Culture

Asian Americans Can Be Witches, Too

by Fei Lu

From the feeds of Instagram to the streets of Silver Lake, the past several years have seen a boom in everything New Age, occult and cosmological. According to a Pew Research Center study, Millennials are leaving traditional religions like Christianity at record numbers and while many are identifying as atheist, non-religious, or just "spiritual," a noticeable proportion are also identifying with occultism and practices like Wicca. While no hard statistics on the amount of witches exists, it's undeniable that more and more communities, places of worship, and shops have sprouted up to support the growing numbers of people identifying as hoodoo practitioners, brujas, Wiccans and more.

But for Asian Americans who want to connect with their cultural practices, it's a different story. Finding easily obtainable information on Asian beliefs like Taoism and shamanistic divination — let alone an active practicing community — is difficult, and even when a rare book on Asian occultism appears, many are written from a Western perspective that may have lost nuance due to translation.

As a Chinese American self-identifying witch, I've always felt a certain disconnect from the materials available to me. Sure, I own a couple of tarot decks, make dedication altars, religiously read Aleister Crowley, and have an entire drawer of herbs and oils — but none of it feels like "mine." As much as Western occultism has given me peace of mind, I don't identify with European or American spirituality. When I lived in Beijing, I would see shamans on the street practicing face-reading — a form of divination in which a shaman will tell you your fortune based on your facial features. (For example, I was told my "big" nose will bring me great fortune and I'd have a prosperous life because of my ear lobes that resembled Buddha's.)

Others would read your bagua (a form of Taoist cosmology), which can be interpreted as your life chart and is based on your age, Chinese zodiac, and where you were born. All the while, these shamans would consult age-old books on divination to truly decipher your life.

But these practices are increasingly at risk of getting lost and forgotten since much of the texts that guide these shamans were destroyed during the Communist Revolution, and religion remains heavily controlled and regulated by the Communist government, even today. As a result, much of Chinese occult knowledge is passed down orally from master to pupil. For practitioners without a master to learn from, it's nearly impossible to access that type of passed-down information, especially in America.

What's more, China's diversity of ethnic groups means that there are different practices native to each demographic. To say there's one set of practices that encompasses Chinese witchcraft is impossible and strands of occultism, spirituality, and philosophy are often entwined. That's why Taoism and Buddhist practices are so prevalent — because they mix these three notions into one.

(And, of course, occultism and spirituality in Asia are not just limited to Chinese practices. Throughout other East Asian countries, you can find practices like Mu-sok in the Korean peninsula and Miko and Kannushi in Japan. In Southeast Asia, there is also a prevalence of witchcraft in places like Thailand and Malaysia, though often the term "witch" is a general one, while witchcraft is simply viewed as a spiritual practice that falls in alignment with the local religions — similar to how Taoist magic is based on Taoism as a whole.)

But back here in the States, it's been challenging to access information and communities that would allow me to be a Chinese witch who practices Chinese witchcraft, and not just a Chinese American witch who practices Western occultism. For instance, I want to know how to properly calculate my bagua chart, while also learning how to reference the I-ching, a book that serves as a major divination tool in Chinese philosophy and occultism. And I'm not the only one who has expressed these desires. Below, I connect with Ryan Trinh, Benebell Wen and Chaweon Koo, three other Asian American occult practitioners who share their journeys into the Left-Handed path, the struggles they've faced, and how they're perceived in the mostly white occult community.

Ryan Trinh

As an Asian American occultist, how did you come into your craft?

Ryan Trinh: It's odd to say how I came into my craft considering I've always been interested in it since childhood. One of my earliest memories was going to a spiritual shop with one of my grandparents in Chinatown and wanting to pray to all the statues of the gods and spirits. At home, we also burned incense as daily offerings, amongst other rituals. That was one of my entry points into Eastern occult. And thanks to my school life and bullying, my craft almost became a coping mechanism — I could maintain a sense of control of my surroundings and stay focused on my end goals. It's still a little weird to admit my first reasons to honing my craft were to gain power over my surroundings. Even if my initial intentions were not necessarily "in light and love," I still find it a legitimate entry point into my work.

Benebell Wen: The skeleton of the story is the same for so many: the craft's been intuitive for us since childhood. I've also been interested in Western occultism since an early age, and basically, any path that could take me beyond the veil has always been of interest to me. In my late 20s and early 30s, I devoted time to translating medieval Chinese alchemical and esoteric texts into English and studying the history of Chinese occultism. That's when my point of view got fleshed out: after I could see and understand the scholarship of the craft.

Chaweon Koo: There is a joke: "Chinese Americans build restaurants where they go...Korean Americans build churches where they go." I wouldn't be surprised if, in the middle of a corn field in Iowa, there was a Korean church. Which is great if you're a Christian. But I was a hardcore atheist since age 5, and a flagrant skeptic of all things woo woo. But, behind the scenes, I was always drawn to things like past lives, near death experiences, psychic phenomenon.

Then, in 2015, I moved to South Korea to teach English (I had never lived in Korea before, barely even spoke the language back then)...and within a month, a KoKo (a 'Korean-Korean,' someone born and raised in Korea) co-worker invited me to go with her family to a mudang, a Korean shaman, in the middle of a small mountain near Sejong.

"For me, the occult — what is hidden and secret — is not some obscure ancient book of spells or a coven of wild-haired women meeting in the dead of night. Instead, it is the deepest part of your spirituality, hidden away."

What was it like stepping into these practices?

RT: It was interesting, especially as a '90s child where supernatural prime time shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, were popular. Those influential figures using their gifts to help themselves and others gave me a sense of hope and connection that grounded me. But jumping into the craft at age nine was difficult. The only resource was the library's sparse New Age section.

BW: You know how for most Asian Americans, clearly you're born Asian, with your skin color, eyes, and hair the way it is, but for some reason it's not until maybe 4 or 5, or some moment much later, when you've been thrust into a culturally integrated society that you realize you're Asian? Do you know what I mean? That's what it was like stepping into the path. It has always been part of my identity, since birth, but it took specific contacts with society and a series of personal experiences or realizations before I consciously identified myself as an occultist.

CK: It's like my desiccated roots were suddenly plump with the blood of my ancestors. It's no coincidence that I had to literally step on the soil of my motherland, my foremothers, to step into the occult. The word "occult" has its root in the Latin "occultus" which means "hidden, secret." For me, the occult — what is hidden and secret — is not some obscure ancient book of spells or a coven of wild-haired women meeting in the dead of night. Instead, it is the deepest part of your spirituality, hidden away.

Bell Wen

Bell, how did you begin practicing Taoist magic?

Chinese feng shui, astrology (Ba Zi, though technically Four Pillars divination isn't astrology), sigil-crafting, meditation, qi gong, and sitting in on lectures by both Taoist and Buddhist celestial masters has always been part of my life, since early childhood. It was something that happened in basements of my mother's friends' houses or our basement, where a bunch of my mother's practitioner friends would gather. It happened over the summers when we were shipped back to Taiwan or to temples and monasteries to learn our traditions. But I rejected it for most of my adolescent and young adult life because I was trying too hard to fit into suburban America. My path through Eastern occultism is similar to the story of most Asian Americans: there was a long period in my youth of rejecting the culture and heritage and then at some later point of awakening, returning to celebrate and honor that culture and heritage I spent so many years denying.

Chaweon, what prompted you to create your YouTube channel, "Witches & Wine"?

CK: The channel actually started as a mukbang. I was living in Seoul, drinking a metric shit ton of soju (Korean liquor), and by that point, I was already identifying as a witch, and so "Witches & Wine" seemed very à propos. At the time, I was trying to finish writing my Korean steampunk erotica novels, but I found myself always thinking about Witches & Wine. So, I turned to newfound magic friends online, astrologer Rachel of Aeolian Heart and geomancer Sam Block of Digital Ambler, to draw up charts for me. And both of them were like "YAY TO YOUTUBE!" My heart said "YES!" and so I've continued to this day.

How do you feel the general occult community has been with Asian American representation?

RT: In the mundane world, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to further Asian American representation. Luckily, it's already being done by some incredible role models, like Bell Wen. There's still work to be done, but that's forever been the case when it comes to demystifying Asian imagery in a world that still others us.

BW: It's getting better. I think it's complicated. Are Eastern forms of occultism and witchcraft considered "pagan" to be included on pagan forums or featured at pagan conferences such as PantheaCon? Am I a pagan? Overall, though, I can't complain. It's more on Asian Americans themselves to speak up, step up, and be present. We're the ones who, for the most part, aren't being proactive about getting our seat at the table.

CK: There are very few Asian American witches I have met or know of. Part of why I do a YouTube channel is because representation is vitally important to our community. As for the actual "Occulture" — if there is one, and if there is, it's dominated by white people — I find that they are like the rest of Western society: segments are woke and working hard to reach out to under-represented groups, other segments exoticize and appropriate, and others just aren't interested in us.

Chaweon Koo

What do you wish you could access in Eastern witchcraft that is harder to find here in the West?

RT: I am big on gaining any knowledge. I want access and explanation. I wish I could have an old sage sit me down and drill into me the history and magic of my ancestral people. There's so much information, yet it's so difficult to access. It's easier to list the things I don't wish to access, which is modern-day notions of Eastern spirituality. For example, I don't want to learn about a white Confucian who lived in Japan for a month who can help me connect to my higher self on the nth dimensional plane of existence.

BW: I've been fortunate to have more access than most. I think the one thing I wish is having had the opportunity to ask more questions and get more advice from my maternal grandparents before they passed on. They practiced mainly off an oral tradition, as do most Taiwanese shamanic and metaphysical practitioners, so what died with them that I didn't get the chance to write down is now lost forever to me.

CK: I wish I was fluent in Korean and Chinese — I can understand conversational Korean, but when it comes to esoteric texts from monks...I went to many temples while living in Seoul and there is something there I can't access because I can't ask questions and read the old texts. And it isn't just about the actual vocabulary. Language is not just a bunch of symbols transmitting abstract information...language is living symbology and the subtext and contextual aspects of language require cultural and historical knowledge as well.

"It's like my desiccated roots were suddenly plump with the blood of my ancestors."

Why do you think there is much less representation or access to information about Asian occult practices here in the West?

RT: In my experience, there's not as much Asian representation in magic due to the model minority myth. While some of this is imposed, even our families will perpetuate the myth to encourage upward mobility in American society — such as by learning and working in STEM fields. It's only now that we see some push back and question this path. And unfortunately, Asian Americans haven't had a spiritual movement or reconnection to the divine/historical past as other minority groups have had.

BW: Shinto and some modalities of Japanese witchcraft, along with Korean shamanism, Mongolian shamanism, and southeast Asian forms of black magic have a strong following in Western occult circuits, but you're right. It's remained mostly unrecognized in their natural ways. However, you find a lot of Taoist magic in Aleister Crowley's work. He was heavily influenced by Taoist occultism and believed himself to be a reincarnation of a renowned Taoist alchemist.

I speculate that the main reason why Chinese forms of witchcraft and occultism have remained unrecognized in Western practice is that it's unrecognized in Eastern practice. It's shunned in our enclave, looked down upon as low class, superstitious, too folksy, or uneducated. Taoist occultism was all but stamped out of the Mainland during the Cultural Revolution. Finally, among native Eastern practitioners of the craft, there is a culture of secrecy. Unless you've been initiated into their inner circle, you don't get to be privy to what they know or what they practice. I've experienced a lot of backlash from the Asian community of occultists who are offended that I'm making what I make accessible in the English language or freely in published books or online content.

CK: This is a very deep and many-layered discussion, but in a nutshell: language, cultural differences (really hard to correspond Asian mindset into Western), history (hello, Communism and Western Imperialism), and the Western lens of viewing Asia as this exotic place where they do weird, exotic things that are cute but inconsequential to Western life.

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What is something you wish Western audiences would understand about Eastern occultism?

BW: I've never thought about what I wish Western audiences would understand about Eastern occultism, but I think all the time about what I want to my fellow Asians would know about it.

Something I wish Asians would understand about our legacy of occultism is how deep in time it goes. Many of the Taoist metaphysical theories and even the practices observed today, in the 21st century, are rooted in the first dynasties of Chinese history, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou. The Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival, etc., these holidays always fall on a full moon because of the lunar-solar calendar system we've had in place since the Zhou Dynasty. Many of the dissident groups that fought against Western imperialism, like the Boxer Rebellion weren't just martial artists but were actively practicing Taoist sorcery or were Taoist priests practicing magical traditions.

Taoism isn't just a philosophy. It's marketed as philosophy only to make it more palatable to postcolonial mindsets. The reality is Taoism began in its early stages as a syncretism of Chinese shamanism and alchemy. The Chinese written language was born out of magic: writing was believed to be a way that humans could petition the gods and control the demons. Even today, the Japanese expressions for the days of the week are based on the Sacred Seven of astrology and Wu Xing of Taoist alchemy: Monday (月曜日) is the moon; Tuesday (火曜日) is Mars and the Wu Xing alchemical element of Fire; Wednesday (水曜日) is Mercury and the alchemical part of Water; Thursday (木曜日) is Jupiter and Wood; Friday (金曜日) is Venus and Metal; Saturday (土曜日) is Saturn and Earth; and Sunday (日曜日) is the sun. Studying the legacy and history of Taoist esotericism has made me prouder of my heritage.

CK: I'll speak about Korean occultism — it's going through this amazing revival and remix, thanks to the Internet. Western people think of "old" Asian spiritual practices, but there are mudangs right now using live streaming video, YouTube, and social media to interact with clients and Korean society at large. There's also this fascinating phenomenon of "tarot cafes" — basically, you go into a cute coffeehouse and you can also get your cards read. This isn't some seedy "Psychic Readings By Madame McWitch" but groups of young women drinking macchiatos, giggling with their friends in an open cafe. There's even a tarot truck parked outside of a big nightclub in Gangnam. Magic is practiced everyday in Korea. It may not always be called that, but it's an everyday aspect of society.

Photo via Getty

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