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By Justine Gustafson
Center for Public & Global Affairs Intern
August 7, 2015
I heard them before I saw them, coming down a narrow street in a small village in China’s Fujian Province. The chaotic sound of drums, trumpets, and firecrackers filled the incensed air as the parade approached and eventually passed my window. Looking out from my second story apartment, I saw my neighbors mostly dressed in yellow-gold polyester costumes with red embroidered accents. They were carrying a large wooden ark holding a small statue of the village’s local deity towards the community temple. This is a ritual that happens once a year in the small village of Dong Yuan东园.
I had read about this mysterious folk ritual prior to moving to Fujian and was thrilled that I happened to be present during the celebration. In Taiwan and parts of Fujian, this ancient ritual is called Ji-Tong. It is a celebration of Chinese Taoist folk religion occurring usually on the birthday of the local deity. It can also be a ceremony of the deity returning to his home temple after a trip to a temple in another village. In China, religious statues take on a life of their own, and are often loaned out to other temples in neighboring villages.The birthday and homecoming ceremonies for the statues often involve parading them through the village toward the local temple.
In this particular parade, behind the statue of the god, came another platform much larger and holding a standing man instead of a statue. He was shirtless and holding a machete, which he used to imitate self-flagellation. Taoist folk religion in these parts of China often intermingle with shamanistic beliefs in spirit possessions. It is believed that a “bloody” spirit may enter the body of certain taoist shamans, and the only way to remove such spirits is self-flagellation. The practice, however, is often seen as barbaric by modern Taoist believers, therefore self mutilation is merely acted out and has evolved into a type of theatrical performance. Nonetheless, traces of this ancient practice could still be seen in the long white scars that covered the back of the shaman, marks from a different time when a shaman’s weapons actually met his skin.
I ran down the stairs of my apartment, hopped on my bicycle, and peddled after the parade of people heading to the local temple. I joined the congregation of residents encircling the shamans who were performing a ritual to expel the spirits from their bodies in order to purify themselves before the Taoist statue. The shaman emulated an internal battle with himself flailing his arms and pretending to beat himself while kicking at the air. It looked almost like a dance. The effect of his performance was captivating to all in the audience; children, adults, and elders alike.
When the shaman symbolically purged himself of the spirit he led the way into the temple followed by the statue god and eventually by the rest of the community. After being placed on the altar the statue received offerings of incense, candles, and fruit from the community. Each individual bowed before him before leaving. I watched the scene from a distance; an outsider, sharing in the energy of those around me. To see, hear, and feel in real life, what I had previously only read about or seen pictures of… to me that is THE reason to travel.