The 1980's and 1990's was an era when farmers became poor after having been reasonably well off. This was at a time when China's economic policy was undergoing adjustment by giving priority to urban industrial development. A uniformity policy was imposed in which the cost of rural resources supplemented urban industrial development. Rural strength became weaker.
Income in the rural areas decreased whereas the peasants continued to be burdened by the cost of education and medical care. The economic downturn also meant cultural desolation.
In Chinese rural life, there has never been a culture that fostered recreation or personal development. On the contrary, what was most popular in the 1980's and 1990's was witchcraft. From the end of the 1980's to the beginning of 1990's in a village of about 700 people, which happened to be the hometown of the author of this article, lived seven witches. They practiced healing and casting out demons and played an indespensable social role in the lives of villagers. They also became the center of attention. .
Among the seven witches was my third uncle on my father's side. There are two witches in my family, one of them being my uncle and the other my sister-in-law.
My third uncle's father died young. By the time I was born, his father had died many years ago. He had had two older brothers and one younger brother.
While my uncle was still alive, it was not an easy matter to find a wife because the women of marrying age from nearby villages were very few. The proportion of men to women was seriously imbalanced. As betrothal gifts were not the norm at that time, for a young man to find a wife, he had to have a skill or connections in the government as the leg up to be chosen for marriage.
My third uncle had the highest education level among his brothers. He completed primary school. At the time only two guys in my village had completed junior middle school.
My third uncle enjoyed reading. His wife had a betrothal table and in the middle drawer were many books. I received an enlightened education by my father who read to me in bed on wintery days parts from the books, "Biography of Jigong" and "Journey to the West", books that had been borrowed from my third uncle.
He was nearly 1.80 metres tall, almost the tallest in my village and his wife was around 1.70 metres tall. Maybe they were slow in their farm work or just slow period because they were so tall. Thus they were not much concerned with farming and home and therefore were financially at the bottom of society. In addition, they were infertile so there was no mood for tending to life. By the year 2000, when everybody had a motor bike and colour TV, my uncles' yard had no fence nor a decent front gate. The house was still an old brick house, just the same as when they first were married.
My uncle got to know the witches about 1995. At the time, he had many spirits that he followed. However they can be summarized in two categories: one being the individual god such as Jigong, and the other being the collective gods such as the master and apprentices of the Tang monk and Pigsy (as in "Journey to the West").
When people gathered at his house, he would sometimes become possessed. If he waved and played a hand rake, that indicated he was possessed by Pigsy; if a blade then Sandy; if a rolling pin no doubt it was Monkey King. Because the weapons used by the apprentices of the Tang monk were a long pole-type weapons, it was therefore very inconvenient to wave them around in his little house. That was why most of the times he was possessed by Jigong.
When my third uncle claimed that he was possessed, no one, including my great-aunt, his brothers, my family and neighbours, ever believed him, regarding it as just a joke. Despite everyone's sneering, he continued his performance of being possessed. Later, when he severely reprimanded my grand-aunt after being rebuked by her, his brothers and my great-aunt started to believe that he was truly possessed, vowing to never again offend him.
His being possessed lasted about four to five years. Later through various medical treatments, they eventually gave birth to a son. However, even after the baby was born, he did not change the way he managed his family after the baby was born. My third uncle gave up his religion (if it can be considered a religion) when his son was about six. It was a winters day, his son and a few friends had gone out to have fun and accidentally fallen through the ice on a pond. The boy had died of asphyxiation when the body was found. Faced by this sudden, premature death, the couple were overcome with grief. Since then, my third uncle has never again mentioned being possessed by Jigong or the master-apprentice of the Tang monk.
More than a decade went by and my third uncle got back on the right track in life and gave birth to another son, but his 'religion' has never reappeared.
The information about these spirit gods he believed in came from folklore, most of which he knew from books. It was different from the other witches who believed in tree spirits, vixens or supernatural beings. The spirits they believed in were not from novels or TV. And to the villagers those spirits were not intellectually knowable but rather required simple faith. Regarding Jigong or the Tang Mmonk group, who my third uncle believed in, they were familiar folklore figures had once appeared on TV and so nobody took him seriously.
Why did he suddenly claim he was possessed? It was because he was of too low a rank in his village and nobody treated him seriously. He was however educated and his wife was decent and good looking so he could not bear the huge difference between what he had expected and how he was actually treated. He wanted to at minimal cost find a way to change his status and image. Due to the small size of his house, he clearly and rationally chose Jigong, a god without weapons yet very powerful. Therefore, 'being possessed' was something that he gave considerable consideration to.
Why did my third uncle suddenly abandon his gods? His son's death revealed the truth abouthis gods; that since they could not even protect his loved one, how they could protect others? How could they convince him? Faced with his son's premature death, his being possessed became a big joke.
In fact, he had orchestrated being possessed, aiming at changing his image. He had chosen possession at the lowest cost, desiring fame.
This story may summarise almost all the witches' experience in my village and explain why they claim to being possessed.
Today, nobody would care if you are possessed or not because the methods of changing one's image are more varied and not just by one single method of farming. Therefore, witches are almost extinct. At that time, there were a few in every village but today none can be found. The witches, too, are facing a lack of successors.
Now is the time for establishing true faith. When profit oriented religious beliefs are replaced by the opportunity for economic betterment, those so-called religions have lost their mysterious appeal. The benefit brought by folk religious faith no longer attracts villagers who have become more prosperous because of urbanization. It is then that true faith from theheart can have the chance to bloom.
-Translated by Charlie Li