Wushu – Cao Jinling, the reluctant spirit medium.
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Shamanism and Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity: Some Preliminary Reflections on a Gendered Religiosity of the Body - Mayfair Yang (楊美惠) Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara
In January 2012 in Wenzhou, I interviewed Cao Jinling, a shamaness I call the “reluctant spirit medium.”
“To be honest,” said Cao, “I would rather have my health than have the gods come to me, but they chose me, and so I must comply with their wishes.” She lived with her husband and his parents in a modern apartment building in Kunyang Town, Pingyang County. The husband sold cell phones in their local town and in Shanghai, where he spent some of his time each year. Cao did not work because of her continuous ill health, and her two children were mainly raised by her mother.
At the age of forty-six, Cao had only one year of schooling in her life, and both she and her husband were basically illiterate, although both spoke rudimentary Mandarin. She first started getting ill at the age of fifteen: her leg hurt, her whole body felt sore and weak, and she could not work. Over the years, she went to see one doctor after another, trying out both traditional Chinese medicine and Western biomedicine, but they all told her there was nothing wrong with her.
Cao’s husband started quarreling with her, accusing her of being too lazy to work or take care of her children. When she was thirty-five, Cao and her husband moved to Taiyuan in Shanxi Province in north China to do business. It was there, far from home, that she again fell seriously ill and started to become possessed. She described the sensation as “going crazy” ( fengle yiyang 瘋了一樣), or “like getting drunk” ( xiang hezuile 像喝醉了). When she awoke from her possessed state, people described her as looking “crazy and unsteady” ( fengfeng diandian 瘋瘋癲癲).
During her possession, her eyes were closed, as if sleeping, but her body was not shaking convulsively, nor did she have saliva or foam flowing out of her mouth. However, following each possession, she hurt in her stomach and intestines (duzi teng, changwei teng 肚子疼，腸胃疼), and since she started getting possessed, she has lost a lot of weight, dropping down to her current weight of about ninety jin ( 斤 ; roughly ninety pounds).
In her possessed state, people would ask Cao what was the matter and she would reply, in a strange, eerily low voice that was not her normal voice, that she was the goddess Mother Chen the Fourteenth. Sometimes a voice would also tell Cao that she was the goddess Li the Thirteenth, the “shamanic sister” (tongmei 僮妹) of Mother Chen. Cao was also possessed by Mother Chen’s two brothers, named Fatong (法通) and Faqing (法青), and she also assumed the male identity of the Earth God (Tudigong 土地公), who often led the way ( yinglu 迎路) for the other gods who possessed her.
Each time she woke up from being possessed, she felt really exhausted, as if she had just returned from a long and diffcult journey. She never remembered what she did or said while she was possessed, and could only rely on what people told her later.
The “bodhisattva” ( pusa 菩薩) would often appear to Cao in her dreams, she said, as if to convince her that she or he was real, and had taken up residence in her body, since Cao kept on doubting that she was a medium. “I never wanted to be a shaman,” said Cao, “but for some reason, this is my fate.”
Cao’s husband recounted that he was really scared the first few times his wife was possessed, so scared that he could not sleep the whole night. He asked around in Taiyuan about this strange phenomenon and discovered that there were local people there who also got possessed, but by their local gods who were different from Wenzhou gods.
“I found out this thing is fairly common, so that made me feel relieved,” he said.
The two of them even went to visit a few shamans in Taiyuan to find out their experiences and share stories. Cao and her husband were convinced that the Taiyuan local gods were all lower than Wenzhou’s Mother Chen the Fourteenth.
Cao’s reputation as a shamaness has been spread by word of mouth, and people from far and wide come to visit her in her home. Many come from the countryside where she herself came from, but others live in town or come from other towns in Wenzhou. They come asking for her help in petitioning Niangniang to grant them a favor: to give birth to a son, to ensure that their child will do well on an impending exam, to consult the goddess about a big decision they must make about their family business, or to be healed of an illness, for example.
For good luck on their child’s exam, they will provide their child’s name and his or her row and seat number in the exam session, so Niangniang will know exactly where to find their child. When a client comes, she will go to a small altar in her apartment, offer incense, and invite Mother Chen down to her.
“We cannot predict whether Niangniang will come down to us,” said Cao. “Sometimes if she does not come down the first time, then we have to try again another day, and often the third time it works.”
I asked Cao if she could make this a regular enterprise, going into business and developing her spirit possessions as her income base. Both she and her husband were quick to reply that they could not do this. “It is not good to make money off a god,” they said.
They do not advertise Cao’s abilities at all. “It’s only when sick people get well, when their pleas to Niangniang receive a satisfactory outcome, that people then start to spread the word on their own to their relatives and friends. It is not right for us to make money on purpose,” they said.
People did give small amounts to thank her for her services, such as fruit or twenty yuan at a time. While Cao did accept money for the services she rendered, the income did not seem very lucrative, nor did their home suggest high earnings.