Healing Ritual

Naoto Downing, Shannon Dugger, Will White

Abstract

Harry Caldwell (1876-1970) was a Methodist missionary from East Tennessee who traveled to Fujian Province of China around 1900 to minister to local villagers. He gained a reputation as a tiger hunter, which he incorporated into his ministry work. Caldwell captured a variety of footage showing the religious practices of the locals. This fourth clip of the series focuses on the healing ritual of a sick child by expelling a plague demon from the child’s body. The clip incorporates elements of Daoism and Chinese popular religion, showing healing ritual, rite of passage ceremony, and demon expulsion.

The clip begins with a Daoist ritual master leading a group of four children around an altar and passing under a gate labelled baotong guan, or “Child-Protecting Gate.” In the background, young adult locals are seen playing instruments while older locals watch in the audience. Two more people are seen dancing around the altar with command flags to lure the demon out of the house to cure the child. They dance around sporadically to make sure the demon is stirred to come out of the house and into a boat filled with wine. Someone then picks up the boat and rocks it back and forth to make the demon dizzy. The ritual master follows the person with the boat and chants. After rocking the boat, the Daoists put the boat down with the gate and burns the boat to cremate the demon and cure the sick child.

Extended Explanation

Harry Caldwell (1876-1970) was a 20th century Methodist missionary from East Tennessee who traveled to Fujian Province of China around 1900 to minister to local villagers. He gained a reputation as a tiger hunter, which he incorporated into his ministry work. He considered himself “responsible for the extension of the Christian enterprise into many previously untouched portions of the province of [Fujian].”[1] Caldwell captured a variety of footage showing the religious practices of the locals. This fourth clip of the series focuses on the healing ritual of a sick child by expelling a plague demon from the child’s body. The clip incorporates elements of Daoism and Chinese popular religion. Caldwell’s footage of this event shows Daoist healing ritual, rite of passage ceremony, and demon expulsion.

This clip focuses on ritual healing, which plays an important and influential role in Chinese culture. In her book Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin, Daoism scholar Livia Kohn describes how physical health has traditionally been a central concern in traditional Chinese culture. According to Kohn, Chinese culture treats the “body the foundation of the great human endeavor of perfection: the perfection of health and well-being, the perfection of long life in youthful vigor, and the perfection of spirit in transcendence to an otherworldly realm.”[2] Kohn’s book asserts that healing is especially important in Daoism because the body is seen as “closely connected to and even a replica of the Dao.”[3] Daoist healing rituals function not only for one’s physical well-being, but to maintain one’s inner Dao.

The clip also showcases how the performance of the ritual is not only efficacious, but also a spectacle that binds together the community. The ritual represented here is functionally similar to a rite of passage ritual performed in Taipei, Taiwan.[4] The stage is set in a specific fashion. The ritual shapes the room into a bracket, with one of the gates visibly outlining the wall. On it reads “Child-Protecting Passage,” or baotong guan, appropriate as the demon afflicts a child.[5] The ritual master leads the children around the altar as he twirls his sword around. The younger children hold goods as they march around the altar while the older children clash onto their percussion instruments. The ritual master races around the altar in high energy, back and forth movement. When the ritual masters have captured the demon onto the boat, they race around rocking the boat as if the boat rides against the rough seas, to finally be put down to burn alongside the first gate to send them to the spirit world.  The whole ordeal is festive. The work has deep meaning for the ritual masters as they do everything in a particular way, yet for the onlookers, the ritual becomes a form of entertainment.[6] The ritual collectively blesses the community while emotionally tying them together.[7]

The burning boat’s function to trap and destroy the demon derives from a Daoist tradition of boat expulsion rites during plague festivals described by Paul Katz in his book Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: The Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang. Katz describes how in southern Chinese provinces like Fujian, disease has historically been of great concern to locals due to the humid, tropical environment serving as a breeding ground for plague, particularly in summer months.[8] This led to the development of plague festivals, which entailed “[D]aoist priests [being] hired to summon deities capable of capturing . . . spirits and imprisoning them on a boat, which was then floated out to sea and burned.”[9] Thus, the sacrificial burning of the decorative boat in the clip shows a key aspect of southern Chinese plague festivals in ceremonially expelling an illness-causing demon.

Finally, this clip provides cultural context to 1930s China by showing a glimpse into everyday life in Fujian. The clip makes known an overlooked part of Chinese culture, being rituals from Chinese popular religion. In David Palmer’s Chinese Religious Life, he explains that there is a cultural belief surrounding illness and what is seen as random acts.[10] These acts/illnesses may be caused by ghosts, gods, demons, bad karma, and feng shui. In traditional Chinese culture, “the scourge of illness was perhaps the most compelling evidence for the existence of demons.”[11] However, one rarely thinks about the evolution of a cultural-religious aspect of society. Thus, the belief that demons and other entities can cause illness was not born out of the ether but rather as a fusion of popular religion and Daoism that created a way of understanding illnesses and their cures.

In conclusion, the ritual depicted in this clip shows the ritual to cure a sick child in which Daoist monks try to expel a demon out of the child’s body, one of the many supernatural causes of illness. The clip provides a glimpse into a religious cause and cure for illness because physical health has been a central concern in traditional Chinese culture. Interestingly, this rite also shows a resemblance to a rite of passage ritual due to the passage under a gate at the beginning. Furthermore, rituals can be a form of community performance and entertainment. Just as the ritual expels the demon, the ritual also brings the community together in an overlooked aspect of Chinese popular religion. 


[1] Caldwell, “A Rifle as a Calling Card,” 13.

[2] Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises, 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Lai, “The symbolic significance and function of spirit money in Daoist rites of passage in Taiwan,” 146.

[5] ibid.

[6]Poo, “Ghost Literature,” 44.

[7] ibid.

[8] Katz, Demon Hordes and Burning Boats, 1.

[9] Katz, Demon Hordes and Burning Boats, 2.

[10] Palmer, “The Body,” 92-96. 

[11] Von Glahn, “Plague Demons,” 98-99.

Bibliography

Caldwell, Harry R. “A Rifle as a Calling Card.” Blue Tiger, 13-24. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1924.

Katz, Paul. Demon Hordes and Burning boats: The Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Kohn, Livia. Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

Lai, Zonghui. “The symbolic significance and function of spirit money in Daoist rites of passage in Taiwan.” Dalin: Nanhua University, 2007.

Palmer, David A. “The Body: Health, Nation, and Transcendence.” in Chinese Religious Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Poo, Mu-Chou. “Ghost Literature: Exorcistic Ritual Texts or Daily Entertainment?” Asia Major 13, no.1 (2000): 43-64.

Von Glahn, Richard. “Plague Demons and Epidemic Gods.” In Richard Von Glahn, The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture, 98-129. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

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