Fortune-telling as an occult practice has had a long history in China, with its origins in divination and primitive religion. But some parts of it have survived to the present day, and remain very popular even among young people, just like horoscopes and tarot readings still have a big audience.
Chinese fortune-telling or “suan ming”—the calculation of fate—has many variations. Most of them originated in the I-Ching, or the Book of Changes. This was one of the oldest divination texts in China, dating back to 1,000 BC, and was a heavy influence by both Taoism and Confucian thinking. Later on, the ancient practices mentioned in I-Ching were codified as the complex systems of the Five Elements and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches developed fully in China’s long history.
No matter what method is undertaken, the basis for Chinese fortune-telling is rooted in the firm belief of fate: we are all born with different destinies because each of us is a unique being. There is much that is outside our control, and as such, fate is essentially neither knowable nor amendable. Only the gifted may be able to occasionally glimpse bits of it and find patterns within.
Despite this, the element of free will is key, because rather than simply predicting the future as Western astrology does, Chinese fortune-telling emphasizes learning one’s fate, then acting on the strengths and timing of this information to achieve the best possible outcome. One of the hallmarks of a true wise man in Chinese culture is the ability to ride on the ebb and flow of destiny and use seemingly random changes in life to one’s advantage. This idea comes from Wu Wei, or effortless action, advised by Taoism.
Because of this important distinction, depending on their discipline, a master Chinese fortune-teller can be part psychologist, part behavioral scientist, part philosopher, part life coach and sometimes even part doctor. They may be able to tell if you lived your life in harmony in the past, if anything is out of balance currently and will also give you a roadmap for the future.
After that, however, it would be up to you to harness the energy of your fate to your advantage. Indeed, China’s long history is littered with both heroes who were able to seize their fate and succeed, and those who squandered their good fortune by going against the tide of destiny.
The History of Ancient Chinese Fortune-Telling
Like other forms of future forecasting, Chinese fortune-telling had its beginning in divination at a time when life was highly unpredictable, and people felt at the mercy of nature. The earliest divination practices in recorded Chinese history were from the Shang dynasty, when priests burned oracle bones (animal bones or turtle shells) and foretold the fortune of the state—whether there would be rain or drought, war or peace, etc.—by how the shells cracked in the fire.
Fortune-telling as we might recognize it did not come into existence until the Tang dynasty, when fortune-tellers began to look at a person’s birth year, month, date and hour to predict their fate. This practice was quickly popularized as a pastime that many, not just professional fortune-tellers, studied and practiced, often as entertainment.
As the complex time-keeping systems of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches came into being, fortune-telling evolved into a discipline with its own classical texts and traditions. To this day, many activities in day-to-day life in China require fortune-telling, if only for peace of mind.
Moving to a new house, for example, may lead many people to seek out a Feng Shui expert to map out the most auspicious placement of their furniture. They may also find a fortune-teller to name a newborn according to the elements of their birthday.
Choosing a wedding date will always involve at least a consultation with an old almanac to see what day and year will give the newlyweds the best chance for marital bliss. Major businesses are especially concerned with their fortune. For example, the entertainment industry will always consult fortune-tellers for the best day to start shooting a film or hold an event.
Because the idea of fate is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese people’s belief system, which mixes religious, philosophical and cultural thinking, fortune-telling still pervades everyday life in China, unlike in the West.
Chinese Fortune-Telling Methods
The most popular and complex method of Chinese fortune-telling is Bazi, or eight characters in Chinese. It is also called the Four Pillars of Destiny. This practice is based on the calendrical system of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches. According to these two systems, each year, month, date and hour is assigned one character from the 10 Heavenly Stems, and one character from the 12 Earthly Branches.
Thus, a person’s birth date can be denoted with eight characters. Their fate can then be calculated by examining the interplay between these characters, the elements they are associated with, according to the Five Elements Theory.
This method can be used to calculate one’s overall outlook in career, family, love, health and practically everything else you would want to know in life. The quality of one’s fortune, as in many Chinese schools of thought, is all about balance.
For example, a person heavy in the Fire element would be best suited for a career in the sciences, technology, culinary arts or any industry to do with light, heat or energy. On the other hand, they would be a very bad fit for imports and exports, the navy, communications and sports, which are considered Water industries, and Water overcomes Fire by extinguishing it. The same person should look for a partner who is heavy in Wood, because Wood generates Fire by feeding it, and the marriage will nourish both partners and make their lives more fortunate than before.
Bazi also examines a person’s “major fortune” in decades. This is a dynamic calculation, as opposed to the fixed calculation of fate, and takes into consideration both the person’s aspects, and the conditions of the world. If these conditions are favorable for a person, then their fortune will likely improve for the decade compared to what their birth date has indicated, while the reverse will also hold true.
Last but not least, Bazi also examines your luck for each year. To do so, a Bazi fortune-teller will look at your zodiac animal and see whether it overcomes or generates with the current year’s god of Tai Sui. Because a really good Bazi report is comprehensive, it will likely be very long and should be kept and be referred back to as you move through life.
This method is used by fortune-tellers as well as specialists in traditional Chinese medicine. It is rooted in the art of observation rather than fortune-telling. Just like we can look at an apple, for example, and tell whether it’s healthy or malnourished, if it’s been eaten by a worm inside or not yet ripe, a face reader can look at their client and tell how that client lives their life and if that is in harmony with their fate.
As a Chinese proverb says, everything in one’s heart is reflected on their face – the face-teller’s observations will inform them about the client’s past, present and future. Here are a few marks of distinction that you can look for in the mirror:
A Full Forehead: This is the mark of material wealth, in particular wealth from a salary earned in a high-level post, most likely in the public sphere.
Ears That Are Lighter in Color Than Face: This characteristic indicates someone who will have a smooth rise to the top of their career.
Bright Eyes: Someone with bright eyes will likely be blessed with help from higher-ups whenever they need it, and will be fortunate in marriage as well.
High Cheekbones: If one’s cheekbones peak around the half-way point of their nose, they are likely to become the best in their field. Cheekbones are the mark of willpower and accountability.
Straight and High Nose Bridge: Anyone with a high nose bridge is likely to become famous. This is a feature especially valued in men.
Round Chin: This is a preferred feature in women, and believed to mean blessings of a happy and abundant marriage.
The lines and patterns on our palms may all look different, but they usually feature the same lines in different configurations. Chinese palm reading has endowed each of these lines with a meaning, and examines their lengths, how clear they are and their arrangement among other factors, to foretell a person’s destiny.
Look for these lines on your palm and read about their meaning below.
Life Line: The length and the groove of this line determine whether you are destined for a long and healthy life.
Wisdom Line: This line affects the clarity of your reasoning and your personality. It’s best to have a line that sweeps cleanly across your palm. If yours is made up of many fine lines, you may be indecisive when it comes to important decisions.
Love Line: This line indicates the way you look at love, and whether you are a loyal partner. If this line is less distinct on your palm, it may mean you do not place a heavy emphasis on love and other aspects of life are more important to you.
Career Line: This line indicates your career aspect. If it goes up vertically, you are destined for a meteoric rise in your profession.
The art of Feng Shui has popularized in the West over recent years. It concerns the most auspicious placement of furniture in one’s house, and even the orientation of the house itself. In China, the best configuration would be for a house to face the south, so that it receives plenty of sunlight, for example. And the bed cannot face a mirror or the door. Feng Shui arises from the Taoist belief that we as humans must integrate into nature instead of disturbing or worse, destroying nature.
Nowadays, there are plenty of Feng Shui experts for hire even in the West. Their services will usually include a visit to your house to point out ways to create better Feng Shui in each room. Aside from general practices mentioned above, the most auspicious arrangement will also depend on the inhabitants’ zodiac animal and their most prominent elements according to the Five Elements Theory, so Feng Shui suggestions will differ for everyone, and even for each room of the house.
This is a fun and quick way to find out one’s fortune. It’s a bit like tarot card reading in that the client makes the selection themselves. The reader will provide a cylinder of sticks that resemble chopsticks, and ask you to shake it until one stick falls out. There will be a line of poetry or a puzzling saying on it – doesn’t that remind you of fortune cookies in the U.S.? The message on a fortune stick will most likely be very cryptic, obliging you to turn to the reader, who will offer an interpretation for you.
What to Expect from Chinese Fortune-Tellers
If what we’ve gone through above sounds interesting to you, you might be interested in engaging a Chinese fortune-teller, whether to determine the Feng Shui of your house, or to predict your fate based on Bazi. Experts who engage in these different methods of fortune-telling are likely to be found in different places.
For example, you’ll usually find fortune stick readers in temples, where monks will offer interpretations and also read faces and palms. On the other hand, Feng Shui and Bazi experts are usually experienced freelancers, who see clients on a one-to-one basis.
It’ll be easier to look for a fortune-teller if you are in China, but be careful that given the popularity and prevalence of fortune-telling, there are a lot of charlatans around. They’ll usually foretell disaster for you, and then try to sell you an expensive cure.
The best way to find a trustworthy fortune-teller would be to rely on your Chinese friends. China is a highly connected society, and the most “accurate” fortune-tellers would have already made a name for themselves on China’s extensive social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, and have a proven track record in predicting major world events.
You can expect to pay around 500 to 1000 yuan for a complete Bazi suite. This will generate a lengthy report looking at your life in the current moment, a look at your past and predictions for your future, complete with suggestions for how to improve your behavior. If in doubt, you can use their accuracy on recounting your past to determine if they are the real deal!