Ji Tong – Taiwanese Spirit Mediums

Ji Tong 乩童 (aka Tong Ji 童乩 or Tang-ki in Taiwanese), is a rarely seen event of old Taiwanese religious belief.  It’s a type of shamanism, where the “spirit-medium” human is possessed by the spirit of a god.  After doing so, the god can live for a short while in the body of the medium to prove his existence or even answer questions to the benefit of believers. The more visually interesting aspect of Ji Tong is when the gods take possession at a temple festival.  That’s when the spirit-medium often starts self-flagellating himself with spiked bats, swords, and other medieval pain and blood inflicting devices.

Everyone I’ve talked to about this, has had very little information for me.  It seems that many Taiwanese don’t believe it, and even fewer know anything about it.  Even inquiring about it at local temples, people don’t know much, and never seem to know when the next event will happen.  So, finding a ceremony with people practicing Ji Tong just seems to be something you have to be lucky to find.  This was the first time I’ve seen it in over 8 years of living in Taiwan.

Taiwan Taoist Ji Tong Religious Event 004

This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan. The blood on his back is from repeated blows from various sharp weapons.

Ji Tong is made up of two symbols that explain the meaning well.  The symbol “tong” (童) stands for child, as the spirit-medium is like an innocent child who’s soul is being replaced by that of a god or ghost for a short while.  The symbol “Ji” (乩) stands for “asking questions through divination”.

There are two types of Ji Tong.  The more spectacular is when a spirit-medium, usually a man, is possessed at a temple event and proves his divinity in a bloody spectacle.  These events often happen on the god’s birthdays and can incorporate using an number of sharp, spiky weapons to hit one’s back or forehead.  The spirit-mediums reportedly feel no pain as they do this, and often only report some soreness afterwords.

I had the opportunity to take some photos at one of these events that I randomly walked by on a visit to Tainan.  It seems that on this special occasion, the spirit idols (literally small idols that are said to hold the spirits of local gods) were touring the country and were about to make a stop in this small temple in a back street of Tainan.  Apparently, even the gods need vacations, and will occasionally go on tours of their friends’ temples every couple of years.  Some of these idols are hundreds of years old and are highly regarded by believers.  While this event had two men performing Ji Tong, the majority of the rituals and performances were from other aspects of Taiwanese Daoism, pretty much all of which I can’t explain.

Taoist Temple Event:

Taiwan Taoist Religious Event 015

A dancer with a painted tiger face, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, dances at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taiwan Taoist Religious Event 012

A dancer, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, dances at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taiwan Taoist Religious Dancer

A dancer, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, dances at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taoist Dancers

Two dancers, said to be possessed by the spirit of Taoist Gods, dance at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

A dancer, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, dances at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taiwan Taoist Religious Event 011

An idol from a local temple is danced at another temple’s Taoist ceremony.

A dancer with the painted face of a Taoist God, said to be possessed by the spirit of that God, dances at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Ghost money is burned at a Taoist religious event in Tainan, Taiwan.

I’m not really sure what the horse was doing there, but you don’t often see horses in Taiwan, so that’s cool.

Taoist Idol

This Taoist idol is on a sort-of vacation from its usual temple home. Occasionally, the local gods that are said to inhabit the idols go on a tour of their friend gods’ temples.

All of the small idols were transported in and out of the small Taoist temple in Tainan, but being carried over the joss incense burner in the front.

Strippers at religious event in Taiwan

One of the oddities of religious events in Taiwan is the appearance of exotic dancers. Whether it’s a wedding, funeral, or religious festival, pole dancers are often part of the event.

Ji Tong 乩童:

Tongji Self-Flagellation in Taiwan

This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taiwan Ji Tong Self Flagellation

This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates using a spiked sword at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

Taiwan Tong Ji Self-Flagellation

This man is performing a Ji Tong ritual. The spirit-medium, said to be possessed by the spirit of a Taoist God, self-flagellates at a religious ceremony in Tainan, Taiwan.

The second form of Ji Tong might be better described as a séance.  At one of these events the spirit-medium, more often a woman, can be possessed by any number of gods or ghosts in order to help the living.  The mediums often have a specific god that speaks through them, but often they can communicate with different gods or even the ghosts of old doctors to help people.  Either in special rooms in the temple, or at private shrines in the homes of the devotees, common people can ask the gods for cures to their physical ails, relationship advice, or often financial advice.  The Gods will answer the questions through the medium, which often needs to be translated by an assistant.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos from one of these séances, but as my interest in this subject has been peaked, I’m going to be looking harder for all of the interesting aspects of Ji Tong for many years to come.  As I find more information, I’ll post updates.  If you have any information about Ji Tong or a Ji Tong event happening, please let me know in the comment section!!

Thanks for reading,
-Neil

More Information on Ji Tong:

I highly recommend you have a look at Taiwanese-Secrets page about Ji Tong, as he has some really gruesome pictures at a Ji Tong event!

Also, I found most of my information about Ji Tong at the following websites:

The Encyclopedia of Taiwan (Tong Ji)

The Encyclopedia of Taiwan (Tangki)

The New York Times

A scholarly essay, by Shin-Yi Chao

Michael Turton also has an article

One more excellent article

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Categories: PHOTOGRAPHY, TAIWAN | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Ji Tong – Taiwanese Spirit Mediums

  1. interesting but very scary….

  2. C

    Hey buddy, great post and great pics.

    Having just read this, I think I now know what i walked across (also in Tainan) when i was there in February this year. I was with a Taiwanese friend and we walked by a temple. with a large gathering of people. We both walked in, and this woman was standing out the front speaking – in a language which sometimes sounded like Mandarin, sometimes Taiwanese, and othertimes incomprehensible to me – what was interesting was the tone in which she spoke. We watched for about 10 mins. then left. Even my friend didn’t know what it was but she asked someone there and said it was something to do with the Gods!

    • rick

      The language she spoke will sound like japanese but it’s not. They call it “天語”, or heaven/sky language…the language of the god.

  3. Bob Bruno

    Neil, I was living in Taiwan back in the mid ’80s in Mucha. Mucha was where the National Zoo (now moved), Chengchi University, and Chi Nan Temple were. I happened on the Ji Tong late one night in my neighborhood. This wasn’t what your pictures show, there were no costumes or makeup or anything like that. Very bare bones (almost literally), with threadbare clothing (No tops for the men) and worn equipment. I was married to a lady from Taiwan at the time and she explained it all to me. She told me that sometimes they Ji Tong men target pretty young women and, if the woman is a believer, tells them that the god wants to have sex with them. Only saw it that once, and since then I haven’t found but a few folks from Taiwan and China who have even heard of Ji Tong, much less seen them. Fascinating. Love your photos!

  4. I was very lucky and could make a video at Hualien:

    Your post is very interesting! Now I understand more about Taiwanese culture.

  5. AM

    Hey, happy we came across your blog. I also live in Taiwan and today my husband and I saw a ceremony with people laying on the ground in a line and a Shaman passing over them with a tree branch and incense. Have you seen anything like that before? We’ve lived here several years and it was our first time to see it. Can’t find out from online what it was either. :(

    • Hello, Sorry, but I don’t know anything about that one. It sounds a lot like during the Matzu Pilgrimage, when people lay in the street for Matzu to pass over them… But other than that, I have no idea! Thanks for the comment! -Neil

  6. Pingback: Hemei Daodong Academy 和美道東書院 - Synapticism

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