Na Tuk Kong and the Blending of Chinese and Malay Spiritual Practices

Na Tuk Kong and the Blending of Chinese and Malay Spiritual Practices

Traditional Chinese religion encompasses various belief systems practiced traditionally by Han Chinese people, rooted in the traditions and philosophies of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. As a polytheistic belief, followers of traditional Chinese religion worship a pantheon believed to protect and benefit the Chinese people, drawing from specific beliefs, legendary figures, semi-legends, and historical figures such as Zao Jun (灶君; Zào Jūn, Chàu-kun) as the God of the Kitchen, Guan Yu (关羽; Guān Yǔ, Koan Ú) as the God of War, and Guanyin (观音; Guānyīn, Koan-im) as the Eastern interpretation of Avalokiteśvara, the Goddess of Mercy.

However, among the various worshipped deities in traditional Chinese beliefs, there are figures like Na Tuk Kong (拿督公; Ná Dū Gōng, Ná-tok-kong), guardians of local spirits venerated by the Chinese community in Malaysia, Singapore, and Sumatra, especially in the eastern part of the island. Na Tuk Kong falls under Tudigong (土地公; Tǔdìgōng, Thó-tī-kong), a type of guardian deity specific to certain regions and not applicable elsewhere.

Na Tu Kong at the entrance of the car park of Integra Tower in Kuala Lumpur ©J. M. Metzger/Museum Volunteers, JMM

In Chinese, Na Tuk Kong holds the official title Na Du Zun Wang (拿督尊王; Ná Dū Zūn Wáng, Ná-to̍k Chūn-ông), where Zūn (尊) conveys seniority, respect, and honor, while Wáng (王) means king or monarch, the best in its kind, majestic, great, governing, and leading. In Malaysian tradition, Na Tuk Kong is commonly known as Datuk Gong (داتوق ڬوڠ), with Datuk (داتوق) signifying mayor, ancestor, grandfather, or elder.

Interestingly, Na Tuk Kong is not of Chinese origin; in fact, Na Tuk Kong is regarded as Malay datuks collectively known as Datuk Keramat (داتوق كرامات). Why do various overseas Chinese in Malaya worship deities not even originating from China?

According to Malay legend, datuks were individuals who held positions in society due to their status or specific attributes, such as leaders, traditional healers, martial artists, pious individuals, or shamans. After their death, local residents and followers would sometimes pray at their tombstones and sanctify them. With the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the Malay Archipelago, bringing traditional Confucian beliefs that involved ancestor worship, the practices of both Chinese and Malay beliefs merged to form a new microculture. Worshiping Na Tuk Kong is considered a manifestation of seeking blessings from Malay datuks by Chinese immigrants. Worship of datuks among Malay Muslims has steadily declined due to the conservatism of local Islamic authorities, who prohibit such practices. However, it has become ingrained in local Chinese beliefs.

In some Chinese households in Sumatra, there are small shrines dedicated to Na Tuk Kong, equipped with prayer paraphernalia. Worshippers typically offer a pair of white candles, three sticks of incense, and benzoin. On Friday nights, Na Tuk Kong worshippers provide special offerings such as betel leaves with slaked lime, betel nut slices, tobacco, and hand-rolled leaf cigarettes, along with other offerings such as fruits. Items considered haram (forbidden) in Islam, such as pork, beer, and spirits, cannot be used in offerings because they are disliked by Datuk Keramat, associated with Islamic beliefs.

A shrine of Na Tuk Kong ©Mr Utterly Wrong/Flickr

Furthermore, during special celebrations, Na Tuk Kong worshippers offer sacrifices of various animals, such as chickens, goats, and cows. These animals must be slaughtered by Muslims, or in other words, slaughtered using Islamic sharia, to be accepted by the datuks. The meat is then cooked into curry and offered to Na Tuk Kong along with yellow rice. Offerings like these are also made by worshippers whose requests have been granted, such as winning the lottery.

The worship of Na Tuk Kong by the overseas Chinese community in the Malay world illustrates the inculturation that has occurred between Chinese culture, beliefs, and philosophy with Malay culture. Furthermore, this inculturation signifies the contribution of the Chinese diaspora to the Maritime Southeast Asian region in the realms of culture and belief.

Rafa Sukoco

An Indonesian, born into a multiethnic family, with a passion for traveling, culinary experiences, and delving into history and religion. Enjoying life through listening and sharing stories.
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