Chinese spirit-medium cults in Southeast Asia

Fabian Graham

This project focusses on mapping variations in, and the diffusion of tang-ki spirit medium practices within the context of temple based Chinese religious culture in Southeast Asia. The collected ethnographic data will be analysed with the aim of linking societal change to specific developments in temple culture on local, national and international levels. With an emphasis on tang-ki spirit medium temples as loci of ritual activity, the primary research will be undertaken in Malaysia, with a secondary focus on Singapore.

Complementing research into temples where local tutelary and heaven deities are channelled, the ongoing popularisation 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 channelling of these deities has generated a vibrant ritual and material culture that has increasingly dominated Singapore’s temple landscape, and has more recently become popular in Malaysia. This study aims 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 culture have been influenced by each other, by local historic and ongoing socio-political developments, and by external factors including the import of deity statues and subsequent overseas religious pilgrimage to ritually connected temples will be investigated.

The long-term goal of this research is 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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