A Fortuneteller in a Modern Metropolis

China Dispatches 2

Liang Hong describes an old profession out of place in new China in the first of our series of creative non-fiction articles, first published in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) and presented in English in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.

Xian Yi wears brown-framed glasses and a permanent smile, holding a strand of prayer beads in his hand. While he talks, eats, and walks, the beads slip silently through his fingers. Something in the arch of his brow exudes peace. I am curious, sensing in him something artificial, something affected, yet his tranquil expression can’t be a put-on.

It seems unbelievable, but Xian Yi is a fortuneteller.

I spent my first two days in Nanyang at the home of my sister-in-law Xiulan, talking idly with my aunt, taking lazy strolls with Meilan and Manman. My overweight aunt can hardly move. She is always panting by the time we reach the village gates, claiming she will die if she takes another step. We go back to chatting, and the moment I mention her old house in Liang Village, tears spring to her eyes, and she murmurs, “They all scold me for being so short-sighted, insisting on selling the house, not thinking of what I’d do when I got old...” Xian Yi didn’t have a job and wasn’t occupied by anything especially, so morning and night he would stop by my aunt’s, joining in the gossiping and chatting. I hadn’t expected Xian Yi to be such a brilliant storyteller, to open up like he did. Fingering the prayer beads, intently focused, he told us of his past. His son Guopin arrived home from school, sat softly down beside us, and listened raptly to his father talking, watching while I typed, occasionally offering me a drink.

So why did I drop out of middle school? In 1982, my grandpa, my uncle, and my grandma all passed away, and back then I couldn’t even afford a coffin. So I took out an IOU, paying just over a hundred pounds of wheat a year. Three years later I still hadn’t paid off the loan, and the guy needed cash. So I quit school, went back home and in less than a year I learned all there was to know about farm work, drying tobacco, threshing and winnowing wheat, spraying pesticide, every kind of rural technical skill and basic bit of agricultural knowledge. Two years or so after my brother Xian Sheng arrived in Nanyang, he invited me to join him there, saying he had a lead on a job.

In late 1984 I went to Nanyang. Back then Xian Sheng was selling clothes in the alley behind the Xinhua Commune. I wanted to work at my uncle’s factory, but that plan fell through, so I went to work for Xian Sheng, selling clothes for half a year, barely making ends meet. Back then living conditions were poor, and the house I rented was a thatch-roofed cottage. They called it “Chinese heritage housing,” but I’d had a nicer home back in the country.

In 1985, Xian Sheng got married. On Xinhua East Road he opened an appliance repair shop, and hired a repairman to run things. He’d moonlight there when there was work. I studied with him for half a year, but never learned much. I was no good at fixing things. I couldn’t even fix a TV set, forget about anything else.

In 1986 Xian Sheng and his wife had Manman, and in 1987 they built a house. In 1986 I went to work at the Number Two Rubber Factory, earning one yuan, seven mao a day (note: a little over $1 in 2019 US dollars). The foreman’s share was four mao ($.28). I worked there for four months, bought a Flying Eagle brand bike with the money I saved, and rode it home for Chinese New Year, thinking I was big stuff. The bike was black, with 28-inch wheels, heavy, 153 yuan ($102) with the lock. I couldn’t afford it, so Meilan chipped in twenty yuan ($13). Rode it ten miles an hour for six hours. I was proud, I was happy. It was cold out, but I didn’t feel it. I was too excited, pleased with this bike I’d bought myself. Back home, I handed out cigarettes to anyone I met. I handed out Baiheqiao cigarettes, two mao, three fen ($.16) a pack. My family all smoked Tuanheqiao, a mao a pack ($.07). I faked them out by filling an empty Beiheqiao pack. The truth was I was too poor to smoke Baiheqiao, but too vain to admit it.

While I was at the Number Two Rubber Factory I secretly made a bed. The supervisors saved me scraps of steel tubes and things, but I couldn’t take the materials away, they were public property. I had a chat with the guard at the gate, gave him a pack of cigarettes, and he said, come by tomorrow just after five in the morning, I’ll be on a bathroom break. I took the parts home and made a bed out of steel tubes. I still sleep in it. I bought two packs of Meiweibai cigarettes, and gave them to my bosses to say thanks. Four mao, five fen ($.30) a pack. My bosses were honest men, saying they were only helping, I could have the cigarettes, they’d even pay me for them. Finally one of them gave me four yuan ($2.66). And they said, if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.

I rode my bike back to Nanyang, but still couldn’t find work. In late 1987, I started selling pork stew. In summer, I would get up around five, go to the butcher’s and pick out a pig’s head, choosing carefully, looking for one that would have plenty of meat in it when you split it open, the only way to make money. I would go home, have breakfast, shower, shave, split the pig’s head, boil a pot of water, put the pig’s head in, and simmer it for two hours. A little after eleven it would be cooked through, and I would head out to sell stew, pedaling a three-wheeled cart I’d borrowed. Usually there would be some left over, and I’d go out again after two. Sometimes it would be after five by the time I’d sold it all, sometimes I’d be out until eight or nine, sometimes at eleven I’d still have stew left, and I’d wait beside a beer stand as long as the customers kept coming. A day’s sales were usually enough to pay for food. Xian Sheng was poor in those days too, and he’d wait all day for me to bring back the money I’d made, then buy steamed buns and vegetables.

It was no way to live. The tax collectors were out every day chasing people. They’d come out of nowhere, park their car right in front you, and you couldn’t run. If they caught you they’d demand a month’s earnings. I’d leave the cart and run, shaking all over. I was a country boy, you know, I’d never been in a situation like that, I was scared out of my wits. I was an honest businessman, but there were other stew vendors nearby, they were from the city, they were scam artists, you’d pay for a jin, a pound or so, and they’d give you eight liang. I gave people what they paid for, and gradually their customers started coming to me. In a rage, they slashed my tires. Each day I would pedal the cart home, but each day my tires got slashed, so I was constantly mending tires. In the end they put me out of business. Each day they would wait for me, glowering, scheming. I didn’t dare go. It occurred to me, city life isn’t easy for a country boy. Doing anything is difficult, especially being honest.

On Chinese New Year I ended up idle. On Xinhua East Road, across from the old Xinhua Cinema, I sold calligraphy scrolls I’d written myself. In two days, I made more than 70 yuan ($40). I was no expert in Chinese characters, but I wrote neatly, and the country folk could understand. The seller next to me was from the Provincial Calligraphy Society, and he wrote in cursive characters, like dragons flying and phoenixes dancing, classy stuff, couldn’t read his writing for my life. I wrote in regular script, and the country folk bought from me, mainly because they could read my writing. I spent 60 yuan ($34) on a yellow overcoat, and returned home for the holiday in high spirits. I only went back to Liang Village to strut my stuff, to show off. There was nothing for me to do there but parade myself around.

I’d started studying calligraphy after school. When I was at home working, I would return from drying tobacco and tending the fields, and spend the evening practicing calligraphy. I practiced calligraphy because I was bored, to while away the time. I didn’t like going out, drinking and socializing. I’d rather be at home, writing characters, reading books, in peace and quiet. I practiced every day. After coming to Nanyang, except at the busiest times, I didn’t miss a day.

After Chinese New Year I was out of work again, so I went back to selling clothes. With no capital to invest, I turned to selling other people’s clothes on consignment. They’d give me the clothes, and once the clothes were sold, I’d pay them. Next to Nanyang Station stood a sewage plant, and next to the sewage plant some shacks of corrugated cement sheeting, so drafty it was nearly as cold inside as outside. That’s where I lived. I would skip breakfast to save money. I asked the neighbor to fetch water for me each day. There was a big water boiler next door, but I would leave early and come home late, and they only ran the boiler in the daytime. He was a nice guy, and he’d fetch me water. On the way home in the evening I would buy two steamed buns, dunk them in tea, and that was dinner. Breakfast, too. Business was bad, because I was selling on consignment, and people wanted high prices. I never made any money.

And that’s how it was. It didn’t occur to me to go back home. I didn’t think, if things don’t work out, I’ll go back to Liang Village. I was where I was. I was going to put down roots.

On April 20, 1988, Xian Sheng won a contract with the Nanyang City Craft and Ornament Factory’s Store for Youth, and I went to work for him. Xian Sheng was as poor as me. He even wined and dined the factory bosses on borrowed money. I’d made around 100, maybe 150 yuan ($86) selling clothes, and put that into the business too. It was easy work. Xian Sheng was outgoing, and I was an introvert. He took care of buttering up the city’s Administration Bureau for Industry and Commerce, and I took care of promotion and bookkeeping. Business was better by the day. And until 1990, business stayed good. I wrote something once, saying more or less, county folk in the city have everything city folk have, and some things they don’t. We are proud, we stand tall, we are strong and independent, we have everything. For a few years in a row, we rode home on a three-wheeled motorcycle, people hanging off the sides, comfy as could be. Xian Sheng ended up buying one Soviet-made Volga car for 46,000 yuan ($17,700), then another. We were in good spirits. We weren’t making big demands. Give us enough to eat and enough to drink, and we were happy.

I got married in 1990, and worked with Xian Sheng until 1993. In 1993 I bought a three-wheeled cycle, rode it for over a year, and passed it down to your brother’s wife. She lived by the railway station, on a plot of communal land. Let me think, why did I end up parting ways with my brother? In 1993, I had a child, and I had more responsibilities. My brother was good to me, but economically we didn’t see eye to eye, each month he gave me food and lodging, but I was never going to get rich. When we split up, my brother gave me a few thousand yuan. I wasn’t too happy, but kept my mouth closed. Mainly it was me who ran the glass shop. I even made the plaque for the Nanyang City Hospital office. I would trim the glass, draw the characters, and deliver the plaques. I never begged family for money. Back in those days I asked Xian Sheng for 28 yuan ($8.41), and sent away to the Shanghai Institute of Calligraphy for materials to study calligraphy. After we split, I went out on my own, working odd jobs. In 1994, a friend recommended me for a job installing aluminum windows, 14 yuan ($2.79) a square meter, not including materials. I kept at it for a year, and did make some money, 10,000 yuan ($1,980) that year. With that and the money my brother gave me, in April 1995 I built a house. Building the house cost a little over 20,000 yuan ($3,970). Without me, Xian Sheng’s glass shop quickly went under.

In 1996, I went to work as an office manager and bookkeeper at a construction company. They’d promised me around 1,500 yuan ($289) a month, but then the company went bankrupt. I worked for a year, but made only two months’ salary. But I paid back the debt I owed on the house, so that made me feel a bit better.

In 1998, I had a spell of bad luck. My wife’s brother had taken out a loan on my house, borrowing 60,000 yuan ($11,160) on a credit line of 100,000-something ($18,600). His business failed, and he couldn’t pay back the loan, so the court got involved, and sealed up my house, planning to sell it off cheap for 60,000 yuan. With our house sold off, where were we supposed to live? I put up a plastic shack at the front gate, and stayed inside, keeping a watch on the house, determined to guard it with my life if someone came to take it. My wife and baby went to live with her brother. Later on, a man who knew my wife’s brother said, give me 50,000 yuan ($9,300), and I’ll get you the deed. I borrowed from everyone I knew, scrounged up the 50,000 yuan, and got the deed back.

We both went to work. At Nanyang City Capital Construction Company, I made 20 yuan ($3.72) a day, working from just after seven in the morning to just after seven at night, with only a half-hour lunch break. Your sister-in-law worked on painting jobs and all types of manual labor. For three years we went on that way, scrimping and saving, until we paid back all we owed. Generally we worked full hours, making 1,200 yuan ($223) a month. We were angry about it but we never spoke up. Your aunt is a good person, even-tempered, decent, and when your uncle got stomach cancer, for the last half-year of his life she cared for him almost completely on her own. Finally my body couldn’t take it, I was through working in construction, I was skinny and my stomach was bad, and they told me I had high blood pressure. I didn’t dare go back to the construction site. I quit.

Then I started studying the Book of Changes.

I’ve never really shaken off the shock of it. I can’t quite convince myself Xian Yi has become a fortuneteller---a folksy, out-of-its-time occupation rejected by the modern world. If you’re anything like me, you envision a fortuneteller as a dark, slender figure with a black skullcap and fingers like dry twigs, an old man with a whiff of black magic about him. That’s the image I saw instinctively when I heard Xian Yi was a fortuneteller. But as far as I can see Xian Yi is cheerful, cultured, understated, good at conversation, his looks and mannerisms exuding intelligence. Only when I watch the prayer beads sliding rhythmically through his fingers do I catch a glimpse of the occult.

A country boy in search of a modern dream goes through harsh trials, and ends up in a modern metropolis, working an archaic, traditional occupation, thriving. Certainly a curious tale.

Xian Yi lives in a historic village surrounded by the urban sprawl of Nanyang, not far from Wolong Gang, a scenic complex of ancient buildings. Here on a plot of communal land he and his wife Xiuli, a village girl, built walls and raised a roof, becoming as good as Nanyang natives. The village is relatively remote, with rutted roads and dilapidated houses, an untidy place a little like Liang Village. The crooked dirt paths bump and twist. The residents will soon be relocated, they say, and that’s why they haven’t fixed the roads. The homes, small structures of two or three stories, have little courtyards with private gates. Xian Yi’s courtyard home is an ordinary one, distinguished by the advertisements pasted on the outer wall, written by Xian Yi himself. There are three lines of blue text inscribed on a small white metal plate, and beneath that a phone number:

Destinies determined, names given and changed by spirituality-science

Blessings granted, divination done by Chinese character, good counsel given

Marriage compatibility determined, homes surveyed by geomancy

The couplet on the gate to the courtyard reads in red:

Kindness is key, be grateful, be kind

Speak the truth, stay sincere, keep promises


This last line is the Chinese name of the Buddha Amitabha.

Across from the main gate are the kitchen and the stairway to the second story. There are flowers at the bend in the stairs, China roses, impatiens, and hydrangeas, all common household flowers, which thanks to plentiful rainfall have proliferated, a riot of pink and white blooms filling the courtyard with life. The courtyard is a neat square with a lime mortar floor swept spotlessly clean. From the courtyard the home’s interior shines brilliantly. The whole courtyard compound is plain and bright, with a down-to-earth, wholesome family feel, nothing like the oppressive gloom of Xian Sheng’s place. On the courtyard’s left-hand side are a mechanical water pump and a large ceramic tank. A small red scroll has been pasted askew to the side of the tank:

Water like a pure spring, truth like a beneficent rain

There are more small scrolls on the main building’s gables, with phrases like “joy and luck.” A rough-hewn log is wedged into a corner of the building, its ends secured with rope from which an iron bar is hanging. Guopin uses this tool to strengthen his arms. The seventeen-year-old Guopin is burly and handsome, bright and confident. He demonstrates for us, gripping a ring in one hand and lifting his body, doing twenty-odd reps in one go. Brawny arms bulging, he exudes boyish charm.

The two scrolls on either side of the main building’s gate read:

All who come are honored visitors

Those who leave remain blessed guests

Come and go as you wish

Xian Yi himself composed and wrote out the couplets on the gates of the courtyard and the main building. They may not be masterworks, but they are neatly done and attractive, with matching sound and sense between lines, fitting his occupation. The main building’s living room has highly unusual décor. Straight ahead on the center of the wall hangs an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong with accompanying couplet scrolls in golden frames. The couplet reads:

The mighty eastern wind brings renewal

The red sun rises in the east over mountains and rivers

The portrait of Mao Zedong radiates golden rays. Above his head are three large Chinese characters reading “red sun.” His face too is colored gold, the entire portrait gleaming golden. Above the portrait hangs a much smaller frame around another portrait: Buddha on a lotus throne, bodhisattvas standing guard on both sides, three golden haloes shining above their heads. To either side of the frame are four characters the same size as the frame on pieces of regular red paper:

Buddha’s light illuminates all

To either side of the portrait of Mao Zedong hang three vertical scrolls as long as folding screens, black characters on white paper with light blue edges in thin black frames, words of encouragement and Buddhist aphorisms filling all six sheets with a mixture of all sorts of sayings, for an elegant effect. To the furthest outer edge on either side is another couplet:

Honesty, purity, harmony, kindness, virtue, justice, joy

Tranquility and easy temper bring fulfillment

On the long cabinet at the base of the main wall, directly beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong, stands a row of statues: the patron saint of pioneers, face a dark crimson hue; a bodhisattva with a willow branch and washing bowl; the god of wealth, pudgy face smiling; ancient general Guan Yu, with a red face and a long beard. Before the statues sits an incense burner, smoke tendrils still curling up from inside, bills littering the base of the burner, 50, 20, 100 yuan. To the left of the cabinet sits a stack of Xian Yi’s business cards, reading “Do good deeds, earn eternal virtue” alongside brand new thread-bound editions of Standards for Students, Dao de jing, the Diamond Sutra, the Five Pure Land Sutras, and others. On the floor before the cabinet sits a yellow prayer cushion.

On the right wall of the main room hang two rows of certificates awarded at school to Xian Yi’s son Guopin, a speech certificate, a model student certificate, a learning achievement certificate, contest certificates. Everyone in Liang Village does the same, hanging the certificates in the main room, proudly displaying their children’s achievements to visitors.

Beside the wall in an inner room sits the steel tube bed, simple and crude, just some steel tubes welded together. On the table by the window, collecting dust, are writing brushes, an ink stone and an upright brush holder. The most eye-catching feature is the chart of mystical Taiji-Bagua diagrams at the head of the bed, red characters on a white backdrop. Beneath the yin-yang diagram are two rhyming lines of red text:

The Dao is the balance between yang and yin

Its miracles make for the best medicine

The home in general has a mismatched feel, political, religious, mystical, and popular elements all tossed together unharmoniously. Most people would find it eccentric, its underlying trains of thought obscure, befitting a low-level common fortuneteller. Xian Sheng serves us water. The kettle and the cups are engraved with Buddhist aphorisms. The computer in the corner is playing a Sanskrit sutra. He has meticulously imbued each object in the room with a mystical atmosphere. But, Xian Yi is so tranquil, his expression so cheerful and open, so indifferent about his impoverishment, graced with such a unique, transcendent understanding of things, that here in his living space these conflicting elements seem to merge into a harmonious whole.

Yesterday he told me more about his life.

Back then I worked at least twenty different jobs, I went through every kind of suffering. In the end my body broke down. There was no other way open to me, so I started studying the Book of Changes. Actually I’ve been reading and studying the Book of Changes for years now, learning to foretell people’s lives. In 2001 I started studying seriously, all on my own. Every day, at home, I practice calligraphy, study, and chant. I’ve realized chanting deepens my understanding. I’ve made lots of notes based on my readings, learning on my own to draw diagrams, polishing my skills, gradually gaining results. The Book of Changes is incredibly profound. Studying for ten-odd years, I’ve only scratched the surface, but I have a rough understanding of our ancestors’ wisdom and the systems they built. I know at least a little about aspects of the ancient calendar system such as the heavenly stems and earthly branches, yin and yang, the science of naming, determination of destiny, and divination. Slowly I made a name for myself, and people started seeking me out. I’ve always worked at home. I’ve never set up a stand on the street. If you’ve got money, I’ll take some, if not, you get your reading for free. These days I’ve got clothes on my back and food to eat. No matter what, I won’t starve. I’ve named at least a few thousand people over the past few years, plenty of them from back home in Liang Village, your brother’s kids for instance. After each birth he called me on the phone, and I gave the kids names. I forget each name after I make it up. A Communist Party cadre drove his little car here, and took me to his office, where I looked at the placement of the table and chairs. They all said I gave a good reading, I really hit the nail on the head. No matter who comes, I treat them the same, makes no difference if you’re a party cadre. But some cadres really do believe this stuff. Most poor people get their fortunes told because they’re poor, they’re facing some difficulty, some obstacle they can’t overcome.

Four or five years ago, a country woman came to see me, her husband had died, and she wanted a reading based on a Chinese character. She wrote the character “adversity,” and asked for a reading. I was dead-on. I said, you’ve suffered misfortune, you’ve lost a loved one, and right away she started crying. She said, when my husband died, he left me this character. I focused on psychologically comforting her. I said, you must have truly loved each other, on the other side of adversity comes commitment, your husband is gone, and your children need you, you have to live the best you can, nothing else has any meaning, your husband is dead and you are down and can’t get up, how can his soul rest easy? Country women are in a terrible predicament when their husbands die. Half a year later, she called me, and said she wanted to die. She said she’d hired a worker, a man from the village, and even her husband’s family was spreading rumors about the two of them, she couldn’t stand to live this way. On the phone, I spent more than forty minutes giving her advice. Finally she said she didn’t want to die anymore, she was going to live the best she could. That’s a typical example. I never asked her for money. I just wanted to do the right thing.

To tell the truth basically what I do is talk to people, communicate, like a psychologist. We put all the psychological stuff on the table, then talk about fate. I don’t deceive people, or exaggerate what fortunetelling is. Fortunetelling is not all superstition, it really works, it is logical, and quantitative, and systematic, ranging from major things like the workings of the cosmos to the building of individual homes. Kind of like astrology in other countries. Spend a while studying our ancestors’ wisdom, and you’ll see, it all works on the same principles. The thing is, it does make sense, but it only works if you believe. These days there are very few true believers. People care only about the ends, not the means. And to tell the truth, my understanding is incomplete. These days my lack of education is the problem. It would be different if I’d graduated high school. There are things I try to read but just can’t understand. I can’t access their wisdom. I wish I weren’t relying on this to make a living, but there’s no other way. If it were up to me, if I could pay the bills, I’d spend all my time studying.

I’m starting to learn about and believe in Buddhism. I’m learning to chant “Amituofo.” I listen to Buddhist songs, and every day I’m happy, happy to be learning. On Chinese New Year I write couplets for people, and give blessings. My customers are happy, and so am I. The Diamond Sutra has so much to say. I’ll read it for you. “When all the immeasurable, countless, infinite sentient beings have attained liberation, in reality no sentient beings have attained liberation. Why is this? Subhuti, if bodhisattvas have a sense of being people, personalities, sentient beings with set lifespans, they are not bodhisattvas.” What does this mean? If a bodhisattva liberates countless sentient beings, in his heart believing he has saved those people, with that way of thinking he cannot be a bodhisattva. There’s a breadth of mind a bodhisattva has to have, an extreme modesty, that can’t be achieved by action. “If bodhisattvas practice charity without attachment, they attain virtue beyond imagining.” What is that saying? It means, be an honest person, eat food, put clothes on, go to sleep. To be a good person you have to be open and accepting, you can’t focus on what other people do to you or what you do to them, and if you manage that, you gain unlimited virtue

I’ve never taken money seriously. We are here not just to provide for our families, but to serve society. You have to have a heart of service. In the end serving others benefits you. So money counts for nothing, except easing life’s pressure. That’s the way I think these days, and I tell people about it, I share my understanding, and I’m happy if it brings them some benefit.

Here in Rang County there’s a boy who graduated from college, a good college too. I don’t know where he heard of me, but he came to see me. In college he studied psychology. He was at his wit’s end, saying the world was unfair, he hated society, he hated other people, he couldn’t find a decent job. He felt he had a spiritual problem. I told him, all life is a spiritual path, it’s nothing to worry about. Actually, other people’s problems are what you have to face. You can’t just blame society, no matter which society it is, none of them are perfect, they all have issues, you can’t be angry all the time, getting angry holds back your own progress. You have to think, what is there that I can do? What haven’t I tried? When you go in for an interview, will you be ready? If you’re ready, you’ll do fine, and if they don’t want you, that’s their loss. Give it a try somewhere else. You’ll get through this. I talked with him for two hours. He left in high spirits. Over the past few days he’s been calling me. He seems happier.

Xian Yi is more than willing to talk, to cooperate, to share his spiritual experiences and his life’s path. He seems not to notice we’ve come as curiosity-seekers, oblivious to our slightly derisive looks. Whatever we want to see, he earnestly shows us, and earnestly explains. He explains to us the couplets he has written and the characters on the scrolls, showing us how he chants “Amituofo,” beating the time on a woodblock, and sings Buddhist songs. Reaching a peak of excitement, he pulls out the Diamond Sutra again, reads it to us and expounds upon the passage. Veering from Buddhist doctrine, his interpretation takes a pragmatic, popular angle, perhaps not quite in keeping with the Buddhist concept of “charity without attachment,” but he speaks calmly, with equanimity, something in the arch of his brow exuding a sense of peace, an aura of transcendence. This tranquility catches me off guard. It seems to conceal historical wisdom from the remote past. This is Xian Yi’s faith, the way he lives, imparted to him by some time-worn way of understanding life.

While we talk, his brother Xian Ren keeps casting him sidelong glances, with a slightly scornful look, covering his deep inner disdain for his brother’s lifestyle. When his brother chants “Amituofo,” Xian Ren looks away. He seems to be turning red. To tell the truth, I too have to try my hardest to conceal that I’m treating him as a curiosity, and my sense of how strange this all is, pasting on a serious look and listening attentively to Xian Yi. Deep inside, I too am scornful, I have come here as a curiosity-seeker, and I do look at him with a vague disdain. His father’s older brother was a fortuneteller, the sort of dark, slender figure I described earlier, and had a bad reputation in the village. The villagers were all convinced he was a charlatan, peddling feudal superstitions. In Liang Village, he constantly maintained an air of mystery to ward off kids like us.

Xian Yi’s son, one of the top students at his high school, is not at all bashful. He gets out all his father’s things and lets me look them over. I have him photograph his father’s diary, reading notes, and fortunetelling tools. He carries a small stool to the yard, opens up the pages and photographs them one by one. He has an attitude of active learning, an extroverted, healthy attitude. Xian Ren’s teenage son plays video games the entire time, hearing nothing we say. Xian Yi has an excellent relationship with his son, and he proudly tells us about taking part in a parents’ conference at his son’s school. Because his son is one of the school’s top students, Xian Yi spoke on the parents’ behalf. He stepped onstage, bowed, and launched into a grand exposition of children’s psychology and theories of life. Everyone was taken aback. With such an enlightened father, it was no wonder Guopin got such good grades and had such great moral character.

Even Xian Yi’s younger sisters, Meilan and Meixiang, are here. They seem freer and livelier at Xian Yi’s place than at my sister-in-law’s. At midday, Xian Yi’s wife, Xiuli, returns from work at a construction company. Xiuli, a soft-spoken woman, begins cleaning as soon as she arrives. She refills our water cups, listening sometimes as Xian Yi speaks, or smilingly watching her son at work. On hearing I want to see Xian Yi’s diary, she immediately gets on her bike and goes to make copies.

Xian Yi’s small family is extremely warm and healthy. There is no fixation on money or materialism, no gray listlessness or lack of hope. They understand each other, and their words, actions and attitudes toward one another are open-minded and cheerful. Xian Yi’s sisters, meanwhile, in sharp contrast with the look on Xian Yi’s face and the way he understands life, are thoroughly worldly people scrambling to make a living, held captive and oppressed by survival. Of course, they are optimists. Meixiang is healthy and strong, a taxi driver, a hearty eater and drinker, a capable woman who is putting her daughter through school. But she lacks that special glow, that certain spaciousness. There is another dimension to Xian Yi’s being. His sister Meilan left the country for the city at nineteen, went to work in a factory and nearly made it to director. But for some reason, in her presence I intuitively sense a strange numbness, a lack of hope and future. She lives only for the present, seeing only her own life, blind to everything else. Then there is my brother’s wife Xiulan, who is disconnected completely from the changes in the outside world, living a completely passive existence.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that they are country folk. Maybe the cause of all this is their narrow view of themselves and society.

During those days, I also watched Xian Yi working. The incense shop at the end of the street often asks Xian Yi to bless Buddhist effigies and ornaments. Seated among Buddha figures of all sizes and shapes, Xian Yi looked still leaner, a calm, alert, unobtrusive presence. Sitting on the sofa in the store, he prayed to the idols on the buyers’ behalf, chanting scriptures and intoning incantations to the ornaments, eyes half-closed, mumbling softly. There was a sense of peace about him that almost made you guilty, a peace all too strange to our everyday existence.

I went with Xian Yi to see a client who wanted his fortune told and a reading done on his living space. Xian Yi diligently took the home’s compass readings and examined the placement of the furniture. He asked the man for the eight birth characters indicating the year, month, and hour of his birth, and began his calculations. He counted on his fingers for a while, eyes closed, asked the client some questions, then started making written calculations, symbols streaming from his pen into a little notebook. His air of solemn seriousness seemed to unwittingly draw in several onlookers. I don’t understand the internal logic of the eight birth characters, my instinct is to dismiss all this, but Xian Yi explained the pros and cons of the client’s name and the home’s compass readings in the least pretentious possible terms, not a hint of mystification to it, and a lot of what he said was simple common sense, dos and don’ts you’re probably observing whether you believe in fortunetelling or not. His other emphasis is cultivating calmness in the client, an attitude of equanimity toward good and bad phenomena alike, because “to be a good person you have to be open and accepting, you can’t focus on what other people do to you or what you do to them, and if you manage that, you gain unlimited virtue.” These confident philosophical claims comfort the client and us bystanders, seeming to go straight to the heart.

Xian Yi is extremely fussy about his health. He does not eat meat, drink, or smoke, believing this way he is obeying nature, following an ascetic path in accordance with the eight trigrams and the Book of Changes. Only with a pure heart can you experience the inner essence of the Book of Changes and Buddhism. In his heart, he believes his self-regulation is in accord with a holy mandate.

Xian Yi’s spirit, and his way of speaking and behaving, eventually win me over, satisfying my curiosity, dissolving my negative judgments of his work, changing the way I think about tradition, faith, and their fate in the China of the future.

Without a doubt, Xian Yi has the whiff of a village wizard, dwelling amid the flash and trash of traditional Chinese culture, in the mystical realm of yin and yang, the five elements, divination of destiny, analysis of characters, foretelling of fortune and disaster. Xian Yi has a crazy quilt of a home, loud, outlandish, awkward, zany, anachronistic, a dash of everything thrown in, nothing matching, but with each element playing its role, in its proper place, the chaos at last harmonizing in the wall displays. The glue that binds these elements is not Xian Yi’s advanced spiritual attainment, but his approach to life, call it faith if you like, and his warm, unassuming family. Perhaps he does have a grasp of the traditions he has studied, of the Book of Changes and Buddhism, though there are certainly some essential misunderstandings beneath. But this has not prevented Xian Yi from attaining clear-eyed wisdom and a transcendent understanding of humanity and life.

In the 1930s, Eileen Chang depicted Daoist diviners in an essay entitled “Day and Night in China”: “Dragging along a past worth not a penny, they come to the fast-paced city.” The essay vividly depicts the loss of Chinese tradition, the reduction of Daoist priests, the Dao, and the entire symbolic system linked to them into a “past worth not a penny” that was completely out of harmony with urban Shanghai and was rejected. “The diviner kneels down before the door of a hardware store. Of course no one has money to give him, and he seems to take no notice of anyone anyhow, banging his head one time on the ground and giving up. He rises, the banging resumes, and he makes his way to the variety store next door, where he again ‘bows down to the dust of earth,’ head hanging down crookedly, moving like black mud flowing, like the unhurried bloom of a black chrysanthemum.” This made such a startling impression on Eileen Chang no doubt because of the deeply symbolic character of the image, depicting the great rupture between traditional and modern, urban and rural already forming at the early stages of Chinese modernization. Daoist diviners with their hair done up in buns, Buddhist monks in long gowns, and fortunetellers huddled on obscure street corners are extremely strange sights in modern Chinese cityscapes, and the view of life and the cosmos and the systems of knowledge beneath are dismissed as “feudal” or “superstitious.”

In Xian Yi there is a certain surprising openness. Maybe, in this modern fortuneteller, traces of some ancient light linger, a light we have long since extinguished, forgotten, distorted, misunderstood. Still it comes through the cracks in the concrete and steel, struggling, feeble but stubborn, to bring us wisdom from ages past.

If Xian Yi’s clothes and living space are any indication, he is far poorer than his sisters and brothers. After all, he is an urban vagrant, a peasant laborer, but he is not a hopeless person struggling desperately to survive. He is trying to think through his life, his spirituality, and his existence, and this puts him in a position parallel to but apart from the spirit of modern times, affording him a kind of dignity.

When a village woman fell on hard times, finding no reason to live, rather than thinking of laws and systems---because laws and systems can’t solve spiritual suffering---she thought of ancient occultism. She would worship the spirits. She would go to a fortuneteller. She may not have known much about these “traditions,” about the basis of fortunetelling, astrology, or the eight birth characters, yet these remain essential means of recovering meaning, and because she lives at this torrential time in history, to gain true comfort she has to grasp something amid the torrent. We look to clan genealogies, to the traces of the five elements hidden in names, and seem to see in them history and life flowing toward us, a long-flowing river of life, immeasurably rich and profound. The ties between sorcery and life, nature and faith are close, with secret pathways passing between them. These paths may lead to stupidity and ignorance, or open onto expansive vistas.

Obviously, modern China rejects these things. Whether this fortuneteller and the traditional role he represents can be a part of the city, whether he can be accepted into the modern urban order, is open to question. But he has his own way of living that runs counter to the obsessive materialism of modern society, imparting to his existence and behavior an essential spirit of repudiation, a sense of homesickness. Xian Yi so openly describes his life that poverty seems regular and ordinary, no longer shameful and stupid. He has transcended the world’s cruel regularity, and even, in a way, with his openness and dignity has attained new space and significance for traditional life. My initial derision has disappeared. I even feel deep respect filling me.

Xian Yi might not know this, his knowledge and understanding of tradition might not bear the weight of so much history, but who knows, perhaps his open, cheerful face, his smile, his warm, intimate family life, and the way he treats the whole world like family might result from a deep connection with the soul of the past, and maybe the modern world could learn from that.

Tradition is not a holy land, a place of pure origin, but an accretion of layers in which it is hard to find the true core, serving in many cases as a fig leaf for politics and human desire. It contains numerous outmoded customs and habits, which in modern times expand in people’s minds into symbols of fear and otherness, stirring strong opposition. Setting aside occult traditions, are the Confucian virtues of loyalty, filial piety, propriety, reciprocity, compassion, and benevolence cultural conventions, a ritual system or a form of faith? That is to say, do they rise to the level of faith? Who can say? As China turns from tradition to modernity, people distort and blow out of proportion the negative meanings of each of these words. We hold preconceived value judgments (often of a political nature) regarding the views of the ancient Chinese on the cosmos, the world, and philosophy, overlooking their innate splendor, erudition and expansiveness, so that these words lose the ultimate potential to become elements of faith. In this way the Chinese people have lost a sort of dignity. We have lost the transcendence, tolerance, moderation, elegance and simple goodness of people with faith. We have no pillar of cultural tradition with innate binding force the ability to self-regulate, whatever the relationship between that tradition and faith might be. As a collective or organisms attempting to survive, we have lost the capacity to purify ourselves, a capacity more effective than any law or administrative control.

In Rilke’s Duino Elegies, a series of long poems, tradition is described like this:

Among men

It becomes a powerful stream

Only by entering tradition and “the City of Pain,” moving on to “the ancestral tombs of the House of Lament, those of the sibyls and the dire prophets” can the older, more tragic “Font of Joy” be reached.

In contemporary Chinese life, “tradition,” in every sense, has become a realm of great tragedy, filled with forgotten history, lost memory, neglected knowledge and the spirits of the past. The art of invisibility, the eight birth characters, the five elements, the eight trigrams, all these old mystical things are elements of a tarnished past. We have no true inheritance, as the possibility of furthering developing these things in modern society has been severed. Magicians once cast yarrow lots, reading omens of fate in the way they fell, seeking harmony with earth and heaven, concordance with the cosmic order, pursuing the secrets beneath life’s surface, but now these are seen as acts of foolishness. The forms of fortunetelling and divination in vogue today provide believers with false comfort in the face of death, comforting their corrupt spirits by self-deceptive means. No one believes in them. Just as V.S. Naipul, a British writer of Indian ancestry, observed on a 1967 trip to India, India’s idols, spirits and faiths have been reduced to adornments on worldly modern life.

At the same time, when the gleam of traditional language again flashes amid political discourse, serving as the patron saint of political ideological legitimacy, its complex effects in tandem with political systems and common social values may also prevent tradition from transforming itself. This is not a problem with tradition itself, but a problem with the form it takes and the means by which it is restored to our lives and spirits.

Perhaps these are the challenges a traditionalist like Xian Yi must face: how to exercise restraint without becoming a laughingstock, an obstacle to modernity, how to truly comprehend tradition and regain dignity in the tidal wave of changing times.

Put this way, the figure Xian Yi cuts, and his crazy quilt of a home, are profoundly tragic. No matter how Xian Yi tries to explain life, it is obviously inherently absurd.


Translations from Duino Elegies are quoted from Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Translated by Edward Snow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

LARB + Dandu

This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.


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