STORY AND PHOTOS BY JANE RICKARDS
Fortuntellers in Taiwan use such methods as numeric calculations based on one’s name, date of birth, or grains of rice; face or palm reading – or even birds playing pick-up sticks.
On a dustry sidewalk near an old Taoist temple in suburban Banqiao, a man sites behind a red-clothed table waiting to tell fortunes. Two tiny white birds peer out of a cage, next to a small canister of miniscule bamboo sticks. Each stick is engraved with references to the ancient Chinese classic the I-Ching and to the Chinese five elements. He is Wang Ming-yin, a practitioner of the traditional divination technique of niaogua (鳥掛) or fortunetelling birds.
Curious to know my destiny, I hand Wang my business cared. He then asks for the usual details Taiwanese fortunetellers require before a reading: the date and location of my birth. I tell himi I was born in Melbourne in 1968.
“Look at the Australian lady,” he then says softly to the birds. “What kind of person is she?” He proffers the canister and one of the sloe-eyed birds docilely selects three sticks with its beak, one after the other. The first stick is engraved with the element water. “You travel widely,” he says. “You like to use your brain and you don’t like to be controlled by other people.”
This is fairly obvious, I think, as he knows my occupation and that I am a Western expatriate. But then Wang looks at two more sticks and his prognosis uncannily becomes more accurate. “You have a good heart but you have absolutely no patience. And your personality is like that of a man – you don’t yell or nag when you get angry, you vbecome silent and withdrawn.” True, I think, and something also hard to detect from my appearance.
Wang tells me I had bad luck in 2007 (true, it was strikingly bad luck) but am now experiencing a run of good luck that will last until 2013. He can’t provide a reason why my good fortune will run out by this time; it’s just a cyclical pattern, like the four seasons, he says.
After this, one of the birds peeps out of the cage and one by one takes three pictograms in its red beak. Wang, who learned niaogua from his father and grandfather, explains that the use of pictograms has been handed down from early times when most people were illiterate.
In the first picture I see a woman washing dishes, with a tiger in the background. “This means that you are serious and can work hard, even if your surrounding environment is awful,” he says. The second picture, depictging as robed Chinese man threatening another with a sword, means I am attracted to either physical strength or intellectual abilities and therefore don’t have a “type” when it comes to men, he says. (That’s true).
The third pictogram features three men, one armed with a sword, plus the Chinese characters for “beware.” This means that I need to be wary of friends, Wang says. I don’t care about money and might not be able to detect when other people are taking advantage of this trait, he continues. True, in the past false friends hasve used me. But doesn’t this happen to everyone? Are these supernatural insights or simply super-showmanship?
Whatever the case, as Taiwan becomes a more and more modern society, traditional fortunetelling techniques still remain highly popular. Around one-third of Taiwan’s population has actively sought a reading from a fortuneteller, says Chiu Hei-yuan, a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, referring to a long-term survey of social changes in Taiwan conducted by his institute.
Survey data from 2004 reveals that a superstitious 36% of the population thinks fortunetelling can help in evading disasters, while 56% view it as helping to provide peace of mind and 53% credit it with influencing daily behavior and thoughts. (Far more people, though, thought religion could achieve the same results.)
Chiu attributes the continued popularity of fortunetelling to the uncertainties in modern society. Taiwan has epxerienced chasnge at breakneck speed, he says, particularly in relation to social institutions and social values, making many people feel they have no control over their lives.
To explain Taiwanese interest in fortunetelling, Chiu also refers to an essay by Western philosopher Theodor Adorno analyzing the Los Angeles Times astrology column. Adorno argued that a climate of “semi-erudition” is a fertile breedidng ground for astrology, a view shared by Chiu. Simply speaking, believers in astrology no longer unquestioningly accept the authority of science and want to think about the world for themselves. But they lack sufficient knowledge or the necessary intellect to comprehend scientific complexities. For them, astrology converts complex scientific operations into a neatly understandable formula and appeals to the believers’ ego, as it makes them feel that remote activities in the universe relate to them.
Even if Taiwanese have doctoral degrees, Chiu says, their knowledge of the world often tends to be narrow. They might know little about psychology and astronomy, for example, and fail to distinguish between fact and fiction in these fields. Chiu says Western astrology and Western astrology or Ziwei Doushu (紫微斗數) – both of which can involve mind-bogglingly complicated mathematical calculations – have become a surprising new trend among college students, while less-complicated divining methods such as face reading (面相), once popular with illiterate farmers, are declining in popularity.
Fortunetelling can also provide a confidential setting for troubled Taiwanese to discuss their problems, similar to the way Americans might lie on a couch and ventilate to a psychotherapist. Few Taiwanese would wish to see a hospital psychiatrist, says Chiu, whereas fortunetelling has been an established practice in Chinese society for over 2,000 years.
A fortuneteller (who goes by the name of Teacher Lee) recommended by a friend says his clients include many Taiwanese businesspeople, who may ask, for example, if they should invest in China, Taiwan, or Vietnam this year. They also include famous artists and entertainers who often worry that their success will not last; actors may ask whether the television dramas they are appearing in will continue to be popular. With ordinary people, he says, men tend to ask work-related questions, while women’s questions tend to relate to their love lives.
Bazi (八字) is one of the most traditional fortunetelling methods in Taiwan and also the most popular. In 2009, according to the Academia Sinica survey, 8.1% of the population had received a Bazi reading in the past year. In this system, a person’s birth year, month, day, and time in the Chinese lunar calendar are ussed to create an eight-figure, four-columned chart containing figures derived from both the Ten Heavenly Stems, a Chinese numeric system believed to date back to the Shang Dynasty, and from the 12 Earthly Branches, another ancient way of counting time.
The five Chinese elements – water, earth, metal, fire, and wood – used for describing interactions among phenomena are generally involved in most kinds of Taiwanese fortuntelling, including Bazi.
Seeking a Bazi reading, I give Teacher Lee my birth details. He creates a chart and tells me he knows immediately that it is very unlikely for me to have children (so far, true). “Even if you get married this year, you are not likely to have them,” he remarks. And if I do every have children, he adds, my relationships with them will not be close.
The reason, he explains, is that my birth year is associated with the element metal. With Bazi, the birth hour column represents offspring and the time of my birth is associated with the element wood, Lee says, destroying the chance of creating future generations.
The second most popular divination method, at 5.7% in the Academia Sinic survey, is the above-mentioned Ziwei Doushu, a complex astrological system widely used during the Song and Ming dynasties. The ancient astrologers believed people’s destinies could be determined by the time and place of their birth in relation to 108 stars, including the auspicious Ziwei star, Lee says.
A natal chart can be created by placing the 108 stars into 12 palaces – such as a sibling paslace indicating relations with brothers and sisters, and a wealth palace indicating finances. These days, computers are frequently employed for such calculations.
New name, new fortune
As a means of trying to influence their fortunes, many people also decide to chasnge their names, choosing auspicious Chinese characters for the new names. Last year, according to the Taipei City government, 10,619 of the approximately 2.6 million residents of the city applied to officially change their names. The many different ways of determining the suitability of the Chinese characters in a name include counting the number of brush strokes in a character (some numbers are considered propitious and others disastrous) or examining the chief individual components or “radicals” in the characters.
For example, Lee says, my Chinese zodiac sign is that of the Monkey, which makes radicals such as 山(“mountain”) or 木 (“tree”) auspicious for me. (Luckily this is already present in my Chinese surname, which is 李 ). However, Lee says, the Monkey sign is associated with the Chinese element metal. Fire melts metal and therefore it’s unlucky for my Chinese to contain character components such as 火 (“fire”) or 日(“sun” or “day”).
For such reasons, my friend Wu Yi-hsuan, who introduced me to Teacher Lee and was born in the Year of the Horse, officially changed her original given name of Huei-chuan this year after six months of laborious research. Among the reasons was that the grass radical ++, which wasn’t present in her old name, was needed as horses like to eat grass. For reasons included family loyalty, she kept her surname, Wu (吳), even though it was not deemed auspicious. People born in the horse year tend to talk recklessly without thinking, she said, and that gets them into trouble. The 口 or “mouth” radical in 吳, she feared, would only accentuate this characteristic.
Then there’s face reading and hand reading (手相面相). Fortuntelling based on facial features dates back to the 6th century B.C., possibly beginning with Taoist shamans in rural areas in China. For hand reading, which dates back over three thousand years to the Zhou dynasty, there are two broad categories: chirognomy, which focuses on the fingers, and chiromancy, which concentrates mainly on the palm – though unlike palmistry in the West, finger bones, joints, elbows, and nasilws all factor into the reading.
Intrigues, I went to the colorful fortunetelling lane in the underpass near the corner of MinQuan East Road and SongJiang Road near Xingtian Temple, eventually interviewing face reader Hong Ling. She says she considers many aspects of a client’s face, such as the shine in their eyes, the size of their eyes, and how the five Chinese elements interplay. “Sometimes, face reading can be very accurate,” she says. “If someone is talking and they don’t look directly at you, it means they are evil.”
Giving me other examples, she says a high-bridged nose indictes a person is stauch and unyielding (this does not apply to Europeans, she adds), while thick lips reveal an emotional person. An upturned mouth may be a sign of wealth, while a mouth pointing downwards can indicate poverty. Big nostrils can indicate a spendthrift, while small nostrils may show stinginess.
Her colleague Wu Tien-tsung then briefly reads my palm. I take my feelings seriously, he says, and I am intelligent. My palm indicates I have two children, he says (which is quite wrong).
Other traditional fortunetelling methods include migua (米卦) or rice divining, in which the client takes three pinches of rice, placing them on three tiny sasucers. Based on the number of grains of rice on each, the diviner makes some methematical calculations and then connects the results to the 64 hexagrams in the I-Ching. Migua is mainly used to answer pressing questions – for example, whether or not to buy a car – says Yue Ling-yao, who offers migua near Longshan Temple, and does not offer details insights into a client’s personality.
Teacher Lee says he can also divine the future using flowers (花占), a practice dating back to the Tang and Song dynasties.
Recently, Taiwan has seen increasing interest in Western fortuntelling, sometimes in combination with traditional Chinese divination practices. Western astrology is rising in popularity, the Academia Sinicas survey shows, although it has not replaced traditional practices. In 2009, only 1.9% of survey respondents had visited a Western-style astrologer in the past year.
In the Shilin night market, I encounter two fortunetellers – one offering I-Ching techniques and the other tarot crd readings – at the same booth. They could best be described as mystics. I-Ching diviner Chao Yang-shun said he had learned from a spiritual master how to intuit the original I-Ching transmitted to Fu Xi, a mythical chartacter said to have discovered the bagua trigrams on the back of a turtle.
This version of the I-Ching, unrecorded and only perceived spiritually, is different from a later version recorded in the Book of Changes. Besides answering individual clients’ questions, he could usse his understanding of the I-Ching to help improve a company’s financial health and to assist pet owners in determining whether they had known the animal in a past life, he said.
Next to him, diviner Cheng Chi-yu was counseling a young couple hoping to get married, using spiritual energy to interpret tarot cards. In a Taiwanese twist, he held a calligraphy brush above the cards to help him fous on the spiritual information he was receiving.
Cheng said it does not matter if the divining technique is European tarot or I-Ching, as both are tools for communicating with the spiritual world.
— This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS.