Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot
One way to counteract the potential scams and frauds, as well as get a handle on other sources of insecurity, where honest Daoists are of great help, is the traditional art of fortune-telling. This comes in two major forms, temple oracles and personal consultation.
Temple oracles involve invocation of the deity by bowing before him or her, offering a prayer that contains the question to be asked, then picking a numbered wooden stick from a round bamboo container and verifying the accuracy of this choice by throwing half-moon shaped yin-yang blocks that are flat on one side and round on the other. If they land one up, one down, the god approves of the stick chosen; if not, one has to pray and pick again. Having ascertained the number, one goes to the temple office right there in or next to the sanctuary and obtains a “fortune slip,” a small strip of paper that contains a poem as well as some specific information, detailing one’s fortune.
Personal consultation is more in-depth, more long-term, and more detailed, and can best be described as fate calculation. It typically works with the eight characters—the traditional way of naming one’s year, month, day, and hour of birth—and provides information both on one’s overall destiny, the major changes that will occur in the course of several decades, and more specific short-term tendencies for the next few years.
Many Daoists practice this art. As Adeline Herrou shows in her study of Wengongci monk Yang Zhixiang as well as in her video about Master Feng, they are rather careful about it, too. “In fate,” Yang says, “there is the part on which one can act (temporary fortune) and another about which nothing can be done (overall destiny). Even then, some fortune remains impervious to all attempts of change.” Despite all this, people always have free will and make choices; they have to take responsibility for how they conduct their lives. It is part of their skill to present the inherent tendencies they see without limiting the individual’s power while yet preparing them for some developments they cannot control.
A prime area of fate calculation is the selection of a marriage partner, which has become more complicated in modernity as traditional family structures disintegrate and match-makers are far and few between. Still considered the joining of two families rather than two individuals, it is fraught with anxiety, and parents often advertise their children, complete with pictures and personal information, in a public marriage market, held in a city park, either individually or through a dating service. The Chinese equivalent of personal newspaper ads and online dating, this is yet completely different in that the parents are the main movers, and the children may not even know this is happening.
An interview with a Daoist priest to check the compatibility of fate according to the eight characters would happen long after this advertising stage, taking second place after education, income, and home ownership.
Read: Herrou, Adeline. 2010. “A Day in the Life of a Daoist Monk.” Journal of Daoist Studies 3:117-48.