This is the first article in a two-part series on astrology in China.
On Dec. 8 last year, Chinese investment firm Meisheng Holding Group acquired the social media platform Uncle Tongdao for 20 million yuan ($2.9 million). With accounts on both microblogging site Weibo and messaging app WeChat, Uncle Tongdao has attracted large numbers of young followers since its inception in 2014 with cartoons and text series dedicated to Western astrology. Meisheng’s acquisition of the site looks likely to bring it to the attention of many more web users.
In my view, Meisheng’s buyout is a cultural event as much as a financial one, as it is closely related to the spending habits and social interactions of young people in China today. Zhang Jinyuan, Meisheng’s cultural planning director who oversaw the acquisition, is acutely aware the market potential of China’s current “astrology fever.” As she pointed out in an interview with The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, this craze currently informs a great deal of social interaction in the “cultural communities” of young people.
Uncle Tongdao’s official Weibo page shows hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the success of their highly sought-after online course indicates that astrology is also proving profitable in the open market. Companies like Uncle Tongdao, Naonao Witch Shop, and Uncle Alex all use national social media platforms to reach wide audiences of internet users, boosting their popularity among young fans. While their approaches vary, they all discuss different kinds of mystical knowledge, explore the relationship between astrology and daily life, and share information about professional workshops and seminars.
Market reaction to astrology fever is no longer confined to the internet. Fashionable tarot-reading and fortunetelling shops have sprung up along the bustling roads of major Chinese cities, including the areas around Houhai in Beijing, Tianzifang in Shanghai, and Xinjiekou in Nanjing. These shops provide services with explicit prices in a fluctuating market. For example, a tarot card reading is usually done by selecting one key question for about 100 yuan ($15). Customers may ask, “If I change jobs this year, will it go well?” Afterward, any follow-up questions are included in the price. More upmarket sellers offer astrological services at astronomical prices.
It is common knowledge that the horoscope at the center of astrological culture primarily revolves around the 12 star signs: Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, and so on. These signs were born from 12 so-called houses — a symbolic system for identifying the relative positions and movements of celestial bodies to explain or predict the fates of organic beings. Many astrologists believe that this system expresses changes in the human realm because nothing happens randomly — rather, everything has a causative relationship with everything else.
However, the interpretation of astrological culture currently so popular among Chinese young people is rather less refined than its traditional form. When people say “Capricorns make good CEOs” or “Aries are sweet, delicate, and foolish,” these statements actually only refer to sun signs. Technically speaking, this is called an “astrolabe.” Each person has 10 stars, which fall into the 12 houses of the astrolabe. Each star, zodiac, and house — as well as the angles between them — has explicit significance.
In my opinion, there are four main reasons why astrology is flourishing in China today. The first is closely related to the development of the internet over the last decade or so. Open almost any major online portal in China, and you will see sections titled “My Horoscope,” “Fortune and Personality,” or “Your Moods and the Zodiac.” As astrology columns are largely written intuitively at the expense of actual research into the art, bloggers with a casual interest create a great deal of online content. The more professionalized horoscope sections of certain community portals, such as Douban and Tianya, are reassuring exceptions.
Second, astrology culture has become a facet of social interaction. Under these circumstances, whether people “believe” in astrology or see it as “scientific” is actually beside the point. Certain astrological terms, especially those having to do with movements of the sun and moon, are already accepted ways of discussing our actions and motivations. So long as people continue to use this symbolic vocabulary to interpret the meaning of events around them, astrology will remain part of mainstream culture, even if only in an attenuated form.
The broader social acceptance of astrological jargon holds deeper significance because it creates an environment whereby rejecting such words is deemed “antisocial.” In this context, statements like “Astrology isn’t scientific” or “Astrology is a hoax” leave something else unsaid: namely, “I want to end this conversation.” Speakers, therefore, are denying not only the principles and symbols of astrology, but also of social interaction itself.
Third, discourse established under the influence of zodiac culture has psychological implications. As the craze mainly shapes the language people use to describe their personality and their actions, it is free of ideas of accuracy and inaccuracy because individual interpretations are seen as a valid, independent judge of human experience.
If people learn to interpret their actions — and those of others around them — through an astrological prism, they will start to gradually self-define according to the culture surrounding it. If I know I am an Aquarius, for example, and I act in a capricious, fickle way befitting Aquarian personality types, then any future idiosyncrasy has both a ready-made framework justifying it and an excuse for its manifestation. If enough people buy into this phenomenon, the empirical accuracy of astrology becomes a moot point. I am “such an Aquarius,” because I was born in late January and my friends say I behave like one, and so I will unconsciously modify my behavior to oblige them.
Fourth, the popularity of astrology is rooted in cultural commercialization. The initial resurgence of interest has now been reinforced and marketized, as illustrated by Meisheng’s acquisition of Tongdao Uncle. When we purchase fortunetelling services, for example, are we not secretly hoping for words of consolation or positivity, perhaps to combat the less-heartening reality of daily life? If so, this is much more of a consumer activity than a mystical one with the eventual goal of mental edification. In other words, the power of the market has made many people believe in the power of astrology and divination — while also subtly shaping their behavior.
Astrology fever in China has become a cultural phenomenon. The vast majority of its adherents are young people in their teens and twenties, many of whom have grown up in the highly varied popular culture of the post-1990s generation. This leads us on to another interesting question: How did astrology fever become a form of youth subculture in the first place?
(Header image: A woman points to the above at a ‘Star Sky’ art show in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 16, 2015. Zheng Kaifu/VCG)