Many ancient customs of China live on in the modern age. Kau Cim fortune telling is one of them.
I climbed the stairs that led up from the dried, sandy lake bed through the gate of Laoye Temple. This temple was created in the 14th century by Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, as a memorial to the turtle who allowed him to ride on his carapace through a naval blockade, thus enabling him to vanquish his Han foes in the largest sea battle in history. The temple now sits near an abandoned coal refinery in a remote and desolate area on the bank of Poyang Lake in China’s Jiangxi province. This part of the lake is named after the temple, though is often referred to by more colloquial terms, like the Bermuda Triangle of the East, as thousands of ships throughout history have meet their ends here — many under mysterious circumstances.
Though the temple is in a scantly populated area over an hour by car from the nearest city and is not linked by public transport, a light trickle people still visit for a single purpose: to get their fortunes told.
Kau Cim or Kau Chim is a fortune telling practice that is said to have been derived by the Yellow Emperor, the euhemerized founder of Chinese civilization, somewhere between the time he was teaching people how to build shelters, domesticate animals, and sow grain, and inventing Chinese Medicine, the bow sling, math, a calendar, a code of laws, the Chinese writing system, and a version of football. This just means that Kau Cim fortune telling is old — so old that its origins have long been lost to time, which generally means that the Chinese have been practicing it for the past three or four thousand years.
This fortune telling method consists of asking a question to an oracle, often in a Taoist or Buddhist temple before an alter. This is generally done by bowing in prayer and asking a question to the deity whose statue you’re in front of, either whispered or aloud.
Once the prayer and asking have been completed you then pick up a cylinder of 100 flat bamboo fortune sticks and shake it at an angle to the ground so that one eventually falls out upon the floor. Each stick has a number inscribed on it, and no two sticks in a set are the same. The number on each stick corresponds to a particular fortune.
Once your stick is chosen, you then toss a pair of jiaobei blocks upon the floor. These blocks are made from wood or bamboo and are carved into a crescent shape, and are used to answer yes/ no type questions. One side of each block is round (representing yin), and means “no,” and the other side is flat (representing yang), and means “yes.” An affirmative response results from a toss where one flat side and one round side faces up. A negative answer comes when both round sides are up. If both flat sides face up at you it is generally thought that the Gods are having a laugh at your expense or you asked a silly question that you already know the answer to.
After you have the responses to your question you then need to have it interpreted. The number on the Kau Cim stick that you drew corresponds with a fortune that’s printed upon a piece of paper. Though what it says often needs to be interpreted by a specialist — a fortune teller or a priest — as it is written in poetic form and can come off as cryptic, especially since the characters can have multiple meanings. The fortunes generally cover a one year period, starting at the lunar new year, and if the fortune is one of the 100 in the Guan Yin lexicon, it will read something like this:
Live in the wilderness with only the ravens as friends.
Know yourself and do not envy others’ wealth.
Everybody’s capable of finding their own bread.
But nobody gets to see the whole world.
A modern interpretation will then be provided by a priest or the fortune teller, who adapts the response to meet the parameters of the question.
I walked into the prayer hall of Laoye Temple and stood behind a young couple who were about to have their fortune told. The guy stood at the alter with hands clasped around a stick of lit incense, and bowed reverently. His female companion was doing the same before another alter. They soon joined together, and the fortune asking was about to commence. They kneeled down and bowed in unison and asked their question. The guy took the cylinder of 100 Kau Cim sticks in his hands and shook it vigorously. He then reached in and pulled one out at random. He read it quickly and then palmed it as he reached for the red jiaobei blocks. He cupped them in his hands as he lifted them up before him in prayer formation. He bowed in omniscience to the oracle as he again asked his question. He tossed the blocks onto the floor. Two flat sides turned up — a laughing answer. Unsatisfied, he picked the the blocks back up and tried again, this time with increased vigor. He then rolled a yes.
It was my turn to go next. I kneeled down and bowed before the alter three times, whispering my question. I then picked up the cylinder of sticks and shook them, drawing one from the top as the guy in front of me did rather than shaking one out to the floor. I had drawn the number 35. I clasped it in my hand as I reached for the jiaobei blocks. I rolled them, they came up affirmative. I stood and walked over to the robed temple attendant, and handed him my stick. He took a quick look at it and cackled loudly, “Ha! The laowai got a good one!” Other people who were hanging around the temple crowded around to see, they all told me it was very good and that I would make lots of money this year. The attendant then handed me a slip of paper that had the fortune written on it, and read the four line poem out to me.
Since I’ve gotten this fortune I’ve been taking it around and asking various Chinese people what it means. “Where did you get this!?!” they invariably ask as soon as they see it, seemingly bewildered that a foreigner is going around with a Kau Cim poem in his pocket. They then look at it, and though the poem is written in simplified characters which they technically know the meaning of, they still stare back at me with the wide eyes of unexpected defeat. “It is very difficult to read. The characters can have many meanings.”
I am unsure of the tradition that my fortune came from. It wasn’t a Guan Yin poem, it wasn’t a typical Chi-Chi stick response. It was something else. It went through the four seasons of the coming year, saying that in spring the streams will be full of fish, in summer the trees will have many leaves, that winter will be auspicious, and in the autumn heaven and earth will meet. Off to the side of the poem are the characters 上上, which people in the temple did not hesitate to point out indicates the coming of money.
Kau Cim fortune telling is still common among both older and younger generations throughout China. It’s often done before major decisions and especially when trying to select an auspicious date for important events, like weddings. Though many Chinese are convinced they are atheist, they still follow many traditional spiritual practices without being burdened by the apparent contradiction. Concepts such as luck and belief in a God-like or cosmic distributor of fate is still incredibly widespread, and the continued practice of traditional, folk-based elements of faith, deity and ancestor worship are standard fare throughout the culture. Though many who do go to the temples often do so to request good fortune, but I would not be surprised if China’s religious traditions come back in full force over the coming decades.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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