Cheat Sheet is your first step to Chinese cultural literacy. In this miniseries we give you the basics on topics ranging from contemporary pop culture to old-school traditions like fortune telling.
Illustrations by Francine Yulo
Chinese fortune telling -- what's up with that? Who are those aunties hanging outside the temples offering to predict your fate? Can the lines on your hands really tell when you're going to die? And why are their so many blind fortune tellers? We answer all these and other mystic questions in the fortune telling edition of Cheat Sheet.
Chinese Fortune Telling Basics
Chinese fortune tellers, a.k.a. mingli shi (命理师 -- formal) or suanming shifu (算命师傅 － casual) analyze personal information, like body features, name, and date of birth, etc, to predict your destiny, and provide tips to avoid bad luck.
In Mandarin, this trade is known as suanming (算命), and the most common suanming methods on the streets are mianxiang (面相) and shouxiang (手相), which predict your fortune by reading your facial features and palm, respectively. On the streets, these fortune tellers will usually have a map on the ground, or directly approach you and ask to take a look at your hand.
Fortune telling is said to have connections with one of the most ancient Chinese books, the I Ching (易经), where the concept of Yin and Yang came from. Here's some of the most common methods:
Bazi (八字) analyzes the date and hour when a person was born. Normally, Bazi and Shouxiang can be used for telling one’s past and future, because a person's date of birth and palm will never change. It’s believed that changing your facial features also changes your destiny. How plastic surgery affects destiny is an ongoing debate, and naturally plastic surgeons are on the "no problem!" side.
Qiu Qian (求签) is often seen at temples. The fortune teller will bring out a huge bundle of sticks (either 100, 60, or 32) called qian, which each have different Chinese characters inscribed on them. Then you shake a bamboo cylinder until one of the sticks drops out, and the fortune teller uses that stick to predict your future. It’s totally random, and supposedly only effective for a short period of time. People often choose this method when they want to make quick decision or get a good score on their upcoming exams.
Zi Wei Dou Shu (紫薇斗数, Purple Star Astrology) is an important but less mainstream method. This one uses your birthday (based on the Chinese calendar) and twelve Chinese constellations to work out a life map (命盘) that shows your destiny and future relationships. It could predict, for example, a divorce at age 30–35. This method has much in common with Bazi, but it's way more complicated.
This one is another method of feng shui (风水), the architecture / location choosing concept that's so popular that it's in the English Dictionary. Naturally, improving the feng shui in your house / office / whatever can improve your fortune.
Who Are The Fortune Tellers In China?
Fortune telling is a highly developed industry, with many types and levels. Fortune tellers can hold a high social position, especially the class that work for government officials and big bosses. Rich people and powerful figures have always used fortune telling throughout Chinese history. As J.P. Morgan once said, "Millionaires don't use Astrology, billionaires do."
Of course, not every fortune teller works for billionaires, so there are many types. There are those who don’t say a word while practicing, those whose business completely relies on talking, and those who need to be good-looking, great with words, incredibly smart and trained specifically to make huge business deals. To some extent, they are like psychologists, helping people solve problems by giving advice. They also have to be good at statistics, for many "predictions" are based on that. Professional fortune tellers work in a master and apprentice system, divided by factions. Like many underground organizations, each faction has codes to follow.
How do Fortune Tellers Learn About Your Past and Future?
These suanming shifu are really good at reading expressions and body languages. They can also guess which topics interest you, then make ambiguous conclusions. The major steps in a Chinese fortune telling session are normally as follows:
1. They get your attention by making ambiguous statements that can apply to anything about your life, career, relationships, wellbeing, etc., while trying to convince you to stay and listen to them.
2. According to the words that caught your attention, they dig deeper and get to know you, potentially obtaining your trust.
3. Once they know what you are curious about, they make conclusions or raise questions that you desperately want to know the answers to.
4. When you became anxious and seek advice to improve your future, they start to provide suggestions and ask for money.
Some fortune tellers might even know about your personal history through your friends, relatives, or other means, in order to trick you into thinking they are psychics or have supernatural powers. On the other hand, history repeats itself, and peoples' past behavior is often the best predictor of the future. This is more psychology than any kind of magic.
What Do Chinese People Usually Ask Fortune Tellers?
Name Changes: Chinese are superstitious, and often believe that a powerful name can bring luck and personal growth. Therefore, many parents ask fortune tellers to pick / change their children’s names, and celebrities are crazy about changing their stage names in order to be more successful.
Matchmaking: Some bazi or zodiac signs conflict with each-other, or even worse, might cause the death of spouse. The word ke (克) is often used here, for example, a kefu ming (克夫命) is a female who’s doomed to be widow, no matter who she marries, kind of like the life Nancy Botwin had in the show Weeds. Meanwhile, some signs work extremely well with each other, e.g. rat and dragon, snake and taurus.
For singles, fortune tellers provide advice about being more attractive, getting more love interests, or getting rid of unwanted attention.
Career and Finance: Those facing big decisions at work often seek advice from fortune tellers. They can supposedly tell if your career is improving, who will help your career and can be trusted (gui ren, 贵人), and who not to trust (xiao ren, 小人). Again, this is more psychology than magic.
Wellbeing: This one may have more scientific proof than others, since one’s health condition can often be determined through appearance. But a lot of Chinese fortune tellers predict or diagnose their clients’ health by looking at their bazi, or zi wei dou shu, which is all based on a super complex algorithm that combines Chinese constellations and the four pillars of destiny.
Why do Taiwanese and Hong Kongers Use Fortune Telling More Than Mainlanders?
The Cultural Revolution contributed a lot to that. During that period, a lot of our culture -- both good and bad -- was lost. Taiwan and Hong Kong weren’t affected much, and they inherited the Chinese fortune telling history more completely.
Why are there So Many Blind Fortune Tellers in China?
Films and literature often portray fortune tellers as blind, and in real life, many of them will say they lost their vision because they gave away the secrets of heaven (天机) and were punished by God. In some ways, their blindness is an advantage when they're convincing clients of their accuracy, because they cannot observe body features.
Perhaps this is not total nonsense. Many fortune telling methods and theories rely heavily on memory, and require a "peaceful heart". Due to their lack of vision, the blind can focus and calculate well, and are therefore good candidates for studying and passing-on fortune telling methods. There’s also a main faction in the Chinese fortune telling master and apprentice system called the blind faction.
Of course, another reason is that people who lost their sight still need to make a living, so they learn to be fortune tellers.
Are Fortune Tellers Just Cheaters / Scammers?
They usually are. Especially those who say rather awful things about your future. The good ones do exist, but they are often very cautious about what they say, and can only be found through connections and recommendations. They are not hanging out on the street in front of Jing'an Temple.