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1.2 Buddhist, Daoist, or Capitalist?

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Last Update: 9 December 2008


1.2.1 Introduction
1.2.2 Video Clips
1.Outer Hall, Musicians, Acrobats
2. Side Room, Rear Hall, and Senior Ritual Master
3.Brass Band and Beauties
4. Paying Final Respects
5. String-Cutting and Coffin Sealing
6. Funeral Procession
7.Doing the Merit Fruit
8. Burning Mock Money for the Deceased
9. Sutra Chanting and Other Rituals
10.Burning the Soul Residence
1.2.3 Comments on the Ritual Masters

A ritual master exhorting postmortem servants of the deceased to behave well. Photo by Douglas Gildow (25 March 2006).

1.2.1 Introduction
On 24–25 March 2006 Liyu Wang and I photographed and filmed funerary rituals held for a deceased woman who had married into the well-to-do Tēⁿ 鄭 lineage of south Taipei, Taiwan. (People familiar with Taipei may have seen their ancestral shrine hall, located behind the McDonald’s across the street from Zhengzhi University 政治大學.)
          Most of the activities were held in or in front of a temporary funeral hall (
lêng-tn̂g 靈堂) that was erected next to the family residence of the deceased’s eldest son. The hall was partitioned into two spaces. The smaller area in back had a high density of hanging Buddhist religious imagery and a small altar space, whereas the larger area in front contained a large altar with flowers and a photograph of the deceased, with Buddhist imagery above and behind the altar. To the front of this altar was the space where acrobats, ritual actors, a brass band, family members, local politicians, funerary musicians, and ritual masters performed for two days and nights.
          The activities began in the afternoon of the March 24 with rituals and performances by musicians and acrobats and ended late in the evening of March 25 with snacks for anyone who had attended. Many of these rituals, whether they were more serious (i.e., important for the well being of the deceased and her descendants) or lighthearted and entertaining, were filled with symbolic ritual objects, words, music, and movements.
          Below, I will not even begin to describe, much less interpret, most of the rituals. Nor, for now, will I locate these rituals in their historical, social, economic, political, or other contexts. Instead I provide brief, captioned video clips of select events, focusing on those in which the most important (i.e., most prestigious, ritually powerful, and highly paid) of the funerary specialists, namely the ritual masters (hoat-su 法師), participate. Following these clips, I describe and comment on the ritual masters in terms of their (largely unrecognized) Buddhist self-identity.
          Since the sponsors and funeral specialists spoke almost exclusively in Taiwanese, many terms in this section are romanized in Taiwanese. I use the Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) system, also known as Church Romanization, which has been the most widespread system since it was invented in the 1860s. POJ words are in italic script with tones displayed, whereas Pinyin romanization is in roman script and lacks tonal marks.


1.2.2 Video Clips

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Clip One: Outer Hall, Musicians, Acrobats
Time: Afternoon, 24 March 2006
Location: Muzha, Wenshan District, Taipei, Taiwan


Musicians, dancers, and acrobats perform and lead rituals for family members, who are dressed in mourning clothes. The switch of bamboo with attached ribbons is called a “spirit banner” (sîn-hoan 神旛) and is used throughout mortuary rituals to beckon and direct the souls (Taiwanese often understand people to have multiple souls) of the deceased. Through an auspicious toss of divination blocks, a son and grandson determine that the deceased agrees to provide protection for them if she is pleased with the various rituals and offerings, such as the paper “soul residence,” which will be given to her over the next two days.
        [For more on divination blocks (poe 桮) , see JordanPoe1 and JordanPoe2. For more on Taiwanese concepts of the soul(s), see Harrell, Stevan. 1979. “The Concept of the Soul in Chinese Folk Religion.” Journal of Asian Studies 38: 519-528.]

Clip Two: Side Room, Rear Hall, and Senior Ritual Master


First we see three important ritual implements stored in the main hall of the residence next to the temporary funeral hall, namely a “spirit-host tablet” (sîn-chú-pâi 神主牌), a vertical tablet of paper with the deceased’s name and other information inscribed; a “cloudsoul body” (hûn-sin 魂身), a small paper effigy of the deceased that, like the spirit tablet, also hosts one of her souls at times; and a “soul residence” (lêng-chhù 靈厝), a paper model of a large house for the deceased in the afterlife. Also in this main hall, which from the perspective of the funeral hall appears to be a side room, outside of view, is the deceased’s sealed coffin.
        Next, we see the senior ritual master, who changes into yellow robes, and his assistants, who change into purple robes. They perform rituals in the smaller rear hall, which is adorned with hanging scrolls depicting the following deities: three Buddhas, two bodhisattvas, two Buddhist guardian deities, and the ten kings of purgatory.

more video clips 2   3