Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood rites in a Taiwanese temple (

The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.

Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he applied the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).

In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain, weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and train just as hard.

A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move closer to the tang-ki...

This article appears in the July issue of To read the entire piece, start here. For an anthropological opinion on tang-ki, look at this interview.

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