Cantonese Shamanism by Jack M. Potter (1974)

Lovers of Hong Kong may be familiar with the Heritage Trail at Ping Shan. You can wander down from the Tin Shui Wai MTR station to the three-storey Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda, move on to the charming Earth God shrine which, unusually, features a special flourish of shrine-building architecture known  as 鑊耳 or “wok ears”, take in the glowing red sandstone lintel at the main entrance to the walled village of Sheung Cheung Wai, before proceeding to the grander buildings, the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall, the Tang Ancestral Hall and the fine study halls of Ching Shu, Kun Ting and Shut Hing. In the 1960s, an annual group seance was held somewhere nearby this cultural-ritual precinct for all local inhabitants. Potter sets the scene in the following vivid manner:

“Hong Kong” and “shamanism” are probably two ideas not many people put together, but Jack Potter does so beautifully in his long essay “Cantonese Shamanism”, published in the book Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Potter is probably best known for his book Capitalism and the Chinese Peasant, but mainly to a sober academic audience. Fortunately for me (I have a strong, almost physical, aversion to most scholarly writing), I first encountered Potter’s essay in a wonderful second-hand bookstore in Brisbane by the name of Bent Books. Having dropped in one afternoon looking for magic, I found it, in this mind-bending piece which is ⸺ literally ⸺ spell-binding.

In 1962, at the time of the Moon Cake Festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the three spirit mediums of Ping Shan held their annual free group seance open to all the villagers. At dusk the villagers, young and old, men and women, gathered on the cement rice-threshing floor in the open area west of Ping Shan’s central ancestral halls. As darkness fell and the full moon filled the sky with light almost as bright as day, the most accomplished shaman of the three, known as the Fat One, took her place on a low stool before a small, improvised altar table. As the incense sticks on the altar burned down, the Fat One, her head covered with a cloth, went into a trance. She jerked spasmodically and mumbled incoherent phrases. Then she started to sing a stylized, rhythmic chant, as her familiar spirits possessed her and led her soul upward, away from the phenomenal world into the heavens. Their destination was the Heavenly Flower Gardens.

Many of the villagers were less interested in the Fat One’s destination than in the ghosts (鬼 kwei) she met along the way. These were the souls of their deceased relatives and neighbours, who took advantage of this opportunity to communicate with the living. They asked for news, gave advice, and sometimes voiced complaints.

The first ghost the medium encountered spoke as follows: “It was not time for me to die. My head was severed by a Japanese sword. I am angry and lost because my bones are mixed with those of other people.” (p.208)

I find it interesting that all three of the Ping Shan shamans were women. Potter makes no mention at all of male shamans. As to the question of why these women became mediums, he provides a very surprising answer. According to the villagers, the ability to go into trances and to be possessed by spirits requires the possession of 仙骨sin kwat (“fairy bones”, although perhaps “occult” might be better in this context) and a 仙路 sin lou (“a fairy road”). Apparently, all of us have sin kwat, but they are supposed to be severed when a child is born. However, if individuals grow up with one bone left intact, their spirits retain a capacity to roam the heavens, a talent that makes them vulnerable to illness and attack from malevolent ghosts (the Chinese believe in benevolent ghosts, as well).

However, there is second, quite tragic aspect to this shamanic gift: women who become shamans do so because they have had children die young. The spirits of these children then haunt their mother, often making her extremely unwell unless she consents to becoming a spirit medium or healer:

The Fat One [ . . . ] had five daughter and two sons, all of whom died very young. Soon after the death of her last child, her husband also died. Her losses left her grief-stricken, depressed, and continually ill. Every night she dreamed of visits from her dead children’s souls. They taught her to “sing” in the rhythmic fashion characteristic of all professional shamans during conversations with the spirits, and then they asked her to become a spirit medium so she could help others and also earn extra money for herself. They knew that she had fairy bones because they had seen her call up spirits during the eighth month. They told her they had connections with other spirits and deities and would use their influence to help her deal with the supernatural world. (pp.226-227)

The experience of Kao Paak-neung, the second shaman of Ping Shan, was similar. As a young woman she had three daughters and one son, but they all died while very young. A year after her third daughter died, the daughter’s soul entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and asked her to become a spirit medium. But her dead son possessed her simultaneously, insisting that she become a curing specialist under the guidance of 華佗 Wa Dho. The struggle between the two spirits made her continually ill and almost drove her mad. She wandered around the countryside worshipping at all kinds of temples and altars in an attempt to free herself from their demands. Neither she nor her husband wanted her to become a spirit medium and curer.

After a time the spirits of her daughter and son compromised, deciding that she should become both a spirit medium and a curing specialist following Wa Dho. Her husband continued his opposition to the spirits’ demands until one day her daughter’s spirit entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and took he soul up to the heavens, making her appear to die several times during one long evening. Finally, at two in the morning, the husband relented and said she could become a shaman. Kao Paak-neung went wild with joy, jumping on tables and chairs, eating silver paper, incense and candles, and singing loudly.

And so these shamans who have lost children are, in a sense, reunited with them, thereby producing a most unexpected psychic healing in the women who have suffered more than any fair share of life’s misfortunes.

Another important aspect of Cantonese shamanism explored by Potter concerns the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens, a supernatural realm “where every living person is represented by a potted flowering plant”. The is one garden for each of the main compass points: the North and West Gardens are small, containing the plants of children who have recently been conceived. The East and South Gardens are large, for it is here that the plants of all people are transplanted between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At this time too, the Hong Kong Chinese believe, people are paired with their future life’s partner, their plants being placed alongside one another. Two deities preside over the Gardens, namely 李伯 Lee Paak and 十二奶娘 Zap Yih Nae Neung, a title which roughly translates as “the woman with twelve breasts”.

Shamans seem to base their fortune-telling abilities on the ability to travel to the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens. It is the final destination reached by the Fat One at the end of the group seance. Potter describes the shaman’s procedure in some detail:

The medium journeys to the Heavenly Flower Gardens in order to inspect the villagers’ flowers. This “inspection of the flowers”, or 診花 chan fa, is a form of fortune-telling. The medium examines the condition of a person’s flower: are there yellowed leaves or spider webs on the plant, does the flower seem in poor condition? The medium examines the flower to see how many red flowers (representing daughters) or white flowers (representing sons) are in bloom; unopened buds on the plant represent future offspring. If the pot contains bamboo, a woman will be barren; if it holds tangerines, she will have many children. The condition of a villager’s flower tells the medium important things about that person’s future. (p. 214)

Potter also reveals that traditionally, a few weeks after a child was born, a fortune-teller was generally consulted by the mother at the nearest market town. These fortune-tellers could tell her the names of the child’s “flower mother” and “flower father” ⸺ parents in its previous existence ⸺ as well as which of the Heavenly Flower Gardens it had come from. Shamans also made the journey to the Gardens to recover the souls of young children that had been kidnapped for ransom by malicious ghosts in order to obtain offerings of food and gifts of paper money.

“Cantonese Shamanism” is filled with the kind of details that could only come from personal attendance at seances and extensive interviews with these extraordinary women and Potter is careful not to intrude any scepticism with regard to the supernatural practices he relates. Nevertheless, he tactfully offers some interesting conjectures about the “structural” role shamans may play in village life. The idea of 契 khay or “fictive kinship” is important here. Shamans were often engaged by villagers to provide occult protection to sickly children, a condition associated with a loss of soul; parents who had a history of losing children early would also make fictive kinship bonds with subsequent children in the hope that it would ensure their survival. More vitally, the ghosts of young unmarried women were a real anomaly for village society: they did not belong to their father’s family, and had no husband to perform the proper rituals for them. Moreover, people were reluctant to keep commemorative tablets for such women in their own homes for fear of their being haunted. For this reason, villagers often used to engage a medium to take care of the souls of such women. For example, beside the altar belonging to Kao Paak-neung, five dresses were hung for the spirits of the girls in her charge.

Although the usual word for “shaman” in Cantonese is probably 巫婆 mòuh4 pòh4, two quite unusual terms are used by Potter. The first is 問醒婆 maan seng phox, that is “old ladies who speak to spirits”, although the character 醒 séng2 can mean “to wake up” and “to give guidance”. The other term is 問米婆 maan mae phox, “ask-rice woman”, the origin of which he explains as follows:

The rice is essential for a medium’s contact with the supernatural. After the medium has gone into a trance with her head covered by a cloth, the spirit that possesses her tosses handfuls of rice around the room at any of its relatives that are present, thus helping to identify itself. (p.219)

(Incidentally, Potter also makes the intriguing point that the villagers considered incense to be “the spiritual equivalent of rice”, a kind of supernatural food.)

The appeal Potter’s essay is firstly that it transports the reader into a world where disbelief is temporarily suspended and secondly that the writer demonstrates the kind of fundamental courage Rainer Maria Rilke once called for: “to be brave in the face of the strangest, most singular and most inexplicable things that can befall us”. And as the poet goes on to say, the fact that human beings have been cowardly in this sense has done endless harm to life. Perhaps Potter can help us let go of some of this modern defensiveness and even make us a little bit bolder in accommodating the full range of human experience.

A sense of the milieu inhabited by these women is conveyed in the following short video about a Hakka-speaking female shaman.

Photograph: 香港錦田:刻有「喃嘸阿彌托」嘅石碑Stone inscribed with “Namo ⸺ Blessed Be, Glory to Amitabha” in Kam Tin, Hong Kong

6 thoughts on “Cantonese Shamanism by Jack M. Potter (1974)

  1. I got really interested in this article. Very rich and insightful information on shamans. I guess a belief in superstition still plays a huge part in the Asian culture, isn’t it? Some parts of this article actually reminds me of an author Dr Catherine Lim. She can really relate the theme on superstitions with her readers. Thank you for sharing, Sir.


      1. Good evening Mr. Simon.
        I would recommend these few that touch on the particular theme of Asian Superstitions and biases.
        Author: Dr. Catherine Lim
        1) The Bond Maid
        2) Following the Wrong God Home
        3) Or Else the lightning God and Other Stories.


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