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Chinese Fortune Telling: Unveiling the Mysteries of Fate

CEO Khai Intela
Image: "Li the half wizard" is telling fortune for a young man. Chinese fortune telling, also known as Suan ming (Chinese: 算命; pinyin: Suànmìng; lit. 'fate calculating'), has been a practice ingrained in Chinese culture...

Chinese fortune telling Image: "Li the half wizard" is telling fortune for a young man.

Chinese fortune telling, also known as Suan ming (Chinese: 算命; pinyin: Suànmìng; lit. 'fate calculating'), has been a practice ingrained in Chinese culture for centuries. It has evolved over time, with various divination methods used in different dynastic periods. Today, it is still prevalent in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Chinese-speaking regions like Malaysia and Singapore. The concepts of Chinese fortune telling have also permeated Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese cultures under different names. For example, the Korean practice of "Saju" is equivalent to the Chinese four pillar method.

Unveiling the Historical Roots

Chinese divination has its roots in ancient practices such as "bǔ" (on tortoise shells) and "shì" (on milfoil stalks). These methods, sanctioned by royalty since the Shang and Zhou dynasties, were used to "solve doubts" and make important decisions. However, divination based on appearance (xiang type), such as physiognomy, faced criticism at times. Despite this, it found its place in medical and veterinary practice, as well as in match-making and decision-making processes. Divination techniques also developed around astronomic observations and burial practices, such as Feng shui and Guan Lu.

Fortune-telling in the Ming Dynasty

Fortune teller in the painting of the Summer Palace long corridor. Image: Fortune teller in the painting of the Summer Palace long corridor.

During the Ming Dynasty, fortune-telling became deeply ingrained in Chinese society, with fortune-tellers occupying an important role. They offered their professional skills, interacted with clients, and left a significant social impact. Literary works from the Ming era portray fortune-tellers sporting distinctive attire and using creative ways to attract clients. Some fortune-tellers would travel from street to street, carrying signs describing their areas of expertise. Others would set up booths in highly populated areas or frequent city entrances and temples.

Payments and Methods

When it comes to payment, there was no strict contract between the fortune-teller and the client. Negotiations around fees often took place, and sometimes clients would pay extra if they were satisfied with the results. Fortune-telling methods varied, with physiognomy and ziping divination being prominent.


Physiognomy involved careful examination of one's facial structure, complexion, body shape, and bones. Fortune-tellers made calculations based on these characteristics, looking for auspicious signs of a prosperous future. They also compared facial structures to animals, which held symbolic meaning. Various techniques were employed, such as dividing facial structures into mountains, rivers, and planets, and considering the annual fortune associated with specific facial features.

Ziping Divination

Ziping divination, introduced by the famous fate-calculator Xu Ziping, focused on the "ten stems" and "twelve branches" of a person's birth. This method utilized the "Four Pillars of Destiny" or "eight characters," which consisted of a person's year, month, day, and hour of birth. By analyzing the stem-branches and their corresponding five elements, fortune-tellers calculated a person's fate and the relationship between the components.

Geomancer (Fengshui)

Geomancers examined the placement of homes and ancestral tombs to seek balance within the universe and secure promising lives or specific events. They used compasses to calculate location and time, considering factors such as mountains, water, direction, and soil to determine auspicious or inauspicious locations.

Street fortune teller consults with client in Taichung, Taiwan. Image: Street fortune teller consults with client in Taichung, Taiwan.

Wealth and Wisdom

Chinese society holds fortune tellers in high regard, considering them equivalent to management consultants and psychotherapists in the Western world. They play a significant role in advising business people on investments and are often involved in major business decisions. Moreover, fortune tellers provide a safe space for individuals to discuss and resolve personal issues without social stigma. Their predictions and guidance create a framework for decision-making, allowing individuals to navigate risks and make choices with confidence.

Paths into Fortune Telling

Fortune tellers in ancient China came from diverse backgrounds. Some entered the profession due to economic necessity, while others pursued it as a secondary occupation alongside their main jobs. Scholars and educated individuals also engaged in fortune-telling as a hobby, forming communities alongside their peers. Clients seeking fortune-telling services varied widely, from aspiring individuals preparing for civil service examinations to elite and imperial patrons. Fortune tellers were sought after for advice on constructing houses, choosing burial sites, and fulfilling duties of filial piety.

The Fortune Teller-Client Relationship

Fortune tellers played the role of active listeners, analyzing clients' words and body language to uncover hidden information and provide accurate predictions. Building trust and credibility with clients was essential, as fortune tellers aimed to strike a balance between displaying their knowledge and establishing rapport. Society granted fortune tellers a social license, allowing them unique access to examine and touch clients' bodies for divination purposes.

Societal Impact and Risks

Fortune telling held a significant place in Chinese society, often influencing major decisions and even national events. Fortune tellers enjoyed a reputation that brought them close to emperors and allowed them to ascend socially. However, fortune tellers who became officials also faced challenges, such as attacks from rivals and the responsibility of divining auspicious days accurately, a task that Jesuit scholars struggled to comprehend fully. The power of fortune telling was such that it could provoke war and create chaos if influential individuals acted based on predictions.

Reflecting on Chinese Fortune Telling

Chinese fortune telling remains an enigmatic and influential practice, deeply rooted in culture and history. While interpretations of its various methods may differ, the central belief in the interconnectedness of fate, wealth, education, health, and relationships continues to shape Chinese society. The lessons learned from fortune telling, such as the importance of focus and the power of personal choices, resonate with people seeking understanding and guidance in their lives.


Chinese fortune telling, with its rich history and intricate techniques, offers a fascinating glimpse into the mysteries of fate. From physiognomy to ziping divination and geomancy, the practice has evolved and become an integral part of Chinese society. Fortune tellers have made their mark as advisors, influencing business decisions and providing psychological support. While fortune telling carries risks and societal taboos, its enduring popularity reflects people's desire for insight and control over their destinies. As a testament to its longevity, Chinese fortune telling continues to captivate and inspire individuals seeking clarity about their futures.

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