Sunday, December 7, 2008

Taiwan's urban 'jitong'

As demand shrinks, shamans update their style
November 10, 2008
(a version of this article also appeared in the Dec. 7 edition of the New York Times)

TAIPEI: After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left.

She sat down on a chair before an altar piled with images of deities, fruit, cans of beer, snacks and joss sticks. She slipped into a trance. The session began.

Chang is a jitong - a shaman who dispenses advice while possessed by a god. Here, inside a modern office building next to Taipei's bustling main train station, she is carrying on a folk tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would channel spirits to help heal the sick, pick auspicious dates for important occasions and resolve community disputes.

Now, as the Taiwan economy has developed and its population urbanized, jitongs like Chang are changing with the times. With the tradition on the decline in the countryside, Chang is one of a small number who are maintaining the shamanistic practice, but adapting it to the needs of modern city-dwellers.

"People moved into cities, but they still have this kind of religious need," said Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwan religion at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology in Taipei.

Forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitongs playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming a jitong. Many older ones who do carry on have switched to "private practice," often in urban settings - operating out of homes, storefronts or offices.

The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: fewer village-level quarrels; more marital disharmony or individual setbacks in the workplace.

In the southern Taiwan village Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none.

"Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service," Ting said. "But now, as people have become more educated, they've come to think the practice isn't scientific, that it's uncivilized."

But if jitongs are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. Many Taiwanese pragmatically switch between Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation, Ting said. And at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways, like venerating local deities or casting divination blocks, he said.

"Taiwan has become more middle-class oriented, but we still keep our folk practices," Ting said.

Consulting a jitong is a case in point. The practice has not been totally abandoned, just updated. Chang Yin, for example, regularly sends out text messages via mobile phone to about 300 clients. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old.

One Sunday a month, she invites those contacts to her office for an open spirit medium session.

On this particular day, as she answered petitioners' questions, several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang's assistants bustled around in the office and attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts.

Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway.

As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns a marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist.

"In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist," said one 40-year-old man who works in financial services in Taipei, after he and his wife had finished their session. "The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can't say everything to a psychologist."

Most often, Chang is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century, and loved his meat and liquor. Thus the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang's hiccups and slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk.

Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the "third prince"), who is the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general and has a third eye and boundless energy.

But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her.

"I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples' questions," she said in an interview. "When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong's clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it."

She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.

"My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did," she said.

This time, a visibly relaxed "Ji Gong" was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child, and in general thoroughly enjoying "himself" and putting everyone at ease.

The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking.

Ji Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on "the other side."

"Give me your heart, and I'll open it," Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness.

The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman.

"That's not your heart, that's your hand," Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously.

"I was just kidding - only you can open your heart," Ji Gong said. "If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much."

Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, "Your husband's not gentle enough, as usual," and gently upbraided the father.

Then Ji Gong had another message.

"Your son wants to ask you for money, but he's afraid to," Ji Gong told the father. "He wants money for an online game - he's been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars." (About $3 or $6.)

In the interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it.

"When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds," said Chang, who grew up in a suburb of Taipei. "They didn't blame me or think I was seeing things - they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I'd seen."

At 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of a jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. So she did so, starting in 2005.

If the profession has evolved in tandem with changes in society, it is not only the jitongs who have made adjustments.

Chang notes the gods are more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships these days than physical illness.

"So now they give a difference type of guidance," she said. "The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends."

Yang Chia-nin contributed reporting.

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