divination and fortune-telling

divination and fortune-telling
Divination has been a prominent feature of Chinese culture for at least three thousand years. Until recently, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has actively discouraged the practice, but the ‘Open Policy’ inaugurated by the government in 1978 expanded significantly the state’s tolerance of so-called ‘feudal superstitions’. The result has been a flourishing of many types of divination, including not only ‘siting’ or ‘geomancy’ (see fengshui) but also astrology, physiognomy, dream interpretation, spirit-writing, the use of ‘divining blocks’ (beijiao or jiaobei), and various forms of horoscopic numerology, including systems based on the trigrams and hexagrams of the Yijing [Book of Changes]. Traditional almanacs (huangli, lishu, etc.), which not only designate each day of the lunar year as auspicious or inauspicious for certain activities but also include other predictions based on divination techniques, have become increasingly popular, especially in south China, where, generally speaking, religious beliefs are more deeply seated than in the north.
Article 36 of the Chinese State Constitution guarantees ‘freedom of religious belief’ and the protection of ‘normal’ religious activity, but the state continues to view fortune-telling as a ‘feudal’ superstition—abnormal, corrupt and exploitive, at least when undertaken by private practitioners for money. Indeed, ‘feudal superstition’ is invariably listed as one of the ‘six vices’ relentlessly targeted by the Chinese authorities, along with prostitution, gambling, selling of women and children, drug trafficking and drug abuse and pornography. Corruption, significantly, is in a different category.
Government reports periodically highlight stories of ‘feudal superstition’ designed to underscore their disruptive effects. One well-publicized case involved a peasant named Zhang Jingui, from the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, whose wife had consulted a palmist to ask for advice on their disintegrating marriage. According to the Heilongjiang Legal Daily, the palm-reader told Zhang’s wife that cutting off her husband’s penis and allowing it to grow back would restore their relationship to its previous harmonious state. She promptly followed this advice, but oddly enough the relationship didn’t improve. Another celebrated case involved a man named Yang Jinjin, who was told by a fortune-teller that his wife’s long illness was caused by the presence of his seventy-eight-year-old mother in their house. Yang dutifully strangled his mother to save his wife, who, as luck would have it, died a week later from hepatitis.
Despite such negative press and the periodic efforts of the state to suppress ‘superstitious’ practices, divination continues to grow in popularity in the PRC. For instance, a national survey conducted by the China Association for Science and Technology in 2000 revealed that 35.5 per cent of the Chinese people in the PRC believe in at least one form of fortune-telling—an increase of nearly 7 per cent from the 28.7 per cent figure in 1996. According to a recent Reuters story on divination in China, the fortune-tellers thrive in times of economic insecurity.
During the past two decades, a great deal of valuable scholarly work has been done on virtually all facets of Chinese divination, past and present. Although most mainland authors persist in referring ritualistically to the Chinese mantic arts as ‘superstition’ or ‘pseudo-science’ (wei kexue), they have nonetheless investigated the subject of divination thoroughly and enthusiastically, producing a great many valuable articles, monographs, reference works and collectanea, and also making available to the scholarly community a wealth of new research materials—including recently uncovered archaeological artifacts and newly discovered written texts. At the same time, a number of authors such as Hong Pimo and Jiang Yuzhen have written books ostensibly criticizing divination but in fact pandering to popular interest in the practice.
Smith, Richard J. (1991, 1993). Fortune-tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society. Boulder, Colorado and Oxford, England: Westview Press.
——(1992). Review of Hong Pimo and Jiang Yuzhen’s Zhongguo gudai suanming shu (1990). Journal of Asian Studies 51.4 (November).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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