A Fortune Teller in a Modern Metropolis29 min read

An old profession out of place in new China – nonfiction by Liang Hong, translated by Michael Day

This is a translation of a Chinese-language article from One-Way Street magazine, with their support, translated by and published in collaboration with Paper Republic; it was made possible by Sinocism and individual supporters of China Channel on Patreon.

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 fortune teller. I’ve never really shaken off the shock of it. I can’t quite convince myself that Xian Yi has taken up a folksy, out-of-its-time occupation rejected by the modern world. If you’re anything like me, you envision a fortune teller 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 fortune teller. 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.

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 17-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 20-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, his face a dark crimson hue; a bodhisattva with a willow branch and washing bowl; the god of wealth, his 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 a 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 fortune teller. 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 to 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.

But Xian Yi is so tranquil, his expression so cheerful and open, so indifferent to 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 20 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, and she couldn’t stand to live this way. On the phone, I spent more than 40 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 fortune telling is. Fortune telling 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 that 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,” beats 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 fortune teller, 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 fortune telling 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 19, 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 or 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 feel guilty, a peace all too strange to our everyday existence.

There was a sense of peace about him that almost made you feel 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 fortune telling 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 this 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 fortune tellers 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 fortune teller, 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.

Maybe, in this modern fortune teller, traces of some ancient light linger, a light we have long since extinguished, forgotten, distorted, misunderstood”

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 fortune teller. She may not have known much about these “traditions,” about the basis of fortune telling, 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 fortune teller and the traditional role he represents can be 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 and 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 further 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 fortune telling and divination in vogue today provide believers with false comfort in the face of death, comforting their corrupt spirits by self-deceiving means. No one believes in them. Just as V.S. Naipul, a British writer of Indian ancestry, observed on a 1967 trip to India, idols, spirits and faiths have been reduced to adornments on a 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 and 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 or 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. ∎

Quotations from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies from Edward Snow’s translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).
This translation was made possible by the support of Bill Bishop and Sinocism, a newsletter digest of China news and analysis, as well as individual donations to China Channel at Patreon.
Header image: 算命, by chia ying Yang on Flickr.