A fortuneteller in a nineteenth-century photograph. Harvard Yenching Library Archives. COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Since prehistoric times Chinese have tried to predict the future by interpreting oracle bones, signs in the sky, and stalks of plants. The newest form of divination practiced in China is feng shui.
Divination (practices that seek to predict the future) seems to have been common everywhere among human societies since prehistoric times. Primitive hunters presumably used some form of divination to determine which animals to hunt and when, whereas agricultural communities relied on divination to decide when and what to plant. Within recorded history divination has long been important in both China and the Western world.
Chinese practices of divination can be traced back to the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). Animal shoulder blades and, later, turtles’ lower shells (plastrons) were inscribed and heated until they showed cracks, which were then interpreted by a diviner or Shang king. Surviving fragments indicate a belief in a but not personified powers, some identified with forces in nature, such as “the Huang (Yellow) River,” others representing honored ancestors established as spirits.
Collectively, these powers are associated with a celestial force called Tian ?. They were seen to possess power to control all things, as manifested in natural phenomena. Rulers depended on observations of signs in the sky in order to infer the will of Tian. As a result, Chinese astronomical observations were extraordinarily accurate from an early time, starting in the Shang dynasty, notably recording an eclipse in 1302 BCE that modern scientists have confirmed. Around that time the Chinese diviners began dividing the sky into twenty-eight segments or lunar mansions.
By the time of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) appeals to Tian seemed increasingly impersonal, perhaps in part because the Zhou usurpers were not likely to look for favor from the Shang ancestors they had defeated. Turtle-shell divinations declined because of the use of new techniques, most notably the divination of stalks of the yarrow or milfoil plant. This divination yielded six-line hexagrams to be interpreted via the text Zhouyi ??, which in its earliest form seems to have been in use before 801 BCE. In all these circumstances humans had to interpret the results.
As of about two thousand years ago, the I Ching ??, the outgrowth of the Zhouyi, clarifies the enduring presumptions on which the traditional Chinese worldview is based. This text presumes that things are not regular and predictable but always open to change, a vision of existence basic to Chinese civilization. As this worldview posits a world of endlessly shifting forces, it encourages humans to focus very much the strategy and tactics needed to position themselves fruitfully in such a world.
Divination through the I Ching focuses on two aspects of a situation: how it is to be interpreted and how it is to be negotiated. Interpretation is important because things are never deemed to be perfectly clear; thus the Chinese tolerate a certain degree of ambiguity in the way they construe any given reading of a situation. Furthermore, divination through the I Ching not only assumes that everything changes, but also that everything is connected, so that when one factor changes, other, related things will also change.
Compared with traditional techniques of divination, modern science approaches the study of the future by trusting that what caused events in the past will continue to do so in the future. Therefore, science interprets events in a search for general rules that will always apply because they are presumed to be universal natural laws. The I Ching classical text follows an opposite expectation. It presumes that the determining forces in the world are not regular and predictable but rather are always open to change, a vision of existence basic to Chinese civilization.
The third and newest form of divination to be practiced in China is feng shui ??. This form inspects the landscape and its prominent features (orientation in relation to heights of land, water, magnetic fields, points of the compass) in order to discern places and positions favorable for human implantations (cities, buildings, tombs). Traces of such practices are found as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), but they became established during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when magnetic compasses emerged as functional instruments. In feng shui the diviner sets out to determine emplacements favorable for the movement of vital energy (qi moves most naturally along winding paths) and to protect against destructive forces (sha, ?, is at its worst when moving along straight lines). In recent centuries diviners have produced elaborate compasses that bring together many kinds of Chinese cycles (yin/yang, 5 phases, 8 trigrams, 12 zodiac animals, 28 lunar mansions, 64 hexagrams, and so on). The function of these different divinatory contexts was to help read the current cyclical situation of any particular place in Chinese space.
Although feng shui was publicly discouraged in the middle of the twentieth century, it has not disappeared, finding new acceptance in Western society as well as flourishing in Singapore and elsewhere Chinese have emigrated. Now, there are signs of a revival of interest in feng shui in the People’s Republic of China.
Another form of divination that traces its roots back to ancient China is less formal, but perhaps more widespread than any of the others mentioned above. The phenomenon of “luck-language” is a linguistic feature of Chinese and is based on a survival of classical Chinese isomorphism concerning the relation of words to the world. In that relationship, words are seen as activating energies that may influence what actually happens in the world. This effect is launched through similarities in sound. In Chinese, there are many words that sound alike but have different meanings (homophones). For example, the number 4 ? is pronounced sì, with a pronunciation that varies only in tone from the word for death (si?, ?), therefore relating, at least orally, the number 4 to death. In such a worldview, any unnecessary evocation of the word for death, even if only in the mind’s ear, may seem to increase the likelihood of death-related events. Hence it would be prudent to avoid these words whenever possible.
The same implication holds on the positive side of luck-language: the fish as a traditional motif in New Year celebrations depends on the identical pronunciation of fish (yu, ?) and surplus (yu, ?). If there is even a slight chance that associating one’s festivities with fish will encourage prosperity in the new year, why not?
All these Chinese word-world associations can be understood in a very different way as implicit expressions of respect for the fact that there are limits to what humans can control in a world that is defined in terms of larger, invisible forces shaping what happens to and around them. Indeed such a worldview is central to the I Ching and may be said to constitute a fundamental presumption of Chinese divination tradition in general.
Source: Blair, John G., & McCormack, Jerusha. (2009). Divination. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 630–632. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Burning joss sticks (incense) is a way to please the gods and ancestors. The supplicant holds a container of fortune sticks, shaking it until one stick with a number on it jumps out. The fortune teller then reads the number to the supplicant. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
A game of chance involving fortune. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Divination (B?shì ??)|B?shì ?? (Divination)