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New magic group set to cast a spell over Taiwan

MYTH MAKING: It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but yesterday Taiwan's first legal magic spell society came into being -- with a mandate to use the forces of good to fight evil and change people's misconceptions

By Irene Lin

The nation's first legal magic spell society was formed yesterday, after a 17-year fight to obtain government approval. Members of the Chinese Traditional Magic Spell Society (中華民國傳統符咒法術學會) said yesterday the group's aim was to change the public's perception that all magic was evil.

The practice of magic has been popular in China for thousands of years and in recent times has become the subject of academic study. However, its is less popular in Taiwan where it is often associated with black magic.

In 1983, permission was sought to establish a legal organization for magic spells, but the application was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) on the grounds that it might encourage superstitious beliefs. Seventeen years later, the MOI has finally approved the formation of the group, allowing it to recruit members and to hold public meetings. The MOI now believes that magic spells can be used for the good of the public.

Lai Shun-chang (賴順昌), chairman of the Chinese Traditional Magic Spell Society, said the organization is especially interested in attracting new, better-educated members to alter the conventional view that magic is only trickery used by charlatans. "Because society as a whole still has bad feelings about magic, we want to recruit better-educated people, say, high school or college graduates, to alter conventional views," Lai said.

As depicted in a variety of Chinese-language thrillers, magic spells are cast by drawing special words or symbols on a piece of paper or in the air. The materials used range from ordinary ink to animal blood, such as that from a chicken or dog. The spells are generally used as a protection against evil spirits. Sometimes they are also used to induce spirits into a person's body.

The group claims that magic's bad reputation is a result of misuse either by swindlers or those of diminished mental capacity. Lai said that any member of the new group who was found to be abusing magic would be condemned. "To learn to cast magic spells is to be on a knife-edge. I myself have practiced for 27 years. I feel anyone can actually create power and make a contribution to mankind through the use of magic, as long as they're of good faith," Lai said. "However when it is used in an evil manner, it has serious consequences for both the victims and the magicians themselves," Lai said.

Lai said anyone who wants to learn more about magic is required to take an oath in advance swearing that they will not use their skills for evil. "It [the misuse of magic powers] has happened before. Some of my students died without any apparent reason or have accidentally fallen from buildings," Lai said. "And when I looked back at the videotapes made of them taking their oaths, I found that they all died in the same way as was made clear as punishments for breaking the oath," Lai said.

Lin Duan (林端), an associate professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, defended the legalization of the group, saying that any kind of religion or folk belief group should be allowed to practice without discrimination. After all, he said, it is almost impossible to judge what belief is good and what is bad. "We could never find objective standards to apply in saying which belief is heresy and which is not," Lin said. "In my view, every belief should be allowed to exist in its own way. The only exception should be if members of a sect are engaged in unlawful activities," Lin said.


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