Chinese Spirit Medium Initiation

Chinese Mediumship Tools

Tools for the mortification of the flesh are cleansed in incense smoke. Taiwan.

From David K. Jordan’s “A Medium’s First Trance:”

The initiation was held on a festival day, and many of its activities were combined or interposed with festival activities. Basically it included two vital parts. One was an exorcism of possible demons from Qīngshuǐ’s body —just in case. When the exorcism was over, Qīngshuǐ was still in trance. That was the final evidence that he was possessed by a god, capable of withstanding the exorcism, and not by a demon, who would have been banished by it.

The second important part of the initiation consisted of providing Qīngshuǐ (still in trance) with a sword and a ball of nails. Both of these are used by spirit mediums to mortify their flesh, causing blood to flow. Mortification of the flesh is common among spirit mediums in China, and it is considered to be a sign of divine presence that the mediums do not show any sign of feeling pain when they cut and puncture themselves.

A medium does not mortify his flesh until the community initiates him. When the community accepts him and holds the initiation, he is provided with these tools of his trade. After that, in theory, he can be called upon to go into trance when the gods are needed for advice or to participate in rituals. Guō Qīngshuǐ was destined no longer to be just an ordinary Taiwanese farmer. Once provided with the tools of his godly trade, he was also a spirit medium, and his life was changed forever.

I find the fact that initiation into the role of spirit medium can only be conferred by the community to be particularly interesting and significant. That doesn’t mean that spirit possession doesn’t happen to the uninitiated (it does), but in this tradition, to be considered a “spirit medium” requires recognition by the human community as well.

6 responses to “Chinese Spirit Medium Initiation

  • aediculaantinoi

    That is very interesting…

    Considering some of the things going on else-world right now, I think a balance of both is good: yes, the Deities give special kharis to some people, and the community should recognize it. But all too often, either someone self-declares and then has no responsibility to a community (which doesn’t invalidate the experience, it just makes it problematic if they serve a community which doesn’t want to be served by them!), or a person is nominated or declared to be an X/Y/Z but there is no gift of the Deities accompanying it, no matter how much the group might think that a person is suited for that role, etc.

    Anyway…very interesting from a variety of perspectives!

    • Heathen Chinese

      In this particular case, his mediumship is also confirmed by an older spirit medium in the village, while the latter is possessed by a different god. Thus, the initiation is confirmed and witnessed by both gods and humans, and is into a human lineage as well as a spiritual one.

      • aediculaantinoi


        And, this is our modern non-indigenous animist/polytheist dilemma, I think (or one of many such dilemmas, anyway!): most indigenous cultures have had a good long while to work these things out, to get to a point of balance in which Deities and spirits, elders of the community, and the wider community are all in conversation, everyone knows and understands and respects what everyone’s roles in that integrated system are and agrees with it, etc.

        Now, we don’t have that, and oftentimes the attempts to build it get shut down, derided, or fall apart for various reasons, and thus we get out of balance somewhere…and then we wonder why it’s so difficult to get any of this on track and working for modern people in a way wider than a small group of people for a short amount of time.

        Anyway…! 😉

  • angela1313

    Very interesting post.and very on point commentary by yourself and aediculaantinoi. Thank you.

  • lornasmithers

    Sounds intense… yes, here in pagan circles in the UK it’s only considered correct to call oneself a shaman (admittedly a borrowed Tungus word that is now used to cover all shamanistic traditions) if you serve your community. If you don’t you’re a shamanic practitioner. I think there’s a big difference between doing spirit-work, trance etc. (which any individual can do) and being an initiated professional who serves a community.

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