This study investigates contemporary Chinese Underworld traditions in Singapore and Malaysia, where the veneration of Hell deities is particularly popular. Highlighting the Taoist and Buddhist cosmologies on which present-day beliefs and practices are based, the book provides unique insights into the lived tradition, taking alterity seriously and interpreting practitioners’ beliefs without bias. First-person dialogues between the author and channelled Underworld deities challenge wider discourses concerning the interrelationships between sociocultural and spiritual worlds, promoting the de-stigmatisation of spirit possession and non-physical phenomena in the academic study of mystical and religious traditions.
The Introduction examines discourses which have influenced the research and provided the foundation of the study’s approach to fieldwork methodology and narrational style, thus offering an alternative to the conventional academic precedent in anthropology and Sinology of a denial of emic ontologies. Notable influences cited include Peter van der Veer’s ‘historical sociology’, Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim’s dialogic position on writing culture and recent theories emerging from the ontological turn concerning ethnographic research into non-human worlds. The latter include complementary theories from Philippe Descola, Martin Paleček and Mark Risjord, Morten Axel Pedersen and Michael W. Scott which have inspired the adoption of an underlying ontological approach relevant to the research of non-physical phenomena including, but not exclusive to, Chinese spirit mediumship and trance possession states, both of which are central to the Underworld tradition. The intention of evaluating practitioners’ contrasting understandings of religious phenomena to produce a new lexicon of descriptive phrases which encapsulates the essence of emic explanations while framing the metaphysical in religious and spiritual traditions in academic terms is then clarified. The Introduction concludes with details of when and where fieldwork was conducted.
Chapter 1 begins by outlining the book’s four primary narratives. First, the pivotal role of Underworld deities as channelled through their tang-ki; second, the history of Chinese post-mortal cosmology; third, city gods and the significance of Anxi City God Temple (Anxi Chenghuangmiao) in China; and fourth, an analysis of societal catalysts triggering religious change to explain the increasing popularity and channelling of Underworld deities in Singapore and Malaysia. Moving on to terminology, the decision to use ‘Chinese vernacular religion’ to describe the religion of the masses over either ‘folk religion’ or ‘popular religion’ is explained. The chapter concludes by explaining the composition and divisible nature of the human soul in Chinese cosmology; the process of deification whereby a human soul can achieve post-mortal deity status; and how a deity can be promoted, demoted, and exist in multiple pantheons.
Chapter 2 first details the framework of analysis, ‘self-perpetuating technologies of religious synthesis’, a theory which links combinations of societal catalysts to the development of specific religious trends. The ethnographic data illustrates that these ‘technologies’ are triggered in reaction to societal catalysts, resulting in religious transformations that function as ‘self-perpetuating mechanisms’ for the wider religious tradition. The individual ‘technologies’ are drawn from two discourses: first, the ‘politics of syncretism’, incorporating appropriation, absorption, acculturation, transfiguration, hybridisation and transfiguring hybridisation; and second, a broadening interpretation of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s ‘invention of tradition’, including the reinvention, reinterpretation, inversion and Sinification of tradition. The chapter then details essential information concerning the historical development of Singapore and Malaysia’s secular and religious landscapes. In highlighting Japanese massacres in both locations during the Second World War; religious harmony, urban redevelopment, the Master Plan for land use of 1965 and the subsequent destruction of cemeteries in Singapore vis-à-vis Malay ‘special rights’ and the active promotion of Malay interests under the New Economic Policy (1971) and the National Development Policy (1990), a diverse selection of societal catalysts later incorporated into the broader analysis are introduced. The chapter concludes with a summary of the book’s structure and chapter outlines.
Chapter 3 provides a short summary of the history and development of Chinese Underworld cosmology, from early notions of the bipartite nature of the soul in the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) to the influence of non-canonical morality tracts popularised during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties (1636–1912), most notably, the ‘Jade Record’, which provided the blueprint upon which contemporary perceptions of the post-mortal journey are based. The summary includes the Underworld as envisaged by early schools of Taoism, including the Celestial Masters, Shangqing and Lingbao traditions, and details the increasing influence of Buddhist cosmology on the development of orthodox Taoism, and on perceptions of the afterlife in the vernacular tradition.
Chapter 4 begins by contextualising Underworld deity worship within the broader context of vernacular religion in the Chinese diaspora, and then presents a compendium of Tua Ya Pek and Di Ya Pek’s contrasting mythologies. The ethnographic narrative begins with an ‘oil wok’ ritual to prepare medicines for the elderly in Jurong, Singapore, and introduces the Underworld tradition’s material and ritual cultures, emic perceptions of Hell, and presents a detailed description of a tang-ki entering a state of trance possession. The analysis focuses on alcohol consumption and gambling as self-perpetuating mechanisms and, contrasting ethical codes, draws comparisons with Taiwan’s ghost temples which became popularised during a similar time period.
Chapter 5 contains two ethnographies emphasising the dialogic approach. The first revolves around a conversation with Tua Ya Pek discussing a new Underworld God of Wealth, and the internal logic underlying the creation of new deities in the expanding Underworld pantheon. The second details a ritual performed by Tua Ya Pek to speed the journey of an aborted ‘foetus spirit’ (taishen) through the Underworld and serves as a comparison to the manipulation of malicious foetus ghosts (ying ling) in Malaysia in Chapter 8. Following the foetus ritual, Tua Ya Pek’s self-perceptions and physiological sensations while possessing his spirit medium, tang-ki, are then discussed, providing first-person insights into altered states of perception during trance possession. Analytically, the chapter weighs up the effects of urban redevelopment and governmental promotion of religious harmony as catalysts to unique forms of temple networking and to Tua Di Ya Pek’s far-reaching reinvention to explain why, in Singapore’s contemporary religious landscape, Hell’s enforcers are perceived as the most appropriate deities to approach to assist both the living and the souls of the recently deceased.
The centrality of graveyards in the Underworld tradition
Chapter 6 connects the Underworld tradition to graveyards through lunar Seventh Month (Ghost Month) ‘salvation rituals’ performed in cemeteries for the souls of ancestors, aborted foetuses and wandering spirits. After outlining the Buddhist origins of Ghost Month and various taboos now associated with it, the ethnography moves to Singapore’s Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. The narrative contains two sections, the first describing two distinct rituals in a cemetery plot set aside for babies and aborted foetuses, and the second following a temple’s Seventh Month rituals, from applying for cemetery permits to the tang-ki centric conclusion of the rituals. Analytically, the presence of Taoist priests in Singapore’s Underworld tradition is assessed with reference to the decennial census, and revisions to the ‘Master Plan’ (1965) concerning cemeteries are explored as societal catalysts both to the popularisation of the Underworld tradition and to 2017’s cemetery rituals in particular. These rituals are analysed in context of Foucault’s ‘heterotopias’ as everyday forms of resistance’ to new and controversial national land policies.
Guanxi and the creation of ‘intentional’ communities
Providing further details from the ‘Jade Record’, Chapter 7 ethnography centres on a model reconstruction of the Underworld – illustrating its Ten Courts and a selection of tortures in their sub-hells – which has been built as a ritual space and place of worship. Located in Klang, Selangor State, Malaysia, Di Ya Pek’s three-day birthday celebrations, which attracted approximately 1,000 devotees provides the chapter’s ethnographic setting for the mass channelling of Underworld deities and their subsequent consumption of opium and alcohol, alongside the channelling of multiple Chinese Heaven deities and Malay Datuk Gong. The two features of analytical interest which arise from this are the transfiguration of religious norms and the formation of extensive ethnoreligious communities based on Underworld deity veneration. The transfiguration materialises in two guises, the first being an inversion of authority in the ‘Heaven–human–Underworld’ hierarchy, seen reflected in the interactions between the possessed tang-ki, the second by the mass consumption of intoxicants in temple settings. Both are analysed in broader context of changing moralities and the role of ethnic self-identity in Malaysia’s religious landscape and how, in addressing these issues, the Underworld tradition has become a locus of local community formation.