Interesting to compare European/American automatic writing with that of Chinese “Kong Pit”, or the descending of the pen. The two evolved completely separately but both arrived at nearly identical methods.
Several different instruments are described, a long Y shaped stick for two people (held in hands), a smaller T shape for one person (balanced on both hands), or a regular basket for two people (balanced on finger tips). The writing itself is done on a table covered with sand or flour.
The writers are professional mediums, sometimes described as illiterate, with an assistant who interprets the writing. Some mention is made of it being practiced at home by regular individuals but all the accounts are of professionals.
The written output is sometimes said to be in verse, but also in unreadable characters (ancient Chinese or mystic), only known by medium or assistant.
Questions, usually about the future, are written on a piece of paper, then burned (doesn’t say if medium is aware of question). The answers are given by the pen moving through the sand or flour.
The whole process is highly ritualized, with prayer invocation, offerings, etc. Special temples were also dedicated to this process, as was a spirit Sow Yoong Tai-Sien. This is usually described as being used mostly by the literate upper class.
Blackwood’s Magazine vol 93 jan – june 1863
This is best account, describes the ritual process of single writer.
It is sometimes had recourse to by mandarins and educated persons, as well as by the ignorant, for the purpose of gaining information as to the future intentions of Heaven, which are otherwise hid from human beings. One of the most frequent inquiries put is as to whether the questioner will have a number of male children, but all sorts of subjects are inquired into, both personal and political; and many volumes exist, both in prose and verse, alleged to have been written by spirits …. The Spirit – Writing is called by the Chinese Kong-pit, or ” Descending to the Pencil,” and the first step is to cut a bent twig from an apricot tree, affixing at the same time to the tree certain characters which notify that the twig or magic pencil is taken, because the spirit will descend in order to reveal hidden things. Having thus consoled the tree for its loss, the twig is cut into the shape of a Chinese pen, and one end is inserted at right angles into the middle, not the end, of a piece of bamboo, about a foot long and an inch thick, so that were this bamboo laid upon a man’s palms turned upwards, the twig might hang down and be moved over a piece of paper. In a temple, a schoolhouse, or an ancestral hall, chairs are then set apart for the spirit to be summoned, and for the god or saint of the temple or village under whose power the summoned spirit is supposed to be wandering. One table is covered with flowers, cakes, wine, and tea for the refreshment and delectation of the supernatural visitors, while another is covered with fine sand, in order that the spirit may there write its intimations. In order to add to the solemnity of the scene, proceedings are not commenced till after dark, and the spectators are expected to attend fasting, in full dress, and in a proper frame of mind.
The usual way of communicating in China with the higher supernatural powers is by writing supplications or thanksgivings on red or gold-tissue paper, and then burning the paper, the idea being that the characters upon it are thus conveyed into a spiritual form. In order to spirit-writing, a piece of paper is burnt containing some such prayer as this to the tutelary deity or saint of the place: “This night we have prepared wine and gifts, and we now beseech our great Patron to bring before us a cloud wandering spirit into this temple, in order that we may communicate with him.” After the saint has had sufficient time to find a spirit, two or three of the company go to the door to receive him, and the spirit is conducted to the seat set apart for him, with much honor, with many genuflections, and the burning of gold paper. The bamboo is then placed in the palms of a man, so that the apricot twig touches the smooth sand upon one of the tables; and it is usually preferred that the person in whose hands the magic pen is thus placed should be unable to write, as that gives some guarantee against collusion and deception. It is then asked if the spirit has arrived from the clouds; on which, if he is there, the spirit makes the bamboo shake in the hands of the individual who is holding it, so that the magic twig writes on the sand the character to, or ” arrived.” When it is thus known that the supernatural guest is present, both he and the tutelary deity are politely requested to seat themselves in the arm-chairs which have been provided, the latter, of course, being on the left, or in the post of honor according to Chinese ideas. They are then refreshed by the burning of more paper, and by the pouring out of wine, which they are thus supposed spiritually to drink; and those who wish to question the ghost are formally introduced to it, for nothing would be considered more shocking than for any one suddenly and rudely to intrude himself upon its notice. After these ceremonies, it is thought proper that the visitor from the clouds should communicate something about himself ; so inquiries are made as to his family and personal names, the period at which he lived, and the position which he occupied. The question as to time is usually made by asking what dynasty he belonged to, a few hundred years more or less not being thought anything of among this ancient people, and a ghost of at least a thousand years old being preferred to younger and consequently less experienced persons. The answers to these questions are given as before, the spirit, through the medium, tracing characters upon the sand.
After that, those who have been introduced to the invisible guest put their inquiries as to the future. The questions and the name of the questioner are written upon a piece of gold paper, as thus:—” Lee Tai is respectfully desirous to know whether he shall count many male children and grandchildren.” “Wohong would gladly know whether his son Apak will obtain a degree at the examination at Canton next month.” The paper with the question is then burned, and the spirit moves the magic pen until an answer, most frequently in verse, is traced upon the sand. If the bystanders cannot make out the answer, the ghostly interpreter will sometimes condescend to write it again, and to add the word ” right” when it is at last properly understood. After the sand on the table is all written over, it is again rolled smooth, and the kind spirit continues its work. When the answer is in verse, the bystanders often take to flattery, and say, ” The illustrious spirit has most distinguished poetical powers.” To which the illustrious spirit usually replies, in Chinese —” Hookey Walker !” Whenever a question is put, the paper is burned and wine is poured out; for Chinese ghosts appear to be thirsty souls, and are not above reprimanding those who neglect to give them wine, or do not regard their utterances with sufficient respect. It is believed that the man in whose hands the magic pen lies has nothing to do with its movements, and its motions can be easily seen, and cause some little noise, thumping down on the table.
John Henry Gray: China: A History 1878
Single writer, mentions names of spirits and temple.
Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese 1876
Two person writing.
Epese Sargent, Planchette, or the Despair of Science 1869
quoting Dr. Mcgowen in North China Herald
Two person basket writing.