Very Superstitious: Why China’s Divination Fad Is Mere Escapism

2018-02-12 04:27:07

Young, urban Chinese are going gaga for divination techniques, be they Western methods like astrology and tarot cards, or homegrown practices such as the bazi, or Eight Trigrams: eight Taoist cosmological symbols that supposedly represent the fundamental principles of reality. Despite their roots in religion and spiritualism, the divination craze is increasingly becoming a part of everyday life in a country with a strong history of secularism.

We live in an age of empiricism, one in which we are taught to rationalize the events around us with logic and science. But many people feel that logic and science cannot reconcile all their worries, and therefore turn to alternative belief systems to alleviate their feelings of negativity.

People usually take up divination because they believe it can help them influence their romantic lives, family relationships, academic pursuits, professional development, and other aspects of life. No matter which method is used, most readings take one of two forms: They either single out specific answers to direct questions posed by the participant — such as “Which job offer should I take?” — or they reframe a complex or subtle issue — such as “Why is my career not living up to expectations?”

Young Chinese today worry most about time — or a lack thereof. At times, society is almost unbearably competitive, and so they preoccupy themselves with the ethics of time, according to which a person’s value to society is judged by their output over a certain time period. In the last four decades or so, successive generations of young Chinese have placed increasingly less social value on stability. Instead, most seek to embrace fast-paced lifestyles marked by constant change.

As divination spreads deeper into mainstream youth culture, it encourages fatalistic views of failure instead of helping people overcome what’s holding them back.

Chinese people born since the mid-1970s are likely to see time as a commodity that must be used efficiently before it runs out. In practice, this means that youngsters should strive for greatness from an early age, whether that be in school, college, the job market, or their romantic lives. But not everyone can keep up with the rapid pace of social change. These people tend to feel they lack control over their lives; many are deeply afraid of being “left behind” by society because of their own perceived laziness or incompetence, or else feel paralyzed by the sheer number of choices they could make. In this context, divination techniques can be a salve for a lack of direction.

I recently interviewed a 32-year-old Shanghai-based designer surnamed Chen, who says he enjoys a slow-paced life. Nonetheless, this trait makes him anxious as well. Since graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2010, Chen’s classmates have thrown themselves into the rat race, rapidly attaining good jobs, high salaries, and lucrative promotions. By contrast, Chen says, his entry-level design job is low-paying and boring. “I see everyone around me becoming so successful that I’m starting to feel inferior,” he says. “What if I just keep wandering around like this until I’m worse than everyone else?”

Chen is an intelligent, hardworking guy, but his feelings of inferiority drove him to look into divination. “It’s like taking the train and seeing people moving forward with their lives at each stop, while my train car lags behind,” he says.

He frequently visits fortune tellers and consults the Eight Trigrams. “When I had my bazi read, I wanted to know if I still had a shot at success,” he adds. “My trigrams showed that in the past decade, I’ve been living under an unlucky omen that leaves people feeling helpless. I thought about it afterward, and it made a lot of sense to me.”

Chen believes that the Eight Trigrams have allowed him to have a better understanding of what is important to him. “I’m figuring out what works and weeding out what doesn’t, and then recreating my sense of self and a frame of reference for my life,” he concludes.

Today, commercially available divination practices primarily serve to support young people at often fraught times in their lives. The techniques allow people to rationalize — albeit unscientifically — why they feel that they have fallen behind and focus on making themselves useful to society again. However, as divination spreads deeper into mainstream youth culture, it creates new problems, not least the fact that it encourages fatalistic views of failure instead of spurring people on to overcome what’s holding them back.

In the end, divination techniques don’t actually need to be accurate; they just have to satisfy the needs of people who turn to them. As a result, it only empowers people in limited ways, usually by allowing individuals to accept their lack of control over their supposed destinies. This, in turn, can inspire genuine feelings of self-respect and self-esteem in a chaotic and ever-changing society. Yet ultimately, divination can only mollify our anxieties; it cannot resolve them completely. And that is where it becomes a potentially self-limiting form of escapism.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: BBtree/VCG)