I recently made a short trip to Beijing's Guozijian, a relic of the imperial college during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The well-preserved majestic architecture and distinct street layout of old times really took me back down the path into history.
As one of the attractions that mark Beijing from other metropolises that are made solely of hard concrete and glossy glass, its adjacency to the Confucian Temple and Lama Temple has added to its charm, drawing many visitors there to pay tribute.
While I was getting the full measure of the cultural ambiance, a waft of burning incense mixed into the air and traveled to my nose. As I followed the scent, a street opened out to me. There were more than 30 shops with small fronts straggling along each side. The products they were selling ranged from Confucian classics to Buddha figurines.
Normally, it's natural to have these kinds of spin-offs around areas with temples but I was taken aback a little when I saw cardboard signs reading like fortune-telling ads on shop doorsteps.
They immediately reminded me of an old practice that is buried in the pit of my memories. Back in ancient times, people would like to have some prophets unravel the map of their life's vicissitude so as to sidestep the fated unpleasant twists and turns.
But in this day and age, some still flock into the temples, drawing lots and turning to the masters for enlightenment, especially when a new year is approaching. Much to one's surprise, these regulars are not solely illiterates, but quite to the contrary many of them are successful businessmen, well-educated college students, and well-paid job holders.
By confiding their birth date and horoscope, people have their palm read and hanker after the formulae for future success. Those, who are torn by such hard decisions as whether to study abroad or at home or go to work, long for guidance to loosen their knotted brows. House buyers solicit geomantic experts to locate their best investment.
One of my close friends who graduated from Peking University tipped me off about the strange phenomenon. He has paid visits to several oracles himself.
"You can't equate this practice with superstition," he told me. "I go there whenever I am at a crossroads in my career and feel hesitant and confused about my next move. You can take the whole thing with a pinch of salt, but it is really an outlet to untangle your obsessions at the moment."
Although some of the prophets are obliged to offer an answer in the form of prophecy, which imputes suspicion, one, in most cases, can get some pearls of wisdom in the midst of the ritual.
The counseling that is mostly based on the "sages" sometimes can instill some of the Taoism spirits into the suffering, dissipate the wool over your eyes, and help you make an informed and trouble-free choice after being freed from all earthly and vain concerns.
However, in a metropolis like Beijing, the fortune-telling business is derailed from its core course. The temples on beaten tracks are highly commercialized. Filled with tourists, degrees of piety are measured by the price of incense you bought, and the incense you just stuck into the censers could be quickly removed after a few seconds to make room for others'.
More often than not, you wind up sitting before a saint with a long line tailing along behind you, corrupting the lofty and mystical aura.
Besides many imposters are flooding into the markets to share in the cake. Self-employed fortune tellers like those mentioned at the beginning of this piece are out there to cash in, making unscrupulous assumptions or even giving groundless warnings simply to extract money.
So, it's best to do the life forecast thing with a light heart. And if you have your mind set on getting some serious inspiration, instead of sightseeing and want to avoid miscellaneous noises, you should check those temples a bit further away from the city center, like Tanzhe Temple. Getting in close touch with nature and soaking in the temple rituals can be both delightful and rewarding.
(China Daily 11/23/2010)