FORTUNETELLERS, DIVINATION, UFOS, AND SUPERSTITION IN CHINA

MYSTICISM AND SUPERSTITION IN CHINA

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Fortuneteller in 1901
Chinese religions incorporate a considerable amount of what is regarded as superstition in the West. Chinese seek out fortunetellers in Buddhist temples and burn ghost money at Taoist temples to win the favor of gods that patronize certain professions. Feng shui---the Chinese technique of harnessing the powers of supernatural forces by making sure objects are in harmony with the universe---is used to position buildings, windows, beds, ancestors graves and even Christian churches.

Many Chinese are obsessed with lucky numbers, talisman and auspicious dates. Businessmen consult fortune tellers about important business decisions. Farmers make offerings to rice field gods before planting their crops. Families consult astrologers to fix wedding dates. Chinese with problems seek help from fortunetellers or monks rather than psychiatrists or counselors. Sometimes it seems like the only Chinese who do not embrace superstition are the Communists, who dismiss it as feudal and bourgeois.

The prevailing view is that Communism mitigated superstition in mainland Chinese China and the Chinese there are less superstitious than Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. But that may not necessarily be the case. After the Shanghai-based Want Want Co. ran an advertisement for snack with the slogan “If you eat this cracker you’ll get rich,” sales for the snack soared. The company was forced to pull the plug on the ads after people began complaining about losing their opportunity for riches if they didn’t eat the cracker.

According to one survey, 80 percent of Chinese visit fortunetellers, the majority of business people believe in the god of fortune, one sixth believe in the existence of gods and demons, and one twelfth said they had seen a ghost. Some critics have asserted that Chinese seek out superstitions as solutions to their troubles rather than facing their problems directly.

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Modern fortuneteller in Chengdu
According to an old Chinese folk tale if you can peel the skin from an apple at midnight in one unbroken piece you can see the future in a mirror. If the peel breaks a ghost appears. American children used to be told if they dug a whole through the earth they would end up in China.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Fortunetelling in China

To offer advise, bring good luck and predict the future, fortunetellers in China use Chinese astrology (based on Chinese New Year signs and date and time of birth), palm and face readings, feng shui, name analysis, various kinds of divining coins and objects such as I Ching hexagrams.


11th century, Song-era fortuneteller

Once banned by the Communists, fortunetellers are consulted today by brides searching for ideal marriage partners; by supervisors making hiring choices; and by store owners picking names of their business, the most auspicious time to open, and the best floor plan and orientation of the rooms.

Fortuneteller clients generally want advise on their love life or predictions on money, business or success in the future. After consulting a fortuneteller one restauranteur told the New York Times he decided to open his business in the slow season because the date was auspicious and to relocate his kitchen because rooms with fire should face south.

Often fortunetelling is regarded more as form of scholarship than mysticism and is often associated with Taoism. One fortuneteller told the Times of London, “Every country has astrologers, but in the West it is not based on a system of disciplines and the handing down of learning, but rather on inspiration.”

Mao is said to have often sought the advise of fortunetellers, usually asking them questions about his appointments, enemies and allies.

Fortunetellers in China

Fortunetellers sometimes are asked to analyze the Chinese characters in the names of a young men and women to see if they are suitable for marriage. Some modern fortunetellers stake out gynecology clinics, offering to provide the fortunes of future children using special computer programs.


19th century divining

Peng Yining and He Na wrote in the China Daily, “Running alongside the Lama Temple in Beijing is a 500-meter-long strip known as "The Street of Fortune Tellers", which has become a gathering place for the city's diviners, palm readers and feng shui masters. The sidewalks bristle with people hawking their services and "magic" accessories, including bracelets, necklaces and blessed Buddha figures.[Source: Peng Yining and He Na, China Daily, March 18, 2013]

Taoist fortunetellers display 100 varnished bamboo slivers and ask their customers to choose one. The fortunetellers then look up the numbers that appear on the slivers and read the corresponding fortunes, which are something like: “Everything you are doing is in harmony with the heavens. All the people you will meet are good.”

One Taoist fortunetller told the Times of London he began his studies at age 15 after a Taoist priest told his parents they better hand the boy over to him or something terrible would happen. The parents refused and the boy became ill and lost his sight. After starting his Taoist training his sight returned. Today the Taoist fortunetller is sought out by government officials and wealthy businessmen. “It’s a normal human need to want to know,” he said. The fortuneteller is a strong believer in the unalterability of fate, saying you can’t change the future, “You can only change the scale of events.”

"Physiognomists" are people who predict the future by reading faces and palms. Among the things they look for are big ear lobes, like those often found on statues of Confucius and Buddha, which connote wisdom and fame, and a gap between the teeth, which predicts wealth. Findings from these observation are usually described in conjunction with information about personality characteristics based on the year, date and hour of birth listed in ancient charts. Palm readers. Book: Vem>Chinese Palmistry by Henning Hai Lee Yang (Chrysalis Book, 2003).

Ancient Divinations in China

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Oracle bone
Divination has been used for more than 3,000 years in China to predict events and seek heaven's approval.

Priests from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (part of their shells). The ensuing cracks were read for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits or ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than a diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 of these "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

The prominence given oracle bones in the Shang dynasty gives the impression that superstition held a very high place in the everyday life of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty, and many of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in many parts of China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Divination blocks are still used in many temples in Taiwan for spiritual guidance. Each crescent-shaped block has a flat and a rounded side. How a pair of the blocks falls is believed to determine the answer to a (typically yes or no) question one might ask.

I Ching

20080222-iching.jpg The I Ching (or "Book of Changes") is a book of divination that first appeared during the Age of Philosophers (6th to 3rd centuries B.C.). It has been attributed to Confucius and is regarded as a Confucian text but in reality it predates Confucius and was incorporated into Confucianism when it became more mystical.

I Ching divinations involve reading 64 hexagrams made of divided lines (yin) and undivided lines (yang) in accordance with sticks thrown by a fortuneteller. The 64 hexagrams are created by combining two groups of trigrams---each composed of eight trigrams, which in turn are each composed of combinations of three divided lines and undivided lines. Each hexagram has a description and symbolic meaning, which are revealed using interpretations originally written hundreds of years before the Book of Changes appeared.

In the old days the solid lines meant yes and a broken lines meant no. These days the interpretations are not so black and white. Four broken lines over two solid lines can mean things like, "Approach has supreme success. Perseverance further. When the eighth month comes there will further misfortune."

The I Ching is also regarded as a major treatise on the Chinese belief that philosophy and aesthetic theory are based on intuitive insight. The translation of the I Ching by Princeton University Press is 740 pages.

I Ching Reading

Describing an I Ching reading by a fortuneteller named Itoh, Rob Gilhooly wrote in the Japan Times; “Head bowed, eyes closed, silently intoning my birth date, Itoh shuffles and divides, shuffles and divides 50 long, thin bamboo sticks...With three bundles of eight sticks now separated and laid on a wooden stand in front of him, Itoh turns to a table on his left and moves around six rectangular blocks of wood while drawing short lines on a piece of paper, incessantly muttering to himself who knows what.”

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House good luck symbol
“Then the procedure starts over again, as Itoh focuses on my prospects two years ahead." Gilhooly wrote. "His head bowed, eyes closed, silently intoning, Itoh shuffles the sticks he’s holding upright in the palm of his left hand. Then he divides them, clasping bunches in either hand, raises his head and blows through them before setting one bunch back down on the table. Those he’s still holding he deftly separates into three groups of eight, laying the remainder on the table. Then it’s the blocks, the muttering and those little short lines.”

Superstitious Customs in China

Busy Chinese temples are smokey places crowded with Chinese lighting bouquets of smoking joss sticks, saying prayers, leaving behind jade orchid blossoms as offerings, throwing sheng bei (fortune-telling wooden blocks) and donating ghost money to a variety of ancient gods in return for things like good luck on the lottery, good scores for children on important exams and good business.

Temple goers burn fake money for longevity and set fire to paper cars and TV sets at funerals. In 1995, the Chinese government banned the practice of burning money during ancestor worship ceremonies because the custom was officially deemed a fire hazard and a superstition.

K’o t’ous (kowtows) are bows performed as acts of worship. Worshipers at local temples for the Dragon King bow three times before an image of the deity, place incense sticks before it, cast lots of numbered bamboo sticks and make donations. Pilgrims visiting temples sometimes line up and stop every few steps and bow.

Ghost Month Superstitions


meal for a hungry ghost

Ghost Month is widely observed by Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, home to many Taoists and Buddhists, who believe that the living are supposed to please the ghosts by offering them food and burning paper effigies of homes, maids and other daily items for spirits to use in the after-life. According to Reuters: For those who maintain these traditional beliefs, all sorts of activities may grind to a halt. In modern but still superstitious Hong Kong, people have begun to wind down their usually frenzied nightlife. "All unusual activities must stop. I have ordered my husband to go straight home after work," said Winnie To, an executive at a foreign company. [Source: Reuters, August 5, 2006 /+\]

“In Taiwan, property and car sales usually enter a lull period during the festival, prompting retailers to provide generous offers or discounts to try to boost sales by appealing to the younger generation which is less superstitious. "When we were young, our parents used to tell us not to go to the beach during the "hungry ghosts" festival because they were afraid that we might be captured by ghosts in the water," said Kate Peng, 32, who owns a drinks stall in Taipei. /+\

“Few people in mainland China, especially in urban areas and among the younger generation, follow ghost month traditions. Many superstitions and traditional practices were stamped out during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, because the Communists frowned on them as relics of China's feudal past. /+\

Light Gray Life Solutions

Light Gray Life Solutions, situated in a basement in a historic district of Beijing, does brisk business selling “spirit bottles”---empty bottles with things like “Calmness,” “Passion and Patience” and “Meaningful Connection” printed on the bottle’s label” for $1.45 a piece. Purchasers are expected to put their problems in the bottle and draw confidence from them. The biggest sellers are “Courage to Change,” ‘sense of Security,” “Tolerance,” “Unconditional Love” and “Great Wisdom.” The idea came from a Danish designer, Mags Hadstrom, who set up a ‘soul market” in Shanghai in 2007 to encourage people in China to treasure nonmaterial things.

On accusation that he was defrauding people, the owner of Light Gray Life Solutions told the Times of London, “We know there is nothing but air in the bottles and so do our customers. People can put their own problems into them. They can use the bottle to represent whatever they want. He said the shop sold about 100 bottles a day after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Abnormal Events in China

The opening up of China has resulted in an increase in the number of reports of abnormal phenomena there. Among the amazing things that have been reported are children who cut apples in half without touching them, youngsters who read Chinese characters on pieces of paper stuffed in their armpits, and psychic healers who X-ray people with their eyes and replace missing body parts. In northern China, it is said, there is a hill that causes cars to flip over without warning. At Peng Li Pagoda in the Peng Li islands, the legendary residence of the immortals, ghostly images reportedly have been captured on video tape. Mysteries, a magazine devoted to paranormal activities, has a circulation of 250,000.

There are said to be between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese versions of Big Foot on the loose in the forest of central China, particularly in Shennongjia Nature Reserve in Hubei Province. One man who said he had two conversations with the creature, said it was about two meters tall, covered by reddish brown hair, had long limbs, emitted foul odors, and communicated with gestures and bird sounds. One Big Foot pursuer told the Los Angeles Times, "Bigfoot in America is fake science. In China, it is true science." The military has participated in Bigfoot expeditions in Shennongjia that reportedly turned up hair, footprints, teeth and feces from the creature.

Paektu Mountain on the border of North Korea and China contains a deep crater lake, which is reportedly the home of a Chinese version of the Loch Ness monster. Many think the creature sighted was probably a black bear going for a swim. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Grainy video taken by a tourist that was shown on Chinese television in 2007 reportedly showed a dozen “monsters” swimming just below the surface in Lake Kanasi in the Heavenly Mountains in Xinjiang Province. Stories have been told for centuries of legendary beasts living in the depths of the lake that occasionally snatch cows, sheep and horses that come to the lake to drink. A study done on the 1980s concluded that the monsters are most likely large members of the salmon family.

UFOS in China

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a Chinese rendering of an alien”
No, its a Taoist demon at Dongyue Temple
There have been thousands of reports of UFOs in China. Strange glowing objects in the sky seen by a hundred or more people make the front pages of newspapers and are reported on the main television networks. A magazine devoted to UFOs, UFO Research, boasts 400,000 readers. The UFO Research Association has branches un every province except Tibet. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times]

Thousands of events have been documented by the UFO Research Association. Among them was the unexplained appearance of a large glowing ball on June 18, 1982 seen by millions of people across northern China. On December 11, 2000, a patch of golden light was spotted moving through the sky above Pusalu, a village near Beijing. The village secretary told AP, "Some say it was caused by an earthquake. Some say it was a UFO. Some say it was a ray of Buddha. I'm telling everyone to call it an auspicious sign." Other unexplained events include a mysterious spiral of light observed in Sichuan and an unexplained "storm" that leveled a pine forest in Gizhou. A rocket scientist and honorary director of UFO Research said, "Some of sightings are real, some are fake, and with others it's unclear."

In 1999, A Beijing man claimed he was beamed aboard a space craft and forced to develop supernatural powers so he could cure other human beings. Another man, who claimed he was kidnaped by aliens in a forest in 1996, said he was experimented with in horrible ways and was told do deliver an important message: "Don't make war---and protect the environment."

The Journal of UFO Research is China's premier publication devoted to investigating the paranormal. A typical issue is mostly made up of stories has anything to do with UFOs. The maincover feature of the issue that cam out in March 2009 is all about poltergeists while the second feature article is a translation of “The Top Ten Ways to Destroy the Earth” by Sam Hughes, to which the magazine has added the subtitle “UFO Top Ten.” None of the destruction methods is UFO-related. Most of the UFO content consisted of summaries of UFO reports in the Chinese media over the past few decades. [Source: Danwei.org, March 24, 2009]

Another man said he was abducted by aliens that lived on planet positioned directly over Beijing. The man said the aliens have learned to live to be over a thousand years old by consuming a diet of mushrooms and mineral water. Yet another man said he happened upon a spacecraft in the Red Flag Forest in Heolongjang province and was taken hostage by three-meter-tall aliens and forced to have sex with their women. He told UFO researchers, "They said they came to escape tragedy at home, collect sperm and survey the earth."

Yeren, Chinese Bigfoot


Yeren Cave

The “Yeren,” or “Wild Man” is an ape-like Bigfoot creature said to live deep in the remote mountains in Hubei Province in Shennongjia Nature Reserve. More than 400 people have claimed to have seen it in the Shennongjia area but no hard evidence has been found to prove its existence. It is also referred to as “Bigfoot” after the legendary North American ape-man.[Source: Xinhua, October 9, 2010]

According to witnesses, the creature, which walks upright, is described to be more than 2 meters tall as an adult and has a gray, red or black hairy body.

China organized three high-profile scientific expeditions to search for the Yeren the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers found hair, footprints, excrement and sleeping nests that were said to belong to it, but no hard evidence was reported. The hairs were sent to different research institutions and universities in several cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan for identification in the 1980s. All of them returned similar test results - the hair samples did not match either humans or any known animals. [Source: Xinhua, October 9, 2010]

Scientists blamed poor technological support and “unscientific searching methods” for the failure of the previous searches. For example, mass mountain searches adopted in previous expeditions wasted a lot of time and energy, according to scientists, as the Shennongjia Nature Reserve has a total area of 3,200 square kilometers, which has hundreds of square kilometers of primeval forest that have not been visited by man before. [Ibid]

New Expedition to Search for the Yeren


statue of Yeren child and mother

In October 2010, Chinese scientists announced that they were considering launching a high-profile search for the Yeren in Hubei province, nearly 30 years after the last organized expedition to seek the legendary beast in the early 1980s. The expedition leader is Wang Shancai, a 75-year-old expert with the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the vice president of the Hubei Wild Man Research Association, an organization made up of more than 100 scientists and explorers set up in November 2009. [Source: Xinhua, October 9, 2010]

“Unlike expeditions three decades ago, the better technological support will help us get closer to solving the mystery,” Wang said. “We are now working together with the China Three Gorges University to develop long-time energy-supply devices to support cameras that will be installed in the ape man's possible habitat.” Wang is an archaeological anthropologist who has been studying the mysterious creature for more than 30 years. [Ibid]

The searching method will be different this time: scientists have already narrowed down the searching areas into specific targets -- caves, as years of study show that the half-human, half-ape creatures are most likely to inhabit caves, said Luo Baosheng, also a vice president of the association. “We will have three expedition teams search every cave in three important regions in Shennongjia where the unidentified beast would be mostly likely to appear,” Luo said. [Ibid]

Beijing’s Effort to Discourage Superstition

In 2013, Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “ China is struggling to get its estimated 100 million religious believers to banish superstitious beliefs about things like sickness and death, the country's top religious affairs official, told a state-run newspaper. Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, said there had been an explosion of religious belief in China along with the nation's economic boom, which he attributed to a desire for reassurance in an increasingly complex world. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, April 21, 2013 \=\]


three-legged toad of good fortune

“While religion could be a force for good in officially atheist China, it was important to ensure people were not mislead, he told the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials. "For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with birth, ageing, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune, via popularizing scientific knowledge," he said, in rare public comments on the government's religious policy. "But we must realize that this is a long process and we need to be patient and work hard to achieve it," Wang added in the latest issue of the Study Times, which reached subscribers on Sunday. "Religion has been around for a very long time, and if we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately 'liberate' people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect and push people in the opposite direction." \=\

“Wang did not address specific issues. Beijing also takes a hard line on what it calls "evil cults", like banned spiritual group Falun Gong, who it accuses of spreading dangerous superstition. China had avoided the religious extremism which happened in some places with the collapse of the Soviet Union or the religious problems seen with immigrants in Europe and the United States, Wang added, something to be proud of. Still, China could not rest on its laurels."Religion basically upholds peace, reconciliation and harmony ... and can play its role in society," Wang said. "But due to various complex factors, religion can become a lure for unrest and antagonism. Looking at the state of religion in the world today, we must be very clear on this point." \=\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; University of Washington; United College in Hong Kong; Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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