Tuesday, October 16, 2012

乩童: Spirit Mediums in Donggang

Yes, that guy does have flags pinned into his skin.

We headed to Donggang last weekend for the opening of King Boat - the first day, in which the various participating temples arrive with their idols, dancers, eight generals (八家將), spirit mediums (乩童), guys in various hats and what have you. Everyone heads down to the beach, which has a fine gray sand. I suspect the sand is this way because every three years they burn a massive boat to cinders, and some of that sand has to be mixed with ash by now.

Then, you sit under the hot sun for awhile, until "whenever the gods decide to start" - at first it seems like nothing is happening and everyone's just hanging out on the beach with their idols for no reason. A few people start to show signs of going into a 乩童 trance (the verb in Taiwanese is ki dang, the noun is dang ki). It's interesting but not that lively - and then more people go into trances, then more, and it seems like all at once the entire waterline is full of these guys, doing whatever it is the god tells them to do. 

Some self-flagellate, pierce or otherwise mutilate. Others do what look like kung fu or tai chi moves. Some run around screaming and laughing. Some eat burning incense, or rub incense on their skin. Some shout and dance. Some hiss or buzz their lips, others actually speak. Their accoutrements are different - spiked balls, spiked swords, spiked clubs, needles, flags, incense and more (one guy was possessed by Ji Dong, wore a yellow robe and drank from a yellow medicine gourd, and spewed the liquid into the air).

Any way you slice it, or hit it, or spike it, or burn it or pierce it, they're there to call in their various gods from the sea, chiefly among them 千歲爺. With no good English translation I'm just going to go ahead and call him Qian Sui Ye, or Thousand Years Grandfather.

I don't really believe in this stuff (as you know, I'm an atheist) - my view is that it is completely and thorougly fascinating, however, for several reasons.

First, I do believe that these people are entranced. What I don't believe is that they're possessed by gods. I suppose it's possible, and I could be wrong, but I doubt it (I also doubt that there's one big old dude in the sky who tells us what to do - I doubt everything). I do believe that they are somehow able to bring on this trance, and the heat, beating drums, gongs, incense, waves and general overstimulation of the environment brings it on faster.

I also believe that there's an element of mass entrancement - such things have been documented - stemming from the similar states of mind of these spirit mediums. That makes sense to me.

What fascinates me is this: I have never been hypnotized. Our college campus, like many, hires (or used to hire) a hypnotist to come out and entertain students for a night in the main university auditorium. Every year I'd go, and every year I'd volunteer to go onstage, and I was never picked (it was a big auditorium). I watched the people who were picked and was never able to really comprehend what it must feel like. I've never done hard drugs not because I feel they're immoral (committing crimes to get money for drugs is immoral, and wasting your life on drugs without helping society is amoral, but the action of ingesting drugs in and of itself is not "wrong" in my view - it's your own body, you're free to do that), but because I'm frankly a bit scared of what an altered state might feel like. Also, considering how easily I get hooked on caffeine, I'm terrified of addiction.

So I am just really interested in what these guys must be "thinking" or feeling in that state. Do their facial expressions give it away? What do they feel when they hurt themselves?


They say that spirit mediums don't feel any pain when doing this, and that because they were possessed by gods or spirits when doing so, they heal quickly and without infection. I'm not so sure, seeing as the handlers (all spirit mediums have handlers who are able to touch them, and who will push you away of you get too close) carried spray disinfectant and would routinely spray down fresh wounds after infliction or after the spirit medium went into the water.

Second, I'm fascinated by, well, who these people are.


I mean, that guy? He's probably somebody's Grandpa. Do his grandkids know that he does this once in awhile? Does that scare them? My guess is that the answers are "yes" and "it depends" - an urban kid in relatively religiously tame Taipei would probably be all "whaaattt", but a kid born and raised in Donggang would likely think it completely normal and maybe think he might do something similar someday - it'd be no different than Grandpa being a deacon at church or a cantor in a shul.

More jokingly, I wonder if these photos make it into family photo albums (probably not, ha). "Come here, Little Chen, have a look at these photos of Grandpa Chen - he's possessed by spirits. Be a good boy or Grandpa will come and get you.")

(JOKING! Joking).

Third, I wonder if, in their entranced state, they can see those around them. This dude is looking right at me, and frankly, it's a little scary. I wonder what he sees when he looks right at me - does he see "some white girl" or does he see what a god would presumably see (what would a god see?), does he not see me at all, or what? Spirit mediums don't react to those around them, generally (they may react to handlers or to idols, but generally not people standing around. If you are in their way, they will continue hitting themselves and if you get scraped or whacked, that won't stop them).

Fourth, I have to say I am happy to see women being given an equal role in this event: basically, the gods choose who will be their receptacles/liaisons, and if they choose a woman, it's not for men to say that she can't do it. Women jitong/dangki are more common in southern Taiwan - I'm not surprised, but again this supports my case that the south is not "more sexist" as many Taipei folks will try to tell you. It's sexist in different ways, but it's not "more sexist". Just ask any obasan who runs her family's company, or a female spirit medium.

How do the gods do it? Either through indicating to that person through causing them to become entranced or through being chosen and undergoing training. You can read in the link above (here it is again) that if the gods choose you, you become entranced at temple affairs - not surprising, again, with all the drumming and gongs and incense and dancing, seems like a good environment in which to go into a trance. I've also heard that the gods might send you crazy dreams or cause you to say odd things while sleepwalking. I had a student who told me his friend's wife had this happen and she "had to" become a spirit medium. You don't really get a choice.

A blow for equality!

I will say, though, that on Sunday, the whole thing felt quite weird. The woman below, along with a man and two other women, ran further into the water while hissing, screaming and laughing. I was in there with them but for some reason not taking photos - it all happened very quickly, don't ask me why - they started shouting as though they were counting down, or about to orgasm in a hilariously parodic way, or something - "ahhh, ahh, AAAHH!" as a large wave rolled in, hit me in the back and them in the chests, and then they whirled around and ran back up to the idol, which was then brought to the sea - a sign that that god was there, or a communication of his (or her) will.

As that happened, in the seconds before and just as the wave hit my back, I couldn't see anything, just white, as well as the three women in the water. Nothing else. Then it was like something big rushed past with the wave. I am pretty sure I laughed or screamed - my friend said all he heard me say was "HOLY SHIT!" and didn't see anything else out of the ordinary. Then suddenly I was fine again and fanning myself, trying to get my head back together.

No, I do not believe I was temporarily possessed by any god.

I do believe it is quite likely that I, too, was overstimulated. The drumming, the gongs, the incense, the people completely flipping out in a trance right next to me, the waves, the heat, the sun, the dust, the firecrackers - it is possible, likely even, that I was almost overtaken by it and for the first time ever, for a few seconds, was entranced, the way a hypnotist might entrance a person or the way people in crowds full of fervor (religious or not) will lose themselves. Then my mind - which doesn't accept the existence of spirits or gods and which is terrified of being entranced - fought back and restored me to a normal state.

That's a normal, human psychology based way of looking at it, and it makes the most sense. After thinking about it - and I've thought about it a lot over the past two days - that's what I believe happened.

I wish I could say more, but it was literally maybe two or three seconds, and I remember the feeling that my brain was all over the place immediately after far better than what happened in those three seconds themselves.

Finally, I'm fascinated by spirit mediums because it presents a more hardcore, somewhat scary, even a little terrifying, aspect of folk Daoism. I'm not religious but I am interested in religion, and in my view, the most interesting religions, as well as the ones that are the most organic and culturally ingrained, are the ones that are a bit scary. It reminds the believers that gods are scary and fickle beings (assuming one believes they exist), that bad things happen, that life isn't all love, forgiveness, absolution and pearly gates.

As I've said, I appreciate folk Daoism because it is just as cultural as it is religious. People don't really care if you believe (although some southerners will accuse northern Taiwanese of "not really believing" - at least one person said that last weekend), you can still participate on a cultural level. Even if it's not your culture, you're still welcome. A part of that is the frightening side of things.

So while santaizi (the three child prince gods who dance to techno music) are great, and the idols are cool, and we all love dragon and lion dances, and everyone loves beautiful Guanyin, I tend to be drawn to the more hardcore, darker elements (I don't think that'd be true if I actually believed, though) - the ones that hearken back to the idea of shamans, magic, ghosts, demons, sacrifices and blood. Things that tend to be ignored or avoided in our everyday life.

It's a dose of something a bit dark in an otherwise pretty light life - a comfortable apartment in Taipei, a job that is basically an office job without being an actual office job, a cute cat, a wonderful husband. Looking at the lives of others - the clean MRT, the air conditioning, the sanitized office life, the cafes and department stores - sometimes you get a taste for something a little gritty. A touch of bitter after all that white chocolate.

You don't see many of these guys in Taipei (although you see some) - I love Taipei, but sometimes it feels so developed, so genteel, that they've lost their connection to so much of the gritty reality of life, and of folk belief. I'm planning to stay in Taipei, but this is why I head south as frequently as I can manage.

Plus, I grew up going to church. Didn't leave a lasting impression on me. My parents used to say that the point of church was to affirm your faith and to stick to something, not to necessarily have a revelatory experience or to commune with the divine every Sunday. That you may not feel it in your heart or head, but if you do it long enough you'll feel it in your bones.

I disagree - although I can understand feeling it "in your bones" from a cultural standpoint, if this is what your culture does - I never felt like it meant anything. Prayers that seemed to float off to nothing, songs that didn't move me, sermons that were occasionally interesting from a moral perspective but never a spiritual one, trying to reconcile faith with faith-based sexism (not a problem with my parents' church but a problem in a more general sense with organized religion) - it all felt quite saccharine, a little fluffy. What happened on the beach at Donggang was not saccharine and not fluffy, it was hardcore. It was like taking out all the pretty music and prayer and leaving only the especially gory crucifix, which is really the most grounding aspect of Christianity in my view, despite being a nonbeliever.

But this - this - left an impression. There was feeling in this, even if I don't share the particular belief that the feeling stems from. Like the scarier Hindu gods (Kali, Shiva, Agni, Indra) and demons, like the shamans that still exist in The Philippines and Korea (Korea!), the harvest festivals of the Taiwanese aborigines, the fire-dancing spirit mediums of southern India, the long, hard pilgrimages people take - that's hardcore, that's got feeling, that's something that piques my interest.

It may look showy, but it's not a show. Whether or not you believe these guys are possessed by gods, their entrancement is real. Their wounds are real and their belief is real. They are not Frozen Chosen - they're fierce.

And even Atheist Me can admire that.

So how do they know when Qian Sui Ye comes in?

Well, I don't know (I tried to ask, but nobody could really tell me). They just...know. Clearly someone is in charge of watching for the signs - I think when a specific spirit medium feels that he's come in, he/she does something or says something that lets others know.

Then, drums are sounded, gongs are gonged, balloons are released, people cheer, and there's a feeling of joy that washes over the beach. The other spirit mediums wrap up - it all ends pretty quickly, too - and the procession from the beach begins. I can't tell you where it goes - pretty much every road between the beach, Zhongshan Rd. and Donglong Temple is packed with people.

More later on what you can see after 千歲爺 arrives - for now, enjoy some photos: