Everybody who has frequented the narrow, dirty streets of a Chinese town must be familiar with one figure, unusually striking where all is novel and much is grotesque. It is that of an old man, occasionally white-bearded, wearing a pair of enormous spectacles set in clumsy rims of tortoiseshell or silver, and sitting before a small table on which are displayed a few mysterious-looking tablets inscribed with characters, paper, pencils, and ink. We are in the presence of a fortune-teller, a seer, a soothsayer, a vates; or better, a quack who trusts for his living partly to his own wits, and partly to the want of them in the credulous numskulls who surround him. These men are generally old, and sometimes blind. Youth stands but a poor chance among a people who regard age and wisdom as synonymous terms; and it seems to be a prevalent belief in China that those to whom everything in the present is a sealed book, can for this very reason see deeper and more clearly into the destinies of their fellows. It is not until age has picked out the straggling beard with silver that the vaticinations of the seer are likely to spread his reputation far beyond the limits of the street in which he practises. Younger competitors must be content to scrape together a precarious existence by preying on the small fry which pass unheeded through the meshes of the old man's net. Just as there is no medical diploma necessary for a doctor in China, so any man may be a fortune-teller who likes to start business in that particular line. The ranks are recruited generally from unsuccessful candidates at the public examinations; but all that is really necessary is the minimum of education, some months' study of the art, and a good memory. For there really are certain principles which guide every member of the fraternity. These are derived from books written on the subject, and are absolutely essential to success, or nativities cast in two different streets would be so unlike as to expose the whole system at once. The method is this. A customer takes his seat in front of the table and consults the wooden tablet on which is engraved a scale of charges as follows:--
Foretelling any single event . . . . . . . . 8 cash
In case he merely wants an answer on a given subject, he puts his question and receives the reply at once on a slip of paper. But if he desires to have his fortune told, he dictates the year, month, day, and hour of his birth, which are written down by the sage in the particular characters used by the Chinese to express times and seasons. From the combinations of these and a careful estimate of the proportions in which the five elements--gold, wood, water, fire, and earth--make their appearance, certain results are deduced upon which details may be grafted according to the fancy of the fortune-teller. The same combinations of figures, i.e., characters, will always give the same resultant in the hands of any one who has learned the first principles of his art; it is only in the reading, the explanation thereof, that any material difference can be detected between the reckonings of any two of these philosophers, which amounts to saying that whoever makes the greatest number of happy hits beyond the mere technicalities common to all, is esteemed the wisest prophet and will drive the most flourishing trade.
Fully believing in the Chinese household word which says "Ignorance of any one thing is always one point to the bad," we have several times read our destiny through the medium of some dirty old Chinaman. On the last occasion we received the following advice in return for our 50 cash, paid as per tablet for a destiny in detail:--"Beware the odd months of this year: you will meet with some dangers and slight losses. Three male phoenixes (sons) will be accorded to you. Your present lustrum is not a fortunate one; but it has nearly expired, and better days are at hand. Fruit cannot thrive in the winter. (We had placed our birthday in the 12th moon.) Conflicting elements oppose: towards life's close prepare for trials. Wealth is beyond your grasp; but nature has marked you out to fill a lofty place." How the above was extracted from the eight characters which represented the year, month, day, and hour of our birth, is made perfectly clear by a sum showing every step in the working of the problem, though we must confess it appeared to us a humbugging jumble, the most prominent part of which was the answer. We found among other things that _earth_ predominated in the combination: hence our inability to grasp wealth. _Water_ was happily deficient, and on this datum we were blessed in anticipation with three sons, to say nothing of daughters.
And this is the sort of trash that is crammed down the throats of China's too credulous children--the "babies," as the Mandarins are so fond of calling them. For this rubbish they freely spend their hard-earned wages, consulting some favourite prophet on most of their domestic and other affairs with the utmost gravity and confidence. Few Chinamen make a money venture without first applying to the oracle, and certainly never marry without arranging a lucky day for the event. Ignorance and credulity combine to support a numerous class of the most consummate adepts in the art of swindling; the supply, however, is not more than adequate to the demand, albeit they swarm in every street and thoroughfare of a Chinese city.
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