A time to tell
THE TALL, YOUNG woman shivering in a white jacket and high boots opposite the entrance to the Lama Temple in Beijing looks me up and down as I walk towards her. If it wasn't lunchtime and we weren't next to Beijing's biggest Buddhist temple, she might be mistaken for a prostitute. But she isn't selling sex. Instead, she wants to offer me a glimpse into my future.
Like a number of people on the busy road packed with shops selling incense, images of Buddha and religious texts, she's a tout for a fortune teller. She asks me if I'd like a reading, but when I say I'm a journalist and just want to interview her boss, she waves me away.
'It's too dangerous,' she says. 'The police could give me 15 days in prison.'
But despite her fears, stopping the fortune-telling industry on the mainland has proved near impossible for authorities. Fortune tellers, or suanming xiansheng, are increasingly in demand, and with Lunar New Year approaching, they're preparing for their busiest period.
'I'll go to see the same fortune teller I always go to,' says Li Zhuying, a 50-year-old accountant. 'I'll ask about my children's careers, if they'll get married and how much money we'll earn this year.'
Many of the fortune tellers who congregate around the Lama Temple are charlatans who fleece gullible tourists. Thousands of others have gone online or made their services available on mobile phones. A quick search on websites such as sina.com or sohu.com reveals a bewildering array of fortune tellers who offer cut-price rates and instant analysis. They don't have to look far for customers. With 137 million internet users on the mainland, 70 per cent of whom are under 30, twentysomethings are increasingly turning to the Web to find suanming xiansheng.
'I use online fortune tellers when I'm bored,' says Yang Jie, a 26-year-old secretary. 'But it's not as good as seeing someone in person. They're just computer programs, not real fortune tellers.'
Their popularity has survived a 2005 government ban on internet ads for fortune-telling services and a 1997 regulation that restricts 'feudalistic' and 'superstitious' content on the internet. When the ban took effect, Sina's share price plummeted by 11 per cent - fortune-telling ads and services accounted for 20 per cent of its revenue.
It wasn't the first time the government had tried to stamp out the suanming xiansheng. Fortune tellers had an official role in the government until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, but they were derided by Mao Zedong as anachronistic remnants of 'old China' and were an early target of the Communist Party. During Mao's time in power, the I Ching, the ancient bible of fortune telling, vanished from bookshelves and many fortune tellers disappeared into prisons and labour camps. A generation on the mainland were told it was the party, and not fate, that would guarantee their future.
'Fortune telling is harmful because it's not a science,' says Li Jianhua, a professor of philosophy at Beijing's Central Party School. 'It's not rational, and it misleads people. The reason people still believe in it is because they're not thinking logically. In the long run, we need to do more to popularise scientific thought. But for now, we need to stop fortune tellers through legal means, because all they're doing is making a living by cheating the public.'
Yet many party members continue to visit fortune tellers. Former president Jiang Zemin is said to have consulted suanming xiansheng on Wutai Mountain, a sacred Buddhist area of temples and monasteries in Shanxi. And many comrades consult fortune teller Zhang Shu.
'There are two kinds of people who come to see me,' Zhang says. 'The first are officials from the government; the second are people who are in business and earn a lot of money.'
Unlike the fortune tellers around the Lama Temple, Zhang doesn't need to tout for business. A genial 33-year-old who has been blind since birth, he works from a cramped office at the back of a bookshop near Beijing's Confucius Temple. Zhang claims an international reputation.
'People come to see me from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Japan ... from many countries,' he says. 'It's because I'm honest and because people think I'm reliable.'
For 200 yuan, Zhang will give a brief consultation based on your birth date, but his regular customers receive a far more specialised, and expensive, service.
Suanming xiansheng employ a variety of techniques to divine the future, including palm and face reading, numerology and astrology. Zhang consults the I Ching, an oracle whose adherents says is part philosophy and part science.
'I had a master and we talked about the I Ching every day,' he says. 'After three years, I came to know it. You do need a special talent. '
Zhang says critics don't understand the theory behind the I Ching and that's why they say it's false. 'If they did understand it, they'd accept it,' he says.
Many young people see no contradiction in helping drive the mainland's modernisation while relying on fortune tellers for career or love advice. 'Young people believe me more than the older generation, who were taught that it's just superstition,' says Zhang.
A woman who gave her name only as Yang started going to suanming xiansheng when she was at university in Henan.
'I guess I was just curious,' she says. 'I don't think it's strange to go to a fortune teller in the 21st century. It shouldn't be considered a bad thing to do. It all depends on how the individual interprets it.'
Nevertheless, Yang's faith was shaken after she asked her practitioner when she'd meet the man she'd marry. 'I asked him the exact time, but he just said it would be after Spring Festival last year and that we'd meet in a restaurant. I believed what he said, but I still haven't met my Mr Right.'
Sceptics say that such vague predictions are typical. But some people visit fortune tellers for more serious reasons, as retired doctor Luo Fengying explains. 'My younger daughter was terribly ill 10 years ago, and I had no idea what to do, as [her] medicine wasn't working,' he says. 'One of my colleagues advised me to go to a fortune teller. He told me it was not that serious and that my daughter would be all right soon. I was very relieved.'
Wang Xiaolan, a psychiatrist at the Beijing Huali Mental Health Centre, says Luo's actions were dangerous.
'I know lots of people go to fortune tellers when they're in trouble, but there are far more practical ways of solving personal problems,' she says. 'For some people, it's a form of mental consolation, but if a fortune teller gives you bad news and you believe it, it can have a negative effect on your mental health.'
But fortune telling is deeply rooted in Chinese tradition, and Li Zhuying has faith in his suanming xiansheng.
'I think fate is responsible for what we can get in our lives,' says the accountant. 'In my opinion, what my fortune teller tells me is always right.'