Monday, August 30, 2004

Jiu Li Dong - Day 3

Went there at 8+pm and left about an hour later.  As with Saturday, there was a group of Taoist priest in the inner sanctum and a group of Buddhist monks in the outer compound.  In addition, there was action at the wayang stage outside the temple complex.  So you can imagine the NOISE LEVEL in that area!
Not quite sure if the Taoist priests were performing the same rites, but the Buddhist monks were performing a "chao du" ceremony to "rescue" the soul of a mother who died of child birth some years ago.  Her husband and son were the "main players" in the ceremony, with an abbot and groups of monks helping out.  Unfortunately I do not know the specifics of the ceremony.  Maybe Ronnie can help explain it - and thanks Ronnie for telling me all these.  Basically the ritual took quite a while, with a lot of bowing, kneeling and praying round a tower full of paper effigies.  The "abbot" went round and round and at various points broke some bowls and glasses, sometimes using a stick to hit them.  The father and son pushed the paper tower, in the process raising an effigy representing the mother, perhaps bringing her away from the lower level of Hell.
Out there at the wayang, a group of all-men troupe was performing, with a huge statue of Tua Yeh Peh standing at one end of the stage "watching".  A signboard on the stage says "Woman and 'Kai Ren' not allowed onto stage"  [Kai Ren literally - "Open Persons"  - does anyone knows what's that?].  In front of the stage was a huge tentage with hundreds of "ling wei" plus offerings dedicated to individual dead persons.  It's like the dead watching the wayang!  Amazing sight!  There is a little structure to the side of the tentage which holds more ling wei's and offerings, plus statues/effigies of Tua Yeh Peh, Li Yeh Peh and other deities.
So much happening!  I will definitely try to drop by tomorrow as well!
And yes, met Ronnie for the first time - we must organise a proper meet one day!
To the bed now!
Wee Cheng

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Ming China and Southeast Asia in the 15th Century: A Reappraisal.

This is an interesting essay reappraising or revising the conventional view that Admiral Zhenghe's voyages to Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean in the 15th century.
Ming China and Southeast Asia in the 15th Century: A Reappraisal.

Geoff Wade

The 15th century was a period of intense interaction between Ming China and Southeast Asia. The period saw the Ming invade ÐaÌ£i Việt, expand the scope of the Chinese polity by exploiting and then incorporating Tai polities of upland Southeast Asia, and launch a succession of hugely influential maritime armadas which travelled through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.  It is argued that these three aspects of Ming policy can be seen as differing types of Ming colonialism greatly affecting Southeast Asia during the 15th century and beyond. A chronological study of the policies relating to Southeast Asia of the successive Ming rulers is followed by a thematic overview of how the Ming policies actually affected Southeast Asia in the 15th century. This includes reference to effects in the political, economic and cultural topography of Southeast Asia The beginnings of a non-state-sponsored maritime trade between China and Southeast Asia is also investigated.



Ming, Southeast Asia, 15th century, Zheng He, Dai Viet, Tai, Malacca

Click here to see full text (507Kb)

Friday, August 27, 2004

Ancient Gods, Rituals and Spirit-Mediumship - Part 3 (Last Part)

The Ritual

First, the tanki, performs prayers to the Jade emperor and other main gods and deities.  Then he sits on elaborately carved “dragon chair”, so named due to the motifs of flying dragon, Chinese mystical symbols of power and fortune.     


The possession begins



Possessed now 



Possessed by Na Zha, the tanki walks around with a pacifier



Worshippers feeding the Na Zha possessed medium with milk and sweets

He lets his head down with their legs wide apart, chanting and calling the gods to possess him, while gradually falling into a trance.  The moment of sacred possession is often signaled by increasingly fast gyration of his head, violent twitching of his body, and sometimes followed by sudden movements, such as a hop onto a table or chair.  Often, the movements are so violent that the medium might hurt himself, and the temple assistants have to hold him tight, and then helped him to put on brightly coloured embroidered aprons which proclaim the name of the temple and the “visiting” deity. 

A deity often represented by such rituals is the Qi Tian Da Sheng (literally meaning The Saint Equal With Heaven) or the Monkey God famous in the great Chinese classic, Journey To The West (Xi-You-Ji), which some say is the Chinese equivalent of the Hindu Monkey God Hanuman.  The tanki who is possessed by Qi Tian Da Sheng often jumps around with great agility like a monkey.  His followers would follow him around, sometimes feeding him peanuts or bananas.     

Another “popular” god is the child-god Ne Zha (also known as San-Tai-Zi or the Third Prince), who is often seen holding a large magical ring and spear while standing on wheels of fire.  Once possessed by Ne Zha, the tanki would be sucking a pacifier and wandering around the venue with followers who pass him sweets like one would do to children.  Tankis are also often possessed by deities such as Guan Yin, Guan Di Yeh, Ji Gong, Hei Bai Wu Chang, Da Er Bo Yeh, etc. 

As the ceremony progresses, the tanki wanders around the temple compound amidst loud gong clamps and sacred music, followed by devout worshippers.  The tanki’s assistant walks ahead of the tanki, waving a whip and occasionally hitting the ground with it.  This whip, known as the fa-shen (“Whip of the Power”), usually has a wooden handle carved in the shape of a snake’s head.  It drives away the evil spirit and clear the way for the god-possessed tanki.

 The Sacrifice


The Sacrifice

 Then the self-mortification begins.  The tanki performs mortification using a few ceremonial weapons.  These could include swords which he uses to beat or even slash his body.  Occasionally he pierces his tongue with skewers to draw blood, or metal poles or spikes through his checks.  Another commonly-used equipment is the “prick ball”, a metal ball with 108 spikes protruding from its core.  The tanki usually swings the ball around via a metal chain, hitting his body with it, cutting his back in the process.  Quite a bloody affair indeed! 

To the believers, the drawing of blood signifies personal sacrifice and the powers of the deities in possession of the tanki.  Some scholars, somewhat skeptical, often observe that the tankis tend to slow the momentum of the swinging weapons just before they hit the skin.  This means that any wound or cut sustained by the tanki is largely superficial, hardly more than a scratch.   


The medium mutilates himself as proof of possession


Further mutilation


The Monkey God manifesting himself through the medium 


The possession ends

In some major ceremonies, however, the tankis may pierce their cheeks and tongue with skewers, drawing copious quantity of blood and yet appearing to feel little pain, as evidence of providential protection.  Practitioners say that the wounds are real though they hardly feel pain when possessed by the gods; the pain comes immediately after they recover from the trance.  Even then, these wounds tend to heal fast, and rather miraculously as well. 

The blood drawn from the piercing is ued to scribble words representing messages from the gods on charm paper and embroidered cloth pieces or flags.  Followers sometimes bring the charm paper home, burn them, and then drink water with the ashes of the charm paper in it. 

Eventually, the tankis, still in their trance, would return to their dragon chair.  The gongs would be beaten and the tankis gradually return to their “unpossessed” or “natural” state.  As sudden as it began, the ceremony would come to an end.  The tanki would open his eyes, wipe his body with rags and proceed to keep his tools. 

Just another day of work for tankis and shamans in Singapore.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

KL's gesture of friendship

I used to pass by this sign with great disdain.  Sometimes, the patriotic part of me called on me to spray paint on that ridiculous signboard.  Finally this signboard has been removed.  Let's toast to an eternal friendship between Singapore and Malaysia!






KL's gesture of friendship


Thursday • August 26, 2004


Singapore-Malaysia ties are on the upswing and one sign of this was taken off its hinges to make the signal clearer.


The sign is a 20-metre "Welcome to Malaysia" board at the Keretapi Tanah Melayu's (KTM) Tanjong Pagar railway station. Though in the heart of Singapore, the land and the station belong to Malaysia.


And since the 1980s, it has stood out as a reminder of less-than-cordial patches in cross-Causeway relations.


In 1998, Singapore moved its Custom Immigration and Quarantine facilities from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, expecting Malaysia to do the same. But when that did not happen, it became a point of friction.


But things have changed.


Malaysia's High Commissioner to Singapore, Mr N Parameswaran, said the sign had been removed to improve ties.


"We want to remove whatever irritations there are, however small they may be," he said.


The instruction to remove the sign came from Kuala Lumpur. And Today understands that a more positive sign -- possibly exhorting Singaporeans to visit Malaysia -- might replace the old one.


"We are sincere about wanting to bring down old walls," said Mr Parameswaran.


Alluding to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to citizens to write Singapore's next chapter with him, the envoy said: "Let's work on the next chapter in the Malaysia-Singapore story. It needs both of us." He hoped that the "gesture" of friendship would be reciprocated. — Raymond Andrew




Wednesday, August 25, 2004

BBC: Cheney rejects gay marriage ban

Cheney rejects gay marriage ban - BBC
Vice-President Dick Cheney
Mr Cheney acknowledged he and his wife have a gay daughter
US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said he does not support a federal ban on gay marriage, apparently contradicting President George W Bush's stance.

Mr Cheney was addressing a campaign audience in Iowa that included his daughter, Mary, who is openly lesbian.

He said the issue of legalising gay unions should be settled by individual states rather than by Washington.

However, Mr Cheney said he accepted the views of Mr Bush, whose opposition to gay marriage is well publicised.

'Gay daughter'

President Bush recently backed a motion calling for a federal ban on gay marriage, prompted by attempts in some US states to have same-sex unions legalised.

The motion was defeated when Republican senators sided with Democrats on the issue.

Vice-President Cheney said he and his wife "have a gay daughter, so it's an issue our family is very familiar with".

Regarding the issue of same-sex relationships, he said, "my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone".

He said individual states have historically decided "what constitutes a marriage".

'Mixed message'

Mr Cheney has said his views are personal and have no bearing on White House policy.

However, says the BBC's Dan Griffiths in Washington, they strike at the very heart of President Bush's thinking and should revive debate around the issue just days before the Republican convention in New York.

While gay rights activists welcomed Mr Cheney's comments, there was criticism from some conservatives.

Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council said Mr Cheney's remarks were disappointing and sent out "a mixed message to voters".

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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Ancient Gods, Rituals and Spirit-Mediumship - Part 2

Tanki: Divining Youth

Among some of these seemingly ordinary working class men or women, manifestations of their gods and deities appear from time to time, and turn a few into their chosen messengers.  These people are known as mediums, more commonly known among the Hokkien people as tanki (jitong in Mandarin Chinese).  The tanki is an ordinary person like you and me.  Being a tanki may or may not be a full-time profession.  Indeed many tankis hold an ordinary day job like we do, and perform their sacred duties in the evenings, over the weekends, on festive occasions or whenever the gods summon them. 

Every tanki, literally meaning “divining youth”, has his story of how the duty came to him.  Some have received messages from the gods in their dreams after suffering from a major illness or accident.  Others were suddenly possessed by a supernatural being one day, spoke in strange tongues they weren’t known to be able to speak and then convinced the people surrounding them that the gods have possessed them.  


Medium in trance - manifestation of the Monkey God


Medium representing Lian Hua San Tai Zhi


The Medium in trance


Medium representing Er Bo Yeh praying to the Jade Emperor's altar 

Most tend to describe the experience as something he hadn’t chosen – in fact many say that they have tried to “escape” from this onerous calling but fate nevertheless got hold of them and convinced them that they were the one chosen by the gods as an intermediary between the gods and their followers on Earth.  However, there are some anthropologists argue that mediumship often bestow the individual with enormous, often unquestioned authority over the worshippers, not to mention benefits from donations and material offerings from the followers. 

Even then, some studies show that whatever a tanki receives is out of free-will from the followers, at their absolute discretion.  It is often said that many tankis live a rather ordinary life.  They get enough to live, but hardly enough to lead a comfortable, wealthy existence.  In fact, any tanki who leads an enviable lifestyle would have raised many suspicions about his character and piety. 

Tankis hold court sometimes in temples, sometimes at their own homes.  Many of them stay in HDB (Singapore government public housing) flats, and homes of the popular tankis often resemble mini temples or shrines, full of visiting worshippers over the weekends.  They act as intermediaries with the gods or deities.  They help to cure illnesses, or advise on careers, family problems, relationship issues, or in fact any human problem under the sun. 

In short, the tankis provide help to the local community in resolving problems that neither the family, the mainstream organized religion, health authorities nor the state can resolve.  Bizarre as it seems in a modern society like Singapore, folk Taoism, complete with mediums and the supernatural, flourishes.  Ironically, with rising incomes and standard of living, this ancient religion is given an added impetus as its followers have more to spare for their beliefs.


Ceremonial Setting

On the birthdays of major deities or gods, larger scale temple festivals may be held during which the tankis become possessed by the deities and elaborate self-mutilation rites to demonstrate the power of the deities.   

A huge oblong-shaped tentage would be set up on an open ground, with elaborate altars installed within.  The actual geographic direction of altars aren’t very important in Singapore. Given the acute land constraints, festival organizers make do with what they have though relative positions within every festival tent tend to be fairly similar.  I would use the example of a festival setup at Sago Street, Chinatown, Singapore, in late 2003 as an illustration. 

At the eastern end of the tentage, an altar was set up dedeicated to the Jade Emperor (Yu Wang Da Di), supreme god of the Taoist world, and key heavenly gods, with food offerings laid out in front of the statues or paintings of these gods.     


A festival tent, with the altar of the Jade Emperor ahead

At the western end would be an altar to the key patron deity of the temple together with other heavenly gods and deities.  Statues of deities from other “friendly” temples are often brought to a festival as guests of honour (- one reason why many temples have two statues of the same god – one to be at the temple at all times and the other to serve as “ambassador”), and the mediums of these temples sometimes turn up to be possessed by their respective “visiting” deities.   


Table of feast for the Gods of Hell, at the entrance to the shrine to Hell


Shrine of Hell


 The Five Heavenly Protector Gods & their Horses


Horse belonging to a Protector God

To the north of the western altar is an altar dedicated to the Protector Gods - “Wu Yin Jiang Jun” (Generals of Five Camps)  – military corps of the Taoist Heaven.  Apart from an equally elaborate altar with statues, paintings and offerings, one would expect to see paper statues of the horses representing the Marshals of the North, South, East, West and Central, well fed with pots of grass on the ground.   

The most interesting shrine lies to the south of the western altar.  This is the shrine of the hell deities – normally a self-contained room of its own, sometimes extended into a further room within the tentage.  The entrance to the shrine is sometimes shaped like a gateway into hell.  It is normally dark, with gory painting of the Taoist hell.  Images of gods, deities are painted with luminous colours which glow in the dark, which makes the shrine even more eerie.  Mats and umbrellas are sometimes laid out on the ground – visitors beware! Do not step onto these for you may just step onto the invisible visitors from hell! 

It is important that the concept of hell for the Taoist world is very different from that of Christianity.  The latter regard hell as a dead end, where evildoers are condemned for all eternity.  Taoism, however, sees hell as a kind of boot-camp where most people would go through in the almost eternal cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation.  The good guys would pass through the 10 “courts” of hell and its 18 levels with little or no suffering while the evildoers would get their due, such as being burned by fire, boiled in hot water, tongues cut, etc – images of these processes are duly represented in the many paintings hung in the shrine of hell.  In addition, the God of Hell, in Taoism, is not evil Saturn, but a mere administrator who have to perform the task of reforming the evildoers.

  The Ritual

The Ancient Gods, Rituals and Spirit-Mediumship of Folk Taoism in Modern Singapore

It's the start of the Month of the Hungry Ghosts!  The Taoists believe that, for the next one month, the Gates to Hell are open and the spirits are out for fun!
I have completed a new website about folk Taoism in Singapore and the incredibly bizarre and fascinating blood sacrifical and spirit possession rituals.  Yes, Taoist mediums and priests who believe and behave that they are possessed by gods and deities.   All these in modern Singapore.  I have in this website articles about these as well as numerous photos taken at various Taoist festivals in the last one year.
Have fun!  Here's the URL:
TANKI     The Ancient Gods, Rituals and Spirit-Mediumship of Folk Taoism in Modern Singapore

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore


In one of the most modern cities of the world, an ancient faith flourishes, with rituals involving gods, spirits, and their human mediums who glorify the powers of the gods through personal sacrifices.  This website contains a collection of articles and photos about one of the world's most unusual cultural and anthropological phenomena in a surprisingly modern and ordinary setting.

Why This Site: Statement of Objectives 

Background:   Folk Taoism in Southeast Asia   |  Divining Youth  |  Ceremonial Setting  |  The Ritual  |  The Sacrifice

Encounters:   Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods October 2003  |  Chuan Gong Dian - Chinatown 18 October 2003  |  Lin Hoon Din 凌云殿 - Geylang Lorong 27A June 2004  |  Xia Sheng Gong - Lengkok Bahru June 2004  |  Long Chuan Dian - Alexandra Rd 25 June 2004

Discussions:   Future of Folk Taoism in Singapore  |  Taoism as one of the Symbols of Indigenous Chinese Culture in Singapore  |  Awareness of Folk Taoism Among Singaporeans  |  Folk Taoism for Tourism

Links:   Chinese Deities Web - Calendar of Events Here |  SPI: Close Encounters with Tangki  |  Lorong Koo Chye Shen Hong Temple Association   |  Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village  |  A Medium's First Trance

Mailing Lists:  SingaporeHeritage - Devoted to the rich heritage of Singapore Taoism-Singapore - Taoism and traditional ceremonies in Singapore - Calendar of Events Here

Acknowledgements: A million thanks to them: Andi, Jave Wu, Victor Yue, Eng Teck 


Folk Taoism in Southeast Asia

Chinese are commonly described as Buddhists or Taoists, although there are large number of Chinese Muslims and Christians in China as well as in the Overseas Chinese communities scattered across Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.  What is seldom said is that in the deep southern Chinese countryside as well as in Taiwan and Overseas Chinese communities worldwide, an ancient and mysterious faith prevails. 

That mysterious religion is the worship of spirits, gods and lesser deities, whose commands are transmitted through ordinary humans who act as messengers of gods.  This is variously called Shamanism, Shenism (after Shen, or gods in the Chinese language), Tankism (after Tanki, or mediums, in the Hokkien dialect, also known as Southern Fujian /Taiwanese dialect), spirit-mediumship or traditional Chinese religion. 

As I wrote in my essay on the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods:

Southern China was once the land of the Min and Yue tribal kingdoms, whose inhabitants were experts in magic, spells, and the art of communication with the dead, spirits and Gods.  Fujian and Guangdong were incorporated into the Chinese Empire during the Qin and Han dynasties 2000 years ago, and in the following millennia, its indigenous culture merged with that of the Taoist Han Chinese settlers from the North.  The result is a hybrid, exuberant mix with a rich spiritual as well as architectural and gastronomical heritage that is evident in southern China today. 

With the emigration of the Fujian (or Hokkien) and Guangdong (also known as Cantonese) peoples to Southeast Asia, Taiwan and the rest of the world during the last five hundred years, these mystical manifestation of communication between the man and the mysterious divine spread with the Diaspora to other parts of the world. 

Here in Singapore, where the early peasant immigrants from southern China found themselves in a foreign urban environment, they recreated temples devoted to their gods back at home in order to find solace and security in a new environment.  Since then, these beliefs have continued by the descendants of these immigrants and prospered even though many of the traditions have disappeared in the old homeland through social upheaval, revolutions and wars; and that Singapore itself has become a prosperous, modern and technologically driven city-state which is also an international financial centre.

  Divining Youth

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Yasukuni War Shrine, Tokyo

This is the website of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, basically Japan's War Memorial:
Asian countries have always expressed unhappiness that the Japanese have never admitted to their crimes during WWII and the repeated visits of Japanese leaders to this shrine which is also dedicated to convicted war criminals. 
Whilst I personally accept that Japanese leaders can pay respect to the country's war dead, I find it disturbing that this shrine also honours the wartime leaders that committed so much atrocities across Asia.  My beliefs are reinforced when I visit this website, whose first page carries articles about the country's war dead, as well as shocking statements (attached below) which basically imply that Japan had not committed war crimes and that the Japanese invasion of Asia during WWII was sought after by Asian countries:

"Japan's dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia. We cannot overlook the intent of those who wish to tarnish the good name of the noble souls of Yasukuni. When I was a student at the preparatory school for the military academy, our chief of corps often lamented the fact that the good soldiers died early while speaking about his experience on the China front."
Tell me, how can we Asians ever trust Japan?

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Greetings from Sydney, Australia

G'day, mate.  Greetings from Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia.
After 110 other countries, I am finally in Australia.  Having grown up in sort-of-nearby Singapore, Australia is a place many people go to regularly for holidays or education.  We hear about Australia all the time and for me, it has lost a sense of exoticness.  It's a place I'd always knew I could visit any time and have never had any great urge to go.  Well, it's really getting embarrassing, especially with my Aussie friends, and here I am, to tick off a big chunk of the world map!
Close to a week ago, I flew into Alice Springs, the town in the middle of the Australian continent - which with its 25,000 inhabitants, is the largest settlement within a radius of more than 1000 km.  I spent 5 days in this desert region, visiting Ayers Rock, the Olgas and the King's Canyon. 
This is an amazing country with spectacular landscapes and colours, few people, and wide open spaces.  Ecologically, Australia is also a most unusual land, with the most vicious creatures unseen anywhere - including 10 of the 15 most poisionous snakes and the world's most deadly jellyfish.  And where else are wandering kangaroos a major threat to cars speeding on the highways?  Or where a prime minister goes missing after an early morning swim?
Here I am in the northern suburbs of Sydney, a metropolis of 5 million and yet perhaps the most laidback city of its size anywhere in the world.  Bare-chest winter joggers on the beaches of Manly, tourists on the roadside cafes, the beautiful Sydney Harbour.  No wonder people say Australia is Lucky Country.  Indeed, a lifestyle place.
I will see a bit more of Sydney, then off to Melbourne, where I will join my old friend Gordon, on a drive-around on the Great Ocean Road.
OK, wish me luck and more from me later.
Wee Cheng
Manly, Sydney, Australia