Tales of the Tung Sing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2001, 12:00am

MODERN LIFE is a mass of dilemmas. We face myriad decisions: when to renovate the flat; when to buy a new bed; when to get married. Even minor matters, such as when to wash your hair, require a decision.

Surrounded by such conundrums, large and small, some men and women become so stressed they resort to psychologists to ease their angst, but even experts cannot run their whole lives for them.

But there is a panacea for all these problems, and for the bargain price of just $8 you need never make another decision again.

The answers lie in the red book. Not the Communist Mao Zedong's brain-washing 'little red book', but something just as powerful - so much so that many Chinese think of it as sacred.

It is the Tung Sing, also known as the 'Chinese bible' or 'Chinese encyclopedia' - the leading Chinese almanac. Originally named 'Lik Shu', or the calendar, the book was renamed Tung Sing because shu sounds similar to the word for loss and the fear of losing money gambling rendered the title too unpopular, says Choi Park-lai, author of the most current version. So it was renamed Tung Sing, literally 'general win'. (General meaning the predictions can be applied to all people.)

This little red book is not a new fad. It has been in existence since the Hsia dynasty, from around 4,000 BC. In ancient China, the calendar was a sacred document, sponsored by the reigning monarch. At a time when there was no television or radio, Tung Sing was the only tool for the government to deliver weather information and other advice to the nation. In the Ching dynasty, the Manchu government began to allow ordinary people to print the almanac and Tung Sing spread all over China. Then an astrologer in Guangzhou, named Choi Chui-ba, decided to join the trend and published Tung Sing under his own brand name Choi Gen Po Tong. Little did he know that his red book would become the only version to survive.

In 1912, when the Republic of China was set up, the Chinese population was hungry for new ideas and the popularity of the old-fashioned almanac waned.

When Mao Zedong's communists took over the mainland, Tung Sing was dismissed as superstitious and banned. If it wasn't for Choi's grandson, who brought the book - along with his wife and children - to Hong Kong in 1952, the almanac would have become part of a lost history.

Five decades on, millions of Hong Kong citizens rely on the book to run their lives. For today's believers the power of the 'decision-maker', which advises on the dos and don'ts of life is as potent as ever, and many still use it to choose which way to go on a wide variety of issues. They even consult the book to decide when to sweep their floors and to go fishing. Tung Sing advises on the dos and don'ts for every day of the Chinese calendar, from planning traditional festivals to timing the planting of crops and harvests.

It is based on calculations of the positions of the sun and moon, and the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, to help people keep in harmony with nature, to pursue good fortune and avoid evil.

Before Choi's grandson arrived in Hong Kong, some unknown authors had written the inner pages and these have remained unchanged for decades.

Under the heading Lucky Hair-washing Days, it warns against having a good shampoo on the first day of a new year. If you transgress, your life will be short, but should you do so on the third day, you will be rich, it says.

Under the title of Disastrous Hospital-visiting Days it cautions when such visitations could result in the death sentence of the terminally ill being transferred upon the healthy.

To highly superstitious Chinese, the almanac words sound like a king's order. If the almanac says it may be dangerous to leave the house on a certain day, it's not unknown for people to call in sick for work.

It is taken so seriously that the Social Welfare Department staff use Tung Sing to choose names for abandoned babies and, in one of its many famous cases, Hong Kong's windsurfing queen Lee Lai-shan followed its advice to marry on a lucky day.

Companies also use it as a promotional tool to boost sales. In 1994, during the launch of its London-Hong Kong service, Virgin Atlantic Airways printed an advertisement in the Chinese-language press, which said it had consulted the Tung Sing to determine a fortuitous launch day.

It arrived at February 22 as, the company claimed, the book said it was a perfect day for travelling abroad to meet friends or associates.

To help the illiterate to understand the weather forecast and harvest of the year, Tung Sing produced the famous 'Spring Cow Picture'. Every year, the palm-sized drawing, featuring a farmer and a cow standing in front of a crop field, changes. The farmer's attire reflects the year's weather. For example, when the man wears shoes it means the year will be dry, but if he is barefoot it signifies ample rain. If he wears just one shoe, the weather will be partially wet.

Tung Sing provides vivid examples of early Chinese life, its inner pages also reciting old Chinese sayings. Today, it still teaches 'good women should respect husbands'. In its Manage Home Principles it advises people not to be 'sam gu luk pao' (gossips), and not to forget to help, and not envy, others; not to kill animals, and not to sue.

But it is not all about auspicious days and attitudes. Tung Sing also teaches Chinese calligraphy, tidal analysis, how to deal with childbirth - even English. Using the five-page section titled English Letters, Tung Sing followers once learned to pronounce English by reading Chinese characters with similar sounds - but its inaccuracy makes it somewhat of a joke today. It says: five is pronounced as fai fu, nine as lai ng, 21 as dui won dei won, dozen as da sun, no cash as lo ka si, you want as yiu wong, manager as man lei cha, teacher as tick cha, and father as fa da.

To many youths, Tung Sing may be a joke, but to veteran followers, it is a life-long passion. Former fisherman Kwok Chuen, 56, is one such Tung Sing believer. 'I have been with it for 30 to 40 years, I am emotionally attached to it,' he says. 'Tung Sing is not superstition. I am almost 60, I saw that it has a mastery of the good and bad days.'

Kwok says he knows of couples who wed on 'a bad day' that were now were either divorced or had died.

The fisherman started reading the almanac when he was just 12. Over the years he has carefully stored his treasured books and is proud of his collection of almost 40.

'My grandad taught me how to read Tung Sing on the boat,' he says. 'I asked him a lot of questions, grandad was very patient in teaching me.'

At a time when Hong Kong had no radio, Tung Sing was the only tool to forecast weather - fishermen, therefore, consulted their almanac before going out to sea.

Kwok recalls one incident from when he was a teenager which sealed his belief in the text. Having read his red book, the young Kwok discovered that a fierce storm - later to be known as Typhoon Wanda - would strike Hong Kong and last for a week. He tried to warn his relatives not to go fishing but they ignored him. 'They refused to listen to me and went out to the sea,' he recalls. 'In the end, their boats sunk, and they lost their lives.'

They were some of the 571 boats which capsized during the 1962 typhoon while another 726 were wrecked. The disaster also took 130 lives and a further 53 people went missing.

Chui Wai, 71, is another believer. 'If you don't follow Tung Sing, you will have bad luck,' she whispers, recalling the day a woman in her Shek Lung village failed to consult the almanac before trying to repair a stove. As it happened, she says reverently, it was a bad day for such repairs and her daughter developed white spots on her pupils as a result of her mother's neglect of the almanac.

The book reminds Chui of her childhood when most people in the village - except her mother - were illiterate. Able to understand most of Tung Sing's contents, Chui's mother became the village's 'days consultant'.

'In our village, everyone came to ask my mother to choose lucky days for them, from having wedding banquets, to decorations, and building stoves.'

To others, such as Kwok Kwan, 79, Tung Sing is part of their daily routine. 'Others don't like to read it but I do,' she says, adding that her favourite part is the Spring Cow Picture.

'I read it whenever I am have time to kill . . . everything in Tung Sing is useful.' In the old days, it was a must. 'Every family would hang its book in the house's doorway,' she recalls. 'Even when we didn't have the money to buy salt, we still bought Tung Sing.'

Asked what would happen if she didn't follow Tung Sing, Kwok warns: 'There would be bad luck.'

Every year around October, the book hits the streets and sells like hot cakes. Today, most of its followers may be elderly but there is also a following among the young.

From all walks of life, Tung Sing's believers include street hawkers, farmers, fishermen, housewives, businessmen, fung shui masters, civil servants, and even modern designers.

Graphics designer John Wu Siu-cheong, 32, is a new follower. He started reading the book one dull afternoon six years ago. 'My mother was not home, and her Tung Sing was lying on the table,' he recalls. 'I picked it up and flipped through it casually, I found that the contents and pictures were very cute.' Attracted by its designs, he applied it in his artworks, and later followed its predictions in his daily life. 'Every time I am preparing to meet some clients, I look at Tung Sing to choose a date,' he says.

The reason it survived at all is thanks to its founder's grandson, Choi Park-lai, 79, who moved to Hong Kong to save the book. 'If I hadn't come, Tung Sing would have long disappeared in the world,' says Choi, who now writes his predictions in seven different versions of Tung Sing.

The skill of writing Tung Sing was passed from generation to generation of the family. Choi learnt the art when he was 17 and took over the job when his father died.

'I was 20 then,' he says. 'Before my father died, he said, 'My father studied this and it wasn't easy, please take care of it'. So I inherited the craft.'

Tung Sing made Choi famous in Hong Kong. A fung shui master and a specialist in astrology, Choi's prestigious clients have included former Governor Chris Patten, property tycoon Li Ka-shing, and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

'People who believe Tung Sing think I am influential,' Choi says, with a wry smile. 'But others who don't believe it think my book is nothing but superstition and I am crazy.'

He also shared the secrets of the predictions with his four adult children - who now link up to write the book every year, while Choi remains the editor-in-chief.

Passing on the tradition was not easy. At first, his elder son, Choi Yee-choon, 50, refused to take up the job.

'People thought Tung Sing was superstitious and had no future. I didn't want to do the job,' he says.

But once he learned more about it, he couldn't resist, he says. 'The more I learnt, the more I liked it . . . it is scientific and accurate,' he adds. What makes the publication one of the most widely read books in Chinese communities may be its accurate daily and yearly predictions. Apart from predicting Typhoon Wanda in 1962, followers say, it also warned of what become known as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The almanac read: 'Devils will harm people's hearts.'

It then went on, in 1997, to predict a crisis for that year and, on cue, Asian stock markets crashed. The book, its followers say, also forecast the devastating bird flu, saying, 'Poultry will have lots of disasters, all families will have none left'. It was proved right, as chickens from all farms were killed during the outbreak.

But its predictions don't always come true. A Causeway Bay shop owner, after consulting the almanac for an auspicious day to re-open for business after the Lunar New Year holidays was robbed of more than $2,000 when she arrived to open her shop.

After its long history Tung Sing seems to be fading away. Although considered a trendy and intellectual publication last century, it is now dismissed as silly and old-fashioned, and its popularity has waned over the years. Its sales have halved from almost two million books in its peak in the 1920s to 800,000 now.

Since the 1950s, when radio began to be used throughout Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Observatory reported its weather forecasts, there has been less practical use for it.

New technology and communication renders it obsolete among the younger generation and the services it once filled. For thousand of years, the bureau of astronomy prepared astrological predictions and maintained the almanac calendar, but today government observatories have abandoned the once-sacred document.

The Hong Kong Observatory said in a written reply, that 'it has not referred to the Tung Sing in the preparation of all its weather forecasts'.

Today, teenagers dismiss the almanac as nonsense and refuse to pick it up. Two teenage girls I speak to giggle when presented with the Tung Sing. One says: 'I never read it . . . it is not reliable.'

Choi Park-lai says if one day no one wants to read Tung Sing, he will stop writing it. But can he predict when that day will come? 'When? I can't predict it, society will decide it,' he says.

For thousands of years, the almanac has helped Chinese make numerous decisions in their everyday lives. Now its fate must be decided by its readers.