Chinese religion in contemporary Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan

The cult of the Two Grand Elders

By Fabian Graham

Chinese religion in contemporary Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan

Book Information

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-6777-4
  • Pages: 280
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £20.00
  • Published Date: May 2022
  • BIC Category: Social & cultural anthropology, RELIGION / Religion, Politics & State, RELIGION / Eastern, RELIGION / Cults, Oriental Religions, Society & social sciences / Social & cultural anthropology, ethnography, RELIGION / Buddhism / Rituals & Practice, RELIGION / Buddhism / History, RELIGION / Taoism, Educational: Religious Studies: Non-Christian Religions, Educational: Religious Studies: Buddhism
  • Series: Alternative Sinology


In Singapore and Malaysia, the inversion of Chinese Underworld traditions has meant that Underworld demons are now amongst the most commonly venerated deities in statue form, channelled through their spirit mediums, tang-ki. The Chinese Underworld and its sub-hells are populated by a bureaucracy drawn from the Buddhist, Taoist and vernacular pantheons. Under the watchful eye of Hell's 'enforcers', the lower echelons of demon soldiers impose post-mortal punishments on the souls of the recently deceased for moral transgressions committed during their prior incarnations.

Chinese religion in contemporary Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan offers an ethnography of contemporary Chinese Underworld traditions, where night-time cemetery rituals assist the souls of the dead, exorcised spirits are imprisoned in Guinness bottles, and malicious foetus ghosts are enlisted to strengthen a temple's spirit army. Understanding the religious divergences between Singapore and Malaysia (and their counterparts in Taiwan) through an analysis of socio-political and historical events, Fabian Graham challenges common assumptions about the nature and scope of Chinese vernacular religious beliefs and practices.

Graham's innovative approach to alterity allows the reader to listen to first-person dialogues between the author and channelled Underworld deities. Through its alternative methodological and narrative stance, the book intervenes in debates on the interrelation between sociocultural and spiritual worlds, and promotes the destigmatisation of spirit possession and discarnate phenomena in the future study of mystical and religious traditions.


Reviews of the hardback edition of this book, titled Voices from the Underworld:
'Voices from the Underworld adds significantly to our understanding of this problem with a fascinating study of a completely new variant: the recent rise of Underworld deity temples among Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia. [...] The ethnography in these sections is notable for its richness of description as well as its documentation of a new development in Chinese vernacular religion. Most remarkable of all are the author's direct interviews with possessing Underworld deities, during which they discuss topics from their preferences in alcohol to the administrative structure of the Underworld and the nature of the soul.'
Robert P. Weller, Journal of Contemporary Religion

'Voices from the Underworld is an engaging ethnography that is suitable for undergraduate classroom teaching to students of religious studies and anthropology. The fine details captured in the well-structured and narrated field notes reflect the meticulous job that Graham has done, in two historically related yet culturally diversified sites of study. This book is a good resource for understanding contemporary religious trends in Singapore and Malaysia, and a useful reference for comparative religious studies in Asia.'
Review of Religion and Chinese Society

'Graham makes a convincing case that hell deity worship has grown in scale and taken new forms in the period that he seeks to document. Through ethnographic research that is both intensive and extensive, he demonstrates that veneration of the Underworld gods and the Ten Courts of Hell is an important part of contemporary vernacular religious practice. The book is filled with detailed reports on his ethnographic interviews and observations that testify to the inventiveness and imagination of the practitioners of Chinese popular religion, and the Underworld merits a book-length study of this sort.'

China Review International



Part I: Setting the scene
1 The modern Underworld tradition
2 Analysis: a baseline of comparison
3 The historical development of Underworld cosmology

Part II: The Underworld tradition in Singapore
4 Yu Feng Nan Fu Xuanshan Miao: setting a baseline of comparison
5 A new Underworld God of Wealth, and, foetus assistance rituals in Singapore
6 Lunar Seventh Month: the centrality of graveyards in the Underworld tradition

Part III: The Underworld tradition in Malaysia
7 Malaysia and the party spirit: guanxi and the creation of 'intentional' communities
8 Seventh Month rituals in southern Malaysia: salvation rituals and 'Ah Pek' parties
9 Seventh Month rituals in central Malaysia: coffin rituals and the releasing of exorcised spirits

Part IV: Tracing the origins of the modern Underworld tradition
10 Anxi Chenghuangmiao and cultural flows of local mythology
11 Penang: the earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
12 Conclusions and analysis


Fabian Graham is a Research Fellow in the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore

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