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: peter.jackson@anu.edu.au.

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 611–622 doi: 10.5367/sear.2012.0128

In the second part of this essay. While published over a decade ago. the literature has rarely considered what phenomena may resist incorporation within. I take a comparative approach. drawing on Jean DeBernardi’s The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang.612 South East Asia Research I consider here two studies that make major contributions to understanding the forces underpinning the resurgence of spirit mediumship in Thailand. and in Thai spirit mediumship studies generally: namely. scholars of Thai religion have mistakenly thought it had nothing to offer their field. And while spirit mediumship is widely eulogized as a site of intense religious and cultural syncretism. But a comparative. Wong’s meticulously researched and lucidly written book has not received its due recognition in studies of Thai religiosity. 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. 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 Thailand’s changing religious landscapes and rapidly growing spiritual marketplaces. Pattana Kitiarsa’s Mediums. 1997. this ostensibly omnivorous religio-cultural phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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. 1999). In reading Pattana and Wong. 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. Pattana criticizes syncretist models of Thai religion for failing to grasp the dynamics of highly commodified and mediatized forms of supernaturalism. the central place of crossgenderism and the very real limits to cultural hybridity that mark the borders of Thai spirit mediumship’s otherwise eclectic syncretism. The differing . Malaysia and Bernard Formoso’s 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 Wong’s books. or be unassimilable to. Wong’s 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. arguing that theories of cultural hybridity provide a more productive analytical lens. I also review Deborah Wong’s Sounding the Centre: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. 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. regional approach is especially revealing. Perhaps because it was published in the Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology series. Capitalism as engine of postmodern Asian supernaturalism Most spirit mediumship studies take a single country or even a single movement as their focus.

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 spirit’s reputed power to provide winning numbers in the national lottery. the same has been true of China. and state-sponsored Theravada Buddhism’ and reflecting a convergence of the spaces of religion. 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. Both countries’ governments instituted remarkably similar anti-supernaturalism policies across the middle decades of the twentieth century. and. supernaturalism. the Thai and Vietnamese governments have both relaxed central controls over popular religion and placed more emphasis on market-based. in Bakhtin’s 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. but whose very emergence is dependent upon both the market and mass media. 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. the worship of Chinese deities. 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. where some forms of folk religion have also been tolerated since the transition to market-based socialism (see Yang. 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. export-led economic growth. To some extent. This comparative perspective reveals clearly the central and highly productive role of capitalism in religious resurgence across Asia.The political economy of Thai supernaturalism 613 political complexions of post-Cold War Asian societies have proved to be irrelevant to the resurgence of supernatural belief and ritual. p 15). From syncretism to hybridity Pattana Kitiarsa’s Mediums. 2012. Since the 1980s. In the twentieth century. 2008). Endres (2011) and Fjelstad and Nguyen (2011)). 2012. (For studies on resurgent Vietnamese spirit mediumship. who died of an autoimmune disorder in 1992 at the height of her popularity. Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today synthesizes the results of his two decades of research on Thai popular religion. p 2). the market economy. Brahmanism and animism as isolated and static rather than being in constantly dynamic relations. Phumphuang Duangchan. Pattana sees popular Buddhism as emerging from the interplay of ‘animism. with spirit mediumship flourishing under twenty-first century versions of both market-oriented socialism and neo-liberal capitalism. as well as in neighbouring countries in parallel over the period of neo-liberal globalization. He cites as a signal example the emergence of the cult of the spirit of the late Thai luk-thung genre singer. mediumship has been resurgent in both Thailand and Vietnam. and avoid risks associated with. and prefers to describe Thai religion as hybrid. Pattana’s account adds to other deployments . see Taylor (2004). capitalist economy and consumer society (Pattana. folk Brahmanism. despite continuing political differences.

as ‘postmodern mediums’.614 South East Asia Research of theories of cultural hybridity in Thai cultural studies (Harrison. unexpressed facts and social relations’ in postmodern society. a powerful god. albeit in different religious establishments and on different social scales.’ (Pattana. with the religious syncretism model having been ‘outdated by a fast track. 1999b). Wong’s 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. Pattana describes ‘magic monks’ [keji ajan] and spirit mediums [rang song. ‘Every magic monk needs … a superagency…. remaining intimately related to the expression of royal power and authority. 2012. postmodernizing reality within contemporary Thai society’ (Pattana. 2012. which often focus on women. such as Luang Phor Khun (see also Jackson. who owns and exercises his or her agency through a human mouthpiece or medium with communicative capability and ritual expertise’ (Pattana. Deborah Wong’s study of the wai khru ritual reveals that the state and monarchy have also contributed to the resurgence of supernaturalism in Thailand. p 34). While he sees hybridization as having been present in South East Asian religions throughout history. Royalist Brahmanical supernaturalism While Pattana emphasizes the roles of the market and new print and electronic media in the proliferation of spirit medium cults. 2012. Taking practice rather than scripture as his starting point. p 22 ff) and cultural history (Jackson. Through studying the spirit mediumship at the heart of wai khru initiations. which he defines as those who mediate between ‘otherwise separated. khon song] as both representing forms of mediumship. which Pattana describes as a ‘dhammic calling’ or ‘superagency’. which typically focuses on men. overcoming the divide between research on Buddhism. to guide their actions. Pattana describes some Thai ‘magic monks’ as practising a modified form of mediumship in which they invite an ong tham. While the vinaya or monastic code of practice technically proscribes Buddhist monks from engaging in mediumship. Drawing on Geertz’s account of the South East Asian theatre state. 2004). 2010. From his critique of the empiricist notion of syncretism. Pattana describes magic monks. 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. Pattana argues that the dynamism of Thai popular religion today is different in scale and complexity. cut-and-paste. primordial teacher to present-day per- . 2010. p 41). 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. Wong emphasizes that Thai court music and dance-drama have much more than mere entertainment value. ‘Both Luang Phor Khun and urban spirit mediums provide mediumship. p 187 ff). performing relatively similar functions. or other deity. goddess. The wai khru is a ‘ritual honoring of teachers of music and dance … [that] transfers the spiritual power of the first. p 107) Pattana studies Thai magical Buddhism and mediumship as complementary forms and components of a single hybrid religious complex. and studies of spirit mediumship.

or khru. who is then a medium for the ritual transfer of the specialist knowledge and charismatic power of the primordial divine guru. 2001. he was also the King and thus effected a power transfer in the style of the ancient devaraja’ (Wong. 2001. Wong observes that from a phenomenological perspective there is little to differentiate the two. The divine associations of Thai kings. ‘For the royal performers. she also reveals how official sponsorship of non-Buddhist religiosity has contributed to the resurgence of spirit medium cults. The Old Father or Shiva is believed to descend into the body of the initiating teacher or khru. protective gods and ancestral spirits in contemporary initiations into Thai classical music and dance-drama training. about competing dance-drama troupes in the mid-twentieth century. focuses analysis on the figure of the primordial teacher. 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. he [King Vajiravudh] was (as officiant) the source of the spiritual power necessary to them. herself trained in and initiated into Thai classical music. 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. who is invoked in ritual initiation into all Thai classical performance traditions. 2011. While Wong does not mention it. While some Thai music and dance-drama teachers distinguish between mediumship and the invocation of the Old Father in wai khru rituals. p xvii). King Bhumibol. are made explicit in spirit medium discourses.The political economy of Thai supernaturalism 615 formers’ (Wong. King Bhumibol. 2009) and de facto official support for forms of revivified mediumship. A book published to accompany the release of the 2011 movie Khon khon (The Khon People. dir Saranyu Wongkrajang). post-revolutionary governments in Thailand. p 240). As Wong emphasizes. 2001. Pattana quotes one informant who identifies the spirit of King Chulalongkorn (r 1868–1910) with the Hindu god Vishnu. we nonetheless see here points of connection between the symbolic re-sacralization of the monarchy across King Bhumibol’s reign (Jackson. includes a photo of King Bhumibol officiating at a wai khru ceremony in the School of Performing Arts on 5 October 1971 (Saranyu. Wong. and both King Vajiravudh and King Bhumibol are included in the list . Wong details the intimate relationship between modern kings and the invocation of Hindu deities. a term derived from the Sanskrit guru and also called ‘the Old Father’ [phor kae]. mediums for the Old Father) from her father. another name for Shiva. 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]. no page number). 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. In the 1970s and 80s. 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). both living and dead. And through this. as medium for the auratic power of the Old Father. Despite the long history of critiques of spirit mediumship by both absolute monarchs and modernizing. 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.

p 5). p 74). p 44). However. mediumship has not declined in Thailand. including Pattana. they are efflorescing along with the discourses of ritual’ (Morris. Pattana and Wong’s studies are both framed within a heteronormative view of gender as a masculine– feminine binary. All the examples Pattana adduces from his fieldwork and from historical sources are of female mediums who channel male spirits. Tanabe. Writing of Chiang Mai. p 16). 2001. have also pointed out that. more encompassing belief’ (Wong. 2000. 1986. and … models positing multiple religious systems at work in Southeast Asia may miss the ways that they are part of broader. citing Tannenbaum’s suggestion (1995. However. 2001. 2001. p 53). ‘[s]pirit cults and the practices of magical transmission are not only not disappearing in northern Thailand. p xviii). 2001. 2009. Wong proposes a perspective that does not take doctrinal Buddhism as the starting point or standard against which to analyse Thai religiosity. p 142). Michael Peletz makes the important argument that ‘transgendered persons provide a powerful lens through which to view pluralism’ in South East Asia. Like Pattana. 2012. and she summarizes her book as being ‘a study of how patriarchy defines Thai music making’ (Wong. p 143). 2001. However. with King Vajiravudh’s spirit invoked as ‘Phor Jao’. overall. And . ‘The empowering strategies employed by magic monks and spirit mediums are conditioned and characterized by class and gender’ (Pattana. Morris. Walter Irvine (1984) reported that village-based spirit medium cults in Thailand declined in the 1970s as a result of modernization and urbanization. p 202. In radical contrast. but rather has relocated to urban centres. where in the context of the market economy it has proliferated in new forms. 1984.616 South East Asia Research of deities invoked in official wai khru ceremonies performed at the College of Dramatic Arts. 2000. Rosalind Morris observes. almost every author writing on modern spirit mediumship in Thailand reports the strong presence of ‘feminine’ men and ‘masculine’ women (see Irvine. p 205) that ‘Buddhism may be part of deeper [historical] patterns of belief. Wijeyewardene. 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. Wong’s seventh chapter is entitled ‘The Wai Khru as gendered cultural system’. p 321. and the present monarch being called ‘Luang Phor [Reverend Father] Bhumibol Adulyadej’ (Wong. Van Esterik. and in reference to whom Wong uses the gender-hybrid pronoun ‘s/he’ when describing the woman as possessed by the Old Father (Wong. 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. Irvine and many others. 2000. 2009. and Wong devotes several pages to a female informant who is a medium for the Old Father. Thai transgender ritual specialists under the spell of the market Both Pattana and Wong devote chapters to the gendering of Thai spirit mediumship. p 158. p 218). even though evidence they adduce has strong cross-gender elements. because of ‘the vicissitudes of transgenderism index processes that have occurred across a number of culturally and analytically interlocked domains’ (Peletz. Pattana states. p 228 ff). or ‘Lord Father’ (Wong. 1991.

In contrast to Peletz. it has spread well beyond the ethnic Chinese community. all of which were essential components of religious rituals. 2001. and in recent decades has come to be celebrated nationally in Thailand.The political economy of Thai supernaturalism 617 rather than heralding an eclipse of transgender ritual specialists. 2011. creatively recombining ‘a diverse range of “traditional” and “modern” concepts … to forge their transgender. p 149). Endres attributes the growing ‘queering’ of mediumship in contemporary Vietnam to ‘a greater tolerance of gender transgressive behaviour in Vietnamese society at large’ (Endres. p 120). 2012. As Thai supernatural religion has fallen under the spell of the market. 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. 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. Cohen reports both male and female transgenderism among Phuket mediums. 2011. The festival subsequently spread among diasporic Chinese in the Malay Peninsula (DeBernardi. bisexual or homosexual identities within and across social and ritual spaces’ (Endres. 2001. is also providing new spaces for transgender ritual specialists in Thailand. p 26). He also describes the chief officiant at a Nine Emperor Gods shrine in Krabi as ‘a young . 2008) reveal important local differences in the gendering of Chinese mediumship. most notably regarding the presence of transgenderism in southern Thai celebrations but its absence in Penang. where. new spaces and opportunities for the expression of transgenderism have also emerged. p 24) and that some ‘tomboys. 2009). as Erik Cohen (2001) notes. In the past. despite close ongoing connections between the Chinese communities across the Thai–Malaysian border. 2011) spirit mediumship than in previous eras. DeBernardi and Cohen’s 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. with the prevalence of transgender beauticians across the country being just one example. p 149). females who adopt a male identity’ are mediums for male Chinese deities (Cohen. With the marketization of everyday life. all of these fields have been commodified in contemporary Thailand. Worship of deities associated with this festival. as claimed by Peletz (2006. dance and dramatic performance. Indeed. marketized urban spaces have provided new opportunities for ritual expressions of cross-genderism. transgender ritual specialists appear to have a greater presence in contemporary Thai and Vietnamese (see Endres. observing that ‘many female (and transvestite) mediums’ are believed to be possessed by Guan Yin (Cohen. especially the Chinese Mahayana female bodhisattva Guan Yin (Thai: Kuan Im). Separate studies of the festival in Penang by Jean DeBernardi (2012) and in Phuket and Krabi by Erik Cohen (2001. Endres argues that in Vietnam gender-transgressive males now have a greater role in spirit medium cults than in the past. South East Asian crossgenderism was often associated with magical religion as well as the domains of aesthetics.

South East Asian – gendered understandings. This suggests a similar pattern to the emergence of cross-genderism in Chinese mediumship in southern Thailand. particularly by Kuan Im’ (Cohen. DeBernardi does not analyse the gendering of the Datuk Aunt’s ritual practice. p 87. where gender-normative. In contrast. 2008. DeBernardi states. adding in a footnote explaining that. Shiva and Ganesh have gained popularity beyond their traditional ethnic boundaries. Writing of Penang. That such a difference should be apparent in the gendering of mediums participating in the same festival in northern Malaysia and southern Thailand. such as DeBernardi. Nonetheless. the gender-normative character of Chinese spirit mediumship in Malaysia is so universal that researchers studying only this country.618 South East Asia Research male transvestite (kathoey)’ (Cohen. DeBernardi (private correspondence) views the presence of transgender mediums in Phuket celebrations of the festival as a distinctively Thai innovation. is clearly a topic for further research. a female medium channelling a male spirit – emerged from the hybridization of Chinese practices with Malay – that is. whose rituals have close connections to the Hokkien communities of Thailand and Malaysia. p 72). However. Islamic and Christian limits to Thai religio-cultural hybridity Pattana observes that cults of Guan Yin. gender-normative character of popular Chinese religion. p 144). DeBernardi (private correspondence) reports not having encountered a single male spirit medium of Guan Yin during her many years of research in Penang. Avron Boretz (2011) also fails to report any instances of transgenderism. Chinese spirit mediumship in Thailand is now practised within the frame of Thai gender culture. The cross-gender character of mediumship in Thailand is so universal that some authors. drawing in ethnic Thai followers as well as new generations of Sino. by diasporic Chinese communities that share the same language and maintain family ties across the border. The Datuk Aunt’s possessing deity is a male ‘baby god’ named Datuk Lai Huat. regard this gender pattern as the norm. which has proved powerful enough to override the patriarchal. the different gendering of possession in the Nine Emperor Gods festival as celebrated in Thailand and Malaysia is only revealed when we read DeBernardi’s study of Penang in dialogue with Cohen’s account of Phuket.and Hokkien-speaking female medium whose rituals hybridize Malay and Chinese beliefs. and hence in no need of explanation. who write only on the Thai situation. a spirit whose name combines ‘the Malay term Datuk with the Hokkien expression meaning “Come Prosperity”’ (DeBernardi. DeBernardi makes no reference to transgender mediums in her study of the festival in Penang. ‘the practices of Chinese popular . 2012. 2012. regard it as the norm.and Indo-Thais. p 185). note 3). patriarchal Chinese rituals have been reconfigured within Thailand’s more gender-diverse culture. and hence in no need of comment. further demonstrating the importance of comparative approaches to understanding the specific character of mediumship within any national setting. Conversely. ‘as a result of the ethno-cultural assimilation project under the modern nation-building scheme’ (Pattana. ‘Transvestite spirit mediums in Phuket shrines are normally possessed by female deities. In his study of male spirit mediums in Taiwan. The only example of cross-genderism in DeBernardi’s book is the case of the ‘Datuk Aunt’. 2008. such as Pattana. a Straits Chinese (Nonya) Malay. Indeed. it appears that this form of cross-genderism – that is.

Formoso’s 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. in Malaysia and Singapore including Mohammed and Jesus Christ among their deities. 2010. Pattana mentions these very real limits to Thai religious hybridity in passing and does not provide any extended analysis. pp 9–10). ‘[N]either the Christian God and saints. and protection from a potentially malicious spirit world’ (DeBernardi. Singapore. p 9). with none debarred’ (Formoso. p 145). where it has been equated erroneously with the quite separate Falun Gong movement. 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 country’s minority Chinese populations. which opens the way to remarkable forms of inclusiveness. and that in exchange the spirits will offer … comfort. The movement spread among diasporic Teochew communities in South East Asia and Australia after the Second World War. 2012. Like many spirit medium cults in Asia. and the movement teaches a synthesis of Confucian ethics. Pattana fails to mention that. also called ‘spirit-writing’ and planchette divination. 2012. and despite being banned in the People’s Republic of China. Formoso has undertaken extended periods of research in Thailand. such as Bernard Formoso’s account of De Jiao. For insights into why Thai popular religion has cultural borders. even more surprisingly. p 18). performed by male mediums. De Jiao began in the Teochew-speaking Chaozhou region of China’s Guangdong province in the 1930s as a reaction to both the SinoJapanese War and the rise of Chinese secular materialism. 2010. there are no Islamic saints in contemporary Thai spirit medium cults. or temples. p 6). on the penultimate page of his book. 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. with De Jiao ‘pavilions’. However. have ever been included into these cults’ (Pattana. . China and also among diasporic Chinese in Australia. a Teochew Chinese movement based on automatic writing. while De Jiao pavilions in Thailand honour the largest number of deities of any country in which the movement is established. small underground congregations have nonetheless been re-established in that country. the pantheon of De Jiao is open to ‘every god. Buddhist compassion and Taoist beliefs to restore what followers see as the core values of Chinese civilization. This shared logic of practice is typically described as transcending divisions of ethnicity. in radical contrast to the dominant academic discourse of hybridizing or syncretizing inclusivity. Hong Kong. The widespread view of Asian spirit mediumship as open. Pattana mentions that there are limits to Thai religious hybridity.The political economy of Thai supernaturalism 619 religious culture are eclectic and locally diverse … Chinese spirit mediums are bricoleurs who propose unique doctrinal syntheses’ (DeBernardi. Malaysia. we need to look beyond single-country studies to multi-site analyses. nor Euro–American popular icons. However. ‘the teaching/doctrine of virtue’. De Jiao is marked by ‘great tolerance of theological diversity’ (Formoso. despite Muslims constituting the country’s largest religious minority. neither Mohammed nor Jesus Christ appears in its Thai pantheon. 2012. assistance. language and religious affiliation. Formoso observes that under the aegis of the Jade Emperor.

for. p 192). such as requiring the adoption of Thai names. 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. comparative studies such as Formoso’s reveal a different. The Sino-Thai supernatural synthesis has been made possible because of the success of policies that restricted the activities of the Chinese. as having succeeded in ‘reducing activities directed toward the preservation of Chinese culture’ (Formoso. p 34). a reflection of a Thai ‘magic of tolerance’ (Pattana. The absence of Christian and Muslim figures in Thai supernaturalism is unusual in South East Asia. Thai popular religion is not a completely open system that can incorporate all religious forms. as Formoso observes. 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. subjected them to an assimilationist policy of ‘Thai-ification’ and attenuated the Chinese community’s sense of cultural and religious exclusiveness. despite its hybrid complexity. Protestant denominations and Islam to impact on Thai religious belief presents remarkable exceptions to the otherwise lauded Thai capacity for cultural appropriation. the failure of Catholicism. are as much political as cultural. 2010. but. ‘The syncretism extended to western religions that De Jiao displays [in Malaysia and Singapore] is far from unique in the Asian context’ (Formoso. The incorporation of Chinese religiosity into the contemporary Thai supernatural pantheon is no accident and is not. to a mix of cultural and political factors that reflect not only Thai Theravada openness.620 South East Asia Research Formoso’s study confirms Pattana’s concluding remark that. the ‘Thai policy of assimilation’. and to date neglected. 2012. multi-religious state (Jackson. Formoso attributes the progressive dissolution of the Thai–Chinese religio-cultural boundary. 2010) and the centuries-long presence of Muslim communities in all regions of the country. the supposed Thai ‘magic of tolerance’ is no miracle. As I argue elsewhere. also set limits to assimilation across religious. but emerges from a historical strategy of power to manage a multi-ethnic. Formoso sees the decline of Chinese clan lineage associations in Thailand because of restrictions imposed by mid-twentieth century nationalist policy makers and. The resurgence of mediumship in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia can thus only be understood fully . question: namely. despite their long historical presence in Thailand. cultural and ethnic boundaries. Formoso’s work indicates that the processes that facilitate religious hybridization and. Malaysia and Singapore that incorporate elements of Christianity and Islam. Formoso shows that Sino-Thai religio-cultural hybridization is not a one-sided process of Thai appropriation of foreign forms. unlike some overseas Chinese spirit medium cults in Hong Kong. equally importantly. as Pattana (following Tony Reid) claims. p 78). Thai supernaturalism has not borrowed from either of these religions. p 48). In contrast to the dominant emphasis on religious hybridity in research that focuses exclusively on supernaturalism within Thailand. just as importantly. a decline in Chinese-background Thais’ sense of cultural exclusivity. 2010. Rather. For reasons that remain to be explored. and the growing participation of ethnic Thais in Chinese cults. more broadly.

2007. White Lotus Press. just as the prevalence of crossgenderism in Thai spirit mediumship reflects the structure of Thai gender culture today. Honolulu. Ethnicity and Tourism on a Southern Thai Island. p 378).The political economy of Thai supernaturalism 621 in its political setting. Erik (2001). According to Horstmann. Bangkok. in which spirit possession blends with Theravada Buddhism or Islam’ (Horstmann. 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. but emphasizes that revitalized Manora mediumship is now linked with Buddhism. 2012. following Homi Bhabha. In this light. 2012. is an important advance in understanding Thai supernaturalism. as a consequence of growing doctrinalism in Thai Islam and inter-ethnic tension and violence in the ethnic Malay-predominant southern border provinces. p 104). and Gangsters: Ritual Violence. While Manora mediumship enjoys resurgent interest among southern Thai Buddhists. which. In his doctoral study of Chinese and Thai participation in supernatural religiosity in southern Thailand. Erik (2008). 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. the ethnic mix of deities in contemporary Thai popular religion mirrors the country’s socio-political order. References Boretz. and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. ‘Kuan To: the vegetarian festival in a peripheral southern Thai shrine’. rather than relying on apolitical notions of syncretism. p 104). At the same time that resurgent Thai supernaturalism has included new Chinese. Avron (2011). HI. Horstmann writes of ‘the resilience and revitalization of spirit beliefs and spirit possession in southern Thailand’ (Horstmann. Brahmanical and other deities. the region’s Muslims are withdrawing from participation and the ritual is losing ‘its interreligious footing’ (Horstmann. it has simultaneously excluded Muslim ancestral spirits that were once part of the shared religious complex in southern Thailand. p 108). 2012. 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. The Chinese Vegetarian Festival in Phuket: Religion. address the power relations underpinning cultural borrowing. in Pattana . older forms of the Manora demonstrated ‘the coexistence and hybridization of spirit mediums with Theravada Buddhism and Islam’ (Horstmann. While previously it was ‘not uncommon in the Lake Songkhla area to observe a multireligious ritual. p 107). 2012. 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. Gods. the remarkable absence of Muslim figures in Thai mediumship must clearly be seen as reflecting contemporary political tensions concerning Islam. Martial Arts. and excludes Muslims. Cohen. p 113). In other words. 2012. This is why Pattana’s argument that spirit mediumship needs to be considered through the lens of theories of cultural hybridity. Ghosts. In a study of the Manora dance form of spirit possession in southern Thailand. Cohen. University of Hawai’i Press. with Manora mediumship previously bringing Buddhists and Muslims together in a shared space of sacred ritual.

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