The Material Moral Economy of Spirit Possession in Chinese Folk Religion

By: Peter Zabielskis  

This paper is based on more than two years of field research in the city of George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Though specific to this culture and region, the discussion is relevant to trance possession elsewhere; it analyzes the role of the materiality of objects in the religious systems that such phenomena embody. The methods used were participant observation, video and still photography, and interviews. Research assistants allowed me to converse with participants in their native language. I attended more than 100 spirit possession sessions in several different temples. My questions to participants included the eliciting of details about all the often very colorful objects and equipment used in such events; I recorded many hours of conversations and kept voluminous notes about my observations. My conclusions are framed within existing theories of Chinese folk religion that hold that -- contrary to some of the major themes and ideas of spirituality and religious practice in Western traditions -- this is a practice of action and the materiality of concrete offerings and physical exchanges rather than concern to elicit any interior state. I combine this framework with contemporary theories regarding material culture and the power of objects, resulting in a new way of articulating what previously been called magic in older scholarly approaches. My results indicate that when such concretely material objects play such important roles in community rituals and spiritual thinking a somewhat different logic with different standards is at work than in more mainstream religious traditions.

Possession, Divination, Healing, Folk Religion, Material Culture, Magic, Exchange
2019 Special Focus—Universal Religious Symbols: Mutual Influences and Specific Relationships
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Peter Zabielskis

Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Macau, Sociology, University of Macau, Macao
Macao, Macao

I am an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Macau, where I teach courses in cultural anthropology, theory, religion, the environment, and the anthropology of art. My research interests include matieral culture, art, architectures, religion, heritage and the urban built environment in Macau and Southeast Asia, especially Penang and Malaysia. Recent publications include studies of civil society, heritage theory and urban development in Penang and Macau and their affects on religious practice; the anthropology of village religious festivals in Leizhou, China; and the pressures of development and change experieced by a small Chinese temple in Macau. I am the co-editor of the book "Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge" published in 2017 in Malaysia by Acreca Press.