The breaking of day, the death of a child, the final, irreversible exist
of a red clad figure from her father's home: all these events can run together
in the coarse of a single day. Village life in China is full of variety
and colour. The religious traditions offer many different ways to interpret
daily events. According to many, all phenomenon can be traced back to the
interplay of yin and yang. Less abstractly, folk religion posits the existence
of a myriad of ghosts, gods and ancestors, all of which have a hand in
shaping human destiny. Each of these supernatural beings has a specific
role to play in the community. A earth god, for example, may act as a village
warden, enforcing local laws on the community level. Much to the consternation
of all involved, ghosts are at work in the community too. They are responsible
for the negative aspects of existence: marital strife, illness and family
conflict. Unlike the evil goblins of gothic tradition, ghosts not truly
malicious, nor are they peripheral. Ghosts haunt the living out of necessity.
Their spiritual position is anomalous, they are without the care of kin
so mandatory in the afterlife. The rules the govern the spirit world and
the material world are not so different. In both cases certain social norms
must be upheld. If an individual acts amiss in his or her life the result,
in death, can be that he or she returns as a hungry ghost. She will not
rest until affairs are put right by her family. This is most often done
with the aid of a shaman. The shaman acts as an interpreter for spirits,
reaching across the divide between natural and supernatural. In a sense,
both the ghosts and their diviners are deviants: ghosts are the souls of
people who have died in dire straits, shamans are those who, having undergone
a major tragedy are selected by a specific spirit. Yet, as abnormal and
errie as both ghost and their mouthpieces sound, they play a powerful role
in the community. Through public and private sceanes they heal social rifts.
They embody exceptions to the norm that jeopordize the traditional order.
They allow the living to ritually heal the wounds of untimely or horrifying
deaths. Ghosts offer a reason behind misfortune. It would be safe to say
that a village without ghosts is an unhealthy place.
Harrel, S. "When a Ghost Becomes a God" in Religion and Ritual in
Chinese Society. 1974.
Steven Harrell offers us look at the religious activities of a rural Taiwanese village. In particular, he focuses on the dynamic interplay of ghosts and gods in the community - no, not the way in which these supernatural beings interact, per se, but rather the different ways in which they are defined by the villagers. Spiritual organization is anything but clear-cut in Taiwan. Every human being has the potential to become either a ghost, a god or an ancestor. Although each category is, in theory, mutually exclusive, spirits can occupy an ambiguous position(1). The territory between ghosts and gods seems especially prone to this sort of indeterminacy. Ghosts arise from the spirits of earthly malcontents. People who died premature or violent deaths are likely to plague their extended family with sickness and misfortune. Whereas gods are essentially benevolent beings, whose worship entails asking for favors and general protection, ghosts are nasty creatures whom people seek to appease. It is worth noting that this malevolence is not intrinsic to the ghost itself. If ghosts are evil, it is because they are unhappy with their predicament in the afterlife. Unlike the ghosts of our culture, Chinese ghosts are not demonic but desperate. Necessity makes the ghost proclaim its anomalous position. It is the responsibility of the living to acknowledge and accommodate the discontent ghost, and attempt to change its social position. The rites surrounding ghosts varies in several ways from that of gods. While gods are worshiped in temples, ghosts receive their offerings outside temples and courtyards, reflecting their illegitimacy. Gods are sacrificed to all the time, but their birthdays are seen as especially important. Most communal ritual activity toward ghosts occurs in the 7th month: the time at which ghosts are allegedly away. Gods are identified with the principle of yan and sacrificed gold paper money. Ghosts are decidedly yin, and are offered silver(2). Although the Taiwanese ritual activity seems to suggest a definite deliniation between ghosts and gods, no such hard and fast definition exists. If offering to a particular ghost seems to bring success to a family, the ghost may become popular. Over a few years, the ghost may even be promoted to the rank of "little god" and chose a spirit medium from the community. During that time, villagers may be in disagreement of the ghosts status - some treating it as a god others not. Temples have even been erected to little gods, much to the consternation of neighboring villages. However popular the ghost cult may become though, it takes many year for the little god to loose its notoriety.(3) Whereas gods are appointed by the Jade Emperor by merit and occupy specific posts in the community, even the most powerful ghosts are seen as simply spiritual bullies. A man from Bo-an gives this account of one bitter ghost:
"The Little Maid was from our own family ad died because and became a goddess, so we had to carve a joss to worship...Later on the father of the Little Maid and another man from his village...suggested that he stop worshiping the Little Maid. Her father agreed, the two of them being on very good terms, as at the time of the great rites of Hsiking, her father brought the joss of the Little Maid and puts it into the Kings' Boat to be burned at the end of the ceremonies to send her back to heaven. But the Little Maid herself didn't go, it was said that she came back to haunt people here, and the family became very inharmonious (as did the family of the man who suggested it)... But nothing else could be done, they had another joss carved to worship: the present joss. This was about ten years ago."(4)
I find it interesting that appeasing ghosts have so much to do with
finding them a more normal, legitimate social position. In the case of
spirit marriages, as discussed by Jordan, the ghost has his or her tablet
placed on the family alter, thus becoming an ancestor. In Harrell's article,
ghosts procure more sacrifices and communal recognition in the form of
Little Gods. As gods, the random malice of ghosts can be contained and
their role in the community made more lucid. As another author points out,
the Taiwanese system preserves the integrity of its belief structure by
allowing for Little Gods(5). In theory,
gods can retain their virtue unbesmirched while the practical matter of
nasty ghosts can be dealt with.
Jordan, David K. "Spirit Brides". Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors.1972.
Hell marriage? It doesn't sound like a very attractive option. Yet, in the rural Taiwanese village of Bo-an, it is incredibly popular. After all, marrying the spirit of a dead girl is better than suffering from her ghostly wrath. As soon as the ancestral tablet is established on her new family's altar, the spirit and all her ill effects disappear becoming part of the inoccuous world of ancestors. The shame and danger of an unmarried girl vanishes. In the tradition system of hell marriage, it didn't even matter who the groom was. The unhappy girl's spirit would appear to her family in a dream or through a sceance(6). Given the fact that ghost are known to be sources of misfortune, it isn't much of a mental leap to deduce that an unmarried daughter is trouble. Although she was a member of her father's house during her life, her natal family cannot maintain her spirit in the afterlife. She needs to beget sons of her own to secure ancestor worship. Without sons, a woman cannot have an active role in her community. As one ancient sage put it, unmarried women don't take part in rites when alive, so why should they when they are dead? It is an easy diagnosis for the shaman. It also happens to be a prescription she can fill herself. Most shamans also rent the equipment necessary for a spirit marriage. In some parts of China, the ghost's family proceeds to leave a red envelop in the road. The man who happens upon it first will be the husband. (a dowry is added as an incentive). In Bo-an a variation has sprung up in which the chosen groom is the husband of the ghost's sister; specifically requested by the deceased! On the designated wedding day, the hell marriage takes place, mixing elements of a funeral as well as a wedding. The dead girl's tablet is brought out from its secluded place in her old room or behind a door. It is fitted into the back of the mannequin bride. The dummy is really extraordinary. It sits, some 80 cm tall, leering. It is all lace and obscenity. Made of paper and cloth, with oversized head and children's shoes she awaits her marriage. She is dressed with care in three layers or red and white lace and her fingers and arms are adorned with false gold - just like a real bride. The play here is dead serious. Only the bride smiles, something a real bride would never do(7). Her face stolen from a Japanese calender and pasted on, she looks at her company, triumphant. The two families burn incense and exchange token gifts. She is then moved to the grooms house. After a second day of feasting, the effigy is committed to fire, her clothes returned to the shaman and her tablet on the home altar where it will remain permanently. The layers of her clothing, the 7 sticks of incense burned all proclaim the fact that this has been a proper funeral as well as a marriage(8). Everyone hopes that this will be the end of the bride. However modest she may have been in her lifetime, in her death she is unwomanly in her dominance and aggression. The bitterness of her spiritual limbo need never be experienced by a man. When young men die they are never without sons. If they haven't had the time or good fortune to have their own, adoption is possible. If they didn't have time to make this arrangement in life, after their death they are given sons from their nephews or brothers. Such a massive rewriting of the family organization shows how vitally important men are in the community. Women are forced into less acceptable avenues to assert themselves. They come perilously close to oblivion. In both cases one thing is obvious. The dead must be in order for the living to be at peace. A hell marriage can be just the thing for a tranquil life.
Jordan, David K. " Divination" Gods, Ghosts and Ancestor. 1972.
The picture in the text shows a young man frowning in consternation.
His willowy frame hangs over a table top and down his face run eager rivulets
of blood. This is the tang-ki, or diving youth. We may be repulsed by him;
not quiet sure how to react. In the minds of the villagers of Bo-an, the
spirit medium holds the same morbid fascination. Acting as a mouthpiece
for a god, his position is one of prestige and power.(9)
Yet, during the Japanese dominance of Taiwan his kind was outlawed. Even
today tang-ki are an underground phenomenon(10).
Loosely attached to temples, when he is not conducting seances for the
villagers he is indistinguishable from other farmers. If we could get closer
to him, we would find that he did not chose his strange vocation: it chose
him. Tang-ki have a common history. They are individuals destined for a
brief life whose stay on earth is extended by a patron god. This god claims
the young man as his own. The young man is expected to resist this calling.
His hesitance is understandable. Unlike other forms of spirit communication
like the divination chair, which is operated by non-specialists, the spirit
medium is beyond the control of the community.(11)
He has great authority in diagnosing and dealing with village disharmony,
even advising inter-village affairs. As a mark of his sincerity, the tang-ki
undergoes a violent initiation. After enduring the trail by miracles, self
mortification is a defining part of his work. In a trance he endures supreme
physical and mental turmoil. At his most spectacular, the spirit medium
uses such tools as the 'heavenly red tangerine" - a ball spiked with nails
to wound his flesh. His arsenal of authenticity also includes swords, saws
and axes. The author is at a loss to explain what such a character says
about Taiwanese society. The dominant tradition in China abhors inflicting
harm upon oneself. The only speculation Jordan is willing to venture is
that, in addition to whatever magic power his blood may have, it is testimony
to his union with his god. The Chinese are very open in their interpretations
of divination. They are willing to allow for a large margin of error and
unclarity. The only sense in which a tang-ki can be wrong is by manipulating
his predictions and diagnosis to his own ends or by being possessed by
a lesser god or ghost. It is interesting to note that by choosing a tang-ki,
a god marks him or herself as legitimate. Little gods usually choose female
shamans who advise on private, not public affairs. While the tang-ki tangles
with blood and insanity and ghosts and darkness, he is never as marginal
or liminal as his female counterpart.
Potter, J. 'Cantonese Shamanism'. Religion and Ritual in Chinese
As I read through Potter's article on the female spirit mediums of a Cantonese village, I struggled to connect it with the other material I had read this term. My initial difficulty was no fault of the author's. This article was far and away the best I has come across all semester. The Cantonese Shaman, who is, by the way, female, holds a position in her village utterly without parallel in our society. In a world chalked full of spirits she helps the living communicate effectively with the shadowy elements of the supernatural. For a Chinese villager, ghosts are an inevitable part of the every day. They lurk under bridges, in fields and amidst the shadowy corners of the landscape. An individual, family or communal relationship to a god or ancestor is much more clearly defined than to a ghost. Ghosts, who embody the painful aspects of existence, are harder to pin down. It strikes me as noteworthy that in the distinctly disgruntled, disenfranchised realm of ghosts, women prevail(12). They make up the majority of spirits and their mouth pieces. In Canton, shamans are women who have gone through a certain pattern of initiation. This initiation involved suffering a great personal crisis, such as the loss of her husband and children, a period of dream communication with her offspring, a time of madness and illness, and eventually, being able to use her "familiar spirits" to tell the fortunes of and heal villagers. Potter points out that by recasting herself as a shaman, a woman can both come to terms with her own tragedy and fulfil an important role in the community. She stays 'in touch' with her children through trance and simultaneously manages to make an income in a world with little room for unattached females. Thus, the mystical and the practical coincide. The shaman can make her living by healing (with the help of her patron god) and by conducting group sceances. Potter also makes it clear that it is no accident that the most of the ghosts she talks to are women. Socially downtrodden, fragilely connected to her descent line, women in China have reason for discontent. The bulk of the shamans business is in dealing with the spirits of unmarried girls, lonely sisters and jealous first wives(13).
So, what do my readings about divination, spirit marriages, fictive adoptions and sceances have in common? I have been captivated by the way in which the Chinese retell the past and predict the future; the way in which they make sense of their lives in terms of ritual activity. The obvious point of connection is ghosts. It didn't cross my mind before- ghosts were entrenched in my imagination as silly and Halloweenish. Yet, in Chinese society, ghosts are a very real force. Ghosts lead us into Chinese thought in all its complexity. They have both a conservative and a dynamic dimension. One the one hand, David Jordan points outs the fact that each family member can be so vividly retained in the imagination of their kin, no matter how short their life was, is indicative a great degree of internalization of social rule. As he puts it, "ghosts only want what everyone should want"(14). Although positing the existence of a ghost for every malady may make for some heavy metaphysical baggage, its necessity is clear. It reinforces the need for everyone to assume a proper social position, especially with regard to caring for the elderly. It lets the family, as a unit, deal with its delinquents. As well, through public sceances, the tang-ki holds each family's history up for critique. Here is where the dynamic element enters in. Although the ritual journey to Flower Heaven sounds highly poetic, it is utterly practical. It allows the village families to air their dirty laundry, examine it, and change it. Potter's article contains a colourful account of elderly women arguing with their husbands shades, telling them that they were wrong in feeling abused! Similarly, the popularity of hell marriages with a sisters husband indicates that the affinity between the two household is growing, so that it is now plausible for a man's ill fortune to be explained by his wife's family. As much as reinforcing old rules, it afford the opportunity to examine the community's ethics. Ghosts are about group identity: past, present and future.
1. Harrel, pg 205
2. Harrel, pg 203
3. Ibid, pg 206
4. Jordan, pg 165-166
5. Jordan pg 162
6. Jordan, pg 142
7. Jordan, pg 147
8. Ibid, pg 148
9. Jordan, pg 62
10. Ibid, pg 69
11. Ibid, pg 68
12. Potter, pg 229
13. The prey of ghosts is most often children, since they are highly valued and their souls are considered to be weakly linked to their bodies. Potter, pg 230
Jordan, David. Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: the folk religion of
a Taiwanese village. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1972
Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Arthur Wolf, ed. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.1974