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.