2010 Student-Faculty Fellows: Davidson College
Globalization and Localization of Chinese Malaysian Religiosity
Mentor: Hun Y. Lye
Students: Zachary Herron, Brian Leahy, Whitney Webb
Our group of three students and a mentor travelled to Penang, Malaysia to study the globalization and localization of Chinese Malaysian religiosity. Zachary Harron studied four tutelary land deities and how the Malaysian Chinese view their social and political situation in Malaysia through the lens of these deities. Whitney Webb studied the reasons for the growing popularity of the gods Tua Peh and Ji Peh of the hell bureaucracy in Chinese Malaysia. Brian Leahy studied how Chinese in Malaysia negotiate their local identities as Chinese and Buddhists in Malay society and as Buddhists, linked to a globally active Tibetan faith, in the broader global society. Papers from this research will be submitted to academic journals for publication. Additionally, a number of presentations will be given at Davidson College, in the local community, and at several regional conferences.
Originally, my research was going to focus on the two tutelary land deities Tudi Gong and Datuk Kong, their interrelatedness, and how the Malaysian Chinese view their social and political situation as an ethnic minority through the lens of these two deities. I discovered that the Penang Chinese conception of the land extends beyond these two deities and encompasses two more: the Deiju Gong and Tuapek Kong. All of these deities, although not always explicitly, are interconnected one with another. This interrelatedness demonstrates how Penang Chinese morphed their understanding of their land deities to reflect their contemporary situation as an ethnic minority in a foreign land. My research trip to Penang was a unique, jolting experience that enabled me to understand that our world is lively and vibrant with diversity. I encountered ideas, lifestyles, attitudes, and methods of worship that I had never before conceived. The experience also enabled me to begin to forge a career that involves China and Asia.
My interest in my research topic begin when I was immersed in the Tibetan exile communities of Kathmandu, Nepal, and Dharmsala, India, where I noticed the prevalence of foreign, non-Tibetan patrons of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and lamas. Consequently, when the opportunity presented itself to study in Malaysia, I decided to study how Chinese Malaysians negotiate their local identities as Chinese in a predominantly Malay country and their global identity as disciples of globally active Tibetan lamas and monasteries. Once in Malaysia, I focused my study on three centers, all in Penang, that either self-identify as Gelugpa, or can be accurately described as being derived from the Gelugpa tradition. My study then broadened to ascertain how these three centers (the Chokyi Gyaltsen Center, a center based on the new Kadampa Tradition, and another Kuala Lumpur-based group called Kechara) represent different models of negotiating global reach and local effectiveness.
My original research proposal focused on studying how Chinese spirit mediums within the Malaysian community respond to patrons who seek their help and counsel regarding medical issues. However, I soon discovered that gaining sufficient data about this topic would be very difficult. Consequently, I redirected my research to that of examining two Chinese gods of the hell bureaucracy, Tua Peh and Ji Peh, and their spirit mediums. I discovered that the prevalence of Tua Ji Peh mediums and temples have greatly increased in Chinese Malaysian communites during the past couple of decades, and I believe this can best be attributed to their role as wealth gods during a period of heightened economic concerns. In addition, the reimagining of Tua Peh and Ji Peh that depicts them as more moral and less dangerous figures has made them more accessible.