Gods and Mediums In Singapore
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 Diaspora. 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 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 (http://weecheng.com/singapore/9eg/index.htm):
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 combined 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 three 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.
Among some of these seemingly ordinary working class men or women, manifestations of their gods and deities appear from time to time, and turned a few into their chosen messengers. These people are known as mediums, more commonly known among the Hokkien people as tanki (zitong 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 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 werent known to be able to speak and then convinced the people surrounding them that the gods have entered them.
Most described it as something he hadnt chosen; although some anthropologists argue that mediumship often bestow the individual with enormous, often unquestioned authority over the worshippers, not to mention benefiting from donations and material offerings from the followers. However, it is also emphasized that whatever a tanki receives is out of freewill from the followers, at their absolute discretion.
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 illness or advise on careers, family problems, relationship issues, etc.
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. First, the tankis, usually dressed in brightly coloured embroidered aprons (which proclaim the name of the temple and the visiting deity), perform prayers with the help of temple assistants, during which they gradually fall into a trance while seated on a dragon chair. The moment of sacred possession is often signaled by some sudden movements, such as a hop onto a table or chair.
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, 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.
As the ceremony progresses, the tanki wanders around the temple compound amidst loud gong clamps and sacred music, followed by devout worshippers. He waves a whip and occasionally hitting the ground with it. 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 cuts his tongue to draw blood onto yellow charm papers. 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. 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.
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. The tankis would then use their blood to scribble words representing messages from the gods on charm paper and embroidered cloth pieces or flags.
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.
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