A photo essay about shamanism and spirit possession on Formosa
WARNING: This page is about Ji-Tong (Dan-ki in Taiwanese): an ancient Chinese ritual that is performed in Taiwan. Most people find this traditional Chinese practice disturbing because it involves self-flagellation – in this case, people hitting themselves with ferocious-looking weapons, or piercing their bodies with long needles. You can see these images full-screen in this Dangki Gallery.
If you don’t like to see blood, you might want to return to the homepage. If you’re interested in learning more about this intriguing, ancient Chinese ritual, read on and take a look at some of the pictures I’ve taken about this crazy religious ceremony.
I know nothing about this Chinese ritual
I do not claim to know the meaning or significance of this ancient Chinese ritual. Over the years I’ve asked lots of people about Ji-Tong: Why do they hit themselves on the head? Why are the people who practice these strange ceremonies so young? What are the origins of Ji-Tong? Do you think it hurts? Are they drunk? Are they really possessed? Is this kind of religious ceremony still practiced in China? Is it a Taoist ritual? What the fuck is wrong with these guys?
Taiwanese are clueless too!
In 10 years, I’ve only gotten the vaguest answers. The truth is that most Taiwanese people simply don’t know anything about Ji-Tong. Some of them think this kind of archaic practice should be illegal in Taiwan.
Bloody Chinese Spirit Possession
Many even say that these bloody spirit possession rituals have no place in a modern, educated, urban society like Taiwan. I don’t know about that. As a traveler, I find these sights very fascinating, and as a photographer, I think they make excellent subjects!
Where can you see ancient Chinese rituals in Taiwan?
It is possible to witness this kind of traditional Chinese religious rituals anywhere in Taiwan, in cities as well as in small villages in the countryside.
I once came across a spirit possession ceremony right on the sidewalk, next to a Starbucks coffee shop on a busy avenue in the middle of the afternoon in Taichung, but the best place to see these crazy ancient Chinese rituals is undoubtedly at temples.
Lugang and Tainan are two Taiwanese destinations especially famous for ancient Chinese culture, old temples, and traditional religious practices, so you might want to travel to these two cities if you want to see the bloody spectacle.
When can I see these ancient Chinese rituals?
That’s the toughest part… Being at the right place at the right time is almost impossible. I once went to a Taoist temple next to my house in Taichung to ask the people there when the next ceremony was scheduled. They said they didn’t know. They told me that this kind of spiritual communication ritual usually happens on Chinese gods’ birthdays.
One man told me: “Give me your phone number. Next time we have Ji-Tong I will call you. Bring your American friends. You can take pictures, no problem. We’ll have fun – fire crackers, rice wine, beetle nuts… Just bring your American friends!” I gave the guy my cellphone number, but he never called back.
I even checked the lunar calendar and went back at the next Chinese deity’s birthday, but nothing was happening. There was only the usual sight of people burning incense and ghost money on the temple’s courtyard. No crazy ritual, no celebration with people beating themselves with swords or hammers.
But then, few weeks later, as I was riding back home from work, I heard the chaotic sound of drums, trumpets and firecrackers coming from a small alley. I followed the music and it took me in front of a little temple where about 30 Taiwanese people were standing in a circle.
In the middle was a man who seemed lost in a trance. He was doing a weird dance with an axe in one hand over a small fire that had been made with ghost money.
Another man who was standing next to me nonchalantly threw some firecrackers in front of everyone. People ran in all directions, hands on their ears, screaming. I grabbed my camera, and started to dance with the guy, by his little fire. I was looking at the scene through my viewfinder only, and this is what I saw…
As soon as the man saw me dancing with him, he started to hit himself on the head with his axe. He hit his head again and again and again and again until blood was covering his face and dripping on his chest.
I could feel that I had become a part of the “show”. Having a tourist, a foreigner taking pictures of him was pushing him to hit himself harder, faster, and to make bigger gestures.
If you look carefully at the above picture, you will see that not only adults were watching this Chinese ritual… THERE WERE EVEN KIDS!
It was a truly horrible, fascinating scene. I couldn’t believe that this was happening in front of my eyes. I had seen many traditional Chinese rituals before, but that one was quite something! When the man was done with the hitting and the dancing, his entire upper-body was covered in blood, and I could tell that he was starting to feel dizzy.
Some of his friends were there, too. One was obviously completely drunk, another one was standing beside me, his mouth full of beetle nuts, just observing me taking pictures. As I stopped to change my memory card, he asked me: “Have you eaten yet?” the Taiwanese way to salute someone.
After a minute or two, the main performer (yes, that would be the guy in red) started jumping around as if he was really possessed by some Chinese demons, and went straight to the big censer in front of the temple. He raised both arms up in the air, screamed at the top of his lungs as if he had just hit his small toe against a wall, and plunged both his arms deeply in the ashes of the censer.
He then started to walk around like some sort of weird, creepy creature that seemed to have come out straight from a nightmare you’d want to forget.
As I stood there, in front of him, pressing the shutter of my Canon, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped up, surprised and a bit scared. The Taiwanese man who had just asked me if I had eaten handed me a bowl of steaming white rice in a small, pink plastic bowl with a pair of wooden chopsticks and he told me with a Beijing accent “man, man chi” (eat slowly).
Taiwan is the only place in the world where you can see this kind of stuff. I say it all the time and people don’t believe me. Taiwan is the only place in the world where you can see real, genuine, ancient Chinese rituals like that.
About 2 seconds after I took the last picture, the guy gave me a big, warm, wet hug.
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