Go to site main page,
Table of Contents, previous / next chapter.

Text modified: 990610
File last modified:

Chapter 4


At several times in the discussion so far, mention has been made of decisions made through divination, although little has been said about the sort of divination involved. The instruments for communicating with the gods are many, and selection among them depends upon a number of factors, including the nature of the question to be put, the intricacy required in the response, the amount of money one is able to spend, the personnel involved in the manipulation and interpretation of the instruments and one's relations with these people, the usual mode of communication used by the supernatural one wishes to consult, and various other factors, not excluding a healthy element of pure fashion and caprice. But for the trivial exceptions of mountebanks or of occasional instances of ghosts and demons being thought to interfere, all revelations are equally true and valid. When they are in contradiction it is customary to accept the most recent one as valid at the expense of earlier ones, or, should one be suspicious of it for some reason, to continue inquiries until responses are clearly applicable and reasonable.1

Footnote 1. I have tried pursuing the question of just how it happens that a reliable mode of divination can later be contradicted. Accepting the second revelation as correct, is it not astounding that the first revelation, proceeding from a source of known reliability, should be wrong? With a keen sense of the limits of the system and of questions that should not be too closely examined, informants will agree only that it is very strange, perhaps past understanding.

Bǎo'ān has people able to read traditional almanacs correctly, and makes use of the services of professors of geomancy both from the Xīgǎng area and from more distant places. People in Bǎo'ān also consult wandering fortunetellers and soothsayers, often blind, who visit the village or who can often be found in the bazaar of any larger town. Our concern at present, however, is with divination as it involves communication with divine agencies. The major devices for this sort of divination are described below.

The Poe

By far the most common act of divination accomplished in Táiwān makes use of poe , known in English as "moon boards," or "divination blocks."2A pair of divination blocks is two pieces of wood or, preferably, of bamboo root, each cut into the shape of a crescent moon, rounded on one surface and flat on the other. The two are mirror images of one another, and if the flat sides are placed against each other, the pair looks as though it were a single block of wood.

Footnote 2. The northern Chinese term is Jiào , occasionally pronounced in the third tone: Jiǎo. This would be pronounced kàu in Hokkien, but is not in colloquial use in this area. In Táiwān the usual Mandarin term is Bēi, conventionally written with the character for the homonymous word "cup" or or . This writing is apparently a very ancient one. The Tang poet Hán Yù 韓愈 (A.D. 768-824) used both words in the following lines: 手持杯珓導我擲,云此最吉餘難同。" He handed me divinity cups [Bēijiào], he showed me how to use them / And told me that my fortune was the best of all." (Translated by Witter Bynner 1929: 22.) I am grateful to Professor Lao Kan 勞榦 for bringing this verse to my attention. For descriptions of the use of poe in other parts of China, see Doolittle 1865: 2.107 ff., Doré 1917: 353-355.

In divination these objects are held out upon the two palms, raised about to the level of the forehead of the kneeling worshipper, and allowed to drop on the floor.3 There are two positions in which each block can land: rounded side up or rounded side down. Therefore there are three combinations of positions: both blocks might land flat side downward, both might land rounded side downward, or each might land differently. This last combination is taken to indicate agreement by the deity with the proposition as stated, briefly a yes response. Both of the other combinations indicate failure of the deity to agree, although the degree of disagreement is open to dispute. There is never an irrevocable no in this. Most people report that when the two blocks land rounded side downward and rock giddily on the floor before coming to rest, the god is amused at the statement put to him, and this position is called "laughing poe" (chhiò-poe 笑筶) But when the flat sides come to rest on the floor, so that the blocks fall and come immediately to an abrupt standstill, then anger is indicated. This position is called "negative poe" (im-poe 陰筶). The positive fall is called "sacred poe" (siūn-poe 聖筶). These interpretations of negative replies are seldom taken very seriously, however, and what is important is to determine what form of a statement the god will confirm as a correct statement of his point of view, rather than to develop an emphatic yes or no to a given question.4 The question is typically presented in a murmured silent prayer and the blocks dropped. If they indicate an affirmative, they are dropped again. A validly affirmative reply requires three positive falls running, and the occurrence of either negative reply requires the reconstruction of the question and another attempt, or requires that one give up. The chances of a block landing on one or the other of its sides appear to be about the same, though in fact they probably differ from block to block depending upon the exact height from which the block is dropped (since it is dropped rounded side downward), the evenness of the floor or other surface upon which they are thrown, and the condition of the blocks themselves, since those made of bamboo roots —the majority— become pitted in time as base sections of former subsidiary roots drop out of their sockets leaving holes. Even if the chances of landing with one side or the other skyward were the same, the probability of having three throws of "unlikes" should be but one in eight, so it may be seen that considerable effort is spent before the exact form of the answer is settled upon.

Footnote 3. An occupational danger of investigating Taiwanese temples is the likelihood of being hit by ricocheting poe.

Footnote 4. Somewhat to the consternation of the foreign student, Chinese lacks convenient terms for yes or no. The conversational devices used instead are the repetition of a verb of the question (with or without a negative prefix) and the use of the word right or the word is (with or without a negative prefix). The poe are therefore performing within a context more similar to ordinary conversation than might at first glance be thought.

Go to top

These blocks are used in ordinary consultations with household and temple josses, as well as with ancestors. Questions that might be put in this way are limited, but as the method is cheap, it is the one most often used for a start on eliciting divine information, even should other methods later be resorted to. Another important use of poe is in conferring with gods as to whether rituals are being conducted to their satisfaction, and a very common question put is whether the offerings have been in place long enough for the god to have eaten his fill.

Because of the purely mechanical nature of poe, there are statistical regularities over time, even though their behavior might be erratic in response to any single question. Questions, accordingly, must be composed with due appreciation of the probabilities a positive response. Whereas in theory the poe, because they are controlled by the gods, are manipulated by supernatural forces to reinforce correct answers and therefore could be requested to perform in defiance of the law of averages, in fact the statistical nature of the device is apparently fully appreciated, and on one occasion was even articulated, during one of the semimonthly worship sessions before the temple. The poe were being thrown by one of the two former mayors of the village whom we met earlier. This man, for reasons clear to no one but himself, was expecting a miraculous descent of a god to choose a new spirit medium on this particular evening. When it did not happen, he contrived to put questions to the poe that would stand a good chance of prolonging the proceedings to provide a better opportunity for the anticipated divine descent. As the evening wore on, many people became more and more uneasy about the unusual length of the sacrifices, an uneasiness made the more intense by their growing hunger. At length, about ten o'clock, the second former mayor ordered his sacrifices brought home, in great disgust, and with no small show. "He is asking questions in such a way," he declared, "that he can't possibly get an affirmative answer." A quarter of an hour or so later the poe declared that the gods had eaten their fill.

The incident is of interest because it suggests that there is a clear realization that poe are statistical devices. Existing simultaneously with the belief that they are a vehicle of communication controlled absolutely by divine agencies, there is a healthy realization of the limits imposed by the nature of the device, and an understanding that poe require human cooperation to function correctly. The lack of apologetics in Taiwanese religion is unfortunate, for it makes the point difficult to follow up, but it would be of great interest to know to what extent man can be governed by absolute pragmatism in the manipulation of religious symbols invested by himself with great sanctity.

For more elaborate questions, people of Bǎo'ān may go to a larger temple, where they can make use of chhiam verses. These are small slips of paper, usually displayed on a board at one side of a temple, bearing numbers from one to sixty or from one to one hundred. On the altar is a vase of bamboo slips correspondingly numbered. Such a slip is drawn from the vase and poe are used to confirm that the correspondingly numbered slip of paper will indeed contain the answer to the question at hand. When this has been established, the slip of paper is itself consulted. It contains a verse of four lines. Such verses are often difficult to interpret, and in many temples an explanation is added below the verse, applying its message to particular questions the worshipper might have asked. In larger temples an old man is usually to be found who can provide additional instruction on the interpretation of these verses. Although most small villages in southwestern Táiwān seem to provide their temples with sets of chhiam papers, Bǎo'ān does not, and it is necessary to go to Xīgǎng to divine in this way.5

Footnote 5. Many temples, Xīgǎng's among them, are now installing coin-operated chhiam dispensers that obviate the need for positive poe and simply present one with a printed verse (in a spherical plastic capsule) upon receipt of a coin. I have never seen such a machine actually used, and so far as I know it is not taken very seriously. but perhaps I did not inquire so diligently as I might because the whole thought of a coin-operated chhiam machine offends my Western sensibilities. It appears that such machines are taken seriously in Japan (Thomas W. Johnson, personal communication).

Go to top

The Kiō-á

link to picture of divination chair

For more serious consultations with the divine, the people of Bǎo'ān have recourse to a kiō-á 轎仔, which I described briefly in the previous chapter, and which I have glossed "divination chair" for want of a better term.6 This object, we recall, is a small wooden chair, usually about twenty centimeters on a side and about twenty-five or thirty centimeters high at the back. Around the sides of the chair are set small pickets of wood that are free to move up and down in their sockets, causing a clicking sound when the chair is bounced or jostled. Divination by means of a kiō-á is accomplished by two men7 holding it by its legs in an upright position before an altar while incense is burned and the relevant supernatural is requested to descend into the chair. His descent is indicated by the onset of motion in the chair, particularly bouncing motion. This is occasionally quite violent, and the holders of the chair sometimes appear to have great difficulty keeping their hold on it. At length the chair leans forward and with an ear-splitting crash descends upon a table (prepared in advance with a protecting surface of wood or burlap) and traces characters upon it. These characters are considered to be written by the possessing god, and their interpreted meanings are the responses to questions put to the god by the petitioner.

Footnote 6. The Hokkien word kiō-á is cognate with Mandarin Jiàozi 較子. A Jiàozi , however, may also be the palanquin in which a joss is carried (called a kiō in Hokkien). In Hokkien a kiō-á is only the object here described, not a palanquin (although various specialized types of kiō-á may have carrying poles and vaguely resemble palanquins).

Footnote 7. Women do not perform this task in Bǎo'ān or in any seances that I have seen elsewhere. Other lines of evidence suggest to me that this is probably not because they are prohibited from doing so, but rather because in some sense it is men's work, rather like building cabinets or fixing the plumbing in America. I do not, however, have any explicit statements one way or the other from people in Bǎo'ān.

Go to top

Not everyone can wield the kiō-á effectively. One informant described it this way:

It certainly is not the case that just anyone can wield the kiō-á. For example, I once wielded the kiō-á and the god didn't come and sit in it, but when I turned it back to someone else, the kiō-á immediately had a god come and sit in it.. … Naturally there are a lot of people who can wield the kiō-á and have it move. But there are not many who can wield it so that it writes characters on a table. For example, in our village there may be as many as a hundred people who can 'wield the kiō-á so that it will move, but there are probably barely ten who can wield it so that it can write characters. Furthermore, of these ten the majority have never studied characters and are illiterate.

I understand that if you want to be able to wield a kiō-á so that it writes characters, it is very easy. Ordinarily you just have to be a person who can wield the kiō-á so that it can move, and then practice the kiō-á often. Finally after you know the kiō-á's nature, you can of course write characters on a table. And that is how wielding the kiō-á works.

As noted, it is usual in Bǎo'ān for the wielders of the kiō-á to be illiterate. Indeed, some (but not all) informants questioned on the subject seem to believe that the whole procedure would lose its interest if the bearers of the little chair could read, since there would be no way to know that what was being written was not being faked. The characters traced upon the table are unclear, and a good deal of study of each character is necessary before it is "correctly" understood. Sometimes one even has to ask the god to retrace the character three or four times before an acceptable interpretation is finally proposed by the person in charge of reading what the kiō-á traces.8 When at last he gives the correct reading, it is confirmed by a single rap upon the table by the little chair. But when he gives a wrong reading, the chair raps twice.

Footnote 8. Because no mark is left on the table. one must be adept at understanding characters traced in the air. This is a skill widespread among literate Chinese. who often trace characters in the air or on a table with a finger while speaking, but it is seldom attempted with script forms. It is widely believed that the difficulty in reading the characters in divination derives from their usually being script forms; Chinese gods, like American doctors, have bad handwriting. Given the incredible amount of variation in the script representations possible for any given character, it is rare that a random combination of squiggles and jots cannot be construed as some character.

This sort of seance, as conducted in Bǎo'ān at least, divides the act of creation among three people. By far the largest role is played by the reader, who interprets the writing of the kiō-á. He is limited by the glyphs that he (and literate onlookers) may be able to fit to the random movements of the kiō-á on the table, by his imagination in free-associating to make them relevant to the questions at hand, and by the veto power the wielders of the kiō-á have upon his interpretations of the characters (though not upon the free associations).

Although a kiō-á is perhaps most commonly used as a means of divination, it is not always so used. Many times the divine presence is desirable even when there is no need for direct consultation. We noted this in connection with the exorcism discussed above, and shall see clearer examples below.

Through the kiō-á, as never through the poe, man is in contact with and in the presence of the supernatural. In the kiō-á the gods may descend whenever they are needed to be present as guests, overseers, guides, or decision makers.

Go to top

The Tâng-ki

To the kiō-á we may compare the spirit mediums.9 I have used the word medium because it is English. The Hokkien word for which it has been doing service is tâng-ki 童乩 (occasionally spoken as ki-tông 乩童), literally a "divining youth."10 A description of the tâng-ki of Singapore has been made by Elliott (1955). Elliott describes particular temples maintained by tâng-ki for their use. Their performances are largely confined to these places, which are provided with kinds of equipment necessary to their trance performances, including particularly chairs of nails and beds of knives. Individual petitioners present themselves at the tâng-ki temples, where their problems are handled by the tâng-ki in order. When there are medical problems, the tâng-ki normally cuts his tongue and blots the blood upon a sheet of spirit money, making a blood charm 血符, which may be carried on the body to fend off baleful influences.

Footnote 9. There is a good deal to be said about the mediums. In the present context I include only a sketch designed to clarify what has already been said about relations between men and gods in Bǎo'ān.

Footnote 10. The Mandarin cognate would be Jītóng 乩童, but it is not clear that it is actually used, and I have preferred the Hokkien tâng-ki for the present discussion. Groot (1892-1910: 6.1269) lists tâng-ki and ki-tông also for Xiàmén city, adding sin-tâng 神童 and tâng-chí 童子 as well, although apparently this last is often used for lads in general as well as for gods' lads in particular. Comber (1958: 8 f.) indicates that in Singapore the Hokkien tâng-ki is used, plus numerous Cantonese expressions, viz: Iok9-tung4 . 落童 , gong3-tung4 降童, and sen4-tung4 神童.

In Táiwān one can find tâng-ki attached to certain temples, especially small, private temples: essentially outgrown family altars in many cases.11 Also, many tâng-ki go to public temples to be possessed and there answer petitioners' problems, but they are not attached to these temples any more than minstrels and soothsayers are attached to the parks and bazaars where they ply their trade. Although the Taiwanese tâng-ki performances are apparently less spectacular than those of Singapore (for they lack the face painting and are somewhat less bloody), they seem to be essentially similar in cities. In rural areas, however, the role of the tâng-ki is somewhat different, for he addresses himself not so much to individual problems as to collective ones. He becomes the oracle of the community some of the time, of individual families other times —seldom of the individual petitioner.12

Footnote 11. On Taiwanese tâng-ki, see Lín Cáiyuán 1968: 48ff.; Diamond 1966: 124ff., 311 ff.: Gallin 1966: 260 ff.; Wú Yíngtāu 1970: 168 ff.; Kokubu Naoichi 1962. Gallin uses the word Tiàotóng 跳童, used also by Wú in a somewhat more restricted sense, but he is clearly talking about the same thing.

Go to top

Footnote 12 For purposes of the present discussion I have ignored differences between male and female tâng-ki, just as the Taiwanese do. There seems to be a tendency however for female tâng-ki to be associated often with purely local divinities who answer individual petitions at private altars in the medium's home, whereas male tâng-ki seem usually to operate by visiting the family of the petitioner or guiding village affairs in the village temple. The distinction is not hard and fast and exceptions occur in both directions. The present discussion is based largely on the more common, male tâng-ki.

I do not know how many tâng-ki are ordinarily found in a Taiwanese village. In Japanese times they were forbidden to exist, and most people believe (realistically) that Westerners find them disconcerting. Further, Chinese culture itself hardly exalts them. Accordingly, a casual inquiry in a strange village will almost inevitably win the inquirer the response that there are no tâng-ki in the vicinity, the respondent never heard of a tâng-ki, tâng-ki no longer exist in Táiwān, and the like, regardless of the facts. When I arrived in Bǎo'ān I was informed that the village had one tâng-ki, a certain Guō Tiānhuà 郭天化 by name,13 who presided over the rites described in the last chapter. As time went on, however, more tâng-ki began emerging from the woodwork.

Footnote 13. All personal names are real Taiwanese names, but have been scrambled to make identification impossible. Surnames have been maintained intact.

Go to top

Guō Tiānhuà is seventy years old and has served his god, the Third Prince, for twenty-five years or so. A woman named Guō Huìmǐn 郭惠敏 about thirty, has also been subject to possession for some time, and shortly after I arrived in the village she began holding seances in her house. One village woman returned to Bǎo'ān shortly before I left. Age thirty-three, she had been divorced from her husband and spent some time at jobs in Táinán city trying to avoid her possession, but eventually she gave in to the inevitable and came back to Bǎo'ān, where she was initiated. One man, Guō Qīngshuǐ 郭清水, was possessed most unexpectedly one evening and remained in trance for eighteen hours; eventually he became a practicing tâng-ki about the time I left. Another man had apparently been possessed a few times in the past, but claimed he was no longer, and certainly did not practice often. Two men who had moved to Táinán city subsequently were possessed by gods there, and one of them has been so successful that appreciation gifts of gold made to his possessing deity have enriched him enough that he has constructed a new house.14 One man has also been possessed a few times by the spirit of his dead brother and cures illnesses upon occasion. Another young man, Zhāng Dīngjí 張丁吉, was in the army when I arrived, but was subject to occasional possession and clairvoyance there. After his term of service expired he returned to the village and began, to his dismay and disgust, to engage in trance more frequently. If all these tâng-ki are counted, we have a total of nine tâng-ki living or born in Bǎo'ān.

Footnote 14. Some tâng-ki. as in Singapore, accept (occasionally demand) a fee from a petitioner. This is particularly common in cities. In the countryside many tâng-ki scorn both fees and various thinly disguised "gifts" and insist that it is unseemly to accept reward for doing the work of the gods. So far as I know. of the tâng-ki living in Bǎo'ān only Guō Huìmǐn accepts money, usually about twenty Kuài ($.50) per session.

Table 2: Living Mediums of Bǎo'ān

Pseudonym Sex & Age in 1966 Year of Initiation Residence in 1966 Possessing God
Guō Tiānhuà
M 69 1945? Bǎo'ān Third Prince
Guō Qīngshuǐ
M 33 1968 Bǎo'ān Great Saint
Guō Huìmǐn
F 29 1966? Bǎo'ān Wangmǔ
Zhāng Xiùyè
F 32 1968 Bǎo'ān (temporary) Little God
Zhāng Dīngjí
M 23 Mid-1960s? Bǎo'ān His Highness Chí
A* M 59 ? Bǎo'ān (trans-riverine) Great Saint
B* M 52 ? Bǎo'ān (brother)
Guō Dōngmíng
M 40? 1955-1965 Táinán His Highness Lǐ
(none) M 38 1955-1965 Táinán (plague god)

Go to top

The tâng-ki As Oracle

The tâng-ki is above all things else an oracle. He is applied to in order to put questions to his god. Normally he is the mouthpiece of but a single deity. This is not to say that he will never speak the words of another god, but that it will be a rare occasion, for which some explanation will be necessary. The tâng-ki is a man whose natural life is thought to be short (hence the term tâng, "lad"), and who has been granted an extension, as it were, in order that he may serve his god. The job is not one that people enjoy, or so it is claimed. Nearly all tâng-ki maintain that they tried every possible inducement to persuade the possessing god to select someone else before they finally surrendered before the inevitable. The following story seems typical, although I do not have completely detailed data on all the tâng-ki of Bǎo'ān. (The tale must be pieced together from discussions with several different informants, so there are occasional inconsistencies.)

About two or three years before Liberation we had a typhoon. Guō Tiānhuà and his mother were buried under a wall that collapsed on them but were not hurt in the least. They thought this was very strange, so they asked a god about it through a kiō-á. The kiō-á told them that the Third Prince had chosen Tiānhuà as his tâng-ki.15 A few days later Tiānhuà was possessed for a time. Afterward he took to eating charms and did not become possessed again.

Footnote 15. The Third Prince 三太子 is Lǐ Nézhà 李哪吒, one of the most picturesque figures of the Romance of Canonizations. For accounts in English, see Werner 1922: 305-319, Doré 1931: 111-122. He is one of the most commonly met among the gods who possess mediums.

The Third Prince chose Guō Tiānhuà as his tâng-ki about thirty years ago, so he has been a tâng-ki for about thirty years. Before he became a tâng-ki he was periodically possessed for several years (perhaps three or four or more). At first the Third Prince often came to make Tiānhuà possessed, but whenever Tiānhuà felt he was about to be possessed, he would drink charm water to keep from being possessed. After a time the charm would wear off, and then he would be susceptible again. This happened many times. … Sometimes Guō Tiānhuà would run out of charms, and then the god would come to possess him and he would run and jump into the fishpond and in that way would avoid possession. So for two or three years the Third Prince was unable to catch him. Guō Tiānhuà really didn't want to become a tâng-ki. Probably it was because of his fear of blood. Whenever he saw that his own hand or body was bleeding he would immediately faint.

In 1946 or 1947 the temple at Xīgǎng was having its triennial festival, and the Fourth Guardian of King Guō came to our village from Táinán. He had only just arrived at the village temple when Tiānhuà was possessed. As he felt it coming on, he immediately devoured some water that a charm had been burned over, but this time the charm was not powerful enough. After he had become possessed, he ran to the temple area and announced that he was the Fourth Guardian. … The Fourth Guardian is more powerful than the Third Prince, so when Tiānhuà ate his charm, it didn't do him any good. The Fourth Guardian possessed him and brought him to the temple, and then said: "The Third Prince is always trying to possess you for his tâng-ki and you are always carrying and eating charms and not letting the Third Prince possess you. How can you have such gall? Don't you know that your natural life is very short? Don't you remember year before last when the wall of your house collapsed? Wasn't it the Third Prince that saved you? Otherwise how would you be living today? Who saved you? You know that. I don't have to tell you. Yet you are not the slightest bit grateful. The Third Prince wants you to help him. …

After Guō Tiānhuà had delivered himself of the words that the Fourth Guardian wanted to say, he became more violent and began striking his fist against his own face and mouth. It was to represent the Third Prince striking him, and it showed that Guō Tiānhuà had been opposing his Third Prince and not obeying his Third Prince's instructions. When it was over, many people urged him not to oppose the gods and to obey their instructions. Perhaps Tiānhuà himself knew he could not escape the danger, so he finally agreed. After that incident when the Fourth Guardian borrowed the Third Prince's tâng-ki, the Third Prince often possessed Guō Tiānhuà. … Not long afterward we held his initiation 開光.16 I don't remember the details about that.

Footnote 16. All tâng-ki are initiated, an issue I intend to take up in a separate paper on tâng-ki, but which need not detain us here. The exact form of the initiation seems to differ widely from place to place and circumstance to circumstance. In general, Bǎo'ān tâng-ki initiations involve an exorcism, designed to evict a ghost, in case the medium is being possessed by a demonic rather than a benevolent power. They also involve providing the tâng-ki with instruments of mortification for the first time, and his first mortification of the flesh. Both of these points will also be considered briefly in the discussion that follows.

Other informants added more details. One recalled that Tiānhuà used to flee the village whenever the kiō-á was used lest he be possessed. Another remembered that his daughter's face became badly swollen for nearly a year in order to punish Tiānhuà for his perverseness. Some people, including Tiānhuà himself, attributed his mother's sudden death during this period to his unwillingness to become a tâng-ki.

Go to top

It is difficult to decide what is the basis of the widespread reluctance to be a tâng-ki. Taiwanese who are not tâng-ki themselves speculate that it is because of the "inconvenience" of being subject to possession at any time at the whim of a god or because mortification of the flesh hurts (or at least the prospect of mortifying the flesh, even painlessly, is unsavory). Those who are tâng-ki have little to say on the matter, except to recount their trials in trying to resist this calling. Several lines of interpretation are possible. One will become clearer below when we have considered the relations between gods and ghosts in greater detail. Another argues that the reluctance is largely theatrical, like the disavowal of political ambition by ardent campaigners for governmental office (a common enough approach in the West, but one that is de rigueur in Taiwanese politics). A third view would make the divine calling initially one of several interpretations of a set of physiological symptoms (shortness of breath, for example) which then becomes an ever-increasing fixation on the part of the subject, terrible on the one hand, fascinating on the other. On the basis of the data at hand, I see no way to decide among these and other possible explanations.

Despite the appalling soul-searching the prospective tâng-ki may go through when he is initially selected by a god to follow this calling, his position in the village is, at least in the ritual sphere, extremely important, even exalted. A week does not pass in which Tiānhuà, now seventy, is not called to someone's house to go into trance so that the Third Prince may reveal answers to a wide variety of questions or write charms to be consumed as medicine for the cure of illnesses of all kinds. In addition, his presence is required in all village activities of various kinds.

Because of the amount of power the tâng-ki is potentially able to wield, there is, of course, a danger of his being "wrong." To me "wrong" means that the tâng-ki is sociologically or psychologically insensitive to the needs and realities of the community, or that he is manipulating things to his own (perhaps devious) ends. To Taiwanese the idiom is different, although the principles seem the same; that is, the big danger when a new man is possessed is that he may be possessed by a ghost (Guǐ) rather than by a god (Shén). Various devices are tried in order to separate godly possession from ghostly possession. Initiations of tâng-ki accordingly include exorcism and trial by miracles. Thus when Guō Qīngshuǐ was initiated as medium of the Great Saint in 1968 he was required to splash boiling oil on his face with his bare hands.17 He suffered no harm because he was protected by his god; a demonic presence would not have been able to stand by him in this way, but would have fled in terror, leaving Qīngshuǐ to be burned.

Footnote 17. Cf. Diamond 1966: 309.

link to picture of a first trance

There are such things as false tâng-ki, by which I mean tâng-ki who are possessed by no presence at all, be it divine or diabolic. These men merely imitate the behavior of possessed tâng-ki to defraud the public by charging for the "services" they render. They are known as "divine rascals" 神棍. In general they are urban, because it is more usual for urban tâng-ki to accept cash for their trance performances. Because a person goes to a tâng-ki he does not know only if the tâng-ki is recommended by friends, relatives, or gods (other tâng-ki) in whom he has confidence, it is unlikely that he will regard "his" tâng-ki as a divine rascal, but it is easy to be suspicious of an utterly strange tâng-ki, particularly if his rates are unusually high. In rural areas the low or nonexistent fees exclude the possibility of divine rascals, it is reasoned, and the fact of possession is seldom, if ever, questioned. Whether in a given case the tâng-ki is really possessed is not important. That is not questioned. What is important is that the possession is benign and not malign. Once a rural tâng-ki is established to everyone's satisfaction as truly beātus deum, charges of diabolic interference are dropped and he functions as the community oracle. Should he slip, the possibility of goblins in the works is always lurking in the background to explain lapses of divine reason and to discredit an erring medium.

Different tâng-ki introduce slight differences in their trance performances, but there is a general pattern to which most conform. Let us start with Guō Tiānhuà as an example. Tiānhuà is called to come to a house that desires his services, or, upon occasion, the family that wishes him to come burn incense to the gods at their family altar and pray for a revelation; in time Tiānhuà appears, unsummoned, but led by supernatural forces to the house where the revelation is to take place.18 He usually appears after dinner, any time between seven o'clock and about ten in the evening. He sits chatting quietly in the courtyard of the house or in the central room with the host. As he begins to feel possession creeping over him he is less and less a participant in the conversation, which continues beside him. When it is noticed he is beginning to appear drowsy, a bench is set before the lower family altar, and here he seats himself, leaning over onto the table, as his shirt is removed. Shortly, perhaps within five or six minutes, he begins to shake. At first it is a slight vibration, barely perceptible. To this is added an occasional belch or gasp. Within minutes he is shaking violently and begins drumming his fingers hard and rhythmically on the table. Suddenly he breaks into loud, high-pitched, unintelligible "gods' language." He now stands over the table, and the bench is removed. Within a minute or two the gods' language has become a variety of Hokkien. It is distorted by the imposition of melodic lines that destroy the normal tones of words, and it is complicated by the introduction of odd expressions, interrupted by belches and vocative shrieks addressed to the "little brethren," a term used by the Third Prince to address his followers. The god is now ready for questions. These are normally addressed to him by the head of the household, standing anxiously beside the family altar. After each answer has been given, the medium's flow of speech trails off and becomes a series of unintelligible mutterings, and the bystanders discuss the import of what has been revealed Because of the distorted language, only people who have been through many seances with Tiānhuà are able to interpret what he says, and they sometimes must ask for clarification.19

Footnote 18. For the peace of mind of readers who are disturbed by the operation of divine forces, it is only fair to admit that summoning the medium through prayer this way often requires several evenings before he appears, so there is time, one could maintain, for him to receive news of his call by more familiar channels.

Footnote 19. I tape-recorded several sessions, but my research assistant was unable to transcribe them without word-by-word assistance of village people with longer experience listening to this tâng-ki.

A session may last from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half. When it is finished, the god announces he is going to return 退, and the bench is placed behind the tâng-ki Suddenly the tâng-ki reels backward onto the bench and into the arms of two men who station themselves behind him to catch him. He slumps down onto the table and slowly comes to, then retires to wash himself, put on his shirt again, and discuss what has taken place with his host over a bowl of noodles.20

Footnote 20. Noodles are seldom eaten by Taiwanese for meals, but are a frequent snack for either oneself or guests. They are normally prepared with finely chopped vegetables, pork, fish, and occasionally small shrimp.

Tiānhuà claims to remember what transpires while he is in trance. Not all tâng-ki remember what has happened.21 There are other differences too. Some tâng-ki jump around while going into trance, or have various kinds of convulsions. Some also empty their stomachs, and may salivate extensively while speaking. The speech of some is normal, even conversational, whereas others speak in cadences as Tiānhuà does, or in rapid-fire falsetto. Some Taiwanese say that the reason for these different kinds of speech is that they are the voices of different gods. Thus falsetto is often associated with possession by a goddess, whose voice would naturally be higher. On the other hand, Chinese skeptics never tire of pointing out that the same god possessing two different tâng-ki speaks with two different voices.22

Footnote 21. According to Comber (1968: 14), Singapore tâng-ki never remember what has taken place. Diamond (1966: 125) notes the same for Taiwanese tâng-ki in her village.

Footnote 22. Every god speaks Hokkien, regardless of the region where he passed his earthly life.

Go to top

In a certain sense, the kiō-á and the tâng-ki can be considered interchangeable. The tâng-ki normally has the advantage that he speaks and is easier to understand than the bizarre characters scribbled by the kiō-á. However, it may go the other way about. In one tâng-ki seance held in a town near Bǎo'ān, no one was able to make any sense of what the tâng-ki revealed. Accordingly, a second seance was held in which the divination was performed instead with a kiō-á in hopes that what had been an unintelligible jumble of sounds from the mouth of the god's verbal oracle would be understood if reduced to hieroglyphics through his written one.

Another incident also suggests the interchangeability of tâng-ki and kiō-á: the case of Zhāng Wéntōng's 張文通 grandfather. Zhāng Wéntōng's grandfather was chosen by His Highness Chyr to be a tâng-ki. He did not want to do this. After a long period of trying to avoid the god (similar apparently to Tiānhuà's reaction), he at last was able to strike a bargain with His Highness Chyr: Grandfather would not be His Highness's tâng-ki, but he promised that he would learn to read characters written by a kiō-á and make himself available to people desiring to have oracles read to them in this way. This compromise was accepted, and he gained great fame as a talented kiō-á reader.

But despite some similarities, there is a fundamental difference between the tâng-ki acting as the god's oracle and the kiō-á. Within the limits we noted above, the kiō-á is handled by anyone and read by anyone. Some people come to be specialists but, unlike the tâng-ki, they are not in trance.23 The chair itself, not the men who control it, is the instrument of the god. Holding the chair and reading its characters are thought to require only practice, not divine inspiration, and no one who undertakes one of these jobs is liable to be suspected of being under the influence of devils and ghosts; that is, rejected by the community as illegitimate. The tâng-ki, on the other hand, is always potentially suspect.

Footnote 23. If one wanted to make a comparison with the West, a kiō-á might be seen as more similar to a ouija board, whereas a tâng-ki more resembles speaking in tongues.

The village has control of a kiō-á in a way that it does not a tâng-ki. The kiō-á, after all, is manipulated by two men and read by a third. The two can confirm or deny any reading made by the third. In fact, it is fully part of the system that the reader should be wrong part of the time, and bystanders are perfectly welcome to contribute their ideas to the emerging interpretation of the message coming from the gods. There is plenty of room for the divine opinion to be a truly collective decision. In the case of the tâng-ki, the divine message is produced by a single man and consists of entire sentences rather than merely enigmatic single characters, so there is little room for collective interpretation. The divine message can be true or false only. The only check the village is able to put on him is to reject his claim to divine inspiration and discredit him. When the village people accept his revelations as genuine, they are placing themselves entirely at his command.

It is therefore easy to see why it is that the kiō-á manipulators are so casually trained: they can be easily censured. But the tâng-ki is rigorously examined and highly suspect, and he requires an initiation, for once he has been created, there is no way to censure him short of destroying him. >

Go to top

The tâng-ki As Spectacle

A tâng-ki is more than merely an oracle, simply another means of divination for a people already rich in methods for the discovery of unknown things. He is also a spectacle or perhaps, one might even say, a miracle. For on some occasions a tâng-ki engages in dramatic mortifications of the flesh.

In Táiwān mortification of the flesh is performed by means of any of five instruments (the so-called gō·-hāng-ke si 五項家私 "five kinds of tools"). The most commonly used is a ball of nails (called by Groot a "prickball"). The usual Chinese word for this is "ball of nails" 刺球 but in Bǎo'ān it is termed a "heavenly red tangerine" 天柑, a name that suggests its associations with religion. It normally is made from a ball of brilliant red cotton in which nails are fixed with their points protruding from all sides, secured against being pulled out of line by a network of red cording extending from nail to nail. The points of the nails extend from two to twelve millimeters beyond the cording (a couple of centimeters beyond the cotton core), and accordingly these figures represent the approximate depth of a wound that can be made with such an instrument.

A second instrument, also very widespread, is a sword 七星劍 about fifty centimeters in length. The sword is kept quite sharp, so that a cut can be produced by hitting the flesh with it. Other instruments include the saw of a sawfish 排劍, a spiked club 銅棍, made of a wooden baton in which either nails or triangular bits of copper have been mounted, and a large ax 月斧, considered to be the most dangerous of the mortification tools.

The medium inflicts wounds on himself by swinging the instrument of mortification over his head so that it lands on the upper part of his back. Some mediums also hit themselves on the forehead, causing the blood to run down their faces, producing yet a bloodier scene. Most of the wounds are superficial and heal in a few days. The rapid healing of these wounds, and the fact that they do not become infected are understood to be part of the miraculous nature of the performance.

link to pictures of mediums in trance

Mortification of the flesh is the tâng-ki's sign to the world that he is real. Some village people say that the tâng-ki himself cannot feel his wounds (and certainly he gives no indication that he does). Others suspect that he can. But all agree he cannot prevent himself from inflicting them, for he is impelled to do this by his possessing god as a sign of the genuineness of his trance.

A tâng-ki does not mortify his flesh until his initiation. One of the prime acts of initiation is teaching the initiate to mortify his flesh.24 In some sense, therefore, mortification is a sign that the possession is genuine, not only for the Taiwanese farmer, but for the Western analyst as well: the community does not initiate tâng-ki who are not adjudged to be real!

Footnote 24. Cf. Elliott 1955: 61.

Go to top

In theory a tâng-ki might mortify his flesh each time he is possessed. In fact, mortification is not so frequent. Mortification is a drama not necessary when a private person has called the medium to speak oracles at his family altar. The primary occasion for mortification is when the gods must be present in the village for reasons other than oracular. One such occasion was the birthday celebration we considered above. Another occasion is religious processions. At the triennial festival in Xīgǎng, tâng-ki from surrounding areas turn out in force and accompany the palanquins from their home villages. It is always possible to discover when the procession is approaching a spiritually charged part of the processional route, for the movements of the palanquins become unsteady and erratic, and the tâng-ki begin to shake violently. The vicinity of a temple will usually invoke this response. So will a place in the road where someone has died, or an encounter with another medium or other palanquins. If the tâng-ki are armed at that particular moment, they begin to mortify their flesh.

When the procession approaches the Xīgǎng temple at the end of the day, and particularly at the end of the third day when the procession has been joined by palanquins from all of the villages it has visited and is now at its largest, one can witness tâng-ki after tâng-ki in a transport of ecstasy appearing before the temple fully armed and bleeding as he whacks at his back and forehead with his weapons. He is allowed three strokes, normally, before bystanders stop him; then he jumps and shakes, holding his weapon tenaciously and recycles for another bout of whacking.

The presence of tâng-ki in a village brings it the prestige and awesome status one might expect to accrue to a place that has found favor and protection of the gods. It is said that in the late Qīng dynasty Taiwanese tâng-ki might be called from one village to perform in another, and they would proceed in state along the rural byways accompanied by banners and large drums and riding in palanquins. The custom died with the Japanese ban on possession (as though possession could be legislated out of existence) and has not been revived under the present government.

Prestige accrues today to a village able to send one or several tâng-ki to the great festival at Xīgǎng. Thus when Guō Qīngshuǐ was suddenly possessed in Bǎo'ān during my stay, one village man confided to me that he was able to see cunning forethought in the gods' plans for the village, for by providing a new tâng-ki they were giving Bǎo'ān a chance to be that much up on a rival village at the 1970 triennial festival. Whether that was the plan of the gods or of men, there was no doubt in his mind that a rise in Bǎo'ān's ritual position and prestige would be one effect of the new tâng-ki.

To return to the actual performance of mediums, the Norwegian missionary Reichelt has left a better record of a Westerner's reaction than of the performance as such (1951: 18 f.):

… through the worship of local divinities of a lower moral order (at times even demons) [they] are brought into a condition of ecstasy. In this state they achieve superhuman power, as they are thought to be possessed by the divinity's spirit. It is especially the young, high-strung boys, whose nervous and emotional organization is easily affected, who are used in this sinister and repellent traffic.25 …Some of these scenes are among the most unpleasant things one sees in China.

Footnote 25. Tiānhuà was possessed sometime in his forties; Dīngjí, in his late teens. Guō Qīngshuǐ is thirty-four. Of the women, Guō Huìmǐn began having "strange" experiences at twelve, whereas Zhāng Xiùyè became subject to possession only after her marriage, but was not initiated until the age of thirty-three. I know of one case of a woman being possessed at age sixty. Dīngjí is reclusive. Tiānhuà is social and likes nothing better than an evening of conversation, perhaps over a snack of fruit. Qīngshuǐ is hard-working and hard-drinking. I am afraid I do not see a pattern emerging as clearly as Reichelt does.

Go to top

It is not clear how unpleasant they are to the Chinese. In the case of Xīgǎng, it is this couple of hours at the end of the last day of procession, when the tâng-ki return to Xīgǎng in large numbers walking beside or riding upon the palanquins of gods from their villages, that is considered to be the peak of the festival, and their bloody exploits are recounted years afterward with an enthusiasm that does not altogether suggest revulsion. How many times was I told of the tâng-ki who was saved from splitting his head with an ax some years back only because a bystander, realizing the tâng-ki was becoming dangerously violent, pushed his arm to one side as the ax fell, so that he lost Only an ear? How many times have Taiwanese told me that all of the tâng-ki bleed profusely before the temple at Xīgǎng, when in fact a few who are elderly or infirm do not mortify their flesh at all? How many times after discussing these performances have Taiwanese rural people added that it is all very Rènào 熱鬧, a word of vigorous approval associated with an atmosphere of carnival and noisy confusion that is clearly much appreciated? This is not to say that the performance is truly enjoyed. Enthusiasm at a distance turns to morbid curiosity in face of the real thing, and the mob packs thick about the fenced-off court before the temple to watch the performance with profoundly involved but expressionless faces.

The extraordinary figure of the tâng-ki suggests several lines of thought about rural Taiwanese culture. It would, for example, be interesting to explore the way in which the tâng-ki, particularly the tâng-ki as a mortifier of his flesh, relates to Professor Eberhard's recent thesis about the importance of guilt among the Chinese lower classes (1967).

What is of relevance to the present discussion, however, is the social role of the tâng-ki in the village and how mortification of the flesh is important to that role. As is well known, one aspect of filial subservience in China is preserving one's body so that one may care for one's parents or their shades and produce children who will do the same. In the opening chapter of the Classic of Filial Piety 孝經 we find the following passage: "Our body and limbs, our hair and skin are given us by our parents, and we must be careful not to injure them: this is the beginning of filial piety."26 Hoogers (1910:6-8) cites additional Chinese sources on the same theme:

Footnote 26. 身體髮膚受之父母,不敢毀傷孝之始也。

A prominent feature of the subject we are concerned with is that filial piety requires, as an overriding duty, that one take scrupulously good care of one's body in order to maintain intact the corporal substance received from one's parents. Here are the curious texts which relate to this singular precept:

As the body is made by one's parents and is a legacy of their substance, would one dare not to respect it? A man's body is as a branch from his parents, and he who abuses his body outrages and wounds his parents; he wounds the trunk from which he has sprung, and when that trunk is wounded, the branch will perish. Of all the products of heaven and earth, man is the most noble. Thanks to his parents, he is born perfect and he must die perfect if he would be called a pious son. Therefore let no man mutilate or defile his body.27

Footnote 27. Un trait saillant dans le sujet qui nous occupe, c'est que la piété filiale exige comme un devoir impérieux, qu'on ait scrupuleusement soin de son corps, pour conserver intacte la substance corporelle reçue de ses parents. Voiçi les curieux textes en rapport avec ce singulier precepte. «Le corps étant un legs de leur substance, fait par les parents, oserait-on ne pas le respecter? Le corps de l'homme étant comme un rejeton de ses parents, celui qui abuse de son corps, outrage et blesse ses parents, c'est blesser le tronc dont on est sorti; le tronc blessé, le rameau périra. De tour les êtres produits par le ciel et la terre, l'homme est le plus noble. Grâce à ses parents. il est né entier. Il doit mourir entier, s'il prétend au titre de fils picux. Qu'il ne mutile donc, ni ne souille son corps…» (p.6).

Go to top

… The paraphrase of the instruction on sects of the Sacred Edicts sermonizes against foolish people who travel long distances to burn incense in satisfaction of a vow for the recovery of their parents' health, but do so at the cost of multifarious dangers to their own life and limb. They say that endangering their lives for their parents is a sign of filial piety. But, says the instruction, can you be unaware that not taking care of the body you have received from your parents is, instead, impiety?28

Footnote 28. …La paraphrase de l'instruction sur les sectes (Augustes Edits) tonne contre les sots qui aux prix de mille dangers pour leurs corps et leur vie, s'en vont au loin brûller de l'encens pour satisfaire à un voeu qu'ils ont fait pour le recouvrement de la santé de leurs parents; ils disent qu'exposer sa vie pour ses parents, c'est montrer sa piété filale; et ne savez-vous pas, dit l'instruction, que n'avoir pas soin du corps que l'on a reçu des parents, c'est au contraire être impie? (p. 8).

Such theories are quite alive today and are visible in the custom of punishing a child that has hurt himself before comforting him. The comfort is to soothe his fears or relieve his pain, but the punishment comes first to teach him not to damage his body. The sight is not uncommon, and the explanation is easy enough to elicit. An example occurred on my own doorstep one day. My landlord's two-year-old granddaughter was standing on an armchair and suddenly shifted her weight too far to the back. The chair went over and the wee girl fell onto her head in a heap on the concrete porch. Her uncle immediately fished her up. She was crying so hard she could barely make a sound. He struck her hard several times. Afterward he told me this was in order to teach her not to do such a stupid thing again. A bystander offered the same explanation, and added that "probably about 60 percent" of rural Taiwanese would do this.

It becomes clear that the tâng-ki is deliberately flouting such rules, or is somehow outside them. We recall that he is considered to be a man who would normally die at an early age, but whose life has been "artificially" extended by a god so that he may serve as the latter's mouthpiece. His mortification is said to be caused by the god as a sign of this status. It seems to me that the reason this is an appropriate and powerful sign is that it is a directly unfilial thing to do and represents the tâng-ki's being cut off from the world of ordinary mortals and their responsibilities and becoming (while he is in trance) entirely the instrument of the god.

It is not correct to say that the filial obligations of a tâng-ki cease because he is a tâng-ki; on the contrary, a rural tâng-ki acts in that role only a small percentage of the time. The rest of the time he is indistinguishable from the rest of the village farmers. But during the times he is in trance, his own personality ceases to exist and he becomes the tool of his god. The drama by which this is made explicit is mortification.

Go to top

Some Observations on Divination

On the surface of it, divination in the Chinese sense is an act of communication between men and supernaturals. In fact, of course, there are no supernaturals, and the conversation is destined to be a monologue. Or is it? The means of divination themselves provide at least an imitation of the gods' side, and when a kiō-á or a tâng-ki is used, there is a kind of role-playing of what the gods might be saying if there were gods. When the actors are good, and the performance is godlike, the imitation is accepted. Should they be bad and their declamations be incredible, the imitation is rejected as demonic and invalid or (rarely) as human fraud.

However the mechanics (or theatrics) of the performance be regarded, it is clear that the voice given to the gods is the crucial operator that sets the entire system of divine alliances, explanations, and miracles in operation.

If supernaturals were to be compared with the playing pieces of some kind of game, and the principles of descent, surname solidarities, natural death, and so on were to be compared with the rules, then the tâng-ki and other means of divination might be compared with the dice thrown to determine the actual applications of the rules in particular instances. The tâng-ki are the prime rural religious arbiters. It is they who diagnose a given case of familial or village disharmony as caused by ghosts; it is they who explore the family tree or the village forts for possible ghosts and their motivations; it is they who prescribe the cure. Spirit mediums drive harmful ghosts from the village; spirit mediums perform exorcisms; and spirit mediums represent the august presence of the divine at rites performed in their name. It is likely that in the past it was the spirit mediums who had the final voice in alliances between villages united with Bǎo'ān in defeat of the Huáng, for the idiom of these wars is one of alliances between patron gods. I do not say that divine communication requires spirit mediums (though to function as the divinities do in China would seem to require communication), but in Bǎo'ān the tâng-ki is the most dramatic form of communication.

The image of the dice can be pushed too far. The tâng-ki is not a free man, and his imitation of the gods is not a matter of his own caprice. Not only must he perform in trance (and therefore presumably not be guided by conscious desires but only by unconscious directives), but he is subject to charges of being possessed by ghosts rather than by gods should he become incredible. He is a religious arbiter to be sure. He can bring order out of confusion by making a decision with authority vested in no one else. But his authority belongs ultimately to the community, which trusts and initiates him when it could as readily suspect and exorcise him. He is not the master of the village populace; he is their jade chop.

At the beginning of this chapter I justified the interruption of our flow of thought by pointing out that such frequent reference must be made to divination in a discussion of rural Taiwanese life that it is best to include an excursus that makes its working more explicit. The ubiquity of divination among the Chinese has often been noted by Western writers; its importance in family and community decision-making has not. And its relevance as a mode of developing and maintaining group consensus (which in its most extreme and dramatic forms seems to be its main function) seems never to have been discussed. Is the phenomenon uniquely Taiwanese? Are nine tâng-ki tracing their origins to the same village far too many? Or have tâng-ki been for decades or even centuries primary devices for coordinating and directing rural efforts in the southeastern Chinese countryside?

My suspicion is that the importance of divination is not peculiar to Bǎo'ān, or to Táiwān, or to this century. It seems possible that divination, and particularly divination through trance behavior, may be responsible for a great deal more Chinese decision making than we normally imagine and might even be a factor of importance in understanding, for example, the galvanization of the countryside during revolutions or secret-society rebellions, or the patterns of alliances between and among villages throughout south China during periods of local raiding and warfare. So far this is only a suspicion, but I know of no evidence to contradict it. These and other questions are raised by the existence and importance of tâng-ki in Bǎo'ān. Divination is more than superstition.

Go to top, table of contents
previous / next chapter