where we came from

Sandimen, Pingtung County, Taiwan

Boy in Sandimen, Taiwan

Danshui, Taiwan Dragon Boat Festival June, 2011

The hot sun hung high in the western sky. Beneath it, brightly colored gods — with their wide eyes and big lips and expressions both goofy and severe — danced and sang in the dusty streets. The parade swayed to the beat of drums and exotic music as it snaked its way past the MRT station and between the tall Danshui buildings. A ways off, down by a three-story Starbucks beside the river, I saw lions, dancing. The performers were teenagers. They were incredible.

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lion dance

A little lion dancer.

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Big lion dancers. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Big lion dancers. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

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Suddenly, my heart stopped.

What on earth? A block or so away, in the midst of the parade, I saw a man. And this is what I saw:

 

ancient-chinese-ritual.004

A jitong prepares for battle.

Rivers of blood gushed from the self-inflicted gash on his torso. And his back. And his chest. As he walked, the man hit himself over and over again with a razor-edged sword. His dark hair was matted with blood. Behind him, a second man plodded. This man had pierced his cheeks — with a sword. Blood trailed down the sides of his face, and pooled in his mouth, and poured from his lips like a waterfall over his stomach as it crashed to the ground. And then another man — this with a spiked club which he rolled from the top of his head down the entire length of his body. The puncture wounds, a sickening purple, were a zig-zagging train track across his back, and over his neck, and on his arms and chest and legs and feet.

And then there was another man.

And another.

And another.

Blood was everywhere.

I couldn’t watch.

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ancient-chinese-ritual.001

Craziness. (Photo: taiwanese-secrets.com)

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People who appeared to be friends of the men stood ready with rags and vinegar wine nearby, in case any of the men fainted. They seemed concerned, but no one tried to interfere.

I was aghast. I had seen plenty of parades in Taiwan, but I had never seen anything like this.

Suddenly, I felt sick. The heat and humidity, and the crowd, and the blood . . . The men were coming my way: I had to get out of there. I turned around, and as I did, I noticed amongst the throng of dark-haired observers (everyone jostling and pushing and tiptoeing along the sides of the road to see) — children. They were flocking near their parents and playing games and licking soft-serve ice cream cones and poking one another and giggling. A few ran away from the crowd toward the river, flying dragon kites for the festival. Some of the littler ones sat on their father’s shoulders and watched the men, unblinking:

It was as if they had witnessed such scenes all their lives.

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Is that you, Dad?

Is that you under there, Dad?

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Taitian Temple of Nankunshen,976 Kun Chiang Village, Beimen Township, Tainan County, Taiwan

Great gods in Kun Chiang Village, Tainan County, Taiwan

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The next day I asked some of my Taiwanese friends what it all meant. They laughed, a little uneasily it seemed to me. Yenhsuan grew up in a town in southern Taiwan where this sort of thing happened at the temple all the time. These men were jitongs, Shaman leaders, and were supposedly possessed by the gods or spirits. Such self-mutilation was the gods’ way of proving that they exist: While the men are possessed, they cannot feel the pain — or so they say. In the past, jitongs played a major role in rural Taiwanese life. Shamanism is China’s oldest indigenous belief system, and, in addition to spirit possessions, jitongs were often consulted for things like channeling spirits to help the sick, picking auspicious dates for ceremonies, and solving community disputes.

Nowadays, most Taiwanese don’t believe in Shamanism. Jitongs no longer play a central role in Taiwanese life. But they are still out there, and not so rare as one might like to believe.

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Who we are and how we see the world is largely up to us. Or is it?

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Taitian Temple of Nankunshen,976 Kun Chiang Village, Beimen Township, Tainan County, Taiwan

Taitian Temple of Nankunshen (Photo Rich Matheson)

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National Akau Mazu’s Cup of Youth Ba-Jia-Jang and Guan-Jang-Shou Competition, Ci Feng Mazu Temple, Pingtung City, Taiwan

Taiwanese face paint (Photo Rich Matheson)

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Taiwan Aboriginals (Photo Rich Matheson)

Taiwan Aboriginals (Photo Rich Matheson)

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Note: Some of you had asked a while back if I was planning to follow up on my “just like mommy” series. This is my (very delayed) response.

P.S. I’m kind of excited. I’ve made it to 1,000 followers. Thank you, everyone! You’re awesome!

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Sources: Folk Religion in China, Ji-Tong: A shocking ancient Chinese ritual still practiced in Taiwan, As demands shrink, shamans update their style (New York Times), Pinterest, richmatheson.photoshelter.com, taiwanese-secrets.com

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40 thoughts

  1. Humans are endlessly amazing. However, self flagellation is a not uncommon practice in many religions, including the Abrahamic ones we cherish so well. Agree it’s unpleasant to witness.

    • Indeed. I know it’s not a new concept — though in Abrahamic religions its purpose is quite a bit different. But either way, it was a strange thing for this white American girl to see… I’m glad I’d been in Taiwan a while by the time this event occurred, actually. If I hadn’t already gotten used to the dancing gods and crazy costumes and loud music, the blood probably would have had me high-tailing it home!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Mikels! Hope you have a great weekend. :)

      Jessica

  2. Awesome writing. Another belief system moves from Main Street to the mythology section in the library. I do hope the day comes when only fairytales and folklore fill our imaginations. They are inherently more powerful. As G. K. Chesterton wrote:

    “Fairytales are true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

  3. Yikes, that was kinda graphic to witness. I can imagine though that when people are possessed they’re absent in body and functioning at a whole other level. Freaky!

    • They must be… Like martyrs at the stake who say they cannot feel the pain, perhaps… I don’t know. But my Taiwanese friends didn’t really believe the men I saw were possessed. They thought it was crazy!

      • Thanks! Thank goodness for Google. I have a lot of great photos from my time in Taiwan, but not so many of parades and the like as I wish. And even if I did have a lot of them, I’m definitely no professional photographer! … I love the pics of the kids, though. Those ones really hit home for me. ;)

  4. “Who we are and how we see the world is largely up to us. Or is it?”

    We tell ourselves we have “free will.” We tell ourselves we have chosen our way of life, religion, political viewpoint, etc. We tell ourselves a lot of things…

    (Congratulation on the millennium. I’m either getting ready to or just cleared 400, so I’m a tad behind.)

    • We do, don’t we? I’m all for believing that a lot of life is what we make it and how we react to the different circumstances we come up against. But there is a whole world completely out of our control that has every bit as much to do with who we are, too. The decisions I make and the way I react to things is undoubtedly shaped my my experiences and the examples that have been set for me… So do we have free will? Yes. But is that free will somewhat limited? Logic tells me that I can’t help but argue, “Yes.”

      The numbers aren’t so important. Your blog is awesome. I really hope for the day when I can get more readers more involved more of the time. I thrive on hearing others’ perspectives… Cheers to the power of blogging!

  5. Our human bodies are so frail and full of faults. Yet at times we are capable of doing things that for our apparent limitations are incredible. A lot of times it is said that for us to grow we have to step outside of our comfort zone. These acts seem barbaric to most but how far out of their comfort zone did they go?

    Pretty far.

    Congrats on the followers too! I am so far behind you it is pitiful. Then again, I chose to write about a subject matter that will get some readers but I knew the crowds would be the fickle sort.

    • Haha. Well if you chose to write on a narrow subject matter, my topic of choice has been all over the place! Write whatever you want and people will follow…

      Yeah, it is pretty nuts what the human body will do. It will adapt and stretch and accommodate, sometimes in negative ways. I don’t know how people block out pain like that, especially self-inflicted. Maybe these guys really were possessed. I just don’t know! All I know is that it’s a pretty crazy thing to witness in “real life.”

      • I would not know how to take that in real life. First you are enjoying a happy parade and the next thing you see is people pummeling themselves. More than a shock for anyone outside the region.

  6. Wow, that would be unnerving to see. In Mexico, the Easter festivals will have some self-flagellation in their processions, but at least there you know it is coming. To have it show up in during a Dragon Boat festival would have been bizarre. Really interesting to see this in Taiwan, thanks for the share – especially with your description, so well written.

    • Thanks, Randall. Yes, it was quite a surprise to me to see such a scene in a parade. Usually jitongs practice at temples, to my understanding — although nowadays (according to the NY Times article I referenced in my sources) they seem to be updating their style in the cities.

      Taiwan is a fascinating place full of a very complex culture which ties a lot of the old Chinese traditions in with a newer style all its own. It’s a pretty hard culture for a foreigner to come into and to understand. You would probably do a lot better than me, though, since you speak the language so well! Alas, I was always just the white foreign girl completely oblivious to everything going on around me…

      • Taiwan is fascinating…they have kept a purer form of Chinese traditions than on the mainland. My friends from the mainland were amazed to find candies, treats and things they remembered from their childhood which are now absent in the PRC (part of the rapid growth & expansion I imagine).

        Also, in the PRC, the Cultural Revolution pretty much did in any mystical traditions like shamans…although Chinese astrology is still huge. I’ve always said I could live 300 years in China and still be lost in their culture…unless you are born in China, and have Chinese blood, it is impossible for any foreigner to understand the place. In fact, the more I am there, the more I realize how little I understand :-)

        I suppose that is why I find it so intriguing.

      • That is so true. I have yet to visit the Mainland (as you know), and I can’t wait to do so as I know I will find the differences between it and Taiwan fascinating. What I love, though, is that despite all of the differences in culture, underneath it all, we’re really all the same. (We’ve talked about this before… haha.) Yes, there are HUGE cultural differences — I remember a friend in Hong Kong trying to explain something as simple as a Cantonese joke to me, and to me it didn’t make any sense — but some of the people I met in Taiwan in particular are some of the best people I’ve ever met! They were so kind to me…

        Anyway, I fully agree that the cultural differences are enthralling. The very way life and family and dreams are perceived is so different. Truly, it’s a crazy and varied world we live in.

  7. I guess. Really, shamanism from China is foreign to me…and it would be to my parents who immigrated from rural China.

    My reaction would have been the same as yours–bewilderment, near shock.

    • Sorry for my delayed response, Jean!

      It *was* shocking. Even my Taiwanese friends weren’t too keen on it, truthfully. I believe Yenhsuan may have commented about it below… It seems to be only in selective places in Asia now, and Taiwan has stuck pretty closely to its traditional Chinese roots in many ways — even more so than the mainland.

      Anyway, it’s definitely not a scene I hope to see again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I didn’t realize your family was from China! :)

  8. What a fantastic post and story Jess! I love these kind of experiences of “other” cultures we in America would never know about unless we had been there!

    “Who we are and how we see the world is largely up to us. Or is it?”

    Excellent question/observation Jess. Our own self-perceptions and interpretations of our immediate environment (expanded now by modern social media) are the ONLY experiences we have to go on about life and the nature of life — which in this mega-vast Universe/Multiverse and large diverse planet of 7.13 plus billion people, is still extremely narrow and unknown, often misunderstood than understood.

    To answer your final question, we are indeed each a (small) significant part in our immediate environments, however, “alone” or in small numbers “the world” moves as it will and we are all — in our physical form — merely passing through. The Jitongs/Shaman completely recognize & understand this as do all gurus, messiahs, wiccans, psychic mediums, holy men/women, etc, etc, all over the world within their own significant environments.

    Would you say now that you have a broader understanding? ;-)

    • A broader understanding of life as a whole, or the role of religion and “holy person,” or? I definitely feel I have a broader understanding of religion and why cultures are the way they are, and why it is hard for one religion, say Christianity, to permeate and take over the whole world…

      Religion and culture are almost inseparable.

      I love asking questions, though, and I’m glad you do, too. I always enjoy your perspective, Professor. :)

  9. Wow!! I was here in the blog. ^^

    Jitongs used to be an important role in Taiwan Taoism, and I think that is still important nowadays. Because it is kind of cultural activities in Taiwan, not only religious symbol.

    When I was a little girl, I had some religious tourism with my grandma. Furthermore, my family’s business also has related to Taoism, so I have seen many different kinds of religious activities such as jitongs, parade formation. At first, I just felt confused about their ”different” actions especially the jintongs, so I just kept looking at them and tried to figure out what were they doing? After a messy process, they suddenly became normal and seems nothing happened before!! Even when I grow up now, I still have suspicious of its truthfulness!! Didn’t he feel any painful while he was hurting himself? Did the god really be in his body and keep he away from pain? But there still have anther kind of jintons who wouldn’t hurt themselves but just be the messenger for God. My mom used to take me to the temple to ask ”God” about some questions such as some important exams or fortune.

    Anyway, when I was a child, I just felt boring about these things. However, now I realized that were not just some boring things anymore, but a strong symbol of my own cultural character! It is part of Taiwan!

    • Yenhsuan! Thank you for reading!!! Yes, you are right. There are jitongs who do not hurt themselves, only answer questions… I read about them, too, but chose to focus on the parade I saw because that is what I saw… Do you remember when I asked you and Sueching and Wei-Ming about it that night at language exchange?

      It is so neat to hear your perspective on this. I know you were very busy preparing for grad school when I asked you about it through facebook. I am glad to know that as a little girl you asked questions, too. I know I would have! And you should be proud and take interest in Taoism and other such things. It is DEFINITELY unique to Taiwan, and Taiwan is AMAZING! :)

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