When Taichung police searched the home of murder suspect Wu Sheng-fu (吳勝富) last August, they made an eerie discovery. According to local media, Wu had plastered the walls of his house with Daoist talismans, presumably to ward off an unwanted guest of the ghostly variety. After a lengthy investigation, Wu was finally charged with the murder of his pregnant girlfriend -- although her body and that of her unborn child remain missing.
Daoist talismans are commonly used to protect users from attacks by spiritual agents, according to Professor Robert Campany of Indiana University's Department of Religious Studies. "[However], under no circumstances ... would any respectable Daoist deity [invoked by a talisman] condone murder or protect a perpetrator from the revenge that must follow [such a crime]," Campany added.
So what are Daoist talismans?
In short, they are yellow slips of paper inscribed with mantras that allegedly invoke spirits. Traditionally, such spells were written with the blood of animals or even humans. Nowadays, black or red ink suffices, thank you very much, according to Lai Shun-chang (
Lai has sparked a movement to revive the Taoist art of casting spells. His academy's enrollment is up as more and more inquiring minds are drawn to his tutelage. What's more, highbrow professionals comprise the majority of his students.
"Officials from the American Institute in Taipei (AIT) signed up for classes [at my academy] beginning on May 3," Lai told the Taipei Times. When asked if the AIT officials seek to cast spells on the pan-blue camp to compel it to pass the arms procurement bill, Lai responded, "I think they're just interested in Chinese culture."
Lai attributes his school's popularity to its modern approach to Daoist magic. He prefers to discuss talismans in terms of energy that falls within the realm of modern science. "The energy produced by talismans helps people to become balanced, and a talisman's effects are measurable by instruments like the cardiograph and brain scan machines," Lai said.
"The spell is inscribed on the paper, but is only activated when the practitioner utters a chant," Lai added.
Students of the Taiwan Talisman Research Academy learn how to pen a variety of propitious mantras and "activate" them with incantations. Once the talisman is activated, the student must keep it on their person or hang it in a certain place to benefit from its effects. Lai teaches novice students how to create talismans for health and prosperity -- all straightforward, benign spells, he insists.
High-level students, on the other hand, must swear a solemn oath not to use Daoist charms for evil. Such a promise is not to be made lightly, Lai warned, referring to the untimely deaths of at least three students who broke their oaths.
"About eight years ago, an advanced student of mine committed suicide by jumping off the twelfth floor of a building on Minsheng North Road. One student died of liver problems after abusing her magical skills. Another student used his talismans for gambling -- he died of a brain hemorrhage," Lai said.
As for malignant Taoist charms, Lai insisted that those are not taught in his academy, but acknowledged that such charms do exist.
"Once, I cast a spell on a man to neutralize somebody else's talisman that made him forgetful and dazed; my talisman helped him recover his senses. There are also talismans that can render people lonely for the rest of their lives," Lai said.