Research on Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival: How Social Support turns Pain into Pride

Andreas Schneider

By Andreas Schneider (Ph.D., Indiana University) 
Associate Professor of Sociology
Texas Tech University

During my Fulbright grant in Thailand, I sought evidence of how social support creates situations in which people achieve positive identities, a process instrumental in rendering their subjective experience of pain. To study the rendering of pain, I interviewed the Ma Song, a group of religious devotees that engage in extreme forms of self-torture during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket.

The Vegetarian Festival started as a form of redemption for the successful recovery of a community from a plague. The festival has been held annually since 1825 by the large Chinese immigrant community in Phuket Town and increasingly elsewhere in Thailand.

The Ma Song are chosen by the leaders of nine shrines in Phuket.  They often volunteer because they experienced life threatening events.  According to the local interpretation of Chinese Taoism, during the festival, the nine embody the gods’ will incarnate on earth in the bodies of the Ma Song.  I gained the understanding that the Ma Song follow a Chinese logic of fair trade: they volunteer their bodies to be used by the gods in exchange for being kept alive through the gods’ use of their bodies in the future. The Ma Song inflict on themselves mild to extreme piercings that are displayed in processions, fire walking, and the climbing of high ladders with steps of blades.

The challenge for me was to conduct interviews with the Ma Song during the time of the festival while they were not occupied with the festival itself or suffering from the physical aftermath of their activities. Having finished the interviews before the main events, I was able to conduct a photo documentation of the piercing ceremonies, processions, fire walking and the ladder climbing photographically.

I was especially touched on my last day during the purification ritual where thousands of devotees walked across a symbolic bridge to be stamped by the Ma Song with the seal of the nine emperor gods.  Blonde and 6’4”, I clearly stood out of the crowd. My colleague Supatra Supchukul (Patti) from Burapha University remarked that I was the only white guy she had seen, though I did not feel out of place.

Because of the recent sensationalization of the religious practices of minorities through the posting of explicit images on the Internet, I had to work delicately to obtain the collaboration of the Kingdom, the Shrines and the Ma Song. Despite this, the collaboration and support for my research in Thailand was overwhelming. The National Research Council of Thailand in Bangkok approved my application to conduct research in Thailand and informed the Phuket Provincial Cultural Office to support my case with the Governor of Phuket and the Presidents of the local Shrines.

Meeting all these people was half the fun. However, I was grateful when Supatra Supchukul (Patti), came to Phuket to support me in my ongoing research project, easing communication about our work. Patti’s presence was also instrumental in approaching the female Ma Songs that recently were allowed to participate in most of the events in one of the temples.