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In the cards and in the stars

IN the land of ancient fortune-telling and the I Ching, Western astrology and tarot readings are gaining popularity among young people who look to the stars. Yao Minji cuts the deck.

Kathy Lu suspects her husband of cheating, but is afraid of confronting him. She turns to the stars and asks a friend to review her own and her husband's natal charts for the answer.

The friend, a gifted interpreter of such arcana, compares the charts, common in Western astrology, and confirms the suspicions of the 26-year-old human resources professional.

"There are many significant stars, including Venus, in my ex-husband's house for relationships," says Lu, who got divorced a month ago, but never did confront her husband. "It seems that he is the type to have affairs."

Early on, however, Lu's mother had taken the couple's birth dates, times and locations to a Chinese fortune-teller for a similar birth chart. She got the same news: the guy is likely to be a philanderer. This, however, she kept to herself until the marriage was on the rocks.

We don't really know whether Lu's husband was unfaithful - she thought so, however, since he was always out late and away from home. And the stars agreed. They divorced a month ago, after a year and a half of wedlock.

Lu is not the only young educated Chinese who makes important decisions based on Western horoscopes, as well as Chinese astrology. Fortunetelling has been part of life since ancient times, though authorities officially frown on "superstitious practices."

Still, Western astrology and tarot card readings appear to be gaining a greater following today. There is abundant anecdotal evidence.

Popular horoscope blogs announce daily, weekly and monthly fortune and dos and don'ts. There are numerous daily click rates of more than 100,000.

Online lessons teaching about Western astrology have been downloaded in huge numbers. Almost all big Chinese forums reserve a section for horoscopes and discussions.

Many fortune-tellers and tarot readers keep a very low profile. They open only at night and are not widely known, but they are usually full of customers. At one popular tarot spot, people wait for at least two hours to get questions answered on weekends.

"Many people come here when they face important decisions in life, like whether to start a company, break up with a lover, get married or move to another house," says Teresa Tang, who does charts at a small art gallery in Nanhui area. She also owns a small clothing shop.

Almost all her customers are under 30, mostly between 16 and 25 years old.

"They can't make decisions because they are not sure of themselves," says Tang, who is 27. "They learn more about their own personalities from the charts and my interpretations, and they keep coming back though I tell them not to totally rely on this."

Tang works from 7-11pm, and often later. She charges around 90 yuan (US$13) for each chart and gets many students from nearby universities. On a weekday evening, she gets around a dozen of customers, and on weekends more than 30.

Many older Chinese, however, still seek advice from mysterious masters of "I Ching," or "Book of Changes," one of the oldest classic Chinese texts trying to find order in seemingly random events. Those who study I Ching and the Chinese zodiac follow a complicated system of symbols to gain insight about one's past, present and future.

Most texts about the system are written in ancient Chinese and they're difficult to understand and interpret. It is also difficult to find useful information online, even though the Internet has developed rapidly in China.

Lu's mother - who learned of her son-in-law's likely infidelities before they married - consulted a rather mysterious master known only through word-of-mouth.

He and others like him have no permanent address and do not advertise. Their reputations are made by satisfied customers who swear by them and tell their friends. They guard their knowledge jealously and famously unwilling to share and teach others.

The younger generation, however, seems to prefer the natal chart and tarot to make sense of the world and guide them. Though actually sophisticated and nuanced, these systems are on the surface easier to understand and the 78 tarot pictures are beguiling.

Many classic Western horoscope texts have been translated and are fully downloadable from Chinese forums specializing in horoscopes. It is about the same for tarot - the cards and interpretive texts are widely available in bookstores.

Blame the stars

Some young people, like 19-year-old Judy Liu, check their online horoscopes daily to find out their lucky color and direction. Traveling southeast from your home may be good one day, for example, but west may be better another day. Liu calls following her horoscope "an addiction, like cigarettes."

"It's not that I really believe it so much," she claims. "After all, I know much of the daily pronouncements are quite general and ambiguous and every individual has a distinct natal chart.

"But I just have to know the predictions before leaving my room every day, otherwise I feel so insecure," says the Shanghai University student.

She also gets tarot readings.

Before astrology and tarot entered her life, she used to feel lost and without purpose, she says. Now she believes she understands herself better and doesn't need predictions.

Liu believes in destiny and blames her problems, like trouble socializing, on the stars. Gradually she has stopped trying to make friends, saying, "Why bother?"

It's all in the stars.

"This helps me better understand my actions," says Liu. "For example, I spend a lot of money recklessly because my Mars is in the second house ruling money earning and spending." Now she feels less guilty about extravagance and also understands why she is attracted to the wrong kind of man.

"I just can't help it, it's all determined by my chart."

From her chart, Liu knows the importance of her third house, which rules siblings and social relations, and this explains to her why she has problems socializing.

"That's just how I am - it has been decided since the second I was born."

Chart maker Tang sees many such cases of the power of suggestion.

"The purpose of understanding your chart is to learn about your strengths and weaknesses and try to change, not to whine about problems," says Tang. "For many of my customers, the weakness becomes more apparent because the chart interpretation has explained it and they can blame everything wrong in their lives on being born at the wrong second." What makes a 'good face'?

A face-reading (kan xiang) is an ancient Chinese method for divining one's nature and destiny by looking at his or her face. And its concepts of what makes a "good face" are still influential. Some parents seek cosmetic surgery for their children in hopes it will improve their futures.

Considerable cosmetic surgery is based on these ideals (though what is popular for top models can be quite different).

In this system, the face is divided into sections. Ideally there should be "three foreheads and five eyes" (san ting wu yan). The face should have three horizontal sections the size of the forehead and five eye-lengths from ear to ear.

This is said to be harmonious and pleasing, a "good face" or fu gui xiang.

These kinds of faces have appeal worldwide.

On another level, the face is divided into different "houses" ruling different aspects of life. The forehead rules career and achievements, the nose rules fortune and money, the mouth is for friends and social relations and the chin is for children.

Some fortune-tellers say the system is based on the face of the Buddha.

In general, a good face is round; angles, defined cheekbones, a sharp nose and sharp chin are bad, especially for a woman. (Many models, of course, have cosmetic surgery to get sharper chins and cheekbones.)

A "good" nose is straight one with a large rounded tip, like that of Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan. A woman with a sharp nose is said to bring bad fortune and financial problems to her husband.

One Hong Kong actress changed her prominent nose to attract a husband - old friends wouldn't marry her because they all knew what her old nose looked like (hence, her character and their luck).

There's also a suggestion, however, that changing one's physical appearance can alter one's personality and traits - not just deceive observers.

Thus, a softer face not only reflects a soft nature but also can soften one's nature.

Similarly, high sharp cheekbones are said to indicate a domineering woman, a bad choice in marriage. Many models, however, seek blade-like cheeks.

A "good" forehead must be broad and wide to ensure steady and excellent achievements. Many world leaders are said to have a strong forehead.

The mouth reflects and determines friendships and social relations.

Thus a "good" mouth has full lips, while thin lips suggest selfishness and cunning. A mouth should not be turned down but should hint at a smile.

The chin is said to determine the well being of children. As with the forehead, a "good" chin is full and round, not sharp. A sharp chin is said to indicate bad luck for children, rebellious children or possible infertility. The I Ching and the butterfly effect The I Ching system, an ancient system of divination, is basically a complicated binary system consisting of 64 symbols. Based on the "Book of Changes," it is extraordinarily difficult to explain and master, but it is said that masters can make sense of any random event in the universe by a simple but arcane "glance" at the world.

The I Ching holds that everything in the world is related to every other thing through a certain order. A falling leaf could indicate the end of a war and be a sign that a mouse will nibble your pillow.

It might be likened to the butterfly effect that says that a butterfly in South America can cause a typhoon in Asia.

A classic story in one of the I Ching texts tells how a master encounters a vendor who tries to sell him sticks of incense. The man drops the box of sticks by accident and the master declares, "You should flee because you are selling fake incense."

Two months later, the vendor is arrested for selling fakes and people become curious about how the master knew about the fraud.

The master explains that he creates an equation based on the time he encountered the seller and the dropping of the "incense."

Through a complex calculation, he arrives at the symbol of 64 in I Ching, which indicates water. But incense is made of wood, so the master should have arrived at the sign for the element of wood (one of the five elements, including water, fire, metal and earth).

He concluded, therefore, that the vendor was selling poor-quality wooden sticks that were not dry, but damp with water, fakes.


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