Chinese Hell deity worship in contemporary Singapore and Malaysia
Author: Fabian Graham

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.

Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
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The earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
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Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
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A baseline of comparison
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld
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Fabian Graham
in Voices from the Underworld
Setting a baseline of comparison
Fabian Graham

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.

in Voices from the Underworld