"When the spirit of Bentougong enters my body, I know nothing, see nothing and
feel nothing," Han Yenyuan explains calmly, running his finger down the edge
of an ancient dagger that only minutes before he'd used to slice open his tongue.
Han Yenyuan applies his bloody tongue to pieces of writing paper
"Bentougong guides me and Bentougong protects me from harm," he says.
In Kampot's village of Kampong Trach, Han is a spirit medium for Bentougong, a deity
that forms a cornerstone of the cultural and spiritual life of Cambodia's ethnic
The smallest of Cambodia's five main ethnic Chinese groups, the Hainanese cling to
linguistic and spiritual traditions that have made them stubbornly resistant to assimilation
and destruction over the turbulent four centuries that have passed since they began
their migration to Cambodia from China's Hainan Island.
On Feb 24, 700 members of the Kingdom's Hainanese community converged on a small
temple in Kampong Trach to celebrate the birthday of their patron deity, Bentougong.
The celebration reached its emotional climax when 71-year-old Han entered a trance-like
state and began a colorful, bloody communion with the spirit of Bentougong.
Dancing with his eyes closed around heaps of food offerings and through thick clouds
of burning incense, Han paused only to run the blade of his dagger down the length
of his tongue.
Han then licked and spit the blood onto yellow pieces of paper upon which he then
drew a mystical symbol.
"It's not a real Chinese character," a spectator explained. "[Han]
is guided by Bentougong, who writes in the language of the gods."
Feb 24 marked the 21st public celebration of Bentougong's birthday since the end
of the Khmer Rouge era, a moving testament to the resilience of Cambodia's Hainanese.
An acute testament to his faith: Spirit medium Han Yenyuan slices his tongue in a centuries-old Hainanese ritual.
Once the kings of Kampot's salt and pepper industries, the Hainanese community of
Tuk Meas was virtually exterminated during the Khmer Rouge regime, while Kampong
Trach is a pathetic shadow of the vibrant market community it was until April 1975.
Kampong Trach's five Chinese schools have now dwindled to one, the majority of the
2000 students who were attending them at the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover either
dead or living abroad.
But the growing popularity of the Bentougong birthday celebrations - attracting Hainanese
from as far away as Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham - indicate that the country's Hainanese
are experiencing a renaissance in the recognition of their unique culture.
"Bentougong is a very important aspect of our culture," said Kampong Trach
resident and Hainanese community leader Ah Kwang as the celebration moved from that
of mystical bloodletting to a more contemporary banquet and karaoke party. "We
celebrate our distinct origins and identity."
For spirit medium Han Yenyuan, who claims more than 30 years of experience of annual
tongue-slicing rituals, the celebration reaffirms the power and importance of Bentougong
over Cambodia's Hainanese.
"There is no mark or blood now," Han said, extending a discolored but apparently
intact tongue through a picket of silver fillings. "You have seen and everybody
has seen that Bentougong has protected me."