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Red Hat and Black Hat Daoists, mediums, and “shaman”

“Red Hat” Daoists, Mediums, and “Shaman”

In north and south Taiwan, the terms Hongtou 紅頭 “Red Hat” (in Taiwanese/ Minnan dialect pronounce Angthau), and Wutou 烏頭 “Black Hat;” (in Minnan dialect pronounce O-thao) are used to distinguish 2 kinds of Daoist priests, i.e., “Red Hat” Daoists specialize in exorcism and healing rites for the living, while “Black Hat” specialize in Jiao 醮 Rites of Cosmic renewal, and Zhai 齋 funeral ritual. Red Hat Daoists can also perform their own version of Jiao rites of renewal, and Black Hat Daoists also perform rites of healing and exorcism, each in their own ritual manner.

Taiwan “Red Hat” Daoists also act as the interpreters of the “Danggi” 童乩 (“tongji” in mandarin pronunciation), and are often themselves possessed mediums (danggi means “youth possessed by shaking, who becomes a spirit’s oracle”); they must not, however, be called “shaman”, because they do not travel into the underworld to report on things there, a totally different word is used for this role in the SE China community, ie “guan lo yim” (Guan Luo Yin in Mandarin 觀落陰, literally a person who, in deep trance, descends into the underworld to see how things are there).
Two distinct words are used for these 2 roles, ie “danggi”, means the possession of the body by a demon, after which the demon or spirit uses the mouth of the possessed spirit as a mouthpiece for his/her own messages; the role of “shaman,” a person who in a trance travels to the other world (guan luoyim) and reports what he/she sees, is a distinct role and function. Since neither of these “ritual” experts are aware of what they are doing or saying when in trance, a Red Head Daoist must be there to interpret what they are saying. A 3rd sort of possession takes place when a writing brush attached to a small spirit chair is possessed (usually the chair is held by 2 to four persons), this is called “fu luan”, ie, a spirit chair with brush attached becomes possessed of a daemon, and writes illegible characters in sand (Jordan and Overmeyer have both written about this). The Red Head Daoist is again necessary to interpret what is written.
All of these rites occur throughout Taiwan, more frequently reported on in the south, esp. Tainan, but also found in north Taiwan, ie Hsinchu, and Taipei. All of the “scholars” who have done field work in Taiwan have seen and reported on these phenomena, e.g., John Lagerwey, Schipper, Jordan, Overmeyer, etc. The Black Head Daoist is not supposed to do this, though money is always a factor, ie, making a living in the modern, and ancient world, are not that dissimilar. The same distinction is made in Mongolia, ie the “shaman” is a person who is possessed and travels into the underworld, while the Laichong (Mongolian) or “Nechong” (Tibetan) is possessed of a specific personal spirit, and foretells the future, offers advice, and most important gives counsel to Dalai Lama. The Nechong oracle from the Nechong temple to the west of Lhasa is now in Dharamsala with Dalai Lama, but the Nechong rites are still performed all over Tibet. There are 7 “ghrala” protector spirits in North Tibet, one for each of the major Amdo (North Tibet) Temples, who do this form of possession to chosen “Nechong”monks.
Those Daoists who are especially known for their abilities to control and interpret Danggi medium and Goanloyim “shaman” possessions are known “Lü Shan” 閭山 Daoists. They are found not only in Taiwan, but throughout Guangdong and Fujian province as well, on the China Mainland. John Lagerwey has done the most comprehensive study of Lü Shan Daoism, and with an extensive grant from Taiwan sources, has published a massive collection of Lü Shan practices. His book on the subject, “China, a Religious State” (Hong Kong University Press: 2010) gives a clear picture of the widespread influence of the school, including Hakka as well as Hokkien (Fujian) speaking areas, throughout SE China.
Pictures of the Pantheon of Daoist spirits, including the Lü Shan patrons, are found in bookshops throughout Taiwan. Some of the images are included in this post.

Popular spirits found in temples throughout SE China
Sanqing: Dao as gestating, mediating, and indwelling

2 thoughts on “Red Hat and Black Hat Daoists, mediums, and “shaman”

  1. Su Lao Shr,

    Thanks again for such a perfect article on distinguishing the different elements in Lineage Based Taoism. Most often these days things online tend to be blurry alot of fiction vs truth (fact) we should all be grateful to your sacrifice of your “field work” you have dedicated your life to!


  2. Thank you, William, there is so much more to say, and many other great scholars who have gone much more deeply into the Redhat tradition, the work of John Lagerwey is splendid, many volumes in Chinese (print) attest to his collection and study of Shenxiao and Lü Shan daoism!

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