Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Margaret Chan: Understanding the Chinese Warrior-Defender of Boundaries

This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between D. S. Farrer and Margaret Chan. Farrer is the special issue editor for Social Analysis Volume 58, Issue 1, and Chan is the author of the article “Tangki War Magic The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace,” appearing in that issue. Below, Chan answers a series of questions related to her article in Social Analysis.


This is the fourth in a series of interviews with contributors to this volume. Find the previous contributions on our blog.



What drew you to the study of War Magic & Warrior Religion?

I am Hokkien; a second-generation Chinese Singaporean from Fujian, Southeastern China. War is a mark of the Hokkien people. The Hokkiens were the last of the Chinese to acquiesce to Manchu Qing rule (the last of the imperial dynasties, 1644-1911). However, even up to contemporary times, the mandate, “Destroy the Qing, Restore the Ming,” continued to be the rallying call of the Triads, many of whom were southern Chinese. The ancestors of the Hokkien were a non-Sinic people, the Yue, who had a kingdom near present-day Zhejiang during the Warring States period just before China was united as an empire under Qin Shihuangdi in 221BCE. The ritual instrument and war weapon of the Yue was a battle-axe. I traced tangki spirit-medium worship, the oldest indigenous Chinese religions to the Yue of Neolithic times, through to the Hokkiens. The tangki is a warrior-protector of his people (traditionally tangkis were men). He is not a warmonger, rather he protects his people, that is a community living within boundaries.


I am a Christian, baptised at birth. However my childhood was largely spent in a village known for tangki worship, where I watched tangki rituals. Growing up, these dramatic ceremonies formed a part of my quotidian day-to-day life. I chose to research tangki worship when I began to ask about the “other” half of my heritage.



Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

My perceptions did not change in that I first approached the ancient religion with an open heart and mind despite a very Catholic way of life. I learnt to understand that people have different ways of making meaning. In the modern world, tangki worship is an anachronism: a religion that features blood-letting and self-mortification, sometimes extreme, cannot be in synch with the modern world, informed largely, I would add, by Christian ideas and scientism. I learnt to read rituals and behaviours of communities as performance texts, to understand a community in terms of their cultures and belief-systems and not to read others using the yardsticks and terms of reference of another culture.


A tangki cutting himself with a jagged-tooth sword. Photo: Margaret Chan

A tangki cutting himself with a jagged-tooth sword. Photo: Margaret Chan


What aspect of researching and writing the chapter did you find most challenging?  Most rewarding?

I am a pioneer in the research field of tangki spirit-medium worship. Few scholars were interested in the “primitive” religion of supposedly backward people in the 1990s. Western scholars of religion went to Taiwan from the 1970s, but when they researched Chinese religion they looked predominantly to Buddhism, Confucianism, and scriptural Daoism, a bias towards the institutionalised religions with church and clergy, rather than the tangki who in individual cults.

As a pioneer researcher I used to be met with suspicion whenever I approached tangki communities. Previously nobody had tried understand them, or approached them with any other attitude than hostility or reductive judgment. It did not help that tangki worship is a masculine practice—menstruating women cannot be near when rituals are performed. But the Hokkiens are a generous, earthy people. It was always quickly after the initial challenges, “What’s up?” “What do you want” that I’d be welcomed and given food to eat. There is always a lot of food, and a hearty appetite is regarded with great approval. That in its way became a challenge, a happy one, to eat food and then more food, under the solicitous eyes of eager hosts always saying, “eat, eat, don’t be shy.”

My reward would be living in a world much larger than the one I was born in.

With regard the Social Analysis contribution, I thank Doug Farrer, friend I met when he was working in Singapore. I thank also Shawn Kendrick copyeditor, and of course Social Analysis and Bergahn Books.


To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

I hope the book will stir up debate and discourse. Today’s wars concern spiritual empires. It appears that our world today is one of violence. But violence is the other half of peace; it is a part of human history and a part of the quotidian. Before nationalism, war was about territory; and so seemed “natural”. People conquered other people’s lands. Now we have nationalism; essentially imagined communities located in geographical space and international rules that are not quite international being created and policed by the West. Ideas, however, are not contained by geographical borders. So you have problems when one community asserts their belief systems and values as fundamental over another. I am not talking only in terms of religion; I am talking of ideologies that include political structures and systems, notions of individualism vs communitarianism, and so on. Religion is often at the very core of such beliefs. So-called secular notions such as human rights, for instance, are quickly traced to moral and religious attitudes. Religion can lead to physical violence simply because all religions deal with the divine. That’s life beyond the mortal coil. Religion is the link to immortality. Why worry about mortal life when there is eternal life after death? A people who believe that another subjects them may turn to acceptance in higher world.


Academics would do well to trace “religion” in life — even business and management involve ritual, and what is it but the making of a virtual world real. We need to see politics in terms of religion and violence. It is easy to think of violence from an alien source as reprehensible, but the answer too often is to exact revenge or control through even greater violence. We need to trace this circuit of violence; go down to the originating circumstances which would invariably be cultural. For example, if we would use this “religion” lens to examine the South China Sea problem we can think of a spirit warrior protector who guards the geographical territory of the community, policing boundaries but not invading. This is a sacred duty. Witness the Great Wall of China, and the Great Firewall of China. The Spratly Islands form the Great Wall at sea. Ask the Chinese to go for international arbitration, and they will likely recall the Treaty of Versailles 1919, which had the Western Allies hand over German-occupied Shandong Peninsula to Japan as if they had the right to gift Chinese territory to another nation. If you understand that violence can be spiritual, you can better understand a humiliation that abides even though the circumstances are now history.



Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

Although scientism is bankrupt, the modernists and positivists still hold sway and would reduce qualitative research so that in the final analysis you get less knowledge rather than more knowledge.


If you weren’t an anthropologist, historian, what would you have done instead?

An actress or journalist


What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?

I was once a leading foodwriter.


What inspired your love of the subject of War Magic? When?

It was childhood bewilderment. Seeing people “cut off their tongues,” piercing themselves with skewers, cutting their bodies with swords—and an audience in awe and reverence. As a child of perhaps five to nine years, I was thinking, “What made people do this violence to themselves?”


What inspired you to research and write?

An insatiable curiosity about the world I live in and the people I live among.


What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

Anthropology grew out of Western colonial curiosity about the primitive ‘Other.” Now anthropology asks us to investigate that which is new and therefore alien within our community. We haven’t quite shaken off that sense of “us” and “them.” Anthropologists still worry about “going native.” The scholar needs to be less the scientist examining a “specimen culture,” than builder of paths of understanding from culture to culture.






MARGARET CHAN is an Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies

(Practice) in the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University.

She received her PhD from the University of London in 2002. Her research areas

include creative thinking, theater anthropology, performance studies, Asian

ritual theater, and Chinese spirit-medium worship. She is the author of

Ritual Is Theatre, Theatre Is Ritual: Tang-ki Chinese Spirit Medium Worship