The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia

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By Jean DeBernardi

The Way That Lives in the Heart is a richly detailed ethnographic analysis of the practice of Chinese religion in the modern, multicultural Southeast Asian city of Penang, Malaysia. The study focuses on popular religious culture and spirit mediumship, a form of ritual practice of great antiquity that remains important in southern China and in Southeast Asia.

The book opens with a discussion of taken-for-granted patterns of action and interpretation that offer a way for individuals to understand and control their fate, luck, prosperity, and health in the quest for a good life. Four detailed case studies show how different spirit mediums derive individualized teachings and practices from a common set of symbolic and ethnical traditions. One concerns a nyonya (local Chinese) woman possessed by Malay animist spirits, the second a locally-born and English-educated Chinese master versed in theosophy and Theravada Buddhism, the third a man born in China who synthesizes teachings from Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and the fourth a group of socially marginal individuals who use a religious anti-language and unique rituals to set themselves apart from mainstream society.

By conveying both an understanding of shared religious practices and orientations and a sense of how individual men and women imagine, represent, and modify these practices within the time and space of their own lives, The Way That Lives in the Heart provides an important perspective on the study of living religious traditions that are not counted among the major world religions, but which for many are part of the fabric of everyday life.


"The greatest success of this book are its wealth of matieral, and its ability to treat the god-in-medium seriously as an anthropological subject...DeBernardi has provided an interesting and richly detailed sequel (or perhaps prequel) to her 2004 volume and demonstrated yet again that some of the most fascinating developments in Chinese religion occur outside of China." - Thomas Dubois


Jean Debernardi is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her areas of specialization include Chinese in Southeast Asia; the anthropology of religion; and ethnicity, nationalism, and transnationalism. She has conducted extensive ethnographic research on Chinese popular religion in Malaysia and Singapore and her publications include Cantonese Society in China and Singapore: Gender, Religion, Medicine and Money and Penang: Rites of Belonging in a Malaysian Chinese Community.

Publication Year: 2011
392 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-417-3, Paperback

NUS Press