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.
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.
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.
Moving south to Johor State during Ghost Month, Chapter 8 focuses on the comparative importance of City God temples in Malaysia and the active role played by Anxi Chenghuangmiao in promoting the contemporary tradition. The first ethnography follows an elaborate salvation ritual at Muar City God temple, with particular attention paid to the influence of Mahayana Buddhism and Thai vernacular religion. The latter manifests in the use of Thai luk thep dolls appropriated to accommodate the souls of malicious foetus ghosts enlisted into the temple’s Underworld spirit army. As the Malaysian malicious foetus ghost is a reinvention both of vulnerable foetus spirits in Singapore and of foetus ghosts appropriated into Taiwan’s vernacular tradition from Japan, transnational cultural flows and the socio-political catalysts affecting them are introduced. Returning to community creation, the second ethnography focuses on an event titled ‘Anxi City God’s cultural exchange’. Bringing together ten pairs of Tua Di Ya Pek, one pair channelled from each Underworld court, discussions with them reveal perceptions of post-mortal cosmology in conflict with that of their Singaporean counterparts. The analysis therefore compares societal catalysts triggered by Singapore and Malaysia’s competing post-1965 political agendas to account for the divergences between the two Underworld traditions’ cosmological interpretations.
Coffin rituals and the releasing of exorcised spirits
Returning to central Malaysia to describe two ritual events, Chapter 9 serves to compare south and central Malaysia’s Seventh Month ritual events. The first ethnography recounts a night-time luck-promoting ‘coffin ritual’ in Kuala Lumpur where participants lie in a coffin, symbolically dying and entering the Underworld when the coffin lid is closed and re-entering the world of the living as the coffin lid is removed. The ritual is described from the perspective of both participant and observer. As the coffin ritual was appropriated from contemporary Thai Theravada Buddhism, the analysis further examines Thai transnational cultural flows. The second ethnography revisits Klang to recount the ritual release of exorcised spirits which have been trapped in Guinness bottles and stored in the prison cell in the temple’s Underworld recreation. The chapter concludes by discussing Di Ya Pek’s perceptions of the relative passage of time in the Underworld, and an alternative interpretation of the Chinese Underworld’s creation.
In the final chapter, as neither Xie Bian nor Fan Wujiu’s popular mythology originated in either Anxi or Penang, and allowing for the complexities of cultural transmission, the chapter begins by proposing the most likely timeline and trajectory of the Underworld tradition’s geographical spread, both in and between Malaysia and Singapore. The versatility of the framework of analysis is then demonstrated by being applied to religious developments over a corresponding timeframe in Taiwan to explain why a similar Underworld tradition has not developed there. The potential benefits of combining ontological, dialogic, participatory and interpretative approaches to the study of religious and esoteric traditions are then clarified and discussed, and final conclusions drawn.
The earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
Owing to the implausibility of Anxi Chenghuangmiao providing the tradition’s genesis, Chapter 11 returns to Malaysia to trace the modern Underworld tradition’s origins. Following an historic trail of oral accounts, the ethnography turns to 1950s George Town, Penang, and to legends surrounding Malaysia’s eldest City God temple. In the absence of textual records, the oral narratives reproduced represent the earliest recollections regarding not only where but also how the modern Underworld tradition most likely began. Substantiated by a Tua Di Ya Pek mythology from George Town’s eldest Underworld temple, local history and folklore converge, suggesting George Town as the modern Underworld tradition’s most likely point of origin.
Relocating to China, Chapter 10 centres on Anxi Chenghuangmiao. The temple’s early history and its 1990 relocation from Anxi city centre to the Fengshan Scenic Tourism Area above the graves of Xie Bian and Fan Wujiu are critically investigated, as are its atypical Tua Di Ya Pek mythologies. Analysed in context of the invention and commoditisation of tradition and of China’s changing cultural policies, Anxi Chenghuangmiao’s reinvention is associated with self-perpetuating its own City God tradition, and to Tua Di Ya Pek’s recent overseas popularisation. Continuing this line of enquiry, the chapter concludes by describing the opening of a new annex in front of Xie Bian and Fan Wujiu’s graves, an annex first conceptualised in Klang, Malaysia, and evaluating the contestation of meaning and counterclaims to provenance of the new ritual site.
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.