Spirit possession in modern China: demons, missionaries, and anthropologists

ANU China Seminar Series


Benjamin Penny


Seminar Room A, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU


Thursday, 1 November, 2018 - 16:00 to 17:30

Benjamin Penny

The Reverend John Livingstone Nevius (1829-1893), a American Presbyterian missionary in China from 1854, had all but completed his book Demon Possession and Allied Themes, being an inductive study of phenomena of our own times when he died in 1893. At the time of his death Nevius had been in China for the best part of forty years. When he first arrived Nevius employed a “native scholar” called “Mr Tu” as his language teacher. When they were able to speak to each other, the conversations, Nevius tells us, often turned to “spiritual manifestations and possessions”. Mr Tu’s “marvellous stories” caused Nevius to reflect on “the striking resemblance between some of his statements of alleged facts and the demonology of Scripture”. This, in turn, made him re-evaluate his own ideas on the reality of possession. This paper examines Nevius’s researches, and uses his example to look again at the assumptions and presuppositions western scholars have made when studying spirit possessions.

About the speaker

Benjamin Penny is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World. He is an historian of religions in China whose current research spans medieval Daoism, the writings of western missionaries and diplomats in 19th century China, and new religions in Taiwan.

Before the seminar

All attendees are invited to join us in the CIW Tea House from 3.30pm for an informal discussion with the guest speaker before the seminar.
The ANU China Seminar Series is supported by the China Institute and the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific.

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