Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finding a Happy Medium

Mediums are of great importance in local religion, but even mediums can switch careers. A recent Liberty Times story, translated for Taiwan Today, tells the story of one medium who, upon becoming tired of being a medium, became Taiwan's first baseball umpire. Oh yeah, she has a black belt in karate too:
When Liu was only one year old, people discovered her powers as a medium. By the time she was six, she had already begun helping friends and relatives in picking numbers for the various lotto games played in Taiwan. When she was 15 years old, she entered a temple where Taoist rites are held and quickly became the foremost medium there.

Liu said that by the time she was 26 years old, she had become exhausted with the lifestyle of a medium and decided to change her life path. She revealed that some temple mediums actually communicate the messages of ghosts rather than gods. Liu related one example in which a woman who was ill wanted her to write out a prescription. Liu said she relied on the help of the spirit of Li Bao-yan, a doctor from the Ming dynasty. In this case, she said, she was actually a medium to a doctor, translating his instructions. It was not like she was communicating with a god, she said.

Liu, who is presently 30 years old, said in a frank manner that she is in fact no more than an ordinary student now. “People seemed to have overly high expectations of me in terms of my powers as a medium. It really puts a lot of pressure on me,” Liu said. She added that quite often whether people are able to get the result that they desire largely rests with themselves.

Liu stressed gods are not going to go out of their way to help devotees to achieve what the gods believe are unimportant things, such as making lots of money. She added that they are not going to use mediums to pass along messages of such little importance to them. As for the increasing number of people who desire to be mediums, Liu expressed a few words of caution, saying, “You better be careful about who you are communicating with. If it is a ghost, you could find yourself being tormented quite a bit.”

Liu has been a baseball fan from the time she was a little girl. She said that she never considered giving up her dream just because she was female. Three years ago, she passed the exam to become a baseball umpire. Assisted by another umpire from the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association, Hung Su-ming, Liu became the first female home plate umpire on a ball field here in Taiwan. To date, she already has over 400 games under her belt as a base umpire or home plate umpire.

A small number of umpires did not want to have anything to do with her in the beginning. For example, there were some umpires who refused to sit in any seat that she had sat in. There were even cases in which umpires who made incorrect calls tried to place the blame on her. Nonetheless, she said none of these experiences caused her to lose enthusiasm for the game.

In the eyes of baseball players, Liu is actually a lucky charm on the diamond. She knows how to prevent conflicts on the field and can resolve tense situations through laughter. In addition, with a black belt in karate, she has the physical stamina to be able to umpire four games a day.
David Jordan has an interesting description here of a medium's first trance and its effect on the life of a village. He observes...
Spirit mediums, when they are not in trance, are just like everyone else. They plow fields, eat with their families, and drink with their friends. But when they are possessed, they speak with the voice of godly authority, and, not surprisingly, godly authority is very influential in village opinion. When the gods can be made to recommend public policy, they do so with great effect. The political implications of a new spirit medium were by no means lost on village people.
Since many will follow a medium's advice -- ultimately in the case discussed by Jordan the whole village did -- it is obvious that a politician who can subborn a medium has a powerful ally. In a temple near my house the medium frequently directs locals who come for help to a certain address in my township -- and what a coincidence! -- it's the address of the local KMT headquarters. It is understanding things like this that explain why a Miaoli politician who made donations to sixteen local temples to get them to push his candidacy to their followers was indicted for vote buying.

Margaret Chan discusses tang-ki (spirit medium) worship in a chapter that is online, noting that it has roots in old Chinese religious practice, and is also the religious practice of marginalized peoples.
Tang-ki (a Hokkien term, 乩童pinyin jitong) worship evolved among peasant people disenfranchised by the state religion. In imperial China rights to worship followed a strict hierarchy and lay entirely in the hands of the educated establishment. The response of the marginalised was to create a religion of people power. Where the emperor had to petition heaven and pray to be heard, tang-ki worshippers could summon gods to appear before them to do their bidding.
The bloody mortification that mediums undergo symbolizes the warrior tang-ki who does battle with violent demons, but it also authenticates the possession of the medium: surely no man could thus mutilate himself unless he was indeed possessed of a god. Chan ends with a beautiful paragraph on the performance aspect of medium worship:
Tang-ki worship relies on a performance contract between actor and spectator. Tang-kis perform for their audiences of devotees, the roles of well-loved gods drawn from Chinese folklore and mythology. The devotee-spectator accepts that the performance is a divine manifestation. Although the spectators can clearly see that the performer is a person (and probably one that they know as a family member or friend) they suspend disbelief, and believe, as an article of faith, that they are seeing a performance by a god incarnate. In tang-ki worship the staging of theatre is not for entertainment; among believers it is a magical ritual that transforms a mortal into god en-theos. The concept is one of transmogrification, not mere spirit possession and devotees believe that the tang-ki is truly a god in the flesh. In tang-ki worship the very act of theatre is a rite of incarnation where ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual.
This connection between theatre and ritual is also old in the west, as anyone who has studied Greek drama or medieval plays is aware. And so this brings us back to Liu, who, umpire or medium, is still mediating between fate and human beings in the context of a performance spectacle. May all the gods guide her!
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Alex said...

This is a fascinating post and an amazing subject, one of the most interesting aspects of life in Taiwan (for me at least). Two linguistic comments. I always assumed that the romanization should be tang-kit, as I think there is a final stop, and the characters for the Taiwanese should be 童乩 tongji, not 乩童 jitong as in Mandarin. This is one of those funny words where the characters are reversed between Taiwanese and Mandarin. I can't think of any others right now, but there are some. Neat.

Thanks for the links to the other stuff too - wonderful morning reading.

CW Hayford said...

This is the best short description of this part of popular religion I have seen, and I will assign it to my students! You explain why the medium is an everyday thing, not exotic or weird.

Anonymous said...


Typhoon is another. Hongtai 颱台 rather than taifong 颱風.

Also, there is no final stop as if I'm not mistaken, 乩 is first tone.