This is the second article in a two-part series on astrology in China. The first article can be found here.
We live in a society that largely casts science, reason, and logic as the only true sources of belief. Why, then, are China’s young and educated dedicating themselves so devoutly to a field as unorthodox as astrology?
There has been surprisingly little in-depth discussion of this phenomenon. It is not that we do not care about the spiritual lives of today’s young people, but often we are too quick to judge the spiritual choices of others. In academic circles, followers of astrology are frequently dismissed as lacking faith and culture, as lacking social responsibility, as seeing belief as something dispensable, and as holding contrarian, skeptical, or conspiratorial attitudes toward established facts. The inevitable conclusion is to treat fans of astrology, the Chinese zodiac, or face reading (creating a psychological or emotional profile of someone by analyzing their facial features) as mentally or spiritually bereft.
Yet we unduly limit ourselves if we only consider astrology from a scientific perspective. Instead, we should look at it as a distinctly cultural phenomenon. Doing so allows us to discover that young Chinese are integrating Western astrological culture into contemporary systems of meaning. The marketization of astrology, in turn, means that millennials are not only consuming pseudoscience itself, but also its symbols: Buying tarot-reading, palmistry, or horoscope services are as much about showing loyalty to a subculture as about the experiences themselves.
There are three further ways to analyze this phenomenon. First, China’s young astrologers, the vast majority of whom were born after 1990, lead much more individualized, independent lives than their parents did. For the vast majority of human history, identity was founded on shared familial and geographic bonds. Yet industrial and consumer societies have broken these rigid social systems and popularized individual identity. Chinese young people today have unprecedented access to material goods, scientific and technological developments, and internet and social media. These have broken down the limitations of space and time that, only a generation ago, severely hindered the spread of information.
Sharing culture, anime, comics, games, and slang derived from astrological concepts have all played a major role in the spread of astrology fever across China. Young people today are more likely to base social relationships on like-mindedness, believing that identities established through shared discourse are more effective and meaningful than the more practical relationships that their parents sustain with former classmates, extended family, and work colleagues. New approaches to identity are facilitated by current internet technology and offer alternative types of lifestyles, giving rise to various subcultures — including young astrologers.
Second, astrology culture and symbolism have become popular due to the rise of consumer society. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard states that in societies built around production, the purpose of consumption is to fulfill the material needs in a person’s life by purchasing and trading goods. As China reorients itself toward becoming a consumerist society, what we consume is no longer material goods, but meaning and symbols. Identity, status, and meaning are established through the consumption of the symbols of different forms of culture. In this way, we can understand how astrology is just the latest in a long line of symbols popular among young people.
When astrology fever is considered from a cultural studies perspective, we do not need to discuss whether it conforms to orthodox scientific beliefs or whether its system is objective and reliable. Neither should we say that young people believe in astrology culture because they are a vain, superficial, and spiritually empty generation. The fact that young people use consumerist methods to achieve practical systems of discourse does not make them any less serious or worthwhile than the generation preceding them.
Finally, we should not underestimate the fact that astrology, a field that goes deeper than merely playing around with star signs and horoscopes, holds such a strong influence among large numbers of modern young people. The structure of Chinese society has transformed so dramatically in the last 30 years that original systems of meaning — such as one’s family or work unit — have changed beyond recognition.
As a result, personal identity today is much less consistent: Anxiety caused by the compulsion to work has made many of us feel unfulfilled and hopeless, and the diminishing frequency of interpersonal interaction leaves many of us suffering from a suspended, or disfigured, sense of belonging. Under these circumstances, individuals must seek alternative cultural frameworks to provide themselves with meaningful support and interpret the world around them. Enter astrology fever: a solution to the hardship young people face.
Divination techniques such as palmistry, tarot-reading, and fortunetelling provide young people with a framework for action, and thereby lay out a meaningful philosophy for people’s lives. However, meaning derived from divination is by nature incomplete and fragmented. It recognizes the need to solve someone’s difficulties but fails to effectively treat the sources of conflict. Consequently, it is able to give meaning to the individual but cannot hope to arbitrate social issues.
In short, we can understand astrology fever as a kind of youth subculture. On one hand, it is the system of symbols used by this generation during social interactions to establish social discourse. On the other hand, it plays a part in constructing young people’s identities by giving them a framework to navigate the vicissitudes of life. Perhaps, then, we should not be condemning our young people for throwing themselves into something supposedly so bogus; instead, we should be questioning what aspects of our society are so challenging to youngsters that they are willing to flock toward the craze in droves.
(Header image: Two women interact with an installation at the ‘Star Sky’ art show in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 16, 2015. Zheng Kaifu/VCG)