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Review article The political economy of twenty-first century Thai supernaturalism

Comparative perspectives on cross-genderism and limits to hybridity in resurgent Thai spirit mediumship Peter A. Jackson
Author details: Peter A. Jackson is Professor of Thai Cultural Studies in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia. E-mail:

Pattana Kitiarsa, Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2012, 165 pp. Deborah Wong, Sounding the Centre: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, and London, 2001, 348 pp, with music CD. Jean DeBernardi, The Way that Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia, NUS Press, Singapore, 2012, 372 pp. Bernard Formoso, De Jiao A Religious Movement in Contemporary China and Overseas: Purple Qi from the East, NUS Press, Singapore, 2010, 259 pp.

The resurgence in recent decades of spirit mediumship in Thailand, and indeed across South East Asia, post-socialist China and the Russian Far East, provides a productive site from which to explore a range of intersecting topics in transnational cultural studies and comparative South East Asian studies. Transnationally, resurgent Asian spirit mediumship is a signal example of the re-enchantment of the postmodern world (Comaroff, 1994) and the failure of twentieth century theories of modernist secularization to envision the continuing vitality of religious innovation (Roberts, 1995). As Jean DeBernardi states, Far from being a living fossil from the archaic past, spirit mediumship and shamanism worldwide are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with modernity (DeBernardi, 2012, p 14), adding that because of the Western tendency to equate modernity with secularism, few scholars have regarded ritual as a form of modernity (DeBernardi, 2004, p 5). In South East Asian studies, spirit mediumship is an iconic example of cultural, religious and linguistic syncretism, and reflects cross-regional themes, such as the presence of transgender ritual specialists, which many comparative scholars have noted bridge the tremendous diversity of the region (for example, Peletz, 2006, 2009).
South East Asia Research, 20, 4, pp 611622 doi: 10.5367/sear.2012.0128


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I consider here two studies that make major contributions to understanding the forces underpinning the resurgence of spirit mediumship in Thailand. Pattana Kitiarsas Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today advances significant theoretical innovations in spirit medium research and in our understanding of the intensely hybrid character of popular religion in Thailand. Pattana criticizes syncretist models of Thai religion for failing to grasp the dynamics of highly commodified and mediatized forms of supernaturalism, arguing that theories of cultural hybridity provide a more productive analytical lens. I also review Deborah Wongs Sounding the Centre: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. While published over a decade ago, Wongs meticulously researched and lucidly written book has not received its due recognition in studies of Thai religiosity. Perhaps because it was published in the Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology series, scholars of Thai religion have mistakenly thought it had nothing to offer their field. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wongs account of wai khru [honouring the teacher/guru] initiation rituals in schools of classical Thai music and dance-drama reveals the central role of the state and the monarchy in the revival of forms of Brahmanical spirit mediumship. In reading Pattana and Wong, I focus on what their respective studies tell us about factors that lie behind the post-Cold War resurgence of supernatural religiosity at the edges and outside the institution of the Thai Buddhist sangha (cf Jackson, 1997, 1999). In the second part of this essay, I take a comparative approach, drawing on Jean DeBernardis The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia and Bernard Formosos multi-country study De Jiao A Religious Movement in Contemporary China and Overseas: Purple Qi from the East to reflect on two major gaps in Pattana and Wongs books, and in Thai spirit mediumship studies generally: namely, the central place of crossgenderism and the very real limits to cultural hybridity that mark the borders of Thai spirit mediumships otherwise eclectic syncretism. While the highly gendered character of Thai spirit mediumship is given prominence in almost all studies, the almost universally reported cross-gender dimensions of mediumship are largely relegated to footnotes. And while spirit mediumship is widely eulogized as a site of intense religious and cultural syncretism, the literature has rarely considered what phenomena may resist incorporation within, or be unassimilable to, this ostensibly omnivorous religio-cultural phenomenon. This essay focuses on only a small selection of the expanding corpus of studies of resurgent South East Asian spirit mediumship to reflect on what they do and do not tell us about twentyfirst century Thailands changing religious landscapes and rapidly growing spiritual marketplaces.

Capitalism as engine of postmodern Asian supernaturalism

Most spirit mediumship studies take a single country or even a single movement as their focus. But a comparative, regional approach is especially revealing. One of the most important results of a comparative perspective in understanding the post-Cold War resurgence of Asian spirit mediumship is that it has occurred with equal intensity in formerly American-aligned capitalist societies such as Thailand and in ostensibly socialist countries such as Vietnam and China. The differing

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political complexions of post-Cold War Asian societies have proved to be irrelevant to the resurgence of supernatural belief and ritual, with spirit mediumship flourishing under twenty-first century versions of both market-oriented socialism and neo-liberal capitalism. In the twentieth century, ostensibly competing political discourses of socialist and capitalist rational modernity in Vietnam and Thailand respectively both critiqued spirit mediumship with equal ferocity as a superstitious residue of pre-modern tradition that held each country back from achieving the desired transition to scientific (socialist or capitalist) modernity. Both countries governments instituted remarkably similar anti-supernaturalism policies across the middle decades of the twentieth century, and, despite continuing political differences, mediumship has been resurgent in both Thailand and Vietnam, as well as in neighbouring countries in parallel over the period of neo-liberal globalization. (For studies on resurgent Vietnamese spirit mediumship, see Taylor (2004), Endres (2011) and Fjelstad and Nguyen (2011)). Since the 1980s, the Thai and Vietnamese governments have both relaxed central controls over popular religion and placed more emphasis on market-based, export-led economic growth. To some extent, the same has been true of China, where some forms of folk religion have also been tolerated since the transition to market-based socialism (see Yang, 2008). This comparative perspective reveals clearly the central and highly productive role of capitalism in religious resurgence across Asia.

From syncretism to hybridity

Pattana Kitiarsas Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today synthesizes the results of his two decades of research on Thai popular religion. Pattana sees popular Buddhism as emerging from the interplay of animism, supernaturalism, folk Brahmanism, the worship of Chinese deities, and state-sponsored Theravada Buddhism and reflecting a convergence of the spaces of religion, capitalist economy and consumer society (Pattana, 2012, p 2). Pattana explores novel religious forms that not only draw on the supernatural to help followers (I suggest devotee-customers is a more apt term) take advantage of, and avoid risks associated with, the market economy, but whose very emergence is dependent upon both the market and mass media. He cites as a signal example the emergence of the cult of the spirit of the late Thai luk-thung genre singer, Phumphuang Duangchan, who died of an autoimmune disorder in 1992 at the height of her popularity. The monastery in Suphanburi province west of Bangkok where she was cremated became a site of pilgrimage after the Thai press published tales of her spirits reputed power to provide winning numbers in the national lottery. Pattana criticizes what he calls the syncretist paradigm of popular Thai religion for placing institutional Theravada Buddhism in a rigidly paramount position and viewing Buddhism, Brahmanism and animism as isolated and static rather than being in constantly dynamic relations. He also criticizes Kirsch (1977) for what has proved to be a misguided prophecy that Thai religion would be progressively Buddhified with the advance of modernity, and prefers to describe Thai religion as hybrid, in Bakhtins sense of the mixing of various languages within the boundaries of a single dialect and which gives birth to the new forms of amalgamation (Pattana, 2012, p 15). Pattanas account adds to other deployments


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of theories of cultural hybridity in Thai cultural studies (Harrison, 2010, p 22 ff) and cultural history (Jackson, 2010, p 187 ff). While he sees hybridization as having been present in South East Asian religions throughout history, Pattana argues that the dynamism of Thai popular religion today is different in scale and complexity, with the religious syncretism model having been outdated by a fast track, cut-and-paste, postmodernizing reality within contemporary Thai society (Pattana, 2012, p 34). From his critique of the empiricist notion of syncretism, Pattana proceeds to erase the artificial categorical divide between Buddhism and mediumship that besets scholarship which draws on Eurocentric notions of religion as necessarily based upon doctrine or scripture. Taking practice rather than scripture as his starting point, Pattana describes magic monks [keji ajan] and spirit mediums [rang song, khon song] as both representing forms of mediumship. While the vinaya or monastic code of practice technically proscribes Buddhist monks from engaging in mediumship, Pattana describes some Thai magic monks as practising a modified form of mediumship in which they invite an ong tham, which Pattana describes as a dhammic calling or superagency, to guide their actions, Every magic monk needs a superagency. a powerful god, goddess, or other deity, who owns and exercises his or her agency through a human mouthpiece or medium with communicative capability and ritual expertise (Pattana, 2012, p 41). Pattana describes magic monks, such as Luang Phor Khun (see also Jackson, 1999b), as postmodern mediums, which he defines as those who mediate between otherwise separated, unexpressed facts and social relations in postmodern society, Both Luang Phor Khun and urban spirit mediums provide mediumship, performing relatively similar functions, albeit in different religious establishments and on different social scales. (Pattana, 2012, p 107) Pattana studies Thai magical Buddhism and mediumship as complementary forms and components of a single hybrid religious complex, overcoming the divide between research on Buddhism, which typically focuses on men, and studies of spirit mediumship, which often focus on women.

Royalist Brahmanical supernaturalism

While Pattana emphasizes the roles of the market and new print and electronic media in the proliferation of spirit medium cults, Deborah Wongs study of the wai khru ritual reveals that the state and monarchy have also contributed to the resurgence of supernaturalism in Thailand. Wongs detailed ethnography and engagement with critical theory provide rich potential for further analyses of the performative basis of political power in modern Thailand (see Jackson, 2004). Drawing on Geertzs account of the South East Asian theatre state, Wong emphasizes that Thai court music and dance-drama have much more than mere entertainment value, remaining intimately related to the expression of royal power and authority. Through studying the spirit mediumship at the heart of wai khru initiations, she details how ritual invocation of the auratic power [barami] of Brahmanical deities and the spirits of Thai kings remains central to the performative basis of Thai royal influence today. The wai khru is a ritual honoring of teachers of music and dance [that] transfers the spiritual power of the first, primordial teacher to present-day per-

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formers (Wong, 2001, p xvii). All classically trained musicians and dancers must be initiated by a master teacher before they can actualize the sacred with their bodies and produce the sound and movement that manifest the divine in the human realm (Wong, 2001, p xvii). Wong, herself trained in and initiated into Thai classical music, focuses analysis on the figure of the primordial teacher, or khru, a term derived from the Sanskrit guru and also called the Old Father [phor kae], who is invoked in ritual initiation into all Thai classical performance traditions. As Wong emphasizes, in esoteric teachings the Old Father or first teacher of Thai royal-sponsored orchestral music [piphat] and dance-drama [khon] is identified with the deity Phra Isuan (Ishvara in Sanskrit), another name for Shiva. The Old Father or Shiva is believed to descend into the body of the initiating teacher or khru, who is then a medium for the ritual transfer of the specialist knowledge and charismatic power of the primordial divine guru. While some Thai music and dance-drama teachers distinguish between mediumship and the invocation of the Old Father in wai khru rituals, Wong observes that from a phenomenological perspective there is little to differentiate the two. Despite the long history of critiques of spirit mediumship by both absolute monarchs and modernizing, post-revolutionary governments in Thailand, Wong details the intimate relationship between modern kings and the invocation of Hindu deities, protective gods and ancestral spirits in contemporary initiations into Thai classical music and dance-drama training. And through this, she also reveals how official sponsorship of non-Buddhist religiosity has contributed to the resurgence of spirit medium cults. Wong details the pivotal roles of King Vajiravudh (r 1910 26) and more recently King Bhumibol (r 1946 to present) in the revival of state-sponsored Brahmanical mediumship. She notes that royal involvement in wai khru initiations was an early twentieth century innovation of King Vajiravudh as part of his revival of the Brahmanical symbolism of the god-king [devaraja], For the royal performers, he [King Vajiravudh] was (as officiant) the source of the spiritual power necessary to them; he was also the King and thus effected a power transfer in the style of the ancient devaraja (Wong, 2001, p 240). In the 1970s and 80s, King Bhumibol, as medium for the auratic power of the Old Father, was also chief officiant in wai khru ceremonies to re-empower the lineages of initiation into state-sponsored training in classical music and dance-drama. Crown Princess Sirindhorn was subsequently initiated into the Thai classical music tradition by master teachers who received their charismatic authority to act as initiating officiants (that is, mediums for the Old Father) from her father, King Bhumibol. A book published to accompany the release of the 2011 movie Khon khon (The Khon People, dir Saranyu Wongkrajang), about competing dance-drama troupes in the mid-twentieth century, includes a photo of King Bhumibol officiating at a wai khru ceremony in the School of Performing Arts on 5 October 1971 (Saranyu, 2011, no page number). While Wong does not mention it, we nonetheless see here points of connection between the symbolic re-sacralization of the monarchy across King Bhumibols reign (Jackson, 2009) and de facto official support for forms of revivified mediumship. The divine associations of Thai kings, both living and dead, are made explicit in spirit medium discourses. Pattana quotes one informant who identifies the spirit of King Chulalongkorn (r 18681910) with the Hindu god Vishnu, and both King Vajiravudh and King Bhumibol are included in the list


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of deities invoked in official wai khru ceremonies performed at the College of Dramatic Arts, with King Vajiravudhs spirit invoked as Phor Jao, or Lord Father (Wong, 2001, p 143), and the present monarch being called Luang Phor [Reverend Father] Bhumibol Adulyadej (Wong, 2001, p 142). Like Pattana, Wong proposes a perspective that does not take doctrinal Buddhism as the starting point or standard against which to analyse Thai religiosity, citing Tannenbaums suggestion (1995, p 205) that Buddhism may be part of deeper [historical] patterns of belief, and models positing multiple religious systems at work in Southeast Asia may miss the ways that they are part of broader, more encompassing belief (Wong, 2001, p xviii).

Thai transgender ritual specialists under the spell of the market

Both Pattana and Wong devote chapters to the gendering of Thai spirit mediumship. Pattana states, The empowering strategies employed by magic monks and spirit mediums are conditioned and characterized by class and gender (Pattana, 2012, p 53). Wongs seventh chapter is entitled The Wai Khru as gendered cultural system, and she summarizes her book as being a study of how patriarchy defines Thai music making (Wong, 2001, p 218). However, Pattana and Wongs studies are both framed within a heteronormative view of gender as a masculine feminine binary, with Wong developing a critical feminist analysis of the subordinate place of ostensibly heterosexual women in wai khru initiation. Neither Pattana nor Wong explicitly considers the cross-gender dimensions of spirit mediumship, even though evidence they adduce has strong cross-gender elements. All the examples Pattana adduces from his fieldwork and from historical sources are of female mediums who channel male spirits, and Wong devotes several pages to a female informant who is a medium for the Old Father, and in reference to whom Wong uses the gender-hybrid pronoun s/he when describing the woman as possessed by the Old Father (Wong, 2001, p 228 ff). Michael Peletz makes the important argument that transgendered persons provide a powerful lens through which to view pluralism in South East Asia, because of the vicissitudes of transgenderism index processes that have occurred across a number of culturally and analytically interlocked domains (Peletz, 2009, p 5). However, Peletz is in error when he claims that modernity has led to the secularization of all cross-gender phenomena in South East Asia by redefining transgendered individuals as contaminating (rather than sacred) mediators (Peletz, 2009, p 16). In radical contrast, almost every author writing on modern spirit mediumship in Thailand reports the strong presence of feminine men and masculine women (see Irvine, 1984, p 321; Wijeyewardene, 1986, p 158; Tanabe, 1991, p 202; Morris, 2000; Van Esterik, 2000, p 44). Walter Irvine (1984) reported that village-based spirit medium cults in Thailand declined in the 1970s as a result of modernization and urbanization. However, Irvine and many others, including Pattana, have also pointed out that, overall, mediumship has not declined in Thailand, but rather has relocated to urban centres, where in the context of the market economy it has proliferated in new forms. Writing of Chiang Mai, Rosalind Morris observes, [s]pirit cults and the practices of magical transmission are not only not disappearing in northern Thailand, they are efflorescing along with the discourses of ritual (Morris, 2000, p 74). And

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rather than heralding an eclipse of transgender ritual specialists, as claimed by Peletz (2006, 2009), marketized urban spaces have provided new opportunities for ritual expressions of cross-genderism. Indeed, transgender ritual specialists appear to have a greater presence in contemporary Thai and Vietnamese (see Endres, 2011) spirit mediumship than in previous eras. In the past, South East Asian crossgenderism was often associated with magical religion as well as the domains of aesthetics, dance and dramatic performance, all of which were essential components of religious rituals. With the marketization of everyday life, all of these fields have been commodified in contemporary Thailand. As Thai supernatural religion has fallen under the spell of the market, new spaces and opportunities for the expression of transgenderism have also emerged, with the prevalence of transgender beauticians across the country being just one example. Endres argues that in Vietnam gender-transgressive males now have a greater role in spirit medium cults than in the past, creatively recombining a diverse range of traditional and modern concepts to forge their transgender, bisexual or homosexual identities within and across social and ritual spaces (Endres, 2011, p 149). In contrast to Peletz, Endres attributes the growing queering of mediumship in contemporary Vietnam to a greater tolerance of gender transgressive behaviour in Vietnamese society at large (Endres, 2011, p 149).

Different genderings of the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Thailand and Malaysia
The distinctiveness of transgenderism in Thai spirit mediumship is revealed when we compare accounts of the Nine Emperor Gods festival or the Chinese Vegetarian festival (Thai: thetsakan kin je) in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia. Worship of the Nine Emperor Gods has no exact analogue in China and originated among Hokkien-speaking Chinese migrant labourers in Phuket in the early nineteenth century in response to devastating epidemics. The festival subsequently spread among diasporic Chinese in the Malay Peninsula (DeBernardi, 2012, p 26), and in recent decades has come to be celebrated nationally in Thailand, where, as Erik Cohen (2001) notes, it has spread well beyond the ethnic Chinese community. Worship of deities associated with this festival, especially the Chinese Mahayana female bodhisattva Guan Yin (Thai: Kuan Im), is also providing new spaces for transgender ritual specialists in Thailand. Separate studies of the festival in Penang by Jean DeBernardi (2012) and in Phuket and Krabi by Erik Cohen (2001, 2008) reveal important local differences in the gendering of Chinese mediumship, despite close ongoing connections between the Chinese communities across the ThaiMalaysian border. DeBernardi and Cohens single-site ethnographies of the Nine Emperor Gods festivals in Penang and Phuket respectively do not engage the distinctiveness of the festival rituals in each country, most notably regarding the presence of transgenderism in southern Thai celebrations but its absence in Penang. Cohen reports both male and female transgenderism among Phuket mediums, observing that many female (and transvestite) mediums are believed to be possessed by Guan Yin (Cohen, 2001, p 24) and that some tomboys, females who adopt a male identity are mediums for male Chinese deities (Cohen, 2001, p 120). He also describes the chief officiant at a Nine Emperor Gods shrine in Krabi as a young


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male transvestite (kathoey) (Cohen, 2008, p 72), adding in a footnote explaining that, Transvestite spirit mediums in Phuket shrines are normally possessed by female deities, particularly by Kuan Im (Cohen, 2008, p 87, note 3). In contrast, DeBernardi makes no reference to transgender mediums in her study of the festival in Penang. Indeed, DeBernardi (private correspondence) reports not having encountered a single male spirit medium of Guan Yin during her many years of research in Penang. DeBernardi (private correspondence) views the presence of transgender mediums in Phuket celebrations of the festival as a distinctively Thai innovation. In his study of male spirit mediums in Taiwan, whose rituals have close connections to the Hokkien communities of Thailand and Malaysia, Avron Boretz (2011) also fails to report any instances of transgenderism. That such a difference should be apparent in the gendering of mediums participating in the same festival in northern Malaysia and southern Thailand, by diasporic Chinese communities that share the same language and maintain family ties across the border, is clearly a topic for further research. However, the different gendering of possession in the Nine Emperor Gods festival as celebrated in Thailand and Malaysia is only revealed when we read DeBernardis study of Penang in dialogue with Cohens account of Phuket, further demonstrating the importance of comparative approaches to understanding the specific character of mediumship within any national setting. The cross-gender character of mediumship in Thailand is so universal that some authors, such as Pattana, who write only on the Thai situation, regard it as the norm, and hence in no need of comment. Conversely, the gender-normative character of Chinese spirit mediumship in Malaysia is so universal that researchers studying only this country, such as DeBernardi, regard this gender pattern as the norm, and hence in no need of explanation. Chinese spirit mediumship in Thailand is now practised within the frame of Thai gender culture, which has proved powerful enough to override the patriarchal, gender-normative character of popular Chinese religion. The only example of cross-genderism in DeBernardis book is the case of the Datuk Aunt, a Straits Chinese (Nonya) Malay- and Hokkien-speaking female medium whose rituals hybridize Malay and Chinese beliefs. The Datuk Aunts possessing deity is a male baby god named Datuk Lai Huat, a spirit whose name combines the Malay term Datuk with the Hokkien expression meaning Come Prosperity (DeBernardi, 2012, p 185). DeBernardi does not analyse the gendering of the Datuk Aunts ritual practice. Nonetheless, it appears that this form of cross-genderism that is, a female medium channelling a male spirit emerged from the hybridization of Chinese practices with Malay that is, South East Asian gendered understandings. This suggests a similar pattern to the emergence of cross-genderism in Chinese mediumship in southern Thailand, where gender-normative, patriarchal Chinese rituals have been reconfigured within Thailands more gender-diverse culture.

Islamic and Christian limits to Thai religio-cultural hybridity

Pattana observes that cults of Guan Yin, Shiva and Ganesh have gained popularity beyond their traditional ethnic boundaries, drawing in ethnic Thai followers as well as new generations of Sino- and Indo-Thais, as a result of the ethno-cultural assimilation project under the modern nation-building scheme (Pattana, 2012, p 144). Writing of Penang, DeBernardi states, the practices of Chinese popular

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religious culture are eclectic and locally diverse Chinese spirit mediums are bricoleurs who propose unique doctrinal syntheses (DeBernardi, 2012, p 9). The widespread view of Asian spirit mediumship as open, incorporative and effectively borderless emerges from what DeBernardi describes as a common logic of practice across the region that humans can invite spirits to share with them, and that in exchange the spirits will offer comfort, assistance, and protection from a potentially malicious spirit world (DeBernardi, 2012, pp 910). This shared logic of practice is typically described as transcending divisions of ethnicity, language and religious affiliation. However, on the penultimate page of his book, Pattana mentions that there are limits to Thai religious hybridity, [N]either the Christian God and saints, nor EuroAmerican popular icons, have ever been included into these cults (Pattana, 2012, p 145). Pattana fails to mention that, even more surprisingly, there are no Islamic saints in contemporary Thai spirit medium cults, despite Muslims constituting the countrys largest religious minority. Pattana mentions these very real limits to Thai religious hybridity in passing and does not provide any extended analysis. For insights into why Thai popular religion has cultural borders, in radical contrast to the dominant academic discourse of hybridizing or syncretizing inclusivity, we need to look beyond single-country studies to multi-site analyses, such as Bernard Formosos account of De Jiao, the teaching/doctrine of virtue, a Teochew Chinese movement based on automatic writing, also called spirit-writing and planchette divination, performed by male mediums. Formosos study of De Jiao demonstrates the importance of multi-country studies in understanding the scope and character of contemporary religious movements in South East and East Asia. Formoso has undertaken extended periods of research in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and also among diasporic Chinese in Australia. De Jiao began in the Teochew-speaking Chaozhou region of Chinas Guangdong province in the 1930s as a reaction to both the SinoJapanese War and the rise of Chinese secular materialism, and the movement teaches a synthesis of Confucian ethics, Buddhist compassion and Taoist beliefs to restore what followers see as the core values of Chinese civilization. The movement spread among diasporic Teochew communities in South East Asia and Australia after the Second World War, and despite being banned in the Peoples Republic of China, where it has been equated erroneously with the quite separate Falun Gong movement, small underground congregations have nonetheless been re-established in that country. Formoso details how De Jiao has responded in diverse ways to the diverging ethno-religious assimilationist and segregationist policies that Thai and Malaysian governments respectively have pursued towards each countrys minority Chinese populations. Like many spirit medium cults in Asia, De Jiao is marked by great tolerance of theological diversity (Formoso, 2010, p 18), which opens the way to remarkable forms of inclusiveness. Formoso observes that under the aegis of the Jade Emperor, the pantheon of De Jiao is open to every god, with none debarred (Formoso, 2010, p 6), with De Jiao pavilions, or temples, in Malaysia and Singapore including Mohammed and Jesus Christ among their deities. However, while De Jiao pavilions in Thailand honour the largest number of deities of any country in which the movement is established, neither Mohammed nor Jesus Christ appears in its Thai pantheon.


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Formosos study confirms Pattanas concluding remark that, despite its hybrid complexity, Thai popular religion is not a completely open system that can incorporate all religious forms. For reasons that remain to be explored, unlike some overseas Chinese spirit medium cults in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore that incorporate elements of Christianity and Islam, Thai supernaturalism has not borrowed from either of these religions, despite their long historical presence in Thailand. The absence of Christian and Muslim figures in Thai supernaturalism is unusual in South East Asia, for, as Formoso observes, The syncretism extended to western religions that De Jiao displays [in Malaysia and Singapore] is far from unique in the Asian context (Formoso, 2010, p 48). In contrast to the dominant emphasis on religious hybridity in research that focuses exclusively on supernaturalism within Thailand, comparative studies such as Formosos reveal a different, and to date neglected, question: namely, why is contemporary Thai popular religion open to incorporating Indian and Chinese elements while remaining apparently resistant to borrowing from Islam and Christianity? Given the vast extent of Thai borrowings from the West over the past two centuries (see Harrison and Jackson, 2010) and the centuries-long presence of Muslim communities in all regions of the country, the failure of Catholicism, Protestant denominations and Islam to impact on Thai religious belief presents remarkable exceptions to the otherwise lauded Thai capacity for cultural appropriation. Formoso attributes the progressive dissolution of the ThaiChinese religio-cultural boundary, and the growing participation of ethnic Thais in Chinese cults, to a mix of cultural and political factors that reflect not only Thai Theravada openness, but, equally importantly, a decline in Chinese-background Thais sense of cultural exclusivity. Formoso sees the decline of Chinese clan lineage associations in Thailand because of restrictions imposed by mid-twentieth century nationalist policy makers and, more broadly, the Thai policy of assimilation, such as requiring the adoption of Thai names, as having succeeded in reducing activities directed toward the preservation of Chinese culture (Formoso, 2010, p 78). The incorporation of Chinese religiosity into the contemporary Thai supernatural pantheon is no accident and is not, as Pattana (following Tony Reid) claims, a reflection of a Thai magic of tolerance (Pattana, 2012, p 34). As I argue elsewhere, the supposed Thai magic of tolerance is no miracle, but emerges from a historical strategy of power to manage a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state (Jackson, 2010, p 192). The Sino-Thai supernatural synthesis has been made possible because of the success of policies that restricted the activities of the Chinese, subjected them to an assimilationist policy of Thai-ification and attenuated the Chinese communitys sense of cultural and religious exclusiveness. Formoso shows that Sino-Thai religio-cultural hybridization is not a one-sided process of Thai appropriation of foreign forms. Rather, it is a double process that emerges just as much from Chinese-background communities progressively de-emphasizing their Chinese distinctiveness (including using Thai as the medium of communication in ostensibly Chinese cults) as from Theravada Thai communities readiness to add Chinese deities to their pantheon and Chinese rituals to their religious practice. Formosos work indicates that the processes that facilitate religious hybridization and, just as importantly, also set limits to assimilation across religious, cultural and ethnic boundaries, are as much political as cultural. The resurgence of mediumship in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia can thus only be understood fully

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in its political setting. This is why Pattanas argument that spirit mediumship needs to be considered through the lens of theories of cultural hybridity, which, following Homi Bhabha, address the power relations underpinning cultural borrowing, rather than relying on apolitical notions of syncretism, is an important advance in understanding Thai supernaturalism. In this light, the remarkable absence of Muslim figures in Thai mediumship must clearly be seen as reflecting contemporary political tensions concerning Islam. In a study of the Manora dance form of spirit possession in southern Thailand, Alexander Horstmann details how Islam has been progressively separated out from a religious complex that formerly united Muslim and Buddhist Thais through a shared belief in spirits and the healing powers of mediumship. According to Horstmann, older forms of the Manora demonstrated the coexistence and hybridization of spirit mediums with Theravada Buddhism and Islam (Horstmann, 2012, p 104), with Manora mediumship previously bringing Buddhists and Muslims together in a shared space of sacred ritual. Horstmann writes of the resilience and revitalization of spirit beliefs and spirit possession in southern Thailand (Horstmann, 2012, p 104), but emphasizes that revitalized Manora mediumship is now linked with Buddhism, and excludes Muslims, as a consequence of growing doctrinalism in Thai Islam and inter-ethnic tension and violence in the ethnic Malay-predominant southern border provinces. While previously it was not uncommon in the Lake Songkhla area to observe a multireligious ritual, in which spirit possession blends with Theravada Buddhism or Islam (Horstmann, 2012, p 107), since the upsurge of violence in southern Thailand nothing is as it was before and [Buddhist and Muslim] religious and ritual spaces are more rigidly separated and controlled (Horstmann, 2012, p 108). While Manora mediumship enjoys resurgent interest among southern Thai Buddhists, the regions Muslims are withdrawing from participation and the ritual is losing its interreligious footing (Horstmann, 2012, p 113). In his doctoral study of Chinese and Thai participation in supernatural religiosity in southern Thailand, Jovan Maud astutely observes that the pervasive presence and indeed ordinariness of hybridity in [Thai] history leads us to ask the more important and interesting question of how and why hybridisation fails or is limited in some way (Maud, 2007, p 378). At the same time that resurgent Thai supernaturalism has included new Chinese, Brahmanical and other deities, it has simultaneously excluded Muslim ancestral spirits that were once part of the shared religious complex in southern Thailand. This cannot be interpreted other than in terms of the radically divergent sociopolitical contexts of the Chinese and Muslim minorities in early twenty-first century Thailand. In other words, the ethnic mix of deities in contemporary Thai popular religion mirrors the countrys socio-political order, just as the prevalence of crossgenderism in Thai spirit mediumship reflects the structure of Thai gender culture today.

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