Spirit mediums are a fascinating area of study for me and I was very excited when I heard this book had been published in 2006 about Chinese spirit mediums in Penang, Malaysia. I have to say I found it to be quite disappointing. The biggest problem with it was that it seemed to be a book that was written 25 years ago, and only recently published. The author had done the majority of her field work in 79 and 80 and didn't attempt to look in any way at how things could possibly have changed in the past 25 years. Likewise she didn't include any new theories or studies of Chinese religion or anthropology. Most of her quotes were pre-1980 and he most quoted resource was De Groot who wrote during the 19th century. (While I enjoy DeGroot as a resource for interesting stories about late imperial Chinese religion he makes no secret of the fact that it his goal to prove that Chinese religion is simply primitive animism and is therefore not considered the most accurate theorist by modern scholars).

To me this book really paled in comparison with Eric Muggler's The Age of Wild Ghosts http://www.amazon.co.uk/Age-Wild-Ghosts-Violence-Southwest/dp/0520226313/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1232052446&sr=8-1 which looked at religion and placed it in a very interesting and insightful cultural context. Here she didn't look at all on the marginalization of the spirit mediums, or the Chinese, mainly Hokkien speakers living in Malaysia and that this could effect them in some way. I felt that there were many things that could have been addressed in this book and were swept aside, for instance the political anti-colonial message against the British given by the spirit medium she just took as a reason why people wouldn't like her, and not as an interesting post-colonial religious response. Of course post-colonial feminism when done to the other extreme can be just as annoying (see Mary Keller's The hammer and the flute for the alternate example http://robot-mel.livejournal.com/78423.html), but I felt that there really wasn't anything particular to the time or the place in this book.

It was interesting to see the examples and photographs of mediums. The second half of the book consisted of conversations she had with possessed mediums (or the gods) and this was quite interesting to read. (And the largest reason why I was actually able to finish the book and not give up). But even this part was slightly disappointing in that the woman spirit medium told lots of stories of Chinese legends and mythology which were interesting, but then the author added that the woman really wanted to talk more and more about ghost stories which the author wasn't interested in. (Which I would have found to be the most interesting part of all.

Throughout the book there seemed to almost be a condescending view of Chinese popular religion. The word Shen 神 which in every other book on Chinese religion I've read has been translated as God or Divine she translated as "saint" because the Chinese gods mostly started off as human and then became divine she didn't think they qualified as the proper western idea of gods. She also quoted someone who said that Chinese gods and goddesses were not as developed as those of Greece or Rome. Clearly I have issue with this and think it's blatantly untrue and reeks a bit too much of "western cultural imperialism".

This book might be interesting for someone who doesn't know much about Chinese religion, and is wanting to have a first look at the way the mediums operate and what they do, and what people request from them. But I'm not sure if it'd be good for that either. She makes no real connection between the mediums and religion, or even other mediums in Taiwan or the mainland.

All in all I was quite disappointed. It had some interesting accounts and I don't regret finishing it, but I am very glad I got it from the library as I don't think I'll be needing it as a reference book!


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