Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pay Per Fortune

A good friend called from Taipei on the 2nd day of the Chinese New Year to wish me a happy new year. I should go to a temple, he said; the 2nd day of the new year was the day to seek gods’ help in suppressing the evil spirits (压太岁), otherwise the spirits would harass me for the entire year.

I hung up the phone and realized that I had forgotten to ask whether I should go pray to Buddhist or Taoist gods. I searched online and couldn’t find the tradition of 压太岁 on the 2nd day of the new year. But my friend being from the tradition-minded Taiwan, he must’ve known better.

So I dragged my parents to the Green Ram Monastery.

The Green Ram Monastery is reputedly the largest Taoist Monastery in the entire Sichuan province. The legend holds that Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), the founder of Taoism, once passed by Chengdu pulling a green ram. On the site where he delivered some teaching was later built a Taoist monastery. The monastery was already famous in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). One Tang emperor even sought refuge there in a peasant uprising. The current complex was built in the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911); so was its namesake, two bronze rams with features from all of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

(Of course I didn’t know any of that when I went with my parents; I just googled it as I began writing. Growing up in Chengdu, we only knew there were two bronze rams whose noses we would rub for good fortune.)

We passed by a long line of people in ragged Mao-era clothes before we reached the gate of the monastery. Half of them were begging. The other half sat on low stools and laid out simple letter-size advertising in front, offering Taoist fortune-telling services. Neither group had any customers. The weather was warm though so most just sat back and squinted their eyes at the passers-by.

The monastery was having a swell business on that day. Many Chinese families were busy kowtowing from one temple to another, holding thick bundles of incense. Instead of offering 3 sticks of incense each time, as the tradition suggested, most lit up a thick bundle like a torch when they prayed for good fortune. The more the merrier, which seemed to be the guiding mantra for everything in China.

My parents didn’t believe in any religion; neither did I. But I still encouraged them to leave some cash in the donation boxes and pray to the myriad of Taoist gods. They prayed for their own health and of course, for me making a lot of money in 2006. We also lined up for a chance to walk to a huge wall of grey bricks, with our eyes shut tight, and touch the three big Chinese characters carved on it – Fortune (福), Prosperity (禄), Longevity (寿).

Traditions like these are probably dumb, yet still too beautiful to leave behind.
We visited the main hall, the Temple of The Three Pure Ones, at the end of a long stretch of temples. It was particularly crowded with worshipers since it was the only temple offering divination sticks.

As my mom’s insistence, I kowtowed three times and then picked up the bamboo box of divination sticks. I shook it with my eyes closed. The sticks rattled. Finally a stick jumped out. It’s 66, a lucky number in China.

A girl in jump suit directed me to a corner of the temple. I paid 10 yuan to a Taoist priest who handed me a sheet of ink paper associated with 66. My fortune was supposedly printed on it in Taoist jargons.

The girl in jump suit then directed me to one of the four diviners in the temple. The Taoist priests in the monastery all wear long robes and kept their long hair tied up in knots on top of their skull. This one, however, was in a traditional cotton coat and his hair was short.

He examined my fortune sheet and asked, “what do you want to know?”

“His career,” my mom jumped in. My dad concurred, “yes, his career.”

The diviner pondered for a moment, silently counting with the fingers of his left hand. He looked in his late 20s or early 30s, yet his calm demeanors exuded a wisdom beyond his age. Taoism is reputed to have a sophisticated system to predict the future. Many in China swore belief in the accuracy of its foretelling, if not in its gods.

Then the diviner started slowly, “This year will be a transition for your career.” That’s accurate, I thought; I had been transitioning close to 2 years, but this year had to be the year.

As if sensing my earnestness, he continued, “It won’t be that great, this year. You won’t make much money. (My parents tensed up, looking disappointed.) But this year will lay great foundation for the coming years. In 2007, your career will take off. (My parents relaxed into grateful smiles.) But,”

He paused and counted some more with his left fingers,

“I see you run into bad people in the months of April and July. You need to be careful.” He looked up at me with his eyes full of quiet concerns, and continued, “The nunnery next door had some jade charms blessed on new year’s eve. You should go check them out. Maybe buy one. It will help you through the difficult months. We have volunteers working here who can show you way to the nunnery.” He looked up and gestured towards the girl who lead us to him in the first place.

The girl came over and he added, “you don’t have to buy. Just go and take a look.”

I politely declined and led my parents out of the temple. Then I laughed out loud and hard – I knew in this modern China, such a popular tourist destination couldn’t resist the temptation to sell. Yes, fortunes had always been for sale in temples; but why this insidious cloaking?

I spotted a genuinely-looking Taoist priest sitting at a far corner of the temple. I stepped back in the temple and walked to him. The desk in front of him had a tiny Taoist ten-thousand-year calendar on it. The young priest looked positively ennuied.

I asked whether all fortune-tellers in the temple were priests from the monastery. He rolled his eyes at me, “can’t you tell who are real and who are not?”

Then why the monastery allowed fakes in the temple peddling bogus foretelling and jade charms? I persisted.

“Aiyaya, they are tourist guides. How do we dare pushing them out of the gate?” He shifted in his stool.

“You mean if you anger them, they’d no longer bring tourists to the monastery?”

He stole a look at the hustle-bustle around the fortune tellers on the other side of the temple, and avoided answering my question directly, “Karma is always at work. They will get what they deserve in the future.”

Impressed by his Buddhist wisdom, I took out my fortune sheet and asked for his real Taoist advice on my career.

He read for a brief moment in silence.

“You need to be careful about time.” He said.

“What about time? Be more efficient?” I asked.

“Time.” He pushed away my fortune sheet in utter boredom. “It’s all about time.”

And then he looked away.


rachel said...


chinese temples always did seems a little shady to me.

Anonymous said...

I lost interest to those who use holy
places for profit

Anonymous said...

Come on, in church they are asking donation directly.

Beijing Loafer said...

Sorry my writing was poor and maybe people misunderstood. In this case, the tourist guides were posing as Taoist diviners to sell jade charms. The equivalent in the West could be someone forcing their ways into a church, dressing up as priests and asking for donations which they would pocket for themselves.

. said...


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