Mystery of tang-ki spirit medium phenomenon

Chinese term for spirit medium


Chinese spirit medium is commonly known as tang-ki or dang-gi in Hokkien. Regional variants include Cantonese gei-tung (乩童), luo-tong (落童), tiaotong (跳童) or san-daa (神打), and Teochew ki-tong (乩童) or tong-ki (童乩).


The Chinese words for spirit medium are 乩童 (jitong) or 童乩(tongji). The character “ji” 乩 refers to the process of spirit writing (coscinomancy), a traditional form of communication with the deities. The character “tong” 童 refers to a youth. The term “jitong” (乩童), therefore, literally means “young servant of the coscinomantic basin”.


However, the literal rendition of the Chinese characters should not be adhered to too closely since the term “jitong” is now exclusively used to refer to specific individuals who can communicate with the deities through possession rather than spirit-writing.


Hierarchy in Chinese spirit mediumship


Chinese spirit mediums can be divided into two groups, namely the soul-raisers and the shen-mediums.


Soul-raisers, mostly women, specialize in communicating with the dead. As for shen-mediums, they serve as the intermediary between a shen 神(deity) and mortals. Majorities of the shen-mediums are males.


The shen-mediums are ranked above the soul-raisers because they are possessed by deities from Heaven.


“Caught by deities”


In the majority of the cases, prospective tang-kis are ‘caught’ (chosen) by the deities, mostly against their own will. Initial possession may take place during a period of personal crisis, often manifested by seizures, hallucinations or strange behaviour. Usually an older tang-ki is the one who interprets the symptoms as a case of divine possession.


However, the calling was often met with strong resistance from the selected tang-ki. The book “Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village” (Chapter 4 on Tang-ki) tells of a Guo Tianhua, who was periodically possessed before becoming a practising tang-ki.


Initially, Guo would take charm water or jump into a fishpond to avoid being possessed whenever he got the sensation of the deity coming. However, after years of struggling against the involuntary divine possession, Guo finally succumbed to destiny and became the mouthpiece for divine expression.


Resistance is a common element in the life stories of many shen-mediums. The most likely explanation for the resistance is (1) the low prestige enjoyed by spirit mediums, who are mostly from the lower classes and (2) the prospects of ritual self-flagellation, which is an aspect of the tang-ki’s repertoire, is unsavoury.


There is a folk theory that the chosen shen-medium is supposed to have a short life-span due to certain defects in his bazi (Four Pillars of Destiny). The defectiveness in the bazi also renders the person to be susceptible to trance behaviour. The deity’s call to the chosen medium to be its instrument of communication with mortals is regarded as compassion because the life-span will be extended in order for him to serve the deity.



There are hundreds of spiritual beings in the Chinese folk religion, but most of the highest-ranking deities (such as Jade Emperor and Buddha) do not possess mediums. The highest-ranking deity said to have a tang-ki is Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy 觀世音).


Examples of other divinities who have a tang-ki serving them are Xuan Tian Shang Di (Siong The Kong) (玄天上帝), Tianhou Shengmu Mazu (天后聖母妈祖), Living Buddha of Salvation (Jigong Huofo 濟公活佛), Mysterious Maid of the Highest Heavens (Jiutian Xuannu 九天玄女), Great Saint Equal to Heaven (Qitian Dasheng 齊天大聖), Third Prince Nezha (三太子哪吒) and Saintly Emperor Guan (關聖帝君).


The lowest-ranking deities to possess tang-ki are deities of the Underworld, such as BaiWuChang (白無常) and HeiWuChang (黑無常).


The chosen shen-medium still has to undergo a period of training by more senior and experienced religious specialists before he can handle the job of a professional tang-ki.


Shen-medium apprenticeship


Besides the chosen shen-mediums, others who wish to become a tang-ki can do so by learning the art of mediumship, Shenfa (神法), from old shen-mediums, who may be looking for a successor. The novice is required to make a declaration before Yu Huang Shangdi (Jade Emperor), promising to abide by the code of ethics of Shenfa. The Jade Emperor is the Supreme God of Chinese folk religion.


The training for mediumship is known as Zuozhan (坐乩), which involves mastery of the self and mastery of certain techniques and rituals. The period of apprenticeship may be from 2 to 6 years. Meditation, the writing of charm-papers and chanting are crucial parts of the training.


Meditation can purify the mind and help the novice to attain a ‘personal feeling’ of the spiritual world. The art of charm-papers writing is important because omission of some important strokes will render the charm-papers inefficacious. Correct chanting is essential as it is needed to invite the deity’s possession.


The training also involves the use of the fashen (法绳) and memorizing of sacred text on invocations and chants. The fashen is a 12-feet long whip. Its wooden handle is carved in the shape of a snake. It is said to be an extremely potent weapon and is used to clear the way for the deity to possess the shen-medium, as well as to drive away any evil spirits that may be lurking in the vicinity.


Initiation ceremony


A new tang-ki has to undergo an exorcism to ensure that the possessing spirit is a deity and not a demonic spirit. A demon, if any, would not be able to withstand the exorcism. If the tang-ki is still in a trance when the exorcism is over, it is the final evidence that the possessing spirit is a shen.


After the exorcism comes the mortification of the flesh. The new tang-ki, still in a trance, will be provided with the “Five Precious Tools” (五宝法器), consisting of the following instruments:

· a seven-star sword (七星剑) - 50 cm in length

· a shark sword (鲨鱼剑)

· a nail-studded ball (刺球)

· a copper cudgel (铜棍)

· a moon axe (月斧)


The new tang-ki will use these instruments to mortify himself. Apart from some soreness, he does not suffer any injury. This is considered evidence of a divine presence, as well as the Jade Emperor’s designation of him becoming a full-fledged tang-ki.


The final ritual to mark the completion of the prospective tang-ki’s training may include fire walking, crossing a bridge of nails or climbing a ladder of daggers, etc.


The initiation ceremony can differ from place to place and circumstance to circumstance.


Consultation through trance or possessed palanquin


Consultations are usually sought for (1) cure for illness; (2) solution to personal problems (such as workplace setbacks, marital disharmony, etc); (3) wealth prospects for the year; (4) forecast of well-being of the household; and (5) auspicious dates for important events (e.g. marriage and commencement of a new business).


The common remedy to problems is to provide the clients with some yellow charm-paper that has characters scribbled in red-ink or with blood. The clients are told either to burn the charm-paper, mix the ashes with water and drink the concoction, or to carry the charm-paper on their body.


In the case of a medical problem, the following may be done:

1. Prescribing herbs.

2. Giving of a yellow-paper amulet that is drawn with red ink – to be boiled in water and drunk by the sick person.

3. Giving of both herbs and amulet.

4. If the illness is attributed to the doings of an evil spirit, the tang-ki will create a blood charm (血符) by cutting his tongue and smearing the blood onto a sheet of spirit money. The sick person is to carry the blood charm on the body to fend off the evil influences.


When in a trance, the tang-ki becomes the personification of the shen and speaks and behaves like the possessing deity, giving advice to the client in some highly-stylized language. An interpreter is needed to explain the purported spoken or written divine instructions as they are incomprehensible to the layman. The interpreter can either be the tang-ki’s trainer or an assistant, known as zhuotou (桌頭).


Consultations can also be carried out by channelling the deity into a palanquin. The palanquin is beautifully-carved and needs to be carried by four bearers. Onlookers will know the palanquin is being possessed when it starts to rock side to side or goes forward and backward in a forceful manner. The four bearers are totally under the control of the divine palanquin’s movements.


When consulted, the possessed palanquin will give the petitioner a few hard knocks. The tang-ki will then prepare a concoction (ashes of burnt talisman and water) for the petitioner to drink.


Getting into a trance


Before the commencement of a séance session, the assistant(s) will lay out the necessary ritual paraphernalia on a table facing the altar. This usually include swords, joss-sticks, yellow amulet paper, a paint brush, red ink, stacks of various types of joss-paper, wooden herb box, and the chop of the deity who may possess the medium. Nearby is a bucket with sacred plants (Chinese mugwort) (艾) and the ashes of burnt amulets soaked in water. A small glass of the “sacred water” is placed on the shen-medium’s table.


The chair in front of the altar is known as the “dragon chair”. It is carved with intricate motifs of dragons. The legs of the chair are cushioned with incense papers.


At the sound of gongs and drums, the session starts with the shen-medium waving three lighted joss-sticks over his head to purify himself, and thereafter, drinks the sacred water. Almost immediately he begins to cough loudly, and his body starts to move back and forth. Liquid starts to drip from his mouth.


After a while, he starts banging his fists on the table. (If he is holding a flag or sword, he will wave them or use the sword to beat on the table.) At the same time, he recites several chants in a loud, high-pitched tone that is different from his usual tone of talking.


He then adopts a pose that indicates which deity has possessed him, e.g. for Third Prince Nezha, he stands on one foot with his arms outstretched as if holding some weapons.

Realizing that the possession has taken place, the assistant(s) will assist the shen-medium to be seated on the dragon chair. The shen-medium then scrawls an amulet with his brush and stamps it with the chop of the appropriate deity. After the amulet has been burned in a nearby censer, worshippers can begin their consultation with the deity (through the medium).


At the end of the séance session, the tang-ki has to get out of the trance. This is done by jumping up and uttering a loud yell. It is believed that when his limbs are away from the ground, the deity can leave his body and his own self returns to the body. As the leap can be a very forceful one, he has to be supported by the assistant(s) from behind.


(Note: The behaviour during deity possession can vary widely from medium to medium. Some mediums will have various kinds of convulsions during the initial moments of possession, accompanied by trembling hands and loud coughing. Some may jump about and has to be constrained by the assistant(s) lest he falls down or accidentally injures the worshippers standing nearby. Others do not show any discomfort, except feeling drowsy, and having slight vibrations with an occasional belch or gasp.)


When under the deity’s possession, the medium will take on the behavioural characteristics of the possessing shen. Quite often, he is dressed in a way associated with the possessing deity. Take the case of possession by the Third Prince Nezha (Santaizi). The medium will wear a Chinese vest doudu (兜肚), and has the Universe Ring (乾坤圈) in his left hand (or around the body) and the Fire-tipped Spear (火尖槍) in his right.


(Note: The shen-medium has to keep his body clean and pure for the rituals. Fasting and sexual abstinence is necessary a few days before the event. Menstruating women in the vicinity is believed to be a hindrance for the tang-ki to go into a trance.)


Criteria for evaluation of tang-ki


The common criterion used by devotees to evaluate the abilities of a medium is the length of time taken for the possession. An experienced shen-medium will take about 10 minutes to ½ hour to become possessed. Those who take longer than this are considered inferior.


Devotees also evaluate a tang-ki based on his ability to explain and solve the pragmatic, mundane problems of everyday life.


Shen-mediums can either be attached to established temples or operate from their own home. Some have a regular-income job and work only part-time as tang-ki. They do not need to advertise their services. News of a possessing deity who is numinous (靈) or an efficacious tang-ki is spread by word of mouth.


Some possessing deities do not permit their tang-kis to charge consultation fees. If the shen-medium does so, illness will befall on him.

Ritual self-flagellation


At major temple festivals, tang-kis are often seen performing many feats of self-mutilation while in a trance. Chewing of burning joss-sticks or pieces of broken porcelain is considered mild. Gruesome-looking feats include:

· cutting the tongue with a knife

· piercing rows of daggers into the arms

· sawing the arms

· hitting the head with a spiky weapon

· slashing the back with a long knife

· swinging an iron-spike ball to hit the back

· pointing a wooden chopstick at the throat and breaking it

· piercing skewers into the cheeks, neck and arms

· having five rods or six swords pierced into the back of the body

· putting hands into a wok of boiling oil

· walking over or stepping on a pile of burning joss-papers

· running across a charcoal pit (10 feet x 2 feet) of burning embers

· sitting on a chair laid with nails

· sleeping on a bed of nails or blades

· climbing a ladder of knives, and so on


Such bloody feats are meant to show divine power. Some tang-kis can be seen bleeding profusely from their multiple wounds. Surprisingly, apart from some soreness, the tang-kis do not seem to suffer any physical harm.


“A Night with Tang-Ki”


On 7 December 2003, the Singapore Paranormal Investigators (SPI) Club was invited by the Taoism Religious Society of Singapore to observe the amazing performances of their shen-mediums.


Details and photos of their close encounters with the tang-kis and the mystery of the tang-ki phenomenon were still available in the SPI website at the time of writing this article. However, a recent visit to their website shows that such information was no longer in their archives.


The above religious activities, which is popular with the Hokkiens and Teochews, is still being practised in southeastern China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia (such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand).


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