My Dongguan Fortune Teller

In the name of intrepid reporting, one HERE! correspondent decided to visit a local fortune teller to see what he had to say…


In the popular imagination the fortune teller comes in many forms. The most common, perhaps, is of an old crone hunched under a dim canopy, with a round wooden table placed in the center, a piece of black velvet sitting atop a murky crystal ball. This old wench croaks warnings on the vicissitudes of life, often while a lethargic and somewhat evil cat sits beside her. Chinese fortune tellers, however, are far more sedate, almost always male, invariably with gnarled faces, and tend to follow the footsteps of their fathers or even grandfathers. And they don’t have cats.

As an art, fortune telling can be traced back to ancient China when holes were drilled onto tortoise shells and thrown into fires, with divination based on patterns that formed on the shells’ cracks. Such soothsaying played a major role in planning the year’s farming, as well as in tribal politics; it was even used to settle decisions on the timing of major events, such as declaring war.

Fu Xi, the ancient ruler in Chinese mythology, who first taught men how to hunt and plough, is believed to have created the Chinese lunar calendar. He is said to have devised eight diagrams used for divination by observing changes in nature. Later, King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty expanded these eight diagrams to sixty-four. Hundreds of years later these diagrams formed the basis of the I Ching known in the west as The Book of Changes, a piece of obscurantist literature that forms the basis for much Chinese fortune-telling. The book is one of the most influential in Chinese history leaving its mark in everything from philosophy and psychology, right through to religion and business practices. In an attempt to get a fuller understanding of this ancient Chinese art, and maybe get a glimpse into my own future, I booked an appointment with a Chinese fortune teller in Dongguan.

As an art, fortune telling can be traced back to ancient China, when holes were drilled on to tortoise shells and thrown into fires, with divination based on patterns that formed on the shells’ cracks.

Entering a small apartment in a regular residential garden in Dongtai, Dongcheng, I’m led into a small fortune-telling studio about ten square meters in size. The fortune teller is short and stout with a smattering of scruffy hair, and he wears a traditional Chinese style red jacket for show. Somehow he looks shrewd and vulgar at the same time. On the wall hangs a clock with sixty-four diagrams on its face. In the middle sits a large glass table, which evidently hasn’t been cleaned in months; a mountain of cigarettes lie in an ashtray and food stains are smeared across the table. To the side of the room there is a gigantic fish tank that houses one small single fish; on the other there is a shelf with dozens of Pi Xiu statues: an animal that resembles a winged lion that craves the smell of gold and silver. It is believed to grab money and never let it go for anyone but his master. I’m slightly anxious as to how everything will turn out.

Slumping into his seat, and sparking up a cigarette, my fortune teller begins a long lecture on the state of his art in modern China. “Fortune telling is not just a superstition in Taiwan or Hong Kong, especially Feng shui. There it is regarded as science. But here there is no respect for it” He shakes his head, adding, “But what is Feng Shui? Feng Shui is the science of environment. We Chinese people emphasize favorable timing, beneficial locations and harmonious people. Of all three, people are the most important factor.” He goes off on a rant about how many bosses and important local government officials consult him about all manner of things, particularly with regards to recruiting staff. Apparently, candidates are often asked to provide their horoscopes alongside their CVs. “With a western horoscope, you can simply state if a person is suitable. But using the Chinese horoscope combined with I Ching methods, we can judge and change outcomes.” He leads me over to a poster, on the wall and points at it, “See? Bill Gates. Every time he comes to China, he speaks to a Feng Shui master about the hotel he plans to stay in. Otherwise, he feels uneasy. And see Andy Lau? His name was Liu Furong and he was very poor., but he took a fortune teller`s advice and changed his name. How successful is he now? If you are born with a bad fate, you can change it through good Feng Shui or a good name.”

1215_fortune-teller1He is partly right, Chinese people are deeply obsessed with names. Theoretically the number of strokes in a name bears good fortune or ill omens. Randomly, I give a friend’s name to the fortune teller. He starts calculating and mumbling to himself in strange tones, like he is in a trance. “Aiyo” he sighs, and shows me a book, “Ask your friend to come here as soon as possible. Forty-four is an evil number. See, I didn’t make it up. It`s written in the book.” I look in the book. It says, “Forty-four: to ruin the family and to risk one’s own life.” I briefly feel relieved that I gave him the name of a friend and not my own. I decide not to tell my friend about the ill-omen to which her name portends.

Noticing, I’m faintly frightened and slightly confused by it all, he attempts to put me at ease, “Let me tell your fortune for free,” he says, and takes out a piece of red paper to calculate my lunar birthday, writing down my Ba Zi. Ba Zi: the eight characters that match the hour, the day, the month, and year of my birth. All this is then measured against various astrological markers. In addition, one`s Ba Zi can reveal which of five elements are most significant in someone’s life: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. These elements need to be in balance and harmony. “Hmm, your Ba Zi is quite good,” he pronounces.“You must have gotten married between the age of 26 and 29.” At this announcement, I play a little with my wedding ring. He is right. I got married when I was 29 years and 332 days old. It is not a particularly impressive divination and he gets vaguer still, “Your husband must come from either the North or the South.” I ponder the possibility of my mother-in-law giving birth with each leg straddled on either side of the equator. It seems unlikely.

“I know even the fate of Xi Jinping. But I can`t reveal it to you or to anyone. He is a celebrity. What I know about him could be very influential to his career, business, and life”

Such is this particular fortune teller’s power that he has to be incredibly careful with what he says, or he can get people into great difficulties, “I know even the fate of Xi Jinping. But I can`t reveal it to you or to anyone. He is a celebrity. What I know about him could be very influential to his career, business, and life. What I know can be used against him, which would destroy his future,” he says. President Xi is lucky he has this guy looking out for him.

1215_fortune-tellerThough, I am not particularly into fortune telling, I have witnessed it in various forms throughout my life. In my hometown, Sichuan, southwest China, shamans use chicken blood to divine the future, particularly on auspicious occasions. While the chicken is still alive, they slash it with a knife and let the blood trickle onto paper money, before finally dripping the rest of the blood into a bowl of cold water. How the blood swirls in the water holds the keys to the future. But Sichuan people, being a practical bunch, don’t waste the blood. It is later cooked with tofu and eaten, no waste at all. Today there are not so many shamans around in Sichuan, but the tradition is continued by the locals. Such ancient feudal practices, no doubt, continue in every province of the Middle Kingdom.

Fortune telling has even affected me personally. When I was a child, a stone tortoise was found by a villager in my hometown. It was said that the tortoise was used to carry a monument in a temple that had been burnt down during the Culture Revolution. The tortoise sunk in the river and was not recovered for many years later. A rumor in the village started that a local could use the stone tortoise as a healer and to tell the future. Eager for me to have my fortune told, my superstitious grandmother frog-marched me to the village to see what the future held. I was told to kneel down in front of the tortoise and drink a bowl of water blessed by the tortoise shrine. “Drink girl, do not leave a drop. It can cleanse your bad luck,” my grandmother said faithfully. It did cleanse something: my obedience to my grandmother, my curiosity for the super natural, and my bowels. I suffered violent diarrhea the night after we went back. My faith in the superstitious has never fully returned.