Planchette Writing

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Planchette writing ( 扶乩 Fuji ) is also called fuluan' ( 扶鸞 Fuluan ) or jiangbi ' ( 降筆 Jiangbi ). Its operation requires one or two persons to hold a rack and reveal words or pictures on a prepared sand plate, and then give explanations. It is practised in the composition of Daoist scriptures and in discussing with Immortals. Common people use it for divination and relieving themselves of worries, and to help solve their problems. Planchette writing is very popular nationwide, and is commonly practised in Daoist temples in Taiwan, Hong Kong and at some folk shrines and altars in mainland China.

Planchette writing began as a method for summoning the Lady of the Privy ( 異苑 Yiyuan ) during the Six Dynasties, and flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties.

Liu Jingshu, who lived in the Southern Song, recorded in the 'Exotic Garden', vol.5 ( 紫姑 Zigu ) that people believed in the Lady of the Privy. She was said to have been a concubine. The head wife was envious of her and so always ordered her to do the dirty jobs. She died of anger on the fifteenth day of the first month. Each year on that day, people made an idol of her and beckoned her in the washroom or beside the pigsty. If the idol got heavier, it showed that she had descended. Then people offered her juices and fruit, and the idol began to move. Then they asked her to tell them of their good or bad luck.

Summoning the Lady of the Privy was the earliest origin of planchette writing. In Liu Jingshu's records, people only used her idol and didn't practise the planchette. Summoning the Lady of the Privy by means of a planchette appeared in the Tang Dynasty and became popular in the Song. Later, the date of summoning the goddess was no longer limited to the 15th of the first month; it could be done any day.

Shen Kuo and Su Shi in the Northern Song also recorded the practise of summoning the Lady of the Privy. Su Shi's descriptions deserve our special attention. He mentioned that the method of summoning her was to make her idol with wood or straw, put clothes on her body and chopsticks in her hands, and then to ask two children to hold it. The chopsticks would write and tell the Lady of the Privy's stories and answers to people's questions (cf. The Collection of Dongpo ( 東坡集 Dongpo Ji ), vol.13: Records of the Lady of the Privy ( 子姑神記 Zigu Shenji )). Zhang Shichen of the Song dynasty also recorded that when summoning the Lady of the Privy, people inserted chopsticks in a planchette and put dust on the table, so that the chopsticks could write on it. Thus by the Song Dynasty, the method of planchette writing had become established.

When brought into Daoism, planchette writing influenced the composition of Daoist scriptures.

It is hard to tell when planchette writing was incorporated into Daoism, but it is certain that planchette writing was applied to reveal celestial writing and to compose other Daoist scriptures. Su Shi mentioned that when he was at Huangzhou (today's Huanggang in Hubei Province), he got the seal characters of the Lady of the Privy. The style was unusual and illegible, and so was called " Celestial seal characters"; the contents of the revelation were entitled The Divine Incantation of Tian Peng ( 天蓬神咒 Tianpeng Shenzhou ). The Tian Peng incantation spread into Daoism during the Southern Dynasties. Tao Hongjing had mentioned this fact. Tian Peng was one of the Four Sagely and Perfected Sovereigns, and was very well known. This incantation is one example in which we can see how planchette writing was practised to produce Daoist secret writings (cf. The Collection of Dong Po, vol.13: Records of the Heavenly Sealed Characters ( 天篆記 Tianzhuan Ji )). In the Song Dynasty, the gods involved in planchette writing were no longer limited to the Lady of the Privy, but various kinds of gods, ghosts and immortals also started speaking through the planchette. Hong Mai of the Southern Song mentioned that Daoist gods such as the Perfect Man of Jade Emptiness, the Perfect Man of Supreme Oneness and the Perfect Man of Nanhua were summoned in planchette writing.

Immortals would descend through the planchette to educate people. Using planchette writing to write down immortals' instructions, composing Daoist books and transmitting Daoist skills thus frequently occurred in history. Lu Dongbin was very influential since the Song Dynasty both in Daoism and among common people. In the Preface to the Complete Works of Patriarch Lü by Chen Derong of the Qing dynasty, it is recorded that Patriarch Lu " made the planchette fly to educate the people; even women and children know his name." Lu Dongbin had descended to Han-san-gong altar in Jiang Xia for forty years and bestowed many scriptures. Some of them have been collected into the Complete Works of Patriarch Lü ( 呂祖全書序 Lüzu Quanshu Xu ). In fact, most of the poems and immortal scriptures in that compilation were composed through planchette writing.

There are other Daoist scriptures written by planchette writing, too. Today's Infinite Precious Repentance of Patriarch Lü ( 呂祖無極寶懺 Lüzu Wuji Baochan ) circulating in Hong Kong was also composed by planchette writing.

When planchette writing began to be practised on an altar, it was standardized and borrowed various Daoist skills, talismans, and incantations to summon the gods. A special planchette plate was adopted, with one or two persons to support its frame and write on the sand plate. There are occasions when planchette operators write directly on paper or other things. Large planchette writing altars have planchette supporters ( 扶乩者 Fujizhe ), readers ( 讀乩者 Dujizhe ) and persons to copy them down ( 抄乩者 Chaojizhe ).

Planchette writing is used to resolve doubt, to ask for cures, to discus the Dao, to write and reply to poems, and for didactics.

Originally, planchette writing was used for divination. This function was later maintained. In the past, intellectuals used it to predict their future, and even to ask for examination questions. Today, people apply planchette writing to foretell their future, their business, their journeys and their marriages. Some planchette writings discuss social problems and foretell historical changes. The Planchette Writings of Marquis Zhuge ( 諸葛武侯乩文 Zhuge Wuhou Jiwen ) has been popular in modern Hong Kong. It was composed from planchette writing in 1930s. Its believers think that many of its predictions have come true. Actually, most of these writings are vague in meaning and hard to guess. They are similar to the skills in the Back Massage Chart ( 推背圖 Tuibei Tu ) and the Songs of the Sesame Seed Cake ( 燒餅歌 Shaobing Ge ), which foretell social changes.

Another important use of planchette writing is asking for medicinal prescriptions. When common people are confronted with difficult and complicated diseases, they like to ask for the Planchette Immortal's ( 乩仙 Jixian ) help. The planchette operator would then give oral prescriptions. There are occasions when people discuss medical questions with Planchette Immortals. They then collect and compile their discussions into books. Such is the case of the Return to the Origin of Medicine ( 醫道還元 Yidao Huanyuan ) popular in Hong Kong. This book discusses common things; there isn't much illustration of medical principles and even fewer creative ideas. The planchette altars in Daoist temples have planchette writings to discuss the Dao, and even whole books of such discussions. These writings or books may differ according to different people's requirements. Some discuss elixirs, some talk about Daoist doctrines, and some writings are for didactic purposes. Lu Xixing of the Ming dynasty , a resident of Jiangsu province, once claimed that Lu Dongbin and other Immortals descended and bestowed on him the great way of the Golden Elixir. His True Annotation of the Three Canons ( 三藏真詮 Sanzang Zhenquan ) is a collection of planchette scripts. Some of today's planchette writings discuss the Dao, too. Some people even perform operas by planchette writing, singing and replying with the ghosts and fox spirits.

Taiwan has the most planchette altars, and Hong Kong has some. They play a didactic function among the people.

Most of the planchette writing books record its mystery, but few discuss the phenomenon academically. Xu Dishan published the book Research on the Planchette Writing Superstition ( 扶乩迷信底研究 Fuji Mixin Di Yanjiu ) in 1940s to study its origins and development. Some modern scholars regard it as a form of hypnotism. Believers, however, think that Immortals and Buddhas do effectively descend to the altars.

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