Apotropaic Ritual

Joseph Perkins, Nick Pittenger, James Wood


The clip of Harry Caldwell’s footage seen here focuses on an apotropaic ritual, one that is meant to avert evil influences or bad luck, to ward off “smallpox demons” and “measles demons.” In the film excerpt, we see a family hanging up a carving of the Bagua, or Eight-Trigrams, which is a prominent symbol of Daoist cosmology, which is then covered by a fishnet, a common item in Fujian due to the province’s proximity to the ocean and reliance on fishing. They then hang a cactus from the doorframe of their house. The inclusion of the cactus is peculiar due to the fact that cacti are not native to China, however we know that they had been brought over by at least the 18th century via trade routes, which is of note to Fujian due to its proximity to the ocean and focus on trade. People saw cacti as useful due to their prickly shape and water retaining abilities; these traits were understood to repel demons and prevent fire, respectively. While apotropaic rituals are not new in China, with evidence of them dating as far back as the 3rd century BCE via the book of rituals titled Spellbinding, this specific ritual is one that we have no evidence of elsewhere, neither in other provinces of China nor other time periods in its known history. Despite this, there is ample evidence of other rituals, both apotropaic and otherwise, being used in the province. These rituals ranged from strictly Daoist or Confucian to not fitting clearly into one singular religion, and instead fitting under the commonly used scholarly term “popular religion.”

Extended Explanation

This film clip is one of several parts of the films recorded by Methodist minister Harry Caldwell during his mission work in Southern China in the early 20th century. Working in the northwest part of China’s Fujian Province, Caldwell made great efforts to minister to the local populations, in particular using his status as a hunter of man-eating tigers as a bridge into his mission work.[1] Between hunting, missionizing, and acting as an impartial mediator between local bandits and villagers, Caldwell also filmed several cases of local religious customs and rituals during his time in China, including the film clip presented here.[2]

This film segment depicts Fujian locals hanging cacti and fishnets, and in the case of the second segment a sign bearing the Daoist eight-trigrams symbol, above the doorways and windows of their households with the intent of keeping away demons and other evil spirits responsible for illness and affliction. According to Caldwell, they were particularly concerned about keeping away demons of sickness that were responsible for bringing measles and other contagious skin diseases upon the home; this concern was not unwarranted, as both local records and medical research findings suggest these types of illnesses were particularly prevalent among rural Chinese populations in the early-and mid-20th century.[3] This particular practice and the objects it includes are considered apotropaic, meaning that they are understood as having the power to avert evil forces or prevent ill-fortune, in this case keeping malicious spirits away by ensnaring them in the fishnet or discouraging their approach with the sharp spines of the cactus.[4] The particular function of the eight-trigrams, a religious and metaphysical symbol in Daoism, is less clear in this case, though it likely still serves the same overall preventative purpose as the other two objects and other similar apotropaic objects, including things such as talismans, roosters, clay soldiers, furnaces, and various types of plants.[5] Cacti in particular, referred to in Chinese as xianrenzhang or “Immortal’s Palm,” have seen popular usage as apotropaic objects in Southern China and are understood as being useful for other types of protection, such as the prevention of fires.[6] This may be in part due to their widespread availability as an invasive species in Southern China, with the same logic of using locally available resources for spiritual protection extending to the use of fishnets in coastal areas like Fujian and Jinmen.[7]

These types of apotropaic practices were not new to China, with talismans serving this function dating back to the 2nd century CE,[8] and similar preventative practices involving cacti in particular appearing as early as the Qianlong era (1735 – 1796).[9] Nor are such practices or understandings of disease and its preventions isolated in the ancient or distant past; notions of measles as a kind of spiritual affliction rather than a biomedical condition persisted in Hong Kong as late as the late 1960s, and may still persist in some form today.[10]

Fujian locals did not view these practices through the same Protestant Christian lens as Caldwell; instead, these kinds of practices fall under the description of what is referred to as “popular religion.” These kinds of religious practices are generally understood as an informal hybrid of local and regional practices and China’s three major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. While all three contribute to the popular understanding of apotropaic practice, Buddhism and Daoism stand out for sharing a large body of legends and scripture containing numerous demons, ghosts, and maleficent spirits to which the causes of certain illness and disease have been attributed. In particular, Daoism, or more specifically religious Daoism (daojiao rather than daojia), had historically considered illness and the presence of demons to be comparable.[11]

Perhaps more importantly than the part it plays in Caldwell’s documentary, this clip presents viewers a rare opportunity to witness the practices of popular religion as they were in early 20th century China. The quality of the footage and the scarcity of similar content from this period makes this film especially valuable in the study of Chinese religions, and it serves as an effective window into the expressions of the religious lives of regular, everyday people, an area regrettably lacking in exploration and certainly deserving of greater scholarly attention.

[1] Harry R. Caldwell. “A Rifle as a Calling Card.” In Harry R. Caldwell, Blue Tiger, 13-24. (New York and Cincinnati: The Abingdon Press, 1924): 11

[2] Phil Billingsley, “Bandits, Bosses, and Bare Sticks: Beneath the Surface of Local Control in Early Republican China.” Modern China 7, no. 3 (1981): 266.

[3] “Disease in China”, The Lancet, no. 6077 (Feb 17, 1940): 735; Henrietta Harrison, “The Experience of Illness in Early Twentieth-century Rural Shanxi.” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 42 (2015): 39-72.

[4] Dai Xiaoqiao 戴小巧. “Jinmen chuantong minju shang de bixiewu” 金门传统民居上的辟邪物 [Apotropaic Objects in Traditional Dwellings in Jinmen]. Xungen 寻根no. 1 (2018): 38.

[5] Chen Yabin 陈娅彬. “Jinmen minju bixiewu de qiyuan he yiyi” 金门民居辟邪物的起源和意义 [Origins and Meaning of Apotropaic Objects in Jinmen Dwellings]. Tangshan wenxue 唐山文学 no. 257 (2018 no. 12): 122.

[6] Dai, “Origins,” 38.

[7] Chen, “Meaning,” 123.

[8] Stephen Peter Bumbacher, Empowered Writing: Exorcistic and Apotropaic Rituals in Medieval China.(St. Petersburg: Three Pines Press, 2016): 5.

[9] Dai, “Origins,” 38.

[10] Marjorie Topley, “Chinese Traditional Ideas and the Treatment of Disease: Two Examples from Hong Kong,” Man, New Series, 5, no. 3 (1970): 425.

[11] Donald Harper, “Spellbinding,” In Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 242.

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