I photographed the above calligraphy in a Daoist temple near the city of Taichung, Taiwan. They were written by a spirit medium while in a trance and possessed by a god, immortal or other ancestor. They were displayed on either side of the altar in the main hall, behind a small barrier. Unusually they were written in ink on paper, with a signature that reads 天師 (tian shr / teacher from the sky). They have some similar formal characteristics; the upper character on both is symmetrical with looped strokes radiating from a circular central form, while the lower character is a highly complex oblong shape. The characters are of course not real words; they have no corresponding phoneme and are without semantic content; they are in other words “asemic”. They can however be read by a 讀乩者 (du ji zhe / reader) who interprets the words and explains the meaning in common language.
More usually 扶乩 characters are written in a winnowing tray (for separating rice grains from chaff), in either sand or incense ashes with a Y-shaped stylus / planchette of (usually) apricot wood. The stylus may be operated by one or two people accompanied by various ritual attendants. The practice was prohibited on mainland China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but it is fairly common in the Daoist tradition in Taiwan and in the popular folk religions of the island.
The author of the writing is assumed to be the possessing deity rather than the possessed individual; as a result the medium involved rarely has enhanced social status because of their work (see: Jordan 1989: 73, 84-86). Sometimes the stylus itself is considered to be the “medium” (see: Elliott 1955: 141-142).
Other forms of Fu-Ji writing involve making marks with one of the poles of a sedan chair in which the god or spirit ancestor is seated. Again the four bearers of the “divination chair” are believed to be merely supporting the deity who is the one directing the movement. Accordingly, and unlike the calligraphy in the illustrations, one does not need to be a trained medium to bear the sedan – theoretically any male villager may do it (see: Jordan 1989: 57-59, 64-67).
Fu-Ji writing is used by people to ask advice from gods about healing sickness, future events and even finding lost objects. However its main function is didactic: to improve the moral cultivation of communities via the composition of morality books (注疏 / zhu shu). In fact several substantial Daoist scriptures were written by planchette writing. For example, those of Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓) who manifested himself at altars in Guangdong and Hong Kong in the late nineteenth century (see: Shiga, 2002).
Presumably the actual movements of the planchette are due to the so called “ideomotor effect” similar to that of the “Oui Ji” board.
I am interested in Fu Ji writing for three reasons, firstly, as mentioned above, it must be described as asemic, despite the fact that the marks can be read and translated by some individuals. Secondly, the writing is usually produced communally; and thirdly the writing is produced at the boundary of language, here the boundary between sacred and profane realms. In social terms at least, it therefore indicates something outside of language – although hardly a real object.
Elliott, Alan J.A. 1955. CHINESE SPIRIT-MEDIUM CULTS IN SINGAPORE (London: Department of Anthropology London School of Economics and Political Science).
Shiga, Ichiko, 2002. “Manifestations of Lüzu in Modern Guangdong: The Rise and Growth of Spirit Writing Cults,” in Livia Kohn, Harold David Roth, ed., DAOIST IDENTITY; COSMOLOGY, LINEAGE, AND RITUAL (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press).
Jordan, David K. 1989. GODS, GHOSTS, AND ANCESTORS: FOLK RELIGION IN A TAIWANESE VILLAGE (Taipei: Caves Books).