Continuity and change in Chinese spirit mediumship in urban Malaysia

Type Journal Article - Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land-en Volkenkunde
Title Continuity and change in Chinese spirit mediumship in urban Malaysia
Volume 142
Issue 2/3
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1986
Page numbers 198-214
The spirit medium occupies an important position in popular Chinese
religion. As an arbiter between the spiritual and the mundane world, he
not only provides services in healing and divination but also performs
vital roles at temple and spirit festivals. The history of Chinese spirit
mediumship can be traced to the Shang Dynasty of the second millennium
B.C., where priest-shamans (wu) were accorded high official
standing in the imperial courts, until their decline in the late Chou period
in the third century B.C.1
However, spirit mediumship did not become
obsolete but continued to be practised at the popular level (Yang 1967:
106, 303). Few reports of spirit mediumship in modern China have
appeared in print, except for the detailed observations of De Groot
(1964) made in the southern provinces in the late nineteenth century.
Since then, most anthropologists have studied Chinese spirit mediumship
in various Chinese communities, particularly in Taiwan (Jordan
1972, Seaman 1978, Kleinman 1980) and Hong Kong (Potter 1974).
Spirit mediumship is also practised in various Chinese communities in
Southeast Asia, but few ethnographies have been published. One such
rare ethnography, by Elliott (1955), focuses on Chinese spirit mediumship
in Singapore.2
A comparable study on the Malaysian Peninsula has
yet to be accomplished. In this essay, I wish to fill some of this lacuna by
describing the practices of Chinese spirit mediums and their organization
in contemporary urban Malaysia.

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