Tag Archives: Local Land God

TWH: Psychogeography


10th Century Mural of Mount Wutai in the Mogao Caves, over 1200 miles away

This month’s column is on psychogeography, namely the study and practice surrounding the effect of place upon the psyche and the importance of the psyche within the landscape.

Spirit Possession and Worker Resistance in Cambodia

Credit: Andy Brouwer.

Neak Ta shrine at Wat Raksmei Chei Mongkol, Taing Krasaing. Credit: Andy Brouwer.

In January 2014, the New York Times published an article about spirit possessions and mass faintings in the sweatshops of Cambodia:

Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers […] two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The neak ta are the local land gods of Cambodia:

[They are] strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.

The association of spirits with ancient trees–as well the idea of kingship being “rented” from those spirits–are both elements I was seeking to explore in my last post.

Banyan tree, Karnataka, India. Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman.

Banyan tree, Karnataka, India. Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman.

The mass faintings can be seen as a form of resistance to the exploitation of labor that is intrinsic to capitalism:

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts.

These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

The article notes that “In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism.” For example:

Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk.

Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.

She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.

However, the article notes, “In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true.” This is due to the fact that “valid complaints about working conditions” are very rarely listened to by capitalists. In Cambodia, strikes have been brutally crushed, creating the impetus for new forms of resistance:

Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.

In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.

Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. […] But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. […] Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations […] But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.

The neak ta have even inspired workers to physically assault the representatives of collaborationist unions. They are also frequently angry about the destruction of their homes (such as banyan trees) by the construction of factories:

I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.

[…] She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.

The neak ta have also been involved in struggles around other social issues in Cambodia:

And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. […] At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.

Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted [sic] when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.

“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

Link: Precious Scroll of Heavenly Grace

Mazu temple procession, April 20, 2013. Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander

Mazu temple procession, April 20, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

I’ve had this a link to this blog since the middle of summer, but I revisited it today, and realized that the blog came to its natural conclusion over a month ago. It was written by a Ph.D. student, Katherine Alexander, who just spent a year studying at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy in Taipei, Taiwan.

My specific interest in the blog, unsurprisingly, was in the posts tagged “Chinese religion.” There’s a good mix of first-hand observation of Taiwanese rituals and academic research. Some highlights include:

  • A two-part series about Mazu: Part 1 has some videos and photos of an April 20th, 2013 procession through the streets with firecrackers galore, Part 2 has information about the history of Mazu’s worship. My favorite new story:

    [I]n the 1600s, the pirate lord Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功) (aka Koxinga) was said to have established a famous (but no longer extant) Matsu temple on the spot where his forces landed in Tainan before they successfully defeated the Dutch settlers and took Taiwan for Zheng’s own pirate base (and stronghold of resistance to the Qing).

    Katherine also cites Stephen Sangren’s statement from the 1980s that “Taipei is particularly unsuitable as a center for ritual expression of Taiwanese identity,” leading her to observe that “In the 1980s, pilgrimage to visit Peikang’s Matsu was a statement of Taiwanese identity (defined as the Taiwanese speakers whose ancestors had arrived from China long ago, rather than in the 20th century).” There’s some context required for both quotes, so you should read the entire paragraph, as well as the one following it.

    Tu Di Gong new shrine ceremony, May 31, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

    Tu Di Gong new shrine ceremony, May 31, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

  • A series about the relocation of a local earth god (Tu Di Gong) into a newly constructed shrine. The story begins in February with the sudden demolition of the old shrine, progresses through the new shrine’s construction in the spring, and ends with a first-hand account (complete with more photos and videos) of the May 31st, 2013 ceremony to welcome Tu Di Gong to his new home.
  • One of Katherine’s research topics at the Academia Sinica: namely, a baojuan (precious scroll) dating from 1855. It is, of course, easiest to just quote her explanation of her own object of study:

    Pan Gong Baojuan 潘公寶卷, presents Pan Zengyi, a philanthropist from the Jiangnan region who lived from 1792-1853, as a powerful deity. He appears in dreams after his death and warns residents of Nanjing of the disaster that awaits them in the imminent attack by Taiping armies.

    The scroll was first published in 1855. Pan Zengyi died two years before that, in 1853. The Taiping Rebellion took over Nanjing in March of the same year. The significance?

    When people told each other stories about Pan Gong appearing in their dreams, when they donated money for the printing and reprinting of this baojuan, the conclusion had not yet been written to the war – there was no guarantee that the Qing would regain control. There was no lens of official interpretation, but there was religion.

    Pretty interesting how quickly a mortal could be deified in 1800s China, and how rapidly religion can respond to current events.

History of the Earth Gods

In Taoism and the Arts of China, Stephen Little covers a wide array of topics relating to Daoism and its representation in Chinese art. One of the topics Little covers is the Earth Gods, or Tu Di Gong, discussed in this earlier post. Little writes that “their origins can be traced to the early gods of the soil (she), worshipped in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and earlier” (260).

Little quotes an extended passage from David Johnson’s 1985 article “The City God Cults of T’ang and Sung China,” which was originally published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies:

When the Zhou feudal order was replaced by the Qin-Han bureaucratic system, cities, towns, and villages continued to have she. These sacrifices were mandated by statute as part of the official religion. In county and prefectural capitals, the expenses of the cult were evidently borne by the government; in villages and hamlets, the inhabitants had to meet the costs themselves.

In Han times formal worship of the god of the soil in the county and prefectural cities thus was in the hands of the officials. The cult was thoroughly rationalized: the earth-god had long since been depersonalized and universalized, and was as featureless and abstract as the deities of the hills, rivers, thunder, rain, and other features of the natural world that received official sacrifice.

The open altar was made of earth and was extremely plain, with only a stone pillar, representing the god, and a tree to mark it. Sacrifices there were offered only twice a year, on days in the second and eight months fixed by statute. (260)

Notice that as in the previous post on Tu Di Gong, the god can be and was at times represented with a simple stone pillar, though statues of Tu Di Gong in human form are much more common these days. I’m not altogether sure what is meant by the “featureless” and “abstract” deities of other natural features, as many of them are ruled or presided over by anthropomorphic gods. Johnson also says that the altar was underneath a tree: the previous post contained a photograph of an altar with human-shaped Tu Di Gong and his family underneath a tree. Perhaps there is a connection?

I find it interesting that Johnson points out that while the cult of the City Gods especially was government-sponsored, in the smaller villages, the Earth God’s worship was carried out entirely by the villagers themselves. This, of course, continues to be the case. On the other hand, the sacrifices seem to have been much less frequent than the contemporary bimonthly offerings made in Taiwan (as discussed in the previous post).

Little notes that “the emergence of the cults of both City Gods and Earth Gods out of the traditional worship of the ancient god of the soil appears to have begun during the Six Dynasties period (420-489) and to have accelerated during the Tang dynasty (618-906)” (260). To see how far the cult of Tu Di Gong has come from the days of stone pillars, check out the following statue from Yilan, Taiwan:

Yilan, Taiwan

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a stone or two cannot represent the local land god perfectly well. And admittedly, the size of this statue is not exactly the norm anywhere.

Local Gods, Part 2

chinatown1894-1955 Chinatown. Photo taken c. 1900, temple wasn’t moved yet.

After the 1894 fire, there were two separate Chinatowns established: one was “located a hundred yards downstream” on an island, called the Midway, in the San Lorenzo River (281), and the other was on south Chestnut Street in the vicinity of Neary’s Lagoon. The group that moved to Midway was larger and “predominantly Christian” (433). From what I can see of maps and photographs (such as the one above), Midway did not remain an island when the river was low, but as stories attest, it was extremely vulnerable to flooding.

The Chee Kong Tong temple was rebuilt at the Chestnut Street Chinatown (434), which is now the location of apartment complexes. In 1905, the Southern Pacific Railroad bought twenty acres west of Chestnut with the intention of constructing a railyard. They demolished all of the Chinatown buildings, despite offers to buy the buildings intact by real estate developers, except for the Chee Kong Tong temple and headquarters which were disassembled and moved to the other Chinatown, which was located where the Galleria and Riverfront movie theater are today.

chinatown 2Chinatown, temple not in view. 1940s.

The temple was set up right next to the river on the eastern end of Chinatown, and it was oriented to face the river (or perhaps the direction East). Lydon describes the dedication celebration, at which over 50 Tong members participated, quoting from the Surf, the arch-rival of the Sentinel:

Each brought his offering of punks and Chinese candles and then kow towed before the joss with burning punk in hand, offered his libation of wine, pouring it on the floor, while bowing, and then burned his lucky paper representing cash, while outside firecrackers were discharged. (437-8)

Lydon goes on to summarize other features of the dedication celebration:

Two roast pigs were laid on the altar, and the air was filled with incense smoke. A large banquet followed […] The place of honor on the altar was occupied by an image of Kuan Kung [Guan Gong], and he was surrounded by “red banners, and tablets of green.” (438)

As the 1900s progressed, the Chinese population of Santa Cruz dwindled. With the decline in population, the temple was increasingly neglected as well. In 1930, the Sentinel reported on sad state of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, usually the high point of the year:

The Chee Kong Tong joss house is practically deserted. Several of the old timer visit to worship, but none of the younger men are seen there . . . The [private] dinners are as elaborate as ever, but with none of the old time music of drum, cymbal and gong. The Santa Cruz orchestra was always a three piece affair. The instruments are in the joss house, but untouched. No stores have the elaborate shrines in the front room with silk hangings, large banners and the many Chinese lillies [anymore]. (442)

The temple figures in one last story: Chinatown was prone to flooding, and “residents […] usually responded to floods by moving their belongings upstairs to the second story. In 1940 three elderly residents were rescued from the balcony of the temple” (443). The temple was dismantled in 1950. The last Chinese family, the Lees, left after the Christmas flood of 1955 and the remaining buildings were demolished shortly thereafter.

1955 flood

Tu Di Gong

So, we’ve established that Guan Gong was the major deity of the Chinese population in Santa Cruz in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then there is the question of local gods. For most places in China, this would be a simple question: the local Tu Di Gong serves precisely that function. “Tu di” (土地) means “earth,” while “gong” (公) means “duke” or “official” and is a common title for deities (such as Guan Gong).

According to Christopher A. Hall in his article “Tudi Gong in Taiwan, Tu Di Gong can be depicted in diverse forms, from ornate figurines to simple stones:

Tudi Gong shrines can range from small, informal stone boxes standing alone in fields or near sidewalks, to stalls in temples dedicated to other gods, to grand temples specifcally for Tudi Gong on the scale of those for more powerful gods. Typically the most humble shrine contains a picture, calligraphy of Tudi Gong’s name, or a small stone statuette and an incense pot.

Near a gravesite the shrine may be as simple as a stone with the characters for Houtu carved into it. But often the Houtu stone is more elaborate: intricately carved, perhaps, with paint and other pigments applied. (107)

tudigong statueUnder tree, Tian Hou Temple, Shenzhen

Hall writes that the moniker “Tu Di Gong” can be thought of as “an appointed position represented by a different individual from place to place and time to time,” often filled by “a person who, in life, was a good person” (97). The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has a slightly different characterization of Tu Di Gong:

According to the Government Information Office (2008), Tudi Gong is “a single deity in essence” who “nevertheless has myriad spirit avatars whose mission is to look after local tracts of land and the people on them.” (100)

Fascinatingly, though many Taiwanese believe in the theory that Tu Di Gong is a position filled by mortals who have attained apotheosis, the individual identity of the local Tu Di Gong is not actually known:

a story of a historical man should lie behind each Tudi Gong. I was told that there is; but I was also told that no one knows the stories. When asked, “Who is this Tudi Gong?”—with the understanding of the metaphor [of an imperial position being filled], my respondents all said that they did not know. (110)

Hall recorded a singular instance, filtered through several layers of hearsay, where the identity of a new Tu Di Gong was revealed:

a Tudi Gong had come to a person […] in a dream. The Tudi Gong told the dreamer that he, the Tudi Gong, had been promoted. The Tudi Gong informed the dreaming man that the community needed to begin worshipping such-and-such a person as the new Tudi Gong of that place. That was the extent of the story. According to my informant, the [storyteller] remembered neither where this oneiric event took place nor who the old and new Tudi Gongs were. (110)

The area of responsibility of a specific Tu Di Gong can be quite small: according to some of the Taiwanese Hall interviewed, “Even if one is across the street from another, the two will be different Tudi Gongs” (111). Hall reported the burning of incense to Tu Di Gong to be bimonthly, occurring on “the first and fifteenth for most but the second and sixteenth for merchants” (104).

tudigong stone circleNext to grave near Meilin Park, Shenzhen

Tu Di Gong in the Monterey Bay Area

The rest of Hall’s article is a worthwhile read. We turn now, though, to evidence of Tu Di Gong’s worship in Central California. Sandy Lydon writes that an annual celebration was held in Tu Di Gong’s honor on the second day of the second lunar month at the Point Alones fishing village on the Monterey peninsula: ” Beginning in 1894, and each year thereafter until 1906, Chinese, like pilgrims to Mecca, came from throughout the Monterey Bay Region […] to participate” (322).

The highlight of the festival was a Chinese custom that came to be known as the Ring Game, wherein a ring of woven bamboo was projected into the air by a giant firecracker, and the participants (divided into teams by town of origin) would scramble to capture the ring. The man that succeeded in winning the game “brought luck to himself and honor to his teammates” for the rest of the year (323).

The game had its perils as well: “In 1899 one of the bombs exploded prematurely, injuring the eye of the ordnance expert, and in 1900 one Chinese participant died from injuries suffered during the scramble ” (326). Regardless of danger, the festival was a major event:

The contests […] in 1899 and 1900 attracted the largest crowds, with Chinese delegations coming from San Jose, Gilroy, Salinas, Watsonville, and Santa Cruz. The expense […] in 1899 was estimated in excess of five thousand dollars [that’s 1899 dollars!] and the hundreds of Chinese participants were observed by over two thousand white onlookers. (326-7).

White onlookers tend to cause problems: “The games were often interrupted by whites who insisted upon joining the scramble” (326). Whites often vandalized personal property in the village (345-6), and invaded privacy to the point where a group trying to spy on a family eating a meal moved from window to window until all of the curtains were drawn! Lydon writes:

A witness correctly observed that, to the onlookers, the desire of the Chinese family to eat in private “was of no consequence–they were only ‘heathen Chinese.'” (346)

Beginning in 1898, the participants embarked on a mile-long parade from the Monterey train depot to Point Alones. In 1899, the Watsonville parade delegation was two hundred strong and included lion dancers, the altar from Watsonville’s Chee Kong Tong temple, men carrying spears and pikes, costumed women on horseback, and more. Lydon writes:

Appropriately, the Watsonville delegation again won most of the rings that day. Apparently, T’u Ti [Tu Di Gong] was impressed with all the preparations that the Watsonville Chinese had undertaken in his honor.” (329)

The Point Alones village burned in 1906, after which the celebration was moved to the McAbee Beach Chinatown next to Cannery Row. However, after the move “it lost momentum, and the final Ring Game was played in the 1920s” (329).

Clearly, Tu Di Gong had a presence in this area, and a pretty big one as well!

Here is another altar without anthropomorphic representation:

tudigong tablets and stonesTablet with two stones,
Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong

Sources: Hall, Christopher A. “Tudi Gong in Taiwan.” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 2009: 97-112. Web.

Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola: Capitola Book Company, 1985.

Image Credits: The c.1900 photograph is in UCSC Special Collections and reprinted in various places. The scan used here is from Bratton Online even though the information below it is incorrect: it had the best contrast.

The 1940s photograph is by George Lee, retrieved from Santa Cruz Patch.

Photographs of Tu Di altars are by the Temple Guy. Note the different forms the altars take. Here’s one more:

tudigong stone platform

Stone platform, Hong Kong. There are two stones in the back.