In Hangzhou, I got to know a fortune-teller who worked on a pedestrian street by the canal, near a large Buddhist temple. This is just the kind of place to go if you’re interested in divination; temples are very busy during the Chinese New Year holiday period, and after burning incense inside to help ensure good luck for the new year, plenty of worshippers queue up for a prediction. Roadside fortune-telling is done in the open – as soon as you sit down, a small crowd will soon build up to watch, and maybe even toss in their own opinions.
Chinese New Year is a time for reflection on what the next year will bring. As well as visiting their families, many people in China will also be visiting temples to worship, and consulting fortune-tellers about what this year has in store. We’re now in the Year of the Rooster. Many people in the UK are familiar enough with the Chinese zodiac to know what year they were born in, and perhaps even what it might mean for their personality and relationships. For people in China this is essential knowledge, and any foreigner staying in the country soon gets used to answering the question ni shu shenme – what year were you born?
People queuing outside Xiangji temple, Hangzhou on the first day of Chinese New Year
For many, their birth-year animal might be the limit of their knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s important. The year’s animal is just the tip of the iceberg, being an obvious and engaging part of what is in fact a hugely intricate and complex set of principles for reckoning the calendar. You might have heard that 2017 is actually the Year of the Fire Rooster, which only comes around once every sixty years, and gives some insight into the complexities of the system. There are twelve zodiac animals and, in traditional Chinese cosmology, Five Phases: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. These describe the continuous transformation of things, which are all believed to be made of qi, a kind of energy. Five Phases times twelve animals makes sixty. Simple.
But it doesn’t stop there. The animals of the zodiac are ancient, going back to the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), around the time that we first see descriptions of the Five Phases. These were integrated into a much older system of dividing time into twelve ‘Earthly Branches’, dating back over three thousand years, and ten ‘Heavenly Stems’, also creating cycles of sixty. The animal signs and Phases were correlated with these to produce a system called the ‘Sexagenary Cycle’, which groups not just years but also months and days into sixties (and in fact, the day is divided into twelve two-hour periods also identified with the animals and Earthly Branches). Technically, 2017 is not just the year of the Fire Rooster but also the Ding (4th Heavenly Stem) You (10th Earthly Branch) Year, 34th in the sixty-year cycle. To top it off, this is all rooted in the principles of yin and yang.
Confused? Fear not - few people in China carry this sort of information around in their heads. Instead, they consult specialists, making Chinese New Year a period of peak business for expert fortune-tellers. In order to find out what the new year has in store for you, it’s not enough just to know what this is. The fortune-teller needs to know something about you, and not only the year that you were born, but also the month, day, and hour. Because each of these goes through its own cycle of sixty, the specifics of each person’s fate vary. More detail can be added by considering a person’s place of birth, the time of having their fortune told, the direction they came from, and so on – this can all be calculated in terms of the same system. If you have the right information, you can make a very detailed prediction – check out this one from a master fortune-teller for an insight into Donald Trump’s year ahead.
(left to right) Chinese divination equipment: face reading charts, turtle shell and coins
So what happens when you get your fortune told? Using the time of your birth, the fortune-teller will calculate your luck in the coming year. The man I worked with specialised in using the Yi Jing, an ancient classic based on six-line diagrams, which you end up with by throwing coins. Their lines represent yin and yang, and the combination is used to get a picture of how the world is from your perspective at the time – this can be combined with knowledge of your birth date to get a more nuanced picture. The key thing to understand is that all the correlates of the date, and the lines, are more or less compatible with each other based on yin and yang and the Five Phases. This is why, for example, people born in the year of the Rooster are considered compatible with Tigers, Pigs, Sheep, and Monkeys, but not Rats or other Roosters.
Now, the person consulting the fortune-teller doesn’t usually know all this. The fortune-teller sees each fortune he tells as yet another example of cosmic principles of change playing out in practice – for him, the task is to calculate based on this knowledge, and this is why the practice is known as ‘fate calculation’ (suan ming). There’s nothing mystical involved – no spirits, gods, or anything like that. Anyway, if you’re a client the chances are you don’t care that much about the underlying logic – you want answers. Will this year be good financially or emotionally? When would be a good time to get married or move house? Are your children compatible with the partners they have chosen? What aspects of your health should you pay attention to? By getting an overview of how the coming twelve months will unfold, people find a framework for making sense of such concerns.
Watching a fortune-teller work all this out is always impressive. Instead of going into a trance or putting on a mysterious, husky voice – or being showy in any way at all – the fortune-teller will make a series of annotations next to your birth date and the lines of the hexagram, if you threw one, and sit for a while muttering and counting things out. After a couple of minutes, he’ll start to talk you through it – and there will be a coherent explanation for everything, with the beauty of a perfect mathematical calculation. Plenty of customers have done it enough that they are happy just to hear the conclusions, ask any follow-up questions, and move on. For first-timers, though, the urge to ask how everything works is often too great to resist. And any good fortune-teller will then explain some of the correlations of the times and aspects of life you’re concerned about it. Just about anything can be correlated, and the system is so complex that it avoids contradicting itself. The more one does it, the more one discovers more and more layers of complexity in the fortune-teller’s calculations.
A local man and his son burning incense at Xiangji temple, Hangzhou
But do people believe it? Many say they do, and it’s easy to see why. The complexity, lack of mystery, and exactness of the calculations certainly make it all look very scientific – and this is how many fortune-tellers and clients describe it. During Chinese New Year, though, many people who wouldn’t otherwise have their fortune told do so – just as they also go to burn incense at the temple with their families. This connection sheds some light on the question. A reason many people give for doing this is one of habit. Burning incense is simply what you do to express a wish for good luck in the new year; having your fortune told provides a framework for you to plan your year which you otherwise might not have. Nonetheless, once you’ve had your fortune told, the complexity of it means that at least some of the details are likely to be accurate, perhaps even to the hour – and even if you’re a sceptic, it’s hard not to feel some sense of enchantment, or at least a desire to come back and have your fortune told again next year.