Brennan Hughes and Nathan Szwarc


This film clip shows a divination practice that was common with Chinese folk religions at the time. The practice begins with the divination leader or monk lighting incense in front of the deities at the altar as a way of letting them know they wish to contact them. In this divination practice, the client starts by taking a container of bamboo sticks and shakes the container until a stick falls loose. The stick is numbered and matches with a divination reading or poem that in this video is hanging on the temple wall. Before one can consult the reading, they must confirm that they have received the correct divination stick. They do so by throwing in the air what are called moon blocks or jiaobei. Depending on how these crescent-shaped blocks land they either confirm your divination stick is correct with a yes, deem it wrong with a no, or indicate that the god is laughing, which means you should ask again. In this clip specifically the client seems to quickly find his answer as he only throws the moon blocks twice. Once it has been decided that the correct divination stick has been selected, the ritual master then matches the stick with a reading on the wall that gives advice. These slips are vague for the most part and could potentially address a myriad of issues. Thus, it is up to the client to read and interpret the slip with reference to the issue at hand. Hopefully, the reading supplied by the divination master is helpful. The issues prayed upon could be anything from business, to personal, to general questions, for there are no wrong questions to bring to the gods. 

Extended Explanation

Life in China in the 1930s was much different from current Chinese society. Communist revolutionaries in China had established an ideology that imperialism from other global powers was causing the economic exploitation and challenges to political sovereignty the country had been faced with for years. This was a time of great civic unrest and national instability, which played a huge role in China’s attempt to isolate itself from the rest of the world.[1] However, despite all of this, divinatory practices, such as those recorded by Harry Caldwell in the Fujian province, were still taking place much the same as they are today. In this clip, we see that a man has sought out a priest in order to perform a divination ritual. The temple where the custom is being performed appears to be Buddhist, for the priest has a shaved head and the statues present in the clip are of Buddhist descent. Daoist characteristics are also present as the bamboo sticks “chhiam” are common in Daoist practice, as are the slips of paper that are picked after getting the correct number.[2] In Daoist contexts these slips often have a short poem, which is the basis for the clients’ fortunes. A temple with multiple religions attached to it gives us insight into the fact that the Chinese religious landscape at this time was open and fluid. People did not adhere to just one single religion but rather they took concepts from all, never staying confined in their beliefs. The temple shown in the film has both Buddhist and Daoist qualities, however it most likely houses aspects from other popular Chinese religions as well.

The two practices seen in the clip are the separation of numbered bamboo strips and tossing of jiaobei divination blocks. The client in the film first begins the ritual by shaking a bamboo container until one of the numbered strips falls to the ground. He then tosses the jiaobei blocks to ask the gods if his strip was correct. When someone tosses jiaobei divination blocks, it is commonplace for them to ask a straightforward yes or no question, which is then answered based on how the blocks land. It is believed that the gods influence the outcome of the blocks in such a way that it is possible for the client to receive a yes, no, or laughing response. If the client does not receive the desired answer, he or she will reform or ask an entirely different question, as is seen in the clip, and perform the ritual again.[3] The bamboo strips utilized in the ritual, on the other hand, normally require the interpretation of a religious professional. Outside of the ceremony portrayed in the clip, there are other forms of this ritual in which many strips are tossed to yield hexagrams. These hexagrams form discernable codes that are then interpreted with a text-based approach by using the Book of Changes.[4]

The client in this film chose to go with a text-based divinatory approach that required him to interpret the advice on the slip of paper entirely himself. This often can be a problem, for in many of these kinds of ceremonies, the instructions contained in the paper slips can be extremely vague. The advice often brings a high degree of ambiguity because the guidance must apply to a wide variety of problems, which is a common criticism of this form of divination.[5] Temples in China, such as the one seen in the film, were often seen not only as religious centers, but also as economic, community, and familial hubs. Community members put their faith in these temples and their advice because the temple carries the life history of the community as well as past generations.[6]

This clip has both a powerful and simple message by showing us what everyday religious practice was like for a person of rural China in the 1930s. The man in this clip was seeking out how to cure his ill mother by turning to religion, and this clip gives us a deeper understanding of the Chinese perception of fate through divination. In Chinese society, it is common for divination to supplant psychological counseling. Divination makes predictions about the future, and thus somewhat relieves the uncertainties that many people in their lives face. It serves as therapy for individuals such as the one seen in the clip and is one of the reasons why the practice still continues today even after thousands of years.[7]

Caldwell, when describing this clip, focused mainly on explaining the ritualistic actions that took place, the lack of modern medicine in China at the time, and on how the Buddhist monk economically exploited his client in a time of need. Since Caldwell was a devout Christian, he likely would have wanted to move towards divination through prayer, a practice focused on connecting with God and paving the way for a path to heaven. These seemingly random practices of divination shown here likely wouldn’t have meant much to him. Caldwell would have focused on Christianizing the concept of fate and probably would have tried to remove these divinatory practices all together, arguing that divinatory practices were lesser in comparison to the modern medicine he associated with Christianity. Common people would no longer have to ambiguously interpret their fate through divination practices, but instead they could see the near “instantaneous” powers of Christian medicine. Furthermore, Caldwell likely promoted the sense of individuality in prayer relating to Christianity. Monks often did little in aiding the client with short interpretation, and it was not uncommon for the client to see other monks for further advice, all of whom would be charging fees. With Christianity, one could pray without the assistance of a monk and would not have to pay a fee in order to do so. Much like how Caldwell took strides to move people into “modernity” by removing divinatory practices, the nationalists in Taiwan at the time were also trying to restrict the divination practices in order to modernize China into a more scientific society. However, despite all of this, divination still continues and thrives to this day as a huge part of Chinese culture.[8]

[1] “Internal Strife in China.”

[2] Hatfield, “Fate in the Narrativity and Experience of Selfhood.”

[3] Huang, “Divination Prints from a Buddhist Temple.”

[4] Sommer, “The Book of Changes.”

[5] Zeitlyn, “Finding Meaning in the Text.”

[6] Homola, “Pursue Good Fortune and Avoid Calamity.”

[7] Chuang, “Divination/fortune telling (Zhan Bu/Xianming).”

[8] Hatfield, ““Fate in the Narrativity and Experience of Selfhood.”


Chuang, Rueyling. “Divination/fortune telling (Zhan Bu/Xianming): Chinese cultural praxis and worldview.” China Media Research Vol. 7, No. 4 (2011).

Hatfield, Donald J. “Fate in the Narrativity and Experience of Selfhood, a Case from Taiwanese ‘Chhiam’ Divination.” American Ethnologist 29, no. 4 (November 2002): 857–877.

Homola, Stephanie. “Pursue Good Fortune and Avoid Calamity: The Practice and Status of Divination in Contemporary Taiwan.” Journal of Chinese Religions Vol. 41, No. 2 (2013): 124-147.

Huang, Shih-Shan Susan. “Tianzhu Lingqian: Divination Prints from a Buddhist Temple in Song Hangzhou.” Artibus Asiae 67, No. 2 (2007): 243-296.

“Internal Strife in China.” Facing History and Ourselves. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.facinghistory.org/nanjing-atrocities/nation-building/internal-strife-china

Keightley, David N. “The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of the Late Shang Dynasty.” In Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 3-23. Second edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Sommer, Deborah. “The Book of Changes.” In Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, edited by Deborah Sommer, 3-6. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Zeitlyn, David. “Finding Meaning in the Text: The Process of Interpretation in Text-Based Divination.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7, No. 2 (June 2001), 225-240.

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