Archive #3 – Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore (1955) PDF by Alan J. A. Elliott

Here I present a PDF of Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore (1955/1990) by Alan J. A. Elliott. The book contains a large chapter on the importance of spirit-mediums (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Chinese: Jitong, 乩童; literally: “Divining Child”) in the worship of Sun Wukong. For those unfamiliar with spirit-mediums, I have quoted material from my article linked above:

They are believed to channel [the Great Sage’s] spirit to interact with believers, generally answering their questions, blessing them or their belongings with paper talismans, or prescribing medicine. On special occasions, they also perform a complex self-mortification ceremony […] The ritual serves several purposes. First, hacking, skewering, and poking the body with various weapons is considered a form of self-sacrifice. Second, the weapons that pierce the flesh are believed to imbue the mediums with spiritual power needed in their battle with demonic forces that pervade every corner of daily life. Third, the resulting blood is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason it is smeared on paper talismans and clothing. Overall, the ritual is performed to exorcize evil spirits that cause bad luck and mental and physical illnesses.

Cover from the 1964 (2nd edition) (larger version). Note the prominence of the Monkey King.

Forward from the 1990 Edition by Raymond Firth

This account of Chinese spirit-medium cults describes in great detail an important aspect of the religion of overseas Chinese in Singapore. It is an historical study, since the field research was carried out over nearly two years in 1950 and 1951. It is historical for two reasons. One is that the highly personalized nature of many of these cults has meant that they are short-lived, emphemeral. The other is that in the forty years since the study was made the life of the Singapore Chinese has changed radically, and many of their ritual practices must have altered accordingly. But at the time this research was carried out, anthropological field studies of Chinese social institutions were rare, and this particular investigation was unique. Most studies of Chinese religion anywhere had been of a literary nature, concerning the ideas and practices of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism; very little information was available about how ordinary Chinese conducted their daily ritual affairs.

The significance of this study is not just focused on the past. It has contemporary relevance, and for a field far wider than Singapore alone. For anthropologists, enquiry into spirit-mediumship, shamanism, ecstatic religion, possession, has become a recognised part of the discipline, over a broad ethnographic range. But the general problems involved, of alternative personality, of apparent lack of sensitivity to external physical stimuli, of claims in the name of spirit to knowledge and authority not possessed by the human medium, can attract the attention of psychologists, psychiatrists, and all interested in the obscure and complex workings of the human mind. The issues raised involve ordinary people too, since they show how anxiety, uncertainty, fear, disappointment and greed seek assurance and resolution from some source deemed superhuman, even spiritual. The basic beliefs revealed by this study of Chinese spirit-mediumship are not confined to Chinese.

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Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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