Monday, 4 December 2017

Patrick Aventurier | The Ma Song

Photo © Patrick Aventurier | All Rights Reserved
Having attended the Nine Emperor Gods festival's celebrations in Kuala Lumpur last month, I was interested to discover a gallery of 50 portraits of The Ma Song by French photographer Patrick Aventurier (which were in all probability taken during the festival in Phuket, and known there as the Vegetarian festival. 

My own experience at the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Ampang was very much milder than what these portraits depict....but let's start with what the festival is all about. 

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and celebrates this community's belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health, peace of mind, as well as spiritual cleansing. Its sacred rituals grant good fortune on those who observe this rite.

In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (always consensual). 

The Ma Song are the people (usually men) who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become Ma Song. At the temples, they must first undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. This ritualistic tradition doesn't exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.

Notwithstanding, it's said that the Ma Song follow a Chinese logic of fair trade: they volunteer their bodies to be used by the gods in exchange for being kept alive through the gods’ use of their bodies in the future.

Patrick Aventurier is a French photographer/photojournalist with Gamma. He covered conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Cambodia, Myanmar, North Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He is the recipient of a number of awards and recognitions ranging from World Press 1988, a UNESCO award, War Correspondents Prize in Bayeux, and many others.

Note: I seldom -if ever- post commentary from readers, however I make an exception for photographer Cheryl Hoffman, a friend, a long time resident of Kuala Lumpur and an expert in the local cultures of Malaysia, including Taoist rituals and their significance.

Edited for space reason, here's what Cheryl wrote on my Facebook page about The Ma Song blog post:

"The sensationalism of the Vegetarian Festival has removed it almost entirely from the intent of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The festival is intended to bring the forces of yin and yang into balance in order to provide for the health of the people. Yes, within Taoism there is a purpose for spirit mediums to show the power of their connection to the gods and sometimes that involves some kind of self-mutilation (or something that looks like self-mutilation but isn't). The antics played out by the Thai spirit mediums are unnecessary to achieve that. It's a circus really. And I don't know why the connection to Thaipusam keeps coming up. I think that increasing extremism amongst Chinese spirit mediums is based in Thailand and trickling into Malaysia. What's happening in Thailand is off the charts compared to the Hindu/Thaipusam version. Piercings for the puja of Thaipusam are undertaken as vows of silence mostly, even in their extremes. There has been increasing sensationalism around Thaipusam at Batu Caves and other places in the past decade. 

(Although) Patrick's portraits are good and they make me sad to think about the young people who are under pressure to do this kind of thing to make an impression and a living."