Suanming, or fortune telling, literally means “fate calculating”. In Taiwan, consulting a fortune teller is almost as prevalent as 7-11. It’s an integral part of Taiwanese culture. Although there are fewer nowadays than in previous generations, you can still easily find fortune tellers in night markets, near or in temples, close to MRT (subway) stops, or sprinkled here or there among other businesses. In Taipei, there are a few alleys solely dedicated for fortune telling booths. With the advent of technology, you can also go online to consult a fortune teller or contact them via email for a reading. For $300-5000 NT ($10-$160 USD) you can have the fate of your situation calculated.
Fortune telling has a long history and therefore quite a variety of methods. Some of the most popular methods in Taiwan are the bazi method, the bird method, face reading, and palm reading.
The Bazi method is also known as the “four pillars of destiny”. It is a form of astrology that uses the hours, day, month, and year of your birth to determine your fate. It is believed that the details of your birth can tell you about your destiny, how to handle a current situation, and reveal the type of work you will be most successful at. Horoscopes originate from this form of fortune telling.
The bird method employs the use of a ‘bunjo’ bird, also known as a White Java Sparrow. This bird reaches into a box of cards or jar of bamboo divination sticks and selects three with his beak. All cards or bamboo sticks reference a popular Taiwanese folk tale. The fortune teller then interprets the morals from the three stories and applies those lessons to the person or their question.
The face reading and palm reading methods uses the unique lines on your palm or the moles and lines on your face to draw information about your future. In Chinese culture, there is deep belief in the idea that physical appearance gives understanding of a person’s character and soul, and therefore can be used to help determine the current situation and give guidance for the future.
In temples, seekers throw crescent-shaped, divination blocks in order to receive from the gods answers to their questions. Additionally, a numbered stick may be chosen to determine which numbered fortune should be applied to their problems. Others will consult spirit mediums to communicate with gods or ancestors for advice.
Nearly all forms of Taiwanese fortune telling have the Book of Changes as their foundation. This ancient divination book is one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts. It uses the concept of yin and yang essence along with 64 hexagrams to describe the processes of change for all things on earth.
How to become a fortune teller
It seems that there are several ways to become a fortune teller. One is to seek training from a current fortune teller. This process could also include asking a current fortune teller to consult the spirits to see if you are fit for this job and then open you up to the spirit world. Others go through formal training by taking classes to study Bazi, body language, the Book of Changes, etc.
In online interview by Radio Taiwan International, a fortune teller shared the following: “One of the classes we take during is our training focuses on how to read people the moment they walk through the door. We can see right away if you’re anxious, lonely, depressed or happy. Or if this person seems a bit strange, we can start using our techniques to guess what the problem is. I can’t say we’re ever 100% right, but at least over 60% of the time we are. We have no way of knowing exactly what the problem is. We’re not clairvoyants. We only have our methods. It’s a logical process. The whole world functions on the same basic principles. We just help people to complete their life pictures” (blog.rti.org.tw).
On another a blog I read the following advertisement: “In order to be of service to the residents of Wangxi Li, we’ve invited instructors from the Taiyi Numerology Centre to give classes to the residents on the art of telling fortunes from names, so they can understand life and grow together!”
I also know of an individual who was identified as having a special gift of communicating with the gods and spirits. She was encouraged to go to the temple regularly and allow the spirits to enter her so she could give other people guidance when they came to seek help. This is not uncommon in Taiwan.
Why go to a fortune teller?
There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Fate first, luck second, fengshui third, virtue fourth, education fifth”(一命、二運、三風水、四積德、五讀書). This means that however the cards have been stacked in your life, the latter three give you opportunity to alter your life course. When life’s obstacles have been placed in your way, going to a fortune-teller or diviner can help you clear your path, pick up your spirits and firm up your will, and help disperse dark clouds” (paper.udn.com).
Fortune tellers often take on the role of advisor, psychologist, mediator, or business consultant. They advise people on business and investment decisions. They help people discuss and resolve personal and interpersonal issues without “losing face”. Most commonly people will consult a fortune teller for propitious date for marriage, what to name their child so they will be successful in life, when and where to open a new business, relationship advice. Even politicians and academics consult fortune tellers for advice.
Later in the RTI interview the fortune teller explained this foundational Chinese thought: “The Chinese word for fate ‘ming-yun’ is a combination of two characters. ‘Ming,’ means life, and ‘yun’ means luck or fortune. To Chinese people a person’s destiny is decided from the moment of birth. But that doesn’t mean your luck is already decided. Your destiny is chosen before you are born, but luck is decided after. Luck can rest on different factors such as environment and your own abilities. It’s in your own hands every day” (blog.rti.org.tw).
Here are a few excerpts from the experiences of those who have sought a fortune teller here in Taiwan.
Relationships: A 30 something girl was dragged to a fortune teller by aunt and mom to figure out what’s wrong with her love life. First he made observations about her when she walked in and handed her birth information to him. Then he gave her some advice:
“There is also something that you need to understand. That you need to do. Are you listening to me?” I nodded. “When you meet this man, before you sleep with him. You must ask him, ‘are you going to marry me?’ because if you don’t ask and you do. The man will not commit or marry you. You can only sleep with him if you ask him to marry you.””
“He consulted his little book and revealed that I am “missing” 2 zodiac figures in my aura. Going back to the chinese zodiac, I was born the Year of the Pig (or boar, whatever, 1971, baby). Apparently, I’m missing the “horse” and the “cow/ox” (which coicidentally is this year 2010). He said that I need to carry around the “horse” at all times with me. And that I need a “cow” on my desk facing the door and that his head needed to be up, not facing down or angled” (hellogirl.blogs.com).
Marriage advice: “I vaguely remember one interesting story where I knew a Taiwanese girl who was in a relationship with this guy for over 5 years. The guy really wanted to get married, though they were both still very young. His mother took him to the fortune teller to ask about the girl, and the fortune teller did some mambo jumbo to conclude that there is bad news because the girl’s family has two daughters and no son which will have bad consequences for the match unless the girl will have a brother. I didn’t quite get the next part, but the fortune teller suggested that to fix this the girl had to get her mother to virtually adopt a brother so that the harmony will be restored and the match successful. To spice things up the fortune teller added that if the girl would not marry the guy she will lead a horribly sad life. Though this girl has a lot of respect for this sort of thing, having already changed her name once for her mother after the mother was told the name she picked for her at childbirth was not optimal, the girl became very upset and subsequently this incident led to them splitting up” (visionsoftravel.org).
Was he right?: “My question was regarding whether Taiwan was the right place for me to study or not, and given the frustrating situation, were things going to work out? the vague response led me to believe that the answer was that if I persist and study hard things will work out in Taiwan, but since I finally decided to leave that university and the Taiwanese education system I always thought that was a bit off. Talking to my dad the other day and recalling that fortune telling situation three years ago my dad listened to the story and finally said – “but you can also look at it as if he was right… you persisted, you made a decision, and things did work out at the end as he suggested, only it wasn’t in Taiwan as you might have thought he implied back then”. That’s a nice way of looking at it” (visionsoftravel.org).
What’s in a name?: (from an article in Taipei Times, 2010) “While most people request a name change because their current name is common, other reasons include bad luck and the advice of a fortune teller. Most applications were to change a first name, which has also resulted in good business for fortune tellers. Many people also change their name because of their profession, when they encounter difficulties in their lives, or because they are unlucky and a fortune teller told them to change their name, the officials said, adding that such name changes tend to increase in times of economic hardship” (taipeitimes.com).
My language teacher told me about a lady she knows who consulted a fortune teller for an auspicious name for her child. The fortune teller told her that given the time and place of his birth that trees will help him be prosperous. So she named her son Mu SenLin (木森林), which repeatedly makes use of the character for tree.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible records several incidences of fortune telling, spirit mediums, necromancers, and the like throughout it’s pages. Some are ineffective, deceptive or just plain wrong like the ones during Daniel’s time (Daniel 2) or Jeremiah’s time (Jeremiah 23). However others are quite accurate, like the slave girl in Acts 16, who had a spirit of divination or the spirit medium Saul consulted in 1 Samuel 28. However, it is very clear that God commands his people not to seek out fortune tellers and not to practice their divinations (Lev. 19:26, 31; Deut. 18:10-22). We are also commanded not to “worship or serve the heavens” (Deut. 4:19). So God’s command not to seek out fortune tellers isn’t a matter of accuracy (although you really can’t get more accurate than when you seek the Creator of the Universe), but a matter of loyalty. You see, a few verses later in Acts (19:18-20) fortune tellers who became believers confessed and divulged their practices, and burned their books. Why? Because consulting a fortune teller, and the like, is spiritual idolatry and prostitution. It is seeking out a source other than God when we’ve made covenant to follow him and he to give us new life.
So what about Daniel and the other prophets? Dan. 5:11-12 tells us that Daniel had an excellent spirit, knowledge, interpreted dreams, explained riddles, and solved problems. And the prophets as a whole often warned God’s people about the future consequences for straying from God and pleaded with them to stay faithful. How are they different from fortune tellers? First off, fortune telling focuses on knowing and manipulating one’s future. Whereas prophecy is much more than just foretelling the future. It’s people communicating God’s Word and will to other people. And as I’ve said before, the greatest difference is the spirit being consulted. Daniel and the prophets sought after God and gave all the credit (aka glory) to him. Fortune tellers consult other spirits, read body language, or look things up in books written by man. Ultimately, the prophecy of the Bible turns people to God, not to themselves or their desires. Furthermore, Scripture repeatedly shows us the privileges and blessings that come from being in covenant with God.
Benefits of being a Christian
Firstly, we have a personal relationship with God. As a result of Jesus we can boldly approach our Heavenly Father without fear because He is our ‘Abba father’ (Heb. 4:15-16; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:4-7). We also have the gift of the Holy Spirit that give us assurance (Gal. 4:6) & leads us to all truth (John 16:13-15). Thus we need no mediator.
Second, our Heavenly Father only knows to give good gifts. We can be certain of this because God says to us, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:9-11). And his goodness towards us is ultimately seen in that ‘God did not even spare His Son but gave Him up for us’ (Rom. 8:31-32).
Third, God is trustworthy and caring. We serve a God who is in control (Job 12:10), who is just (Deut. 32:4) and wise (Job 12:13) and compassionate (Psalm 103:8), who is Lord of both heaven and earth (Deut. 10:14). Understanding our limited human capacity in comparison to God’s character and abates our fear of the unknown and releases us from the need to be in control. We also don’t need to manipulate or bride for God’s favor because He is ‘always attentive to our cries’ (Ps. 34:15; 1 Peter 3:12). Thus we can humbly trust him through prayer.
Forth, in saving us, God brings us into a community of faith. Through fellowship we receive encouragement (1 Thess. 5:11), counseling and admonition (Eph. 5:19), and support (Rom. 12:15) during uncertain and difficult times. As the body of Christ we are are equipped for works of service (Eph. 4:12) for the edification of the body as a whole and the individuals within.
Fifth, we are given the very words of God. Whereas the source of fortune tellers’ guidance is The Book of Change, the source for Christians is the Bible. Through the Bible, we are able to discern truth from lie, make wise decisions, and receive guidance about how to solve problems. It may not tell us which specific husband or which job position is the one we should take, however “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Scripture gives us clear guidelines on how to serve and follow God and helps develop our character. Furthermore, all have direct access to God and to his Word for direction.
Sixth, we have assurance of God’s love even in the midst of hardship and suffering. Often Taiwanese consult the gods or fortune-tellers because they are seeking to avoid bad things from happening at all costs. But the Bible gives us insight & meaning to our suffering. Our suffering identifies us with Christ (John 15:18-26) and transforms us to be more like him (Jas. 1:2-4). We “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Rom. 5:3-4).
Lastly, we have peace! We can live without fear in life ‘for neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ’ (Rom. 8:36). Because of God’s saving grace toward us, we have no need to seek out fortune tellers and have peace knowing that the the Lord of heaven and earth is our guide.
Given what I’ve learned about fortune telling in Taiwan, I believe that those who seek out fortune tellers are trying to meet several “heart needs”? Here’s a quick bullet point list:
- Fear of unknown
- Anxiety regarding future and/or major changes
- Desire to be in control
- Desire to meet the social/emotional/physical/financial needs of the community/family
- Desire to make wise decisions
- Seek out advice and guidance
- Desire blessing and success
- Desire to “save face” and maintain relationships via a mediator
- Desire to address an undesirable personality/character trait
- Desire to fix a problem
- Seek out psychological comfort and support
As seen from the Scriptures above, when we place our trust in God through his son Jesus and choose to follow him alone, these needs are fulfilled beyond what we desire. So I asked myself, how can knowing these things help me better share the hope and peace I have through Christ with those around me who who have little or no assurance in life? And not just me individually, but how can the local body of Christ (the church) meet these needs? Here’s what I came up with.
I can build transformational relationships with others just like Jesus did with his disciples. I like to call this “living life together”. In doing so I can listen to hurts, fears, and worries and share how God has brought me through these. I can rejoice and celebrate in good times and support and encourage in difficult times. I can give guidance, and not just good advice, but Biblical truth advice by drawing from Jesus’ parables, from proverbs, other narratives in Scripture, or instructions to the churches for Christian living. I love teaching, so teaching not only what’s in the Bible to others but how to study it for themselves. I can also draw connections between local cultural stories and Biblical truth so they can learn about who God is and the implications of his sovereignty in their lives. And in situations that I am limited in knowledge and ability, I can connect them with others (counseling, social services, etc.) who can.
As a local of body Christians, together we can train leaders in Biblical counseling. How cool would it be to have several people at a local church who functioned like a counselor but instead of drawing to psychological practices alone, they sat down with people and led them to Scripture that meets there needs and prayed with them?! We can meet together in small groups, believers and unbelievers, to celebrate life events/holidays, give support during difficult times together, study the Bible, fellowship, serve, and learn from one another. During worship services we can intentionally make opportunities that break from the typical church service to pray with others, share testimonies, and search the Scriptures in small groups. We can intentionally establish the church building to function more like a community center: open to public throughout the week, staff available and accessible to passersby, create areas to play or gather and chat, etc. We can provide life skills classes, such as: parenting, language, financial planning, job skills, learning new hobbies, life planning/long term goal planning. We can partner with local government social service agencies to meet economic needs, job skill needs, housing, etc. And we can provide activities for specific subsets of society: the elderly, people with disabilities, moms, after school programming for students, etc.
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). “Always being ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).
Resources for my article:
Bible (NASB) https://www.biblegateway.com
Discover Taipei: The Joys of Divination in Taipei (online paper) http://paper.udn.com/udnpaper/POH0056/209047/web/
In Mystical Taiwan (blog) http://blog.rti.org.tw/english/2010/02/07/in-mystical-taiwan-chinese-fortune-telling/
Lost:30-Something woman (blog) http://hellogirl.blogs.com/lost_30something_woman/2010/01/thanks-for-my-fortune-mr-bird.html
Taipei Times (online article) http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2010/05/30/2003474229
Visions of Travel (blog) http://www.visionsoftravel.org/temple-fortune-telling-passing-qualifying-exams/