Contemporary Divination Practices

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

Today, fewer and fewer people consult a printed almanac for advice about daily affairs. But does this mean the conception of time and human destiny has changed over time? Do people devote less attention to these concerns in the modern world? A rush to marriage registers among Chinese communities worldwide in the months just prior to 2005 testifies to the resilience of tradition. In 2005, the first day of spring fell on February 4 of the solar calendar, just five days before the Year of the Rooster was ushered in on the lunar calendar. This made it a year without a spring. In many cultures spring and fertility are closely associated, and China is no exception. Chinese folk custom considers a year without spring to be inauspicious for marriage—it is thought to produce widows and reduce offspring. As a result, January and early February 2005 saw young couples rushing to get married before the Year of the Rooster began, as this photo from a Beijing marriage registry shows.

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This recent example illustrates the resilience of age-old habits of thought even into the modern world. The resilience of ancient taboos may be a common feature of the human condition. Even in the United States, which is on the cutting edge of science, hotels are still built without a 13th floor. This is because Judas, who handed Christ over to the authorities, was early on considered the 13th apostle and so for centuries the number 13 has been considered unlucky throughout the West.

The multiple practical considerations that affect one’s life rarely synchronize with the schedule prescribed by the almanacs. So when necessity requires, pragmatic “remedies” have always allowed people to navigate through the dangerous minefield marked out by the almanacs. What, we might ask, would have happened if someone had to get married in the Year of the Rooster (2005)? In Southern China, the possessors of traditional knowledge instruct the bride of a “spring-less” wedding to throw out boiled chicken eggs to the guests who are gathered to greet her. The crowd must yell, “The new bride gives birth to the spring!” Then in one stroke, every negative consequence of getting married in an inauspicious year is undone.

It would seem that all people need to do to live carefree lives is to either choose the correct time for an activity or, failing this, perform the effective remedy. This raises the question, “How could the deities and ghosts demand respect and cause fear if almanacs have clearly marked out how to avoid negative outcomes?” The answer is that the advice given in many divination texts is often ambiguous. This was probably as true for the Daybook as it is for divination texts in use today (for example, astrological predictions). A careful reading of the Daybook, for example, reveals that there are contradictions among different texts regarding whether a particular day is auspicious or not, probably because the texts originated in different periods and places. It is this ambiguity that creates the need for interpretation.

Since predicting the future is not an exact science, a lot comes down to the interpreter. In China, as elsewhere, those responsible for maintaining, updating, and distributing almanacs were often the very ritual specialists who made a living by selling remedies for violations of ritually sanctioned time or space. Nowadays the reward specialists can ask for services is left to their discretion. They can forgo the reward or determine its amount based on the degree of violation, the affluence of the client, and their own needs. Such practices could be understood in at least two, contrasting ways:

  • From one point of view, such specialists could be seen as charlatans. By addressing the imaginary fears of their clients, ritual specialists could maintain their professional authority and promote their own economic well-being. The problem is, such a charge could be leveled against almost any spiritual specialist, including priests, ministers, monks, and so on.
  • From another point of view such specialists could be seen as serving a genuine social need. Assuming they, too, believe in the system, they would be providing a kind of solace that their community both understands and requires. By reducing anxiety, they would be contributing to both the spiritual and practical lives of their communities. This interpretation, also, could be applied to spiritual advisors of all kinds.

In other words, how we view divination texts today—whether as superstition or as guides with some practical value—depends in part on our initial assumptions. There is ample room for interpretation.

Go to the next section of NOW AND THEN: The Persistence of Tradition in Contemporary Society.

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