklore. [The book, published in 1986 by Princeton Univesity Press, is The Flying Phoenix: Aspects of Chinese Sectarianism in Taiwan.]

A bàiluán group may come into existence either by fission from another bàiluán group, or because people experiment with automatic writing and decide to found a group for further automatic writing work. When funded by fission from a parent group, a bàiluán society normally continues to retain a relationship with that group, acknowledged by a yearly pilgrimage to the parent site and by frequent informal visits between the groups. A powerful (or divisive) group may thus spawn numerous smaller ones that are similar in their general liturgical style and form a loose denominational association.

The most conspicuous example of such an association in modern Taiwan is the Cíhuì Táng 慈惠堂 or “Compassion Halls”, more gracefully translated “Compassion Society”. Well over a hundred “branch halls” ( fēntáng 分堂) or affiliated temples of the Compassion Society dot the province, each the primary religious arena for a group of believers —anywhere from a handful to a couple of hundred— who engage in divination, meditation, liturgy, and occasional processions or festivals. [Note 6]

Note 6. For an historical sketch of the Compassion Society, see Overmyer 1977,

Typically such a group believes that it has a divine charter to contribute to the moral reformation of humanity by propagating the divine messages received through its . Such messages are of many kinds, ranging from housekeeping procedures and liturgical instructions through moralistic verses and commentary on the Classics, to rarer but sometimes rather elaborate mythological explorations of Heaven and Hell.

Thus the “Hall of Sages” (Shèngxián Táng 聖賢堂)of Táizhōng 臺中 recently published an entire book, Journey to Hell (Dìyù Yóujì 地獄遊記, Shèngxián Táng 1978), composed of revelations received over a period of several years describing a visit to the courts of Hell. Many bàiluán societies edit their revelations and publish them either as books or in magazines such as “Friends of the Phoenix” (Luányǒu 鸞友), “Sacred Principles” (Shènglǐ, 聖理), or “The Sages” (Shèngxián 聖賢). Journey to Hell was first published serially in “The Sages” as it was being revealed. The production of a book or magazine for free public distribution, no matter how small the printing, is always a point of pride for a group and a sign that it is fulfilling its moral mission.

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Liturgy & “Denominations”

All groups involve themselves in some religious exercises other than divination. Liturgy provides a necessary context for the , and some liturgical elaboration nearly always occurs, either patterned on the practice of the parent group if there is one, or elaborated following instructions from the itself. Meditation and group chanting, closely related to liturgy, are also common. Liturgical differences clearly mark off groups of historically related bàiluán societies, but so do difference in the way in which they use their for different sorts of revelations.

At the same time it would be a mistake to overestimate the extent of historical continuity, and a wielder who produces a number of revelations that contribute to a slight change of direction in a bàiluán group can sometimes have an enormous effect. (He seems to be restrained largely by the interests of those recruited to the group before the change occurs, who may have been attracted in part by exactly what he proposes to change.)

In the interest of presenting some measure of the extent to which historical “denominations” of bàiluán groups use their oracles similarly, Table I shows proportions of different revelations in collections published by two very different groups of historically related bàiluán societies centered in Mádòu (“Ma-tou”) 麻豆 in Táinán 臺南 county (groups A and B in the table) and Fèngshān 鳳山 in Gāoxióng 高雄 county (groups C through F), and by a set of other societies that are, so far as I know, historically unrelated to each other (groups G through K). [Note 7]

Note 7. Names of all bàiluán groups in these tables have been omitted to protect their anonymity.

We can see at a glance that the foci of revelation in these groups are quite different. Those in which I attended seances (the Mádòu groups and about half of the others) displayed liturgy that differentiated them into “denominational” groups that reflected their historical relationships accurately. In the proportions of revelations, we can see the convergence of historically apparently unrelated groups (especially group G with both the Mádòu and the Fèngshān clusterings). And we can also see divergencies developing among the historically related groups making up the “denominational”clusters. [Note 8]

Note 8. The codings done from group J are based upon a book of revelations published in 1962.·A similar classification was performed on a book published by the same group in 1967. The correlation between the two books was only .20, reflecting a radical change in the use of the oracle during that time. Historical and ethnographic data about the group are, unfortunately, lacking.

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Table I: Bàiluán Denominationalism
As Shown by Proportions of Different Types of Revelations in Published Books

Groups (Represented by Letters)
  A B C D E F G H i J K
Revelation Types*
1 tmpl proce 55 56 11 23 32 15 21 22 37 13 11
2 monl exmpl 8 9 38 25 12 26 22 0 44 21 0
3 monl ininc 16 14 29 36 42 36 35 37 11 35 35
4 chrm spell 1 5 14 1 0 0 0 0 4 0 2
5 cisc cmnty 0 0 2 3 0 12 0 7 0 2 16
6 medi tatn 2 1 2 0 7 5 5 7 0- 4 6
7 pers probi 1 1 2 0 0 0 9 4 0 23 0
8 misc revel 16 13 4 12 7 7 8 22 4 4 30
Total 99 99 102 100 100 101 100 99 100 102 100

*Codes: 1=temple procedures & liturgy, 2=moral examples (including “causes and effects” tales), 3=injunctions to be moral, 4=charms and spells, 5=commentary on scriptures (especially the Confucian Classics), 6=meditation, 7=personal questions, 8=miscellaneous.

The data in the above table were originally presented in slightly fuller form in a preliminary research report delivered at the Seminar on Folk Religion of the China Council on Sino-American Cooperation in Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica, May 31, 1968. I am grateful to the Council for providing the opportunity to discuss this material.

[Although not incorporated into this article, a correlation was also found among those groups producing “causes and effects” tales and the seasons, This suggests that their production, normally spread over several sessions, was more probable in the winter months, when participation in unheated temple settings tended to be lower. Normally, only at the end (the third incarnation) was it revealed which member’s story was being recounted, providing a motivation to all to attend regularly. At least as retold by Mrs. Chén, this suspense does not seem to have characterized the revelation of her story. —DKJ, 2023-04-02.]

Table II: Correlation Coefficients

A B C D E F G H i J K
A .99 .12 .55 .68 .29 .50 .56 .60 .18 .26
B .13 .51 64 .25 .46 .48 .63 .13 .16
C .78 .53 .80 .73 .14 .70 .59 .05
D .90 .93 .95 .69 .65 .70 .51
E .80 .90 .82 .48 .66 .54
F .88 .57 .55 .70 .48
G .66 .60 .86 .40
H .04 .45 .89
I .34 .19
J 21

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The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part I:
Joining the Compassion Society

At this point we are ready to proceed to the case of Chén Xiùhuá 陳秀華, a member of a local Branch Hall of the Compassion Society, and a woman whose life seems to have been transformed by this membership, and especially by a “causes and effects” revelation directed to her by its oracle. The material which follows is based (except where otherwise indicated) upon a very long interview with Mrs. Chén conducted on a warm afternoon in early June, 1975. Mrs. Chén was in her early forties at that time. She lived in a set of rooms in the Southland Branch Hall, where she served formally as copyist and informally as general manager. [Note 9]

Note 9. Names of all Compassion Society Branch Halls used here are pseudonyms. The interview was conducted in the company of my research assistant, Mr. Chén Shùnfēng 陳順風of Táinán.

Mrs. Chén’s story bears telling because of the vividness that the life of the Compassion Society has for her and because of the extent to which she has centered her existence about “her” Branch Hall. I had been doing both a survey of bàiluán groups in the Táinán area and a case study of another Branch Hall (the Dragon Well Branch Hall), and had met many enthusiastic bàiluán sectarians. But in no previous case had I been so impressed by the recipient of a revelation seeming to take it so completely to heart.

As she sat eagerly talking to us over tea, Mrs. Chén continued on and on about the importance of the “causes and effects” revelation to her view of herself, of her family, and of her life.

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Finding Comfort

The Southland Branch Hall was formally founded in 1962 by a group of worshippers who had grown disaffected from the Southern Mystery Branch Hall (a pseudonym) the previous year, and in 1967 it received the formal name that it now bears.

Mrs. Chén joined the Compassion Society the year before the split occurred. The story of her initial involvement with the group is not an unusual one. She suffered a good deal of pain in her legs at that time, and reports having tried various medical treatments without success. Her mother’s elder brother was already a member of the Compassion Society, and he among others recommended to her that she try its method of healing.

The pain in her legs (which may or may not have been psychogenic) was not the only feature of her life that led her to seek religious solace, however. She was also a new bride, and suffered from the archetypal Chinese problem of a feisty mother-in-law.

“I was wed into a wealthy family, basically”, she reported, “and was really persecuted by my husband’s stepmother. Even ‘Grandpa’ was afraid of her!” At the time, she reports, she was eager to seek comfort from any god that would listen to her, and took advantage of every opportunity to visit temples and offer incense.

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The Compassion Society suited Chén Xiùhuá’s needs, she told us, especially because its practices included something called “training” (xùn ). In the speech of members of the Compassion Society “training” refers to a state of ecstatic excitement, a light trance, usually associated with make-shift shadow boxing or with slapping one’s body in a pattern of quick, repetitive motions with the flat of each hand alternately. Such “training” is thought especially to promote health and healing.

Like many other Society members, Mrs. Chén enjoyed the release that “training” provided her, and she believed that it was especially beneficial for her ailing legs. In her early association with the Society, in fact, “training” seems to have been for her the most important aspect of its activities. Apparently every time she attended she would go into a light trance and begin pounding on her body to “heal” herself. She reported:

I beat my legs black and blue in those sessions! A person has no control; it’s a spirit general that has control. The others paid no attention but practiced “training” too. Thereafter I went to worship every night, and my legs improved.

She had a one-year-old child by the time that she became involved with the group, and she took the baby with her when she went to the Hall. In addition to “training”, she also practiced meditation under the tutelage of her new-found fellow cultists.

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Difficult Times & Escape to Gāoxióng

Meanwhile at home the relations between her husband and his stepmother deteriorated (possibly aided by Chén Xiùhuá’s own efforts), and finally one evening an explosive argument took place. The young couple already had three children and no independent budget, but they decided to split the family and strike out on their own. Xiùhuá’s sister lived in Gāoxióng, where she had a two· story town-house, in the lower floor of which she ran a noodle shop. At her sister’s invitation the couple moved to Gāoxióng to join in the noodle business.

Interestingly, the legs that had shown such marked improvement after she joined the Compassion Society in Táinán now suffered a relapse. Possibly the relapse was due to the anxiety of living in Gāoxióng, at the house of her sister. This was certainly not the ideal living arrangement for a newly married Chinese couple: popular belief has it that a “filial” son and his wife live virilocally, and that a “modern” son and his wife more often live neolocally.

There may also have been anxiety associated with leaving the life of the Compassion Society and no longer having available the catharsis of evenings of meditation and “training”. (There are of course, Compassion Society branches in Gāoxióng, but Xiùhuá was fairly single-mindedly devoted to “her”, Hall in Táinán. It is not clear that she understood at the time that functionally equivalent halls could be found elsewhere. Perhaps for her they would not have been functionally equivalent).

The recurrence of pain in her legs led Chén Xiùhuá’s thoughts directly back to the one place where she had found relief from her leg ailment, namely the Southern Mystery Branch Hall of the Compassion Society.

One particular evening my legs seemed to begin having spasms. I was already in Gāoxióng and did not know was happening in the home temple: so I burned some incense towards Táinán and prayed, explaining the circumstances and that I was going into business. If [the goddess]had anything to be done, I’d do it in the next few days.

Return to Táinán

The goddess must have had work for her, for Chén Xiùhuá apparently felt a strong compulsion to return to Táinán. She reports that she quickly finished her business in Gāoxióng and hurried back to attend a session at the Hall in Táinán.

Chén Xiùhuá told me that her time with the Compassion Society before moving to Gāoxióng was about a year. The timing of her children and of subsequent events does not quite square with this account, but however long she had been participating before this time, Shiowhwa maintained that her contact with her co-religionists did not seem to be of a kind that would have led them to know much about her life.

She was amazed, she reports, when the spoke of her on her return, even referring to her by her full name rather than using the nickname by which her friends knew her. As far as she could remember, the nickname had been the only one she had used in the Hall up to that time.

What the wrote that evening was the first installment of Mrs. Chén’s revelation of “causes and effects of three incarnations”. This “causes and effects” tale was to have a decisive effect upon Chén Xiùhuá’s view of herself and of her situation in the years that were to follow. Here, in close paraphrase, is what she remembers being told by the as the revelation was received that evening and over the following few nights:

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The First Incarnation: A Filial Daughter in a Poor Family

For my “causes and effects” they sent the [goddess] Māzǔ of the [temple called] Palace of Obedience to Heaven to write the verses. [Note 10] She knew my names. Nobody else had known that I was named Chén Xiùhuá.

They began with the life before my last one. I was named Cài Qióngyù (=Rare Jade). My father, Cài Jīnchāng, and my mother (named Yáng)had been married for thirteen years without children. I was very bright. Since my father was educated, I could read the Four Books [of the Confucian canon] by the age of three, and my parents liked me a lot.

Note 10. The temple, called Fèngtiǎn Gōng奉天宮, is a famous shrine of the goddess, located in Xīngǎng 新港 (“Hsin Kang”), a town in Jiāyì 嘉義 county.

One winter my mother contracted an illness and we needed to go to collect mountain grasses so that we could beat them and squeeze out the juice and give it to her to take to reduce the fever; she had a terrible fever. On this particular day there was wind and rain and it was very chilly. I was about thirteen at the time. I wanted to go to Nánshān 南山and bring back grasses and squeeze them for her.

In that weather I shouldn’t have gone out, but because of my filial heart I took no care of myself, but ran off to Nánshān and back. On the way, there was thunder and lightning. I was struck by lightening and died beside the road. Father came to look for me. He found my body and brought it back home. Tho two old people cried over it.

As they were changing my clothes for burial they found the characters “filial girl” branded on the body. [The goddess] Māzǔ said it was not for doing bad things that I was struck dead; it was because I was virtuous; it was in order to terminate this incarnation so I could be appointed a god or reincarnated [in a better position].

So it was that I left the first incarnation and my spirit descended into hell. Yánluó Wáng 閻羅王, the king of hell, came out of hell to meet me and told me that I had done so well in this incarnation that it was really laudable, and he wanted to give me an incarnation in the town of Jìnjiāng 晉江 in Zhāngzhōu 漳州 prefecture [in Fújiàn 漳州 province] to be the child of a rich old man named Shěn Yuánwài. [For more on Yánluó Wáng and Chinese “hell” on this web site, click here.]

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The Second Incarnation: A Rich Male Wastrel

Shěn Yuánwài and his wife were in their 50’s and had had no children. They established temples and bridges and a lot of other good works and begged the gods for a child. So I joined their family for the second of these incarnations.

My name was Shěn Tiāncì (=Heaven Bestowed), and I was a boy. From infancy I was pampered, and because of this my nature became unruly.

I studied at a local “book hall” under Zēng Lǐxiáng, who had been one of my playmates and my best friend in the former incarnation, when we had studied together. But now (in this second incarnation), when I wasn’t fighting with people I was skipping class and would carry my book bag but not go to school. People told my father, and I was beaten and scolded, but I didn’t get better. …

Since my parents had been in their 50’s when I was born, they would have been in their late 60’s or 70’s when I was sixteen, and they died, leaving me in charge of a fortune —a million. That was a lot of money then, and it was a big household with servants.

My good friend, a man named Chén, urged me not to be irresponsible, but I would go out when he wasn’t around. One day he urged me to get married and have a wife around to help. My response was that [marriage] would be very tough going; alone I had more freedom. …

The wife that the matchmaker found was from a wealthy family, and for a time after I got married I was better, but after a short while I went bad again. I would go visiting the “flower streets and willow lanes” [= the quarter of the brothels].

One day, perhaps because of my philandering, I got into a fight with a local bully and got really knocked silly. People told my wife, Zhòng Yìwén who was a virtuous woman, and she was very frightened. My friend Chén carried me home, and I was unconscious for a day and a night. When I awoke and saw my wife and friend at my side, my wife gave me a poem, which read as follows:

To be a man in the world, early cultivate your character;
Favor not the houses of ill repute but remain at home;
Suppress your wicked tendencies now and retain a sense of shame;
Avoid bequeathing to wife and children only sobs and tears.

When I had seen this I wanted to reform. I knew my friend Chén had no money, so I gave him half of what I had and used the other half to do good works.

When I was thirty-two I took sick. Medicines did not help, and I died.

My spirit went to the king of hell again. He was very angry. He struck the gavel on the table and said: “In your last life you did very well. This time I gave you an incarnation in a rich family, and you didn’t contribute to the poor or relieve suffering; you spent your money on women and covered your body with gold. This is unsatisfactory.

“This time I shall give you an incarnation as a woman, as the daughter of the Chén family in Táinán 臺南, in Táiwān 臺灣 province. … I shall let you live in a wealthy family, where you can see money but not use it. You spent too much of it in your previous life. This has been decided by your destiny, and you may not sigh about it.

“Your circumstances now are fixed this way. You’ll wed into a rich family, but you’ll not enjoy what they have. That will be your current situation, do not despair. If you study the Way (Dào ) then in the future you will be able to overcome the “sea of troubles” and be reincarnated no more”.

So those were my “causes and effects of three incarnations”. They copied it out and gave it to me to read. I understood that it was my fate, forgot the troubles I had been through, and studied the Way with energy.

The receipt of this revelation seems to have had a revolutionary effect upon Mrs. Chén’s life. As she indicated in the last sentence, she now tended to turn sway from her family and its difficulties and to devote far more of her attention to the cult of the Golden Mother, a passion which was soon to eventuate in the founding of “her” branch hail of the Compassion Society, the Southland Branch Hall.

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“Causes and Effects” Tales and Chinese Morality

In Xiùhuá’s recounting of her revelation and of her response to it we see a number of themes that are apparently strongly compelling to her, but that are also relatively standardized cultural productions, more or less stereotyped Chinese expressions of morality.

Part of what is fascinating about “causes and effects of three incarnations” in particular is their ability to make use of traditional Chinese folkloric material in a way that both makes it vibrant in the life of a believer and makes it seem to be associated especially with the world of the bàiluán.

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Motif: The Filial Child

Consider the filial daughter who sacrifices herself to obtain the only medicine that can heal her seriously ill mother. The figure is reminiscent of many a popular tale about the behavior of a self-sacrificingiy filial child or retainer. The “Twenty-four Tales of Filial Piety” (Èrshísì Xiào 二十四孝)is an example of such a work. It is a popular collection of tales about filial children. Originally written by Guō Jūyè 郭居業, a moralist and literary figure of the Yuán dynasty (1280-1367), the short text circulates in Taiwan in countless editions, usually with colloquial translation, expansion, or commentary, just as it circulated throughout China in years past.

In the course of the twenty-four brief tales, we read of Mèng Zōng 孟宗 of the Three Kingdoms period (220-261), who was overcome with grief because in winter he was unable to obtain the fresh bamboo shoots necessary for his mother’s and whose pathetic weeping moved Heaven to produce them miraculously, and we read of Wáng Xiáng王祥 of the Jìn dynasty (265-419), who was so driven by filial duty that he lay upon the ice in order to melt a hole and procure carp to feed a stepmother who was neither kind to him nor moved by any need for carp greater than a vague fancy. [For these and other filiality tales on this web site click here.]

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Motif: The Spoiled Wastrel

The opposite figure, the incorrigible wastrel, is equally a stock figure of the Chinese imagination, appearing in folk and elite literature alike, and the object of countless proverbs.

The value system that prevails among native-oriented families of Taiwan —and that would almost certainly include nearly all families of the period in which Chén Xiùhuá was growing up— is one which often holds these sorts of examples as literal models for direct imitation, encouraging conformity to the one, condemning participation in the other.

This value system judges children (or adults) harshly if they engage in activities associated with the expenditure of time or money in ways that do not promote group welfare, and it sets forth self-sacrifice for the benefit of one’s parents as the central — even the single— condition by which a child can win parental love.

Chén Xiùhuá is thus presented with two vitally contrasting images of herself. On the one hand she is the almost masochistically dutiful little girl, who would certainly be understood by any Chinese to be intended as a representation of an ultimately virtuous person, and on the other she is the sensuous, selfish, and pleasure-seeking wastrel. If the folkloric associations of this character did not already sufficiently underline his significance, it is emphasized the more by the visits of the disreputable Shěn Tiāncì to the “flower streets and willow lanes”.

Even among people who are comparatively less native-oriented, more “modernized”, or simply less literalistic, the two figures of the filial child and the wastrel child have, I would argue, strong symbolic value. Further, the personality characteristics traditionally associated with each can come to symbolize other personality characteristics that other Chinese value orientations would hold desirable or reprehensible for different individuals and under different conditions. The figures are, in a sense, Chinese archetypes (or Chinese variants of universal archetypes), easily understood as symbols, and easily the recipients of a wide variety of commonly occurring value orientations.

There is another interesting relationship between her two incarnations as the virtuous Cài Qióngyù and the errant Shěn Tiāncì, for although as little Cài she is so virtuous that the king of hell himself comes forth from the city of the dead to meet her and honor her for her great virtue, as Shěn she is not complimentarily wicked. On the contrary, the revelation places the moral blame for her unmindful ways upon the circumstance of having been born into too wealthy and too forgiving a family (possibly a situation that could be interpreted as a criticism of Xiùhuá’s in-laws if she chose to see it that way).

Shěn is not so much a wicked person, though certainly one who lacks virtues, as he is a man careless of his merit, his face, and his future. The king of hell does not subject him to torture for the commission of sinful acts (as Chinese eschatology tells us happens in cases of sin [Note 11]), but only provides for a following incarnation in which the distracting delights of wealth will be visible but unattainable and Shěn (as our Chén Xiùhuá) will be constantly reminded of his earlier error and given the opportunity to focus his attention upon the merit which all souls ought to seek through the study of the Way.

Note 11. In another paper (1977), I have suggested that Chinese usually do not imagine themselves as potentially undergoing punishments in hell, but rather tend to think of it as a place of punishment for others. Mrs. Chén’s vision of her encounter with the king of hell (which is compulsory for all the dead) is not unusual in excluding reference to any of the punishments that popular graphics show visitors to hell undergoing.

Chén Xiùhuá’s two previous incarnations take for their protagonists general symbols accessible to most Chinese of what is meritorious and what is shameful in human character. This does not happen by itself: The version of the revelation about her three lives that we have been examining is that which Chén Xiùhuá herself recounted.

But the original version of it was not her own creation. If it seems to have a particular salience for her, it is because it is made up of themes and patterns that fit with her problems and her understanding of her real and potential place in the world; it is not because it is spontaneously generated projective material. The text was purportedly received from the goddess Māzǔ, who revealed it through the in a divination session. A wielder had to compose this revelation, and this fact raises important questions about the pragmatics of revelation.

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Wielding Pragmatics

Whatever the interest of the symbols themselves, the wielder’s problems and goals must not be lost sight of. If the wielder has little knowledge of the person to whom the revelation is directed, he must fall back upon the folkloric forms with the hope that they will be experienced as salient.

The wielder of a , confronted with the task of presenting a compelling revelation to a person he but slightly knows, needs a general framework by which to explain how past lives affect the present situation, but he also needs to make his client feel that these past lives are credibly the client’s own, that they have a believable continuity with his contemporary character and experience, that they are not just any past lives, but past lives that bear a compelling similarity to tendencies in his present personality.

By presenting archetypes of moral success and failure, the wielder invokes a contrast that corresponds with a psychological reality for most traditionally socialized Chinese; he has a very good chance of providing what will be experienced as a provocative and compelling tale that his client will, at some level, want to believe.

To the extent that he can do so, the wielder naturally also tries to “fine-tune” such motifs to suit the occasion, to “load the dice” in favor of a revelation that will be as suitable as possible to the particular recipient.

For example, the incorporation of the “good Xiùhuá”/“bad Xiùhuá” images into the revelation is made even more effective because they are respectively female and male. It is not surprising that the “good” incarnation is female and the bad one male: Mrs. Chén is female, and presumably her identification with a female prior incarnation is likely to be closer than it would be with a male one, all other things being equal.

Thus the wielder’s organization of these traditional figures into a virtuous female and a wastrel male increases the probability of Xiùhuá’s identifying more strongly with the protagonist of the first than of the second incarnation story. (It is important, of course, that the less virtuous figure occur immediately before her present life, since this is used as the explanation of her present dissatisfactions —the wielder can probably safely assume that any member suffers dissatisfactions— whereas a virtuous second life ought to lead to a present life free of stress.)

Further, such an identification allows Mrs. Chén a more positive view of herself. If it is true that people generally like to think well of themselves, then the wielder is betting on a surer thing when he suggests that the virtuous prior in-carnation is more similar to Xiùhuá’s current self than is the impious one. This helps to increase the chance of the revelation being sown upon fertile ground.

Making little Chyong-yuh both female and virtuous, while young Tiāncì is made both male and without concern for morality (until, too late, he reforms), the wielder is also creating a political effect, for he is setting up a situation in which Xiùhuá can reasonably be required to demonstrate her present (return to) virtue by engaging in obviously pious activities, namely those associated with bàiluán cultism and the Compassion Society. Like much of the rest of his revelation, as we shall shortly see, this portion helps to create a climate of motivation to support the Compassion Society and its works.

A particular revelation is not received in the abstract, of course. It is not the Chinese Everyman who is the client of a wielder, but a particular person, one who receives what is revealed at a particular time in his life, and in a context created by many other events which he has been experiencing as well. And we cannot perfectly predict (nor can the wielder) how a given revelation will be received by a given person.

It is probably the case that unreceptive individuals seldom get involved with bàiluán groups, so that direct rejection of a revelation is not something that a skilled wielder needs to face very often. But clearly some revelations fall upon more fertile ground than others. Chén Xiùhuá, it would seem, was peculiarly receptive at the time when Māzǔ revealed her past lives. She received her revelation after experiencing both successful physical healing and important emotional solace at the Táinán Compassion Society, after circumstances had forced her to move from Táinán and hence away from the Compassion Society, and after her physical symptoms had subsequently reestablished themselves.

The role of this illness and of its healing and recurrence is probably important in making the revelation a convincing rationalization of the sentiments she was experiencing in connection both with the society and with its role in her life.

Negative sentiments towards her husband’s family and especially her stepmother, her assertiveness in leaving Táinán and moving in with her sister in Gāoxióng, the attraction she felt towards the vigorously self-righteousness Compassion Society —all of this she could now explain to herself by a logic newly enlightened (and rendered satisfyingly ineffable) by her new knowledge of an earlier history.

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“Causes And Effects” and the Compassion Society Itself

The “causes and effects” revelation which Mrs. Chén received not only provides a mythologization for her understanding of good and bad qualities of her nature or for her relationship to her present family. Her eventual membership in the Compassion Society itself is also suggested.

The Magic of Texts

This is done in two ways. For one thing the importance of written morality texts in the renovation of human nature is illustrated. In her incarnation as Shěn Tiāncì, Chén Xiùhuá undergoes a conversion from being a wastrel to leading a renewed life as a man of generosity and responsibility: a personality presumably similar to the one she had in the first life. [Note 12] Although it follows Shěn’s losing a fight with a local bully, it is made apparent that the decisive factor in the conversion is the four lines of edifying doggerel shown him by his wife, a verse transparently similar to a kind of text often written by the in bàiluán sessions.

Note 12. It is interesting to note that the underlying character implied here is that of the “good” Xiùhuá, one beyond moral reproach. Although there may be several reasons for the story taking this turn, one factor may be the pragmatic necessity, in maintaining the loyalty of cult members, of presenting them always with a view of themselves that represents them as essentially superior moral beings, even though perhaps in need of constant spiritual renewal and exercise. The effective wielder, like any other effective medium, must show sensitivity to the problem of keeping the membership in the Compassion Society an almost unqualifiedly positive experience.

It is certainly an idea central to the mission of any bàiluán that texts can be edifying, and that reformation of the human character is something that can be accomplished through them. It is not necessary for this understanding to be reflected in a “causes and effects” revelation, but when we find it there we cannot help noticing the implication: Mrs. Chén, in her incarnation as the profligate young Shěn, has already benefited by just such a mode of character improvement.

The revelation thus demonstrates the efficacy of morality texts in her (previous) life and presumably whets her taste for more. Thus this seemingly incidental belief, which provides the rather curious turning point in the story of her second life, is in fact a central assumption of bàiluán cultism, and serves both as a clear anticipation of Chén Xiùhuá’s membership in the Compassion Society during her third and present life and as a statement of the inevitability of that membership.

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The Magic of Maternal Nurturance

Another way in which the Compassion Society itself is prefigured in the revelation is in the repetitive concern with motherhood. If we seek to understand the Compassion Society merely as one example of the more general phenomenon of bàiluán cultism or of small-scale Taiwanese religious societies, then it would be a mistake to put a great deal of emphasis upon the specifically motherly aspects of the Golden Mother.

The majority of such groups are much less concerned with the Golden Mother, and devote their attention instead (or in addition) to a whole host of other deities or to a different patron. Nevertheless so long as we are dealing with the Compassion Society in particular, the Golden Mother is very much in evidence, and Compassion Society members often do seem to take advantage of the symbolic potentialities in the motherliness of the Golden Mother.

For Chén Xiùhuá, maternal nurturance seems to be a crucial symbol. Not only is she attracted to a cult that is centered upon the Golden Mother, but she mentions several times that the revelation of her “causes and effects” comes through the agency of another “mother”, the goddess Māzǔ, whose name literally means “mother-ancestress”. [Note 13]

Note 13. The name is made up of , ”mother”, which is colloquial in some Mandarin speaking regions of China, plus 媽祖, which refers to ancestors (or, in some contexts, to patriarchs), but does not occur in isolation in spoken Chinese. The literal meaning cannot but be transparent to any native speaker of Chinese, but it is not quite accurate to say that the name “means” “ancestral mother” in any uncomplicated way, since if that is what Chinese had intended to mean they could perfectly well have said so colloquially.

It is probably more accurate think of the name of the goddess the same way one might think of the name of a human being with a surname like “Smith”; the surname “Smith” does indeed “mean” a smith, but that meaning is rarely of importance in comparison with the fact that Mr. Smith is a particular person, rarely, indeed, a smith at all. Although overemphasis upon the literal interpretation of the word “Māzǔ” is therefore misleading, she nevertheless is seen as motherly; indeed she bears a second title, more formal but still colloquial enough to use in spoken language, and in this case incorporating the colloquial word for “mother”: Tiānshàng Shèngmǔ 天上聖母,or “Sacred Mother in Heaven”.

The word (Hokkien bó·), while not normally used monosyllabically in Mandarin, is (or until recently was) a normal term of address in Hokkien. Another formal title, which is known and written but rarely used in spoken language in Taiwan, is Tiān Hòu 天后, or “Queen of Heaven”, by which she is normally known in the Cantonese speaking world.

A third significant mother in the story is, of course, Xiùhuá’s human mother during her first life. The sacrifice that the young Cài Qióngyù makes to obtain the medicinal grass is undergone because of love for her mother. It was this human mother from the first of her three lives that was to haunt Xiùhuá’s imagination in the years after the revelation.

It is not unusual, particularly for female believers, to put a good deal of emphasis upon the motherliness of the Golden Mother, or to refer to her or address her as bó· (Mandarin ).

Chén Xiùhuá is unusual only in the broad range of mother figures that interest her in connection with the Society. This range in part is the result of her interest in the idea, and in part is made possible by the chance of her having received a “causes and effects” revelation to provide her with additional mother figures to work with.

Unfortunately, interviewing Mrs. Chén did not bring forth very much material on her relationship with her mother in her present incarnation. Clearly we would need to know about that relationship before we could gain a real understanding of the interest that Xiùhuá seems to show in other maternal figures of her Compassion Society revelation. She did tell of disliking her husband’s stepmother.

In China a woman’s relationship with her husband’s parents is more daughterly than is the comparable relationship in the West. It is clear that she chafed under her mother-in-law and that she found her husband’s ancestral home a difficult place. During the early years of Xiùhuá’s marriage, the household was plagued by family conflict and interpersonal hostility. There is every likelihood that this may have led to some guilt on Xiùhuá’s part, and it is tempting to see this as one possible source of her interest in mothers and motherhood.

But to the extent that the conflict involved relations between Xiùhuá and her mother-in-law, it would have corresponded to a very consciously understood phenomenon in Chinese society, and, being “normal”, it probably would have led to less guilt than otherwise.

For this reason, and because as an adult she would presumably have been less influenced by these conflicts than a small child would, it is hard to imagine that the kind of guilt or other psychic discomfort likely to have been generated in that situation could stimulate the strong fascination with motherhood reflected in Xiùhuá’s particpation in the Compassion Society. But it may have activated frequent or strong feelings of frustration or need for nurturance. If so, perhaps this would at least help to explain both Xiùhuá’s enthusiasm for the Golden Mother cult that she joined at that time and her tendency to interpret the Compassion Society and its activities in strongly maternal terms.

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Keeping Current

Finally, one additional foreshadowing of the Compassion Society is found in the revelation of the “causes and effects” of Mrs. Chén’s incarnations, and that is the figure of Zēng Lǐxiáng. Zēng was her playmate in the first life and her teacher in the second.

In her third and present life he was to become her next-door neighbor when she and her husband moved back to Táinán shortly after she received the “causes and effects” revelation. Zēng was shortly to become the old man who would support her in her religious struggles and would later help her to found her own branch of the Compassion Scciety.

Although Chén Xiùhuá had some criticisms of Mr. Zēng’s sometimes haughty manner in the divination sessions, he was clearly an important figure in her religious life after her move back to Táinán. It is possible that his being a next-door neighbor was not an accident, for Zēng may have been instrumental in arranging housing for Mrs. Chén and her husband. More importantly, as a neighbor who was also a member of the Compassion Society and therefore was sympathetic to Xiùhuá’s under-standing of it and sense of piety related to it, Zēng almost certainly provided both a sympathetic ear and a rhetorical example when she met resistance from her less religious husband.

In introducing Zēng Lǐxiáng into all three lives, the wielder, if Mrs. Chén correctly understood what was revealed, risked damaging the credibility of the tale, for in her second life, as Shěn Tiāncì, Mrs. Chén was supposed to be living in Jìnjiāng, a town in Fújiàn province, while in her third she clearly lived in Táinán. It was hardly probable that the same Zēng Lǐxiáng should live in both places.

However, in a rather different way the inclusion of Mr. Zēng also lent credibility to the revelation by stocking it with a character of known historicity, and possibly also by recognizing the importance that Zēng may have had in Xiùhuá’s early months in the Compassion Society group. It perhaps reflects particular perspicacity on the part of the wielder to have selected Mr. Zēng as the figure to be common to all three incarnations, for in retrospect it is clear that he and Mrs. Chén were to be particularly intimate friends in the years to follows and that his use in this way in the revelation would help to make the revelation seem increasingly “right” as time passed. Whether the signs of their growing friendship were clear enough for just anyone to read at the time the revelation was written is unclear. Certainly the friendship was not so well developed as it was to become later on. The structure of the “causes and effects” revelation permitted the medium to incorporate Mr. Zēng as a constant figure in this way because of Mrs. Chén’s short longevity in her first two lives— we remember that she died at thirteen and thirty-two— and because of Zēng’s advanced age —he had already died at the time of the interview with her. This permitted Zēng’s guidance, moral uprightness, and wisdom to be projected into all three tales, where he could func-tion as a constant archetype of the wise, usually older, adviser.

Thus we see at least three significant anticipatory reflections of the life of the Compassion Society worked into the revelation of the “causes and effects of three incarnations” that Mrs. Chén received: the idea of moral reformation through exposure to an uplifting text, the importance of love and obedience to a mother figure, and the moral example of Mr. Zēng.

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The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part II:
A Spiritual Visitor

For Chén Xiùhuá and her husband to live with her sister in the noodle shop in Gāoxióng was an irregular arrangement, founded partly in the need for immediate refuge at the time of the conflict that caused them to break up their living arrangement with Xiùhuá’s parents-in-law. Not surprisingly, they did not stay with her sister for very long. Shortly after Xiùhuá received her “causes and effects” revelation, she and her husband moved back to Táinán, and for some time she attended the sessions of the Southern Mystery Branch Hall regularly and apparently uneventfully.

After a time she received another revelation from the , or as she would express it, from the xiānfó 仙佛, that is, the “immortals and buddhas” that communicate through it. [Note 14] In it she learned that the father of her first life, Cài Jīnchāng, had in time died and had been appointed as a city god (chénghuáng ,,城隍)in Chang-chou prefecture, in Fukien province, and that the mother for whose medicine she had sacrificed herself was with him. She learned, further, that her mother wanted to visit her.

Note 14. The term xiānfó 仙佛,literally “immortals-buddhas”, is especially popular with syncretic cultists because it smacks simultaneously of Taoism —hence immortals— and of Buddhism —hence buddhas. The referent, however, is broader than merely these two categories of beings and normally includes all supernaturals who are likely to visit the Hall and deliver revelations through the . Although the word occasionally also comes from the mouths of ordinary folk, non-cultist Taiwanese are more likely to use the term shénmíng <神明, ”gods”, in ordinary conversation.

[The revelation] said that I had to study the Way especially vigorously, and said which day and at what time my mother would appear before my bed to meet me, mother and child together. That day I was to eat no meat. I wrote it all down as soon as I learned it. About two or three days before she was to appear before my bed, she told me (through the ) to be sure to stay vegetarian throughout the whole day, and to be sure to go to the Hall to worship every evening at six or seven o’clock.

The dwelling in which the Chéns lived at the time was very modest, and the walls were thin and neighbors close. Next door lived Zēng Lǐxiáng, the elderly gentlemen whom we have already met because of his role in the “causes and effects” revelation. He was at the time the copyist of the Southern Mystery Branch Hall, and was privy to most of Mrs. Chén’s affairs partly by virtue of their common membership in the Compassion Society, but mostly because he lived next door in a complex in which one could easily hear through the walls. Attending evening meetings at the Hall often meant that Mrs. Chén and Mr. Zēng did not get back home until nearly eleven o’clock. And they did not return much earlier than that on the evening when Xiùhuá’s mother was due to appear to her, “at the hour”, which extends from eleven o’clock to one o’clock, across midnight.

Xiùhuá’s husband, while not opposed to her involvement with the Compassion Society, nevertheless was not himself nearly so convinced of its virtues as she. Sometimes he would tell the children “Your mother wants to become an immortal!” and would laugh about her piety. Accordingly Xiùhuá told him little of the details of her religious life, and had not mentioned the revelation of an impending visit from the shade of her former mother. Occasionally her husband had to work late at night, and this was the case on the evening when Xiùhuá’s first mother was predicted to be coming to visit her, leaving her free to encounter her mother without interference.

[I could hear through the walls that,] before he went to sleep when he got home, Mr. Zēng began to cough and told his wife to boil him some medicine because he was coughing so hard. I too lay down on my bed to sleep. I don’t know why, but my head suddenly turned to the left, and I suddenly felt a medicine in my mouth slipping into my stomach. I began to feel warm, then my body turned over, and I began to get like a little child. I began to cry. It was my mother from my first life that was coining to see me. I would be by her side. I had been only thirteen years old when I left her. I kept crying.

When her mother appeared at the door, Xiùhuá went to meet her.

I clambered out of bed like a child, went to the door, and seized Mother’-, hand, crying “Mother, Mother! (Bú-chhin! Bú-chhin!)” Nobody calls that way anymore. “Bú-chhin” is very old speech. [Note 15] She dragged me into the house and sat down beside the bed. I knelt beside her and leaned on her leg. I saw her form sitting beside the bed, and I leaned on her leg crying. I said [things like] “Mother, I’m really glad to see you,” and “Mother, how are you?” When mother answered, all her words came from my mouth. One person spoke the words of both. This had been foretold me by the bàiluán ...

Note 15. It is not clear that the Hokkien expression bú-chhin” 母親was ever a colloquial term of address during the period of Xiùhuá’s three lives; Taiwanese informants reject it as a mandarinism, and Douglas (1873: 27) indicates that it was rare in Amoy even in 1873; on the other hand, one informant from Amoy reports its frequent use there in the early decades of this century. In this case the term may be a Literary Hokkien reading of the two characters that make up the Mandarin term of reference. Literary Hokkien often involves readings that are more closely cognate with Mandarin than colloquial Hokkien is, and some Taiwanese, seeking a pretentious turn of phrase, produce Mandarin back-formations of this kind. In any event the stylistic impact that is intended here is clearly an aura of archaism to underline the point that she has reverted to a much earlier identity, complete with obsolete speech mannerisms. Artificially archaicized or regionalized turns of phrase are also used by some Chinese spirit mediums when they wish to underline the fact that the gods speaking through them led earthly lives in other periods or regions.

The commotion of Mrs. Chén’s vision did not go unnoticed by Mr. and Mrs. Zēng, who apparently heard voices coming through the partition. Mrs. Chén explained:

The events of that night were overheard by Mr. and Mrs. Zēng next door, and they got frightened. [Mother] was the wife of a city god, and where she was there were ghostly guardians, and when she came you could hear the sound of their bracelets.

I asked after father. She said Father was very well, and she told me not to disobey the Golden Mother (Bó·-niû 母娘). She supported me as I climbed onto the bed, and she massaged my childish head and called me “child” (gín-á 囝仔). She said she had come to see me but had to go back. …I said, “Mother, don’t go!” and took her arm in order not to let her leave, and cried out loud. Holding her arm, I was pulled to the floor... . I called “Mother! Mother!” and cried. Suddenly I was seized again and thrown down, and then I woke up. I rubbed my eyes. The tears were so many. It was all an empty dream!

But a dream, empty as it may have been in comparison with waking reality, was not altogether without importance. Indeed Mrs. Chén is very much a believer in revelation through dreams. If she was a bit disappointed to find that the visit from her mother was a dream, this did not mean that she thought it without significance. On the contrary, at several points in our interview, Chén Xiùhuá interrupted her narrative to point out that the dream was possible only because she had moved back from Gāoxióng to Táinán, and that, had she stayed in Gāoxióng, she would never have known that her former mother even wanted to visit her. And she described the dream as one of the benefits of her return to Táinán from the noodle shop in Gāoxióng. It was clear that she considered the dream valuable. [Note 16]

Note 16. Devotion to the Compassion Society may have provided a convenient excuse to move from her sister’s household without anybody having to admit that the household arrangement was not very successful, if it was not. Or the advantages deriving from her membership in the Society may have been cited retrospectively in the interview to justify the wisdom of the decision to move back to Táinán, even though such reasons were not adduced at the time of the move. Or both. But one may reasonably suspect that as far as Xiùhuá herself had influence over the decision, she favored the return to Táinán from Gāoxióng partly in order to enjoy the company of her supportive coreligionists in the Southern Mystery Branch Hall of the Compassion Society, and that she now was using the satisfactory nature of her religious life as a subsequent rationalization of the wisdom of the move.

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The Story of Chén Xiùhuá, Part III:
Life After Revelation

Despite the aura of charitable calm and of devotion to works of salvation which it is thought ought to prevail among the followers of the Golden Mother, there are, as in any other group, occasional conflicts, and at times these reach a scale which results in the group fissioning. This was happening to the Southern Mystery Branch Hall at the time when Chén Xiùhuá joined it. Asked why she thought conflict occurred in such a group, she thought a while and then suggested that perhaps it was part of a plan on the part of the Golden Mother, for if conflict leads to fission, and fission leads to the multiplication of the number of Branch Halls, each acting as a center spreading the way of salvation, then conflict among the believers contributes to human redemption.

Whatever divine motivation might be, Mrs. Chén described the proximate cause of her defection from the Southern Mystery Branch Hall as twofold. On the one hand the physical facility was becoming too small for the number of participants involved, and during “training” they would bump into each other. On the other hand the wife of the headman (tángzhǔ 堂主)was quarrelsome. A schismatic sentiment grew among many of the members, and a search was made for a place to build a new hall. Chén Xiùhuá was treasurer of the schismatics, and recounted in detail the tribulations of being in charge of limited finances constantly outstripped by ambition.

It’s very difficult to found a Hall. The founders need money. The craftsmen want money. If there’s not money, nobody dares start. I was in charge of finances. … Whenever the workmen heard people say “Aju, people want to see the books balanced!” they all [knew we had run out of money again and] would leave. That was the most bothersome thing.

She tells of one occasion when the money crisis was at its worst, and it seemed to her that only miraculous intervention could save the situation:

I was always stuck in the position of being unable to do anything. [Once] I prayed to the Golden Mother and said: “Golden Mother, you are always sitting there and you have not thought up a means for me to accomplish this. The check is made out and will not clear. I’ll be skinned alive!” At that time I had just left the Southern Mystery Branch Hall and was only about twenty. The kids were still small. I quickly made dinner and rushed to the Hall to discuss the matter. I still wanted to solicit contributions. Some people would contribute and some wouldn’t, and said they didn’t want to contribute but would come back when the Hall was built. There are such people.

Every day I ran around as my face tanned dark and my heart grew anxious. My teeth ached. I suffered tribulations and grew old. A financial manager without money in his hands is a very sad thing. People would come to get money and there wasn’t any. The workmen mostly drifted off. How could I deal with them by myself? I told the people who wanted money to wait a few days and then it’d be there, that I was going out to solicit contributions again. And I told all this to the Golden Mother.

At this point Xiùhuá received her response from the Golden Mother. It came in the form of a revelatory dream, somewhat as the visit from her mother had.

In my sleep I saw in the South (Nányáng 南洋) a great elephant who blew from his trunk two “big breath” sneezes into the celestial emptiness. On waking I myself guessed that the South was the Southland Factory in Táinán, and the elephants were very rich people. Opposite the Southland Factory lived my mother’s brother’s wife, who might want to make a contribution. Basically I didn’t want to go, since it was my mother’s brother’s house, but I went. [Note 17] When I arrived I met her and said: “Auntie (dàjìn 大妗), you’re really lucky for me!” … I went into her house first, and then praised things. She felt very comfortable. We chatted, and finally I raised this issue of my building a Hall. I had come here for amusement [I said] and wondered if Auntie wanted to contribute a it. When she heard this she very happily said, “Okay, I’ll contribute NT$5000 [=approximately US$ 125]. ” In those days that was quite a bit. It would be mre like NT$10, 000 or more these days.

Note 17. This is the same mother’s brother who introduced Xiùhuá to the Compassion Society in the first place. Apparently he was not part of the schismatic group, so that asking him for contributions was particularly awkward.

The contribution was her salvation, the miracle that the Golden Mother had been held responsible to produce and the confirmation of the revelation in Xiùhuá’s dream. As she tells it, all went smoothly thereafter, for this was the nadir of her financial crisis, and there were no subsequent crises that threatened the whole project in the same way that this had. The Hall was not only successfully founded, but has today built several additional buildings.

The schismatics included some of the central figures in the Southern Mystery Branch Hall, but excluded others. Among those who moved from the Southern Mystery Branch Hall to the Southland Branch Hall was the wielder, the skilled medium whose revelations had been so important to Mrs. Chén. Among those who remained loyal to the original group was, in the end, Zēng Lǐxiáng.

Mr. Zēng didn’t come here. I acted as copyist. I had had only six years of primary school under the Japanese [administration that governed the island from 1895 to 1945]. I can’t understand anything that is too deep. But after Retrocession [of Taiwan to China in 1945], I studied four more months of Hànwén 漢文 [= Classical Chinese pronounced in Hokkien]; I’ve studied on my own continuously; and in the Hall I often copy verse texts, which is a good opportunity for study. But when we first started the Hall there was no-one to be copyist and everybody wanted me to do it. When we had just begun I was quite uneasy about the responsibility if I miscopied the revealed texts. I burned incense to the immortals and buddhas and prayed that if they wanted to use me as a copyist they might send me inspiration (líng ).…

Chén Xiùhuá’s anxiety was great, at least as she describes it looking back, and once again resulted in a prayer for divine assistance. The help was not long in arriving, delivered to her in the form of a dream:

One day as I slept I saw a xiānfó (=immortal or buddha [Note 18]) wearing a black scholar’s robe (chángpáo 長袍)and standing before a blackboard. I sat at the side of a table in front of him as he began to teach me. It was the “God Who Manages Ritual” come to instruct me! He took a pointer and began to teach, and I wrote it all down. The next day when we received revelations (jiàngluán 降鸞), I felt much more fluent.

Note 18. Note the use of the term xiānfó “jmmortals and buddhas” in a context where it clearly but unetymologically must be singular. For Mrs. Chén the specifically syncretistic quality of the expression seems to have drifted out of focus, and its usage as a noncommittal term for supernatural beings has become primary. The usage here serves to underline the dangers of paying too much attention to etymology in our study of popular religious vocabulary, for our informants often move beyond the origins of their vocabulary and use words in ways we do not anticipate.

Mrs. Chén has continued to serve as copyist to the present time. Her limited literacy has served adequately, partly because she continues to expand her abilities, partly because bàiluán revelations of the Hall use a limited vocabulary and relatively predictable content, and partly because she and the wielder share the view that the xiānfó avoid using complex language to communicate with ordinary folk. [Note 19]

Note 19. According to Chén Xiùhuá, Mr. Zēng once complained about the poor quality of Compassion Society poetry for which he was serving as copyist. Within a few days the oracle began delivering up obscure archaic characters that he was embarrassed to be unable to read. Humbled, he stopped deriding the revelations, and they returned to ordinary language.

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Other Groups and Other Revelations

In Chén Xiùhuá we have an example of an unusually devoted member of a bàiluán society, whose life was reinterpreted for her in a way that she found irresistibly compelling. From a new bride, feeling persecuted by her step-mother-in-law, Xiùhuá found herself transformed into the effective proprietress of a temple attracting tens of worshippers every evening, and she discovered a mission in life as an agent in the great plan of the Golden Mother for the salvation of mankind.

Chén Xiùhuá is atypical in the extent to which she has allowed the Hall to become the single, central, dominant force in her life, and in the extent to which she has played a key role in a Hall. But through her we may see processes that probably do not differ fundamentally from the experiences of a great many adherents to the Compassion Society and other bàiluán groups. Many members seem to find a bàiluán society to be a satisfying refuge from familial responsibilities that are burdensome. Many of them have visions and revelations assuring them of their own worth and underlining the importance of their relationship with the Society and its oracles. And many of them devote themselves self-sacrificingly to the Society in return.

Mrs. Chén initially impressed me because of the vividness that her earlier incarnations seemed to have for her. Most Taiwanese informants believe in reincarnation, but Mrs. Chén stood out in the extent to which she used what she had been told about her previous two incarnations to explain events in her life. In other words, she actually seemed to use the belief more actively than ordinary people did. The king of hell and his plans for her were apparently perfectly real to Chén Xiùhuá, they were on her mind, just as was the love of her mother from her first life, and the obedience that she owed to the Golden Mother as a condition for continuing to participate in this system of meanings. Xiùhuá lives in a world made more vibrant and more meaningful by her supernatural projections. The Compassion Society branch hall provided her the symbolic wherewithal to create these projections, and the social support to find them defensible.

There is no way to know how typical Mrs. Chén’s revelation is of others of this type. [Note 20] When other bàiluán believers were interviewed, they often spoke of having received “causes and effects” revelations too. And many spoke of having been much moved by them. But in every other case in my notes the believer had already sufficiently assimilated the revelation to have come to see it as “routine” and less interesting than whatever religious activities he or the group happened to be pursuing at the time.

Note 20. There is also no way to be certain just how accurately she has remembered it. A very similar text associated with her name and published by the Dragon Well Branch Hall will be discussed in connection with this case in the forthcoming book mentioned earlier.

Revelations that are published in book form by bàiluán halls are first edited, sometimes heavily, and “personal” revelations are usually omitted to avoid embarrassing their recipients. “Causes and effects” revelations are thus also omitted. In a collection of more than forty such books, only a handful of “causes and effects” revelations were found. In one group, early in its history the past lives of all of the officers seem to have been reviewed, sometimes so superficially that several were incorporated collectively into the same tale (for example as sworn brothers in a previous life). [Note 21]

Note 21. The term “incarnation” in the phrase “causes and effects of three incarnations” translates shì in the comparable Chinese phrase san shì yīnguǒ 三世因果.But shìh can also mean “generation”. Accordingly one volume of the collection, although it includes several “causes and effects” tales, builds each story around the fate of three generations of members of the same family, presenting alternate models of relations between parents and children and the effects of these relations. (In one story both senses of shì are involved, as a soul is reincarnated as a later member of his same descent line). Three generation tales are, of course, a common and important category of ordinary Chinese morality tale.

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We have been concerned with the relationship between folklore, or in particular folkloric motifs, and daily life. In this case, the question has rapidly devolved to the more specific issue of the way in which folkloric elements are utilized in producing texts understood as divine revelation of an individual’s past lives, and of the way in which such a revelation is understood and motivated. >

Our case study is parochial in the extreme, as all case studies are, but it has wider implications, ranging from our understanding of sectarian recruitment to our understanding of mediumistic logistics. Chén Xiùhuá’s case both raises questions about how bàiluán groups (and mediums more broadly) use the Chinese cultural tradition and also proposes some answers to those questions. It provides us an example of folklore in action, being utilized by actors seeking to achieve ends. >

In her testimony it is easy to see how eagerly she responds to very traditional ideas when they are stated to apply specifically to her. Ideas about reincarnation, karmic merit, hell, filiality, the comparative desirability of male and female children, the moral significance of literacy, the role of friends in taking responsibility for each other’s character, the difficulties that face a child that has been “spoiled” by overindulgence —all these are themes that go to make up popular literature and folk opera, they are the stuff of proverbs and aphorisms. But for Xiùhuá they are part of her own, unique, individual history. They are more salient for being illustrated in her own life, and her life is more scrutable for being an exemplification of what her tradition has been telling people all long.

Fascinating in all of this is the position of the medium, in this case the wielder. [Note 22] To the best of my knowledge, no ethnographer has yet been very successful at discovering how a Chinese medium decides what it is that he is going to reveal. Whether the medium is a believer or a mountebank, he must insist that his own ideas have nothing to do with his revelations, which are to be understood as divine in origin. >

But it is clear that there are certain logistical decisions to be made, and a study of their revelations (or of their success at attracting clients) shows that many mediums are very skilled at interpreting the sociology of a village or the psychological needs of a petitioner. >

Note 22. Although wielders are the only sorts of mediums we need be concerned with in the case of most bàiluán groups, there are other kinds of mediums practicing in Taiwan, most notably what are called in Hokkien tâng-ki 童乩. I use “medium” as a cover term.

What Mrs. Chén’s case makes clear, however, is that in the case of clients who are but little known to the medium (in this case the wielder), it is possible to make almost formulaic use of traditional symbols and story lines to create a tale that a native-oriented believer can find not only credible but significant. The psychological salience and cultural legitimacy of the folkloric elements used becomes the psychological salience and cultural legitimacy of the revelation itself. >

The medium who understands this is in a position to pursue a low-risk strategy in seeking to provide little known petitioners with revelations that have a good chance of being enthusiastically received. He needs to be able to do this in order to sustain his own prestige, to be sure, but also in the interest of sustaining the petitioner’s interest in the bàiluán group itself and ultimately of recruiting a new member.

The established wielder presumably understands that revelations directed to more firmly established bàiluán believers can afford to incorporate more innovative material, and indeed this is often the case. Established members receive demands for innovative liturgy, or reprimands for impious behavior that are never directed to casual visitors, for example.

A “causes and effects” revelation is an extremely flexible form. It allows the .judgement of the wielder to modify it to be suitable for different individuals depending upon their relationship to the rest of the group and upon his knowledge of them. In the case of little known petitioners, the form is a suitable carrier for a diversity of traditional Chinese symbols and themes that native-oriented Chinese will all to some degree find salient and legitimate. It thus provides an optimal form for highly personalized revelations to people who are not yet well integrated into a bàiluán group, and can contribute to their becoming committed and active members.

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Works Cited

CHAO, Wei-pang
1924 The origin and growth of the fu chi. Folklore Studies 1: 9-27.
1955 Chinese Sprit-medium Cults in Singapore. London: University of London. Press.
GRAHAM, David Crockett
1961 Folk Religion in Southwest China. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 142, no. 2. Washington: Smithsonian Press.
1892-1910 The Religious System of China. Leiden: E. J. Brill. 6 vol. 1-24.
HSIAO, Ching-fen
1972 The current situation of new religions in Taiwan. Theology and the Church 10(2):1-24.
HSU, Francis L.K.
1948 Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in village China. Revised edition 1967, Garden City: Doubleday.
JORDAN, David K.
1977 Eight Generals From Hell in the Streets of Our Town. MS presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Anthropological Association, San Diego, California, U.S.A. April 9, 1977.
i. p. Chinese Pietism: Syncretic Movements in Modern Taiwan. MS presented at the International Seminar on Folk Culture, Cuttack, Orissa, India, December 19-23, 1978.
1977 A preliminary study of the Tz’u-hui T’ang. Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions 4: 19-40.
1978 Temple Organization in a Chinese Village. Taipei: The Orient Cultural Service.
Shèngxián Táng 聖賢堂
1978 Dìyù Yóujì 地獄遊記 (Journey Through Hell). Taichung: Shenq Shyan Tarng.
XǓ Dìshān 許地山
1940 Fújī Míxìn de Yánjiòu 扶箕迷信底研究 (Researches into the Superstition of Coscinomancy). Reprinted 1966 Taipei: Commercial Press.
ZĒNG Cháodōng 曾朝東
1964 Zōnjiào Zézhēn 宗教擇真 (Finding the truth in religion). Taichung: Guangchii Publishing Company.

The following little article appeared in Western Folklore, vol. 33(3): 205-209 for July, 1973. For this web version I have reformatted it and have revised the occasional Mandarin Romanization to conform to the internationally standard Pinyin system. I have also minimized italics (which display badly on computer screens).

As a concession to computer typography, the Hokkien eighth tone (yángrù shēng 陽入聲) is indicated by an accute accent rather than a vertical stroke, a simplification shared with several dictionaries.


Anti-American Children's Verses from Taiwan

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