Chinese spirit-medium cults in Southeast Asia

Fabian Graham

- completed -

This project focuses on mapping variations in tang-ki spirit medium practices and their diffusion within the context of temple-based Chinese religious culture in Southeast Asia. The collected ethnographic data was analyzed with the aim of linking social change to specific developments in temple culture locally, nationally, and internationally. With an emphasis on tang-ki spirit medium temples as the loci of ritual activity, the primary research was carried out in Malaysia, with a secondary focus on Singapore.

Complementing research into temples into which local tutelary and heaven deities are channeled, the ongoing popularization of a Singaporean tang-ki-centric deity cult dedicated to a selection of underworld deities is of particular interest. Since the 1980s, the worship and channeling of these deities has generated a vibrant ritual and material culture that has increasingly dominated Singapore’s temple landscape and has become popular in Malaysia more recently. This study aimed to investigate how, when and why this development occurred, and how the broader ritual and material cultures in both locations have evolved in response to dissimilar sociocultural and political conditions. Employing a comparative methodology incorporating both emic and academic interpretations of religious phenomena, the extent to which contemporary Malaysian and Singaporean tang-ki and temple cultures have been influenced by each other, by local historical and ongoing socio-political developments and by external factors, including the importation of deity statues and subsequent overseas religious pilgrimages to ritually connected temples, was investigated.

The long-term goal of this research was to provide a substantive contribution to theoretical discourse concerning the processes involved in the ongoing development of Chinese tang-ki and temple culture and the construction, maintenance, and expansion of ritually-linked temple networks in Southeast Asia. 

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