New York Times
December 7, 2008
Shaman Channels 12th Century but Adapts to 21st
By JONATHAN ADAMS
TAIPEI, Taiwan — After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left.
Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.
Ms. Chang is a jitong, a shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit. Here, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station, she is carrying on a folk tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits.
Now, as Taiwan’s economy has developed and its population urbanized, some jitong, like Ms. Chang, are changing with the times. With the tradition on the decline, Ms. Chang is one of a small number of people who are maintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers.
“People moved into cities, but they still have this kind of religious need,” said Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, the capital.
Forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role.
Now, Mr. Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to “private practice,” often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples.
The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks.
In the southern Taiwanese village that Mr. Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none.
“Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service,” Mr. Ting said. “But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized.”
But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient.
Many Taiwanese pragmatically switch among Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation, Mr. Ting said. And at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways, he said.
Another example is the divination blocks that many Taiwanese still use in temples for spiritual guidance. Each crescent-shaped block has a flat and a rounded side. How a pair of the blocks falls is believed to determine the answer to a (typically yes or no) question one might ask.
“Taiwan has become more middle-class-oriented, but we still keep our folk practices,” Mr. Ting said.
Consulting a jitong is a case in point. The practice has not been totally abandoned, just updated. Ms. Chang, for example, regularly sends out text messages to about 300 clients. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old.
One Sunday a month she invites those contacts to her office for an open spirit medium session.
On this particular day, as she answered petitioners’ questions, several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Ms. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts.
Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway.
As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Ms. Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist.
“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man who works in financial services in Taipei, after he and his wife had finished their session. “The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.”
Most often, Ms. Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Ms. Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk.
Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the “third prince”), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy.
But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her.
“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples’ questions,” she said. “When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.”
She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.
“My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said.
This time, a visibly relaxed Ms. Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease.
The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking.
Ji Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on “the other side.”
“Give me your heart, and I’ll open it,” Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman.
“That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously.
“I was just kidding; only you can open your heart,” Ji Gong said. “If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.”
Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual,” and gently upbraided the man.
Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.)
Ms. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters.
In an interview, Ms. Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it.
“When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds,” she said. “They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.”
When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did.
If the profession has evolved in tandem with changes in society, Ms. Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted.
She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness.
“So now they give a different type of guidance,” she said. “The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends.”
Yang Chia-nin contributed reporting.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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