Jigong possession at Shihtoushan (獅頭山)

View from the Quanhuatang (勸化堂) temple complex at Shihtoushan (獅頭山) in Miaoli Country (all photos by Hank Egberink)

The fat man wobbles. Not a Chunk from The Goonies truffle-shuffle-type wobble – his paunch is surprisingly firm. No, it’s unmistakably a drunken totter, which soon crescendos into a full-blown stagger from the temple portals to the hefty censer five meters away.

Clutching the uprights of the incense receptacle, he manages to steady himself. Next, in another absurdly non-sequiturial maneuver, he reaches into the urn, scoops up a handful of ash and daubs his cheeks with it. It is a bizarre, comical scene. But the onlookers are not laughing.

Just a moment ago the man was as clear-headed as a logician. Now, stripped to the waist, he’s reeling around like a mal-coordinated ice skater. An instant is all it takes for a drunken deity to take over. Jigong has arrived.

Blind drunk: A jigong spirit medium in action

He’s an odd kind of god. Rarely seen without a wine-filled calabash in hand, emaciated ribs protuberating against his stomach walls like the frets on a banjo, Jigong has markedly more of the vagabond about him than the divinity.

Master Ji, as he became known, reputedly roamed the streets of Hangzhou, China in the 12th century and was renowned for his eccentricities, which included producing a cure for a plague-stricken village from his own vomit, and flashing his genitals at an Empress.

This baffling carry-on was generally assumed to have been a Hamletian put-on to keep people at bay, masking his true identity. “In the midst of intoxication, I keep a clear head,” Jigong says.

He was genuinely extraordinary in other ways though, eating meat, boozing and cavorting with courtesans – strict no-nos for monks of the Chan Buddhist sect to which he belonged. Despite his licentiousness, Master Ji was a kind soul, helping the needy whenever he could. Upon his death, he was recognized by Taoism and later Buddhism as a living Buddha and achieved apotheosis.

Shamanistic spirit possessions can be seen across the world. What makes Taiwan’s Jigong possessions so compelling is their boozy, chaotic nature.

They usually begin with the medium going into a trance, then lurching around in the manner described. What comes next is often anyone’s guess, with different mediums indulging in a variety of antics.

In statues and woodcarvings, Jigong is sometimes depicted reclining with a dog on his back* and mediums have been known to start scampering around on all fours like demented canines.

An incense censer outside the Quanhuatang (勸化堂) temple complex at Shihtoushan (獅頭山), Miaoli County

Hysterical giggling, slurred speaking in tongues and heightened pain tolerance are some common symptoms but each medium goes about being possessed in different ways.

While the host will obviously grab your attention, keep an eye on the bystanders. The medium is nearly always a man, but is often assisted by women who steady him and hold his discarded robes.

Watch out: Close proximity with the spirit is enough to infect a person and there is usually at least one observer – again usually a woman – drawn into the proceedings.

Symptoms of intoxication include clapping, pirouetting like Margot Fonteyn on amphetamines, and yowling like a strangled kitten. These exertions can lead a person to collapse as the spirit leaves their body, so fellow onlookers often surround the vicariously possessed to ensure they don’t injure themselves.

Meanwhile, you may notice a temple employee on hand with a bottle of rice wine, should the drunken monk require libation.

Souvenir calabashes, or bottle gourds - appropriate as they are Jigong's favoured booze receptacle

Lions on a temple pillar

According to a friend with a medium in the family, spirit hosts are recognized as a bit different from an early age and it runs in families. What others sometimes take to be mild sociopathy, the initiated see as untapped spiritualism.

Although Jigong is invariably portrayed as chopstick-thin, mediums come in all shapes and sizes. Pre and post-possession, you’ll have trouble spotting one, unless he has already been fitted out with the garb for a planned ceremony.

Temples are your best bet. I’ve seen a couple of captivating rituals at a favourite old hiking spot of mine: Shihtoushan, or Lion’s Head Mountain (獅頭山), with its Qunahuatang (勸化堂) mountain-temple complex, on the borders of Miaoli and Hsinchu Counties. The beautiful setting imbues what is already a strange and powerful event with an even greater mysticism.

Taoist temples sometimes have resident mediums and itinerants are also welcome to get possessed there. While Buddhism officially proscribes the practice, Taiwanese popular religion has become such a mish-mash of beliefs and practices, that you wouldn’t know it. Around the island there are hundreds of temples with Jigong idols and some are dedicated to the rascal himself.

I’ve been told that Jigong possessions can occur spontaneously in far more mundane settings such as family dinners at the local restaurant.

So if you see some guy staggering around a Taiwan eatery, bear in mind: Rather than being an ungodly drunk, he may have been touched by a drunken god.

View of the temple complex at Shihtoushan

* I have still yet to receive a conclusive explanation for the dog: Several theories have been put forward, with the most common being that Jigong is going to eat him. As there’s usually a feeling of playful interaction between god and canine in most representations I have come across, I find this hard to believe.

However, a temple attendant and an antiques shop owner separately countered my scepticism with the almost verbatim contention that, rather than being cruel, eating the dog shows Ji’s love for the animal. By killing it, he is apparently moving the mutt out of this life and closer to Nirvana.  Can anyone shed any light on this?

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