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Taiwan Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

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Chinese -- Malaysia -- Religious life and customs, Chinese cosmology, Chinese -- Malaysia -- Rituals -- History and criticism


This paper examines spiritual beliefs and practices in the Hakka Malaysian community of Pulai, focusing on the pantheon of deities and spirits worshipped and propitiated; the system of local beliefs in the power and efficacy of these deities; and the manner in which individuals and families have reproduced and altered these spiritual beliefs over time. Unlike my previous writings about religion in Pulai, which have emphasized the sociological components of local religion practices, my goal here is to explore the cosmological system, world view, and system of meanings conveyed through religious practices in this Hakka village.

As with many Chinese communities, the list of spirits who are propitiated in Pulai is rather lengthy. The most visible community deities are those with permanent places in the village temple dedicated to Guanyin (觀音) where the front altar also includes Mazu (媽祖) known locally as Maniang (媽娘) and represented as three sisters; Shupoda (叔頗大), who cares for domestic animals; Guandi (關帝); Tangongye (譚公爺), a Hakka rain deity; Dabogong (大伯公), a territorial spirit; and Caishen (財神) Wealth God. During the nine day annual Guanyin birthday celebration in the second lunar month, additional deities and spirits who are propitiated include Tiangong (天公), the God of Heaven; Shuidexianjun (水德仙君), a water spirit; two Malay laduk (拿督公), local earth spirits; a ‘festivity’ shen (神); and the unnamed

spirits of men who died protecting the community. Ancestors are worshipped in family homes on altars that often include other deities such as Guanyin, Maniang, Guandi, or Caishen. Families also propitiate Zaojun (灶君), the Stove God, in their kitchens, and Tudigong (土地公), the Earth God, and Tiangong in appropriate domestic locations. Finally a handwritten book of temple prayers includes petitions not only to Guanyin and other temple deities, but also to Longshen (龍神), Dragon God; Dasui (大歲), a star deity; Nandou, Beidou (南斗北斗), South and North Pole Stars; Jigong (濟公); Nazha (哪吒); and Jitian (濟天).

The first section of this paper examines the unique characteristics of the spirits included in the Pulai pantheon, and describes briefly how they came to be worshipped in the community. The second section explores local beliefs in the powers of these spirits conveyed through stories of their actions and interactions with community members over time. The paper’s third section situates Pulai spiritual beliefs in time and space, and discusses how shifts in local spiritual practices and beliefs have helped new generations of Pulai residents respond to a changing world.


Originally appeared in the Taiwan Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, volume 4, issue 1, pages 29-64 (2007).

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