SHANGHAI — In mid-November, Chen Jing took her 7-year-old daughter to meet a woman named Huang at a downtown café. Huang, a self-styled analyst, claimed she could provide detailed information about the child’s future prospects — just by looking at her hands.
At the café, Huang studied the girl’s palms, collected her fingerprints, and said she’d be in touch soon. Two weeks later, she met Chen again at the same location and handed over a thick, 47-page report.
The document analyzed nearly every facet of the 7-year-old’s mind based on the shape of her fingerprints, from her personality and natural learning style, to her level of intelligence, artistic ability, and leadership skills.
According to Huang, the girl had a “chameleon” personality. “Her mind is elastic and her changing moods often impact her behavior,” the analyst explained. Chen was delighted. “This is so typical of my daughter,” she exclaimed.
Chen is just the latest Chinese parent to purchase a dermatoglyphics multiple intelligences test, or DMIT, in a bid to better understand her child. The fingerprints-based personality test has become increasingly popular among middle-class families in recent years. The DMIT movement, however, is also facing growing backlash from critics who accuse practitioners of peddling pseudoscience.
DMIT first emerged as a speculative extension of dermatoglyphics — a branch of science that studies how epidermal ridges on the hands and feet relate to brain functions. Early proponents of dermatoglyphics, including 20th century researcher Harold Cummins, posited that certain fingerprint patterns could indicate Down’s syndrome.
According to DMIT industry lore, a Taiwanese researcher named Chen Yimou combined dermatoglyphics with the multiple intelligences theory of Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner in the 1980s, claiming fingerprints could also provide insights into personality type. Over the following years, Chen’s work gradually evolved into the DMIT test being used today.
By the 1990s, Taiwan had multiple DMIT analysts marketing their tests to parents. The Taiwanese firms began expanding into the Chinese mainland in 2005, sensing a huge market opportunity, industry insiders told Sixth Tone.
Liu, an analyst from Taipei who refused to give his full name for privacy reasons, was among the first DMIT professionals to set up shop in Shanghai. “The market need is always there,” he said. “Even if just 1 in every 1,000 families shows interest in the service, the market is not small.”
The companies operate in the shadows, preferring to meet clients in neutral venues like cafés rather than registered offices. There are no legal restrictions on DMIT in China, but analysts often take care to stay out of the spotlight. Several industry insiders said they don’t advertise their businesses openly, preferring to find clients through word-of-mouth.
“We have to stay low-profile,” said Liu. “We don’t normally approach clients, but parents who need our service find us on their own.”
Such caution is understandable. From the beginning, DMIT has faced pushback from Chinese academics and medical staff, who argue the test has no basis in science. Zhang Haiguo, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine specializing in dermatoglyphics, has been an outspoken critic since he became aware of DMIT in 2006.
“To date, there remains no medical proof regarding how dermatoglyphic information correlates to brain functions,” said Zhang. “For the application of dermatoglyphics in intelligence tests, there’s no proven scientific evidence at all.”
DMIT has also attracted criticism from the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) community. “I’ve never heard that a person’s intelligence can be reflected in their hands,” Du Yajun, a doctor at Shanxi Provincial TCM Hospital, told local media.
Yet the firms continue to attract large numbers of customers. Liu has served several thousand families in Shanghai over the past 14 years, he estimated. Analysts said demand for the test is still rising, though data on the number of active DMIT companies in the country is not available.
The tests are particularly popular among urban middle-class parents, according to Liu. “Most parents that I have helped are well-educated,” he said. “They have usually sought us out after encountering difficulties communicating with their children.”
Chen, a Shanghai-based housewife, turned to DMIT after just such a breakdown in relations with her daughter. Unlike many of her friends, Chen had always prioritized her child’s happiness over everything else, sending her to dance and taekwondo classes rather than cram school.
“I never expect her to be at the top of her class — I just want her to be an average girl, but happy and healthy,” said Chen.
But over the past year, her daughter’s character started to change, and Chen was at a loss for explaining what had happened.
“She used to be mild-mannered: Though often sensitive, she seldom lost her temper easily,” said Chen. “That’s why I’ve been confused by her sudden tears and yelling … I imagine it’s too early for her to begin her rebellious years.”
Chen heard about DMIT through a parents’ group on the social app WeChat. Though the test provider quoted her a price of more than 2,000 yuan ($285), she decided to give it a try.
“It’s worth it if it can give me inspiration or enlightenment of any kind,” said Chen.
For others, DMIT offers a way to decide how best to manage their children’s education. Due to China’s ultra-competitive school system, it’s common for children in major cities to spend hours in extracurricular classes from as young as 3.
Families often invest huge resources in these classes. A 2019 survey of more than 7,000 parents from 20 Chinese cities found that nearly 40% of respondents spent as much as 30% of their family’s total income on their kids’ extracurricular education.
Xu Xiaolin for Sixth Tone
As a result, large numbers of parents are eager for guidance on how to spend their money wisely. Zhao Yuanyuan, a mother of a 4-year-old girl from the eastern city of Hangzhou, said she booked a DMIT test in June to work out how to assess her daughter’s strengths and weaknesses more “scientifically.”
“Making the most of her learning time is what I want,” said Zhao. “If I put her into a singing class but end up finding three years later that she has no talent for it, that would be a huge waste of time.”
A Beijing-based analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed the rise in demand for DMIT during the past two years to parents’ increasing focus on early education.
In some cases, schools have even contracted DMIT companies. In March, a primary school in the southern city of Shenzhen provoked outrage after collecting students’ fingerprints for the test without parents’ consent.
Zhang, the Shanghai professor, said he understands why so many parents are signing their children up for tests. But he stressed that no matter how convincing the analysts seem, parents are being scammed. “The results are not science-based and can be misleading,” said Zhang.
Liu is used to such accusations. He insisted, however, that the tests can still be helpful for parents. “If you treat them as a reference — something that helps you understand your child’s behavior or mindset — it’s much more rational,” he said. “This test also works to alleviate the psychological burden on parents.”
Several parents who spoke with Sixth Tone did appear to take comfort from the apparent certainty offered by DMIT. Chen said since Chinese society has changed so dramatically in one generation, traditional parenting advice offers her little help.
“There’s a gap between our generation and our parents’ generation regarding the concepts of raising a child,” said Chen. “Before, parents assumed it was the school’s responsibility to educate kids. But modern parents today emphasize family education and agree with Western ideas that encourage children to be creative and think independently.”
In this context, parents rely heavily on advice and support from their peers, and it’s through these grassroots networks that DMIT has spread. Though Zhao declared herself disappointed with the lack of detail in the report she received — for which she had paid 1,200 yuan — she told the other parents at her daughter’s kindergarten about the test when she returned to Hangzhou. Since then, several of them have signed their own children up for tests in Shanghai.
“Many parents feel worried that they don’t understand their children thoroughly,” said Zhao. “As many of us are parents for the first time, we try to learn from those with experience.”
Common animals used to represent different personality types. Ding Yining/Sixth Tone
For Chen, meanwhile, the main benefit of DMIT was that it gave her access to new support networks. After her meeting with Huang, the analyst added her to a WeChat group of fellow parents whose children were also “chameleons.” Huang declined Sixth Tone’s interview request.
“She (Huang) showed me a way out,” said Chen. “We (the parents in the WeChat group) face similar challenges and can exchange experiences in dealing with them.”
In the end, Chen did manage to get to the bottom of her daughter’s behavior issues. After speaking with parents on WeChat, the mother realized the change had started just after her young child began primary school.
Unlike most of her peers, the 7-year-old couldn’t read or write when she started school. She had also grown up in a highly nurturing environment, making it difficult to adapt to the discipline of school life. The stress of suddenly facing daily criticism from teachers appeared to be causing the girl to act out at home.
Chen couldn’t say for certain whether her daughter really had a chameleon-like personality. But what DMIT had done was gather dozens of parents, whose children were all going through difficult changes, and allow them to help each other. “Most of their tips turned out to be effective,” said Chen.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Sciencephotolibrary/Tuchong)