On a more personal level, I did have one direct experience with Daoist spiritism, which I’ll narrate without commentary. This happened in the late 1990s (probably 1998; I’m sure this happened prior to the huge Jiji earthquake of September 21, 1999).
A big social aspect of Daoism is the religious procession. In Taiwan, the idols of a temple are placed on palanquins and wheeled through the streets, to the accompaniment of live bands playing drums, gongs and a kind of Chinese trumpet called a suona, which is extremely resonant. There are also people who wear god costumes that are twice the size of a normal person. Finally, religious processions very often include groups that are called the “Eight Generals,” which are usually (but not exclusively) young men who put on colorful, intimidating face paint, and wield hand weapons, such as hammers and saws and pikes. They often flog themselves with these weapons, drawing blood, and enter trances. As the name implies, they tend to gather in groups of eight, and often form circles, facing inward, where they dance and wield their weapons in circular motions.
On the block where I lived at the time, a wealthy man died, and his family paid for a very big procession in his honor. The procession snaked through the neighborhood and then circled the block where the deceased had lived, which was also my block. Now, the procession was so grand and so long that the people at the head of the procession circled around the block and ran into the people in the middle of the procession who had not started circling the block yet. This stalled out the entire parade. The people blocking the way had nowhere to go but forward, but they couldn’t move forward until the people at the head of the procession came unstuck, which they couldn’t do until the people behind them got out of their way, and so forth.
I was returning to my apartment from lunch at the time, and I must admit that I found the whole situation to be humorous. When I walked up to the front door of my apartment house, a circle of Eight Generals was standing exactly in front of my door. Unlike most of the rest of the procession, who were just standing around waiting for the traffic jam to be resolved, the Eight Generals were still dancing in their inward-facing circle.
Well, I wasn’t really taking the whole occasion very seriously, nor was I feeling particularly patient, so I just walked straight through the middle of their circle, unlocked the door and went inside. On the second-floor landing in the stairwell was a window looking down on the street, and I paused to have another look at what was going on outside. What I saw was one of the Eight Generals staring up at me with a very baleful look in his eyes. Granted, his face was painted up with garish and deliberately daunting makeup, but the impression I walked away with was one of being cursed.
(Breaking the circle is taboo, although I didn’t know it at the time.)
In the following weeks, I experienced a long series of unlucky events. It’s been a number of years, and I can’t recall the details clearly, but I generally felt that Murphy’s Law was working overtime in my life for a long time. The culminating event was a car crash that left one passenger bleeding seriously. No one was hospitalized, but the vehicle was totaled, and I had to turn it in for scrap.
I’m not personally given to superstition, but at a certain point I really began to feel jinxed. I came to the conclusion that regardless of whether or not it was just my imagination, I needed to do something. So I went to one of the larger Daoist temples in Taipei, one dedicated to Guan Gong, the God of War (and Business), and made an offering of fruit and incense.
Afterwards, I felt better, and the bad things stopped happening, or at least went back to happening at their normal frequency and severity. To this day, I have not decided in my own mind whether those events were purely psychosomatic, or ordinary coincidence, or something more. Nonetheless, since then I certainly have treated the rituals going on around me with a good deal more respect. Lesson learned.