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Wu Kun - Astrology in China

In a country populated by more than 1.3 billion people rich in history and culture, China has developed many fortune-telling and divination techniques of its own. However, one kind of special method imported from the west is increasingly growing more and more popular –– astrology, more specifically, western astrology. To many people in China, astrology is familiar and yet strange. It seems to be able to compete with old Chinese divination techniques in terms of fortune telling, and, still, it has much more emphasis on psychological elements and inner growth. Like many imported products, astrology has captured people’s attention very quickly, and has on its way to becoming the most popular technique applying in both fortune-telling and psychological growth.

Today, if you search “astrology” on Chinese version of twitter, “weibo.com”, it will display more than 500 people describing themselves as an astrologer or has something to do with astrology on some level. The most famous astrologer on weibo.com has more than 1 million followers. On “baidu.com,” the Chinese version of Google, “astrology” returns with 14 million entries of Chinese web pages, which really tells how hot astrology is in China now.

Sun-sign astrology in China

The development of astrology in China actually started with its by-product –– sun-sign astrology, which first appeared in the 1980s. The accuracy of sun-sign forecasts is surely debatable, but it does not stop sun-sign astrology to be favored by great many of people. Newspapers, TV shows, and magazines like sun-sign astrology especially, which gradually helped it becomes a sub-culture in China. It is impossible to not know your sign nowadays. In 2011, there were news reports that one company even applied sun-sign astrology in employee selection. Of course, it is utterly biased and prejudicial, but it shows how sun sign astrology has influenced people in general.

The well-known astrologer, Susan Miller, who focuses on writing forecast of the 12 signs, has huge fans in China. She even has an authorized Chinese website, and many of her books are translated into Chinese. Thankfully, the popularity of sun-sign astrology cultivated people’s interest in the real astrology. Those unsatisfied with the notion that all the people are divided by12 types searched further and found that there is much more to sun-sign astrology, thus begin studies of “real” astrology.

Traditional Chinese divination

Many people seek to understand themselves and others in astrology, as well as comprehend the laws of the universe, which is difficult to find in other more traditional techniques. This may satisfy many people’s curiosity regarding the rise of western astrology in China –– a country that has developed many divination methods that are applied differently than western astrology. Most Chinese divination and fortune-telling techniques are primarily focused on predictions. Many people using traditional divination techniques seek accuracy in predicting achievements, life crises, time of marriage, and the number of children, for example.

Judgments on these predictions are not for us to make, as I believe it is not the method itself but the person using it that matters the most. The problem, however, underlying these predictions is not the prediction per se, but the lack of emphasis on personal growth and on the faith of people’s ability to change. Besides old style predictions, it is difficult to acquire the skills and knowledge of these traditional techniques. Most of the classic textbooks were written in ancient Chinese, hundreds and even thousands years ago. It is hard enough for younger people to grasp the gist of what is written, let alone interpret the meanings behind. And those who have mastered the techniques are reluctant to share their hard-learned knowledge.

This awkward situation makes traditional divination even harder than astrology to learn. Even though people interested in astrology consist of different background in different age groups, younger generations, those who are in their 20s and 30s, are the majority. They are more inclined to western cultures –– and more open accepting of new ideologies and modern philosophies, whereas western astrology seems to be more comprehensible, especially as it is integrated with psychology and spirituality.

Early development in China

Western astrology took a while to arrive in China. When I first learned about astrology (apart from sunsign astrology) in 2002, only a few articles about astrology in Chinese were available. There were no seminars, workshops, or even books. I went to the largest bookstore in Shanghai in 2003, asking the clerk about astrology books, and I had to repeat three times the word “astrology” in Chinese, as if it was a foreign word that they had never heard of. But the word “astrology” in Chinese was coined long time ago. Studies showing that there were astrology books translated from Persian into Chinese in Yuan Dynasty (1271 A.D. –– 1368 A.D.) (Chen, 2009). Some of these books are still available now, but like many other old books, they were written in ancient Chinese, and the interpretation may take too much effort to be worthwhile.

The development of western astrology in the mainland China was greatly helped by its next door neighbor, Taiwan. Astrology entered the mainland via Taiwan’s much earlier involvement. Both modern and traditional astrology had prospered in Taiwan long before they were introduced to the mainland. Back then and now, Taiwan is more connected to the west, which gave easy access to more resources; for example, Taiwan has many more books, either translated or written by local astrologers. At the very beginning of 21st century, astrology books were very rare on the mainland, and the only few copies circulating around were from Taiwan.

High learning costs

Taiwan astrologers were the first batch coming to China giving seminars, lecturing classes. Even now, their blogs and articles are still the essential contributions to China’s astrology community. However, learning astrology from Taiwan astrologers can be expensive, especially traditional astrology. For example, one famous Taiwan astrologer charges 8,000 yuan (around 1,300 USD) for a two-day seminar in traditional astrology, and that is just introductory level. It is true that China has grown very fast economically –– more and more people are able to and willing to pay more money, if necessary, to learn the knowledge they value –– but still, it is expensive.

Moreover, almost all seminars and workshops given by foreign astrologers are much more expensive than outside China. In early September this year (2013), Noel Tyl gave a two-day-and-half workshop in “the new Midheaven extension process” which costs 4,800 yuan (780USD). Although Noel Tyl’s case is understandable, he is one of the most famous and successful astrologers in the world, and the costs included travel, residence and translation expenses, still it does not change the fact that learning astrology in China is much more expensive. To further make the point, many Chinese astrologers have to buy up-to-date books from “amazon.com” by which the postal cost is almost equivalent to the book itself.

High costs and language barriers for China’s astrologers make China’s astrology situation quite unique. Many “loyal” astrology fans are of the elite class in China –– well-educated and fluent in English. Many of them have their own career with high incomes. They are able to spend, or have already spent, a large sum of money to learn astrology and other peripheral subjects such as psychology. Astrology does have its expensive side in China, but there is also another side to it. Many astrologers are also trying very hard to learn astrology in their own way, and thus inspired many online discussion groups and forums. And like many other publications, piracy is also prevalent in astrology community, which, nonetheless, gives those who are unwilling to pay for their studies an inappropriate chance to grow with their peers.

Livelihood of Chinese astrologers

As more and more astrology classes have been offered, so have astrology readings and consultations. Interestingly, unlike many countries, the major promotion and advertising channel in China is the “internet.” For one thing, it is hard, if not impossible, to promote astrology in traditional media due to the policies forbidding any divination advertisements on supervised media. Secondly, the main target of astrology is to younger generations who are more than familiar with the Internet and spend large quantities of time on it. The rise of web 2.0 provides great platforms for astrologers to advocate for themselves, especially on “weibo.com” which is the major “battlefield” for astrologers to gain fame and reputations.

Reputable full-time astrologers do get well paid. Most of them charge from 500 to 800 yuan (80 to 130 USD) for a reading or one-hour consultation. Their monthly income may vary from 5,000 up to 20,000 yuan (820 to 3270 USD) or even more depending on how well the person promotes himself or herself. Many of them could manage to earn a good living comparable to their peers in other industries, without suffering fixed working hours or a boss.

Other than weibo.com, there is another major market for selling reading and consultation services. “taobao.com,” the Chinese version of E-Bay, somehow is also growing very fast in terms of astrology as well. If you are familiar with twitter and E-Bay, you would know how different they are from each other. “taobao.com” provides a platform whereupon people open a shop-like webpage selling the products they provide. It is highly competitive, and you can literally “shop around” to find the shop that fits your need the most. Up to now, there are 201 shops whose names contain the word “astrology,” and a great number of items have “astrology” either in the name itself or in its descriptions. The unique environment has made astrology services vary in different forms –– from 20 yuan (3.2 USD) for a 15 minute reading, to 500 Yuan (80 USD) for a consultation, and other variations such as a custom report.

Although it looks like its really blooming, the owners are in constant battles with the site managers, because “taobao.com” forbids any kind of noncertified consultations. The reason is obvious: noncertified

consultations are hard to supervise or to control for quality, and may therefore incur disputes that are difficult to resolve. Nonetheless, shop owners on “taobao.com” rely on the platform and are unwilling to give up.

Chaotic market

Besides “soho” astrologers, there are some running café-like shops providing astrology readings as well. More of these shops are emerging in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. However, these shops rarely limit themselves to astrology readings alone ––many of them provide Tarot readings or other divination services along with selling crystals and other “fatechanging” objects. Astrology combined with other services or products is certainly disputable, for it may confuse the clients and make astrology misunderstood. While many modern astrologers are trying to differentiate astrology from other divinations, others are applying astrology in the same way as, or even with, other divinations, nonetheless.

Presumably, astrology can be used as a divination tool in fortune telling. This is not the real issue, however. The real problem is the lack of supervision and standardization. Clients do not know whom to trust, or which one has adequate knowledge to provide sound services. They have nowhere to file complaints if they are unsatisfied with the astrologer.

I personally heard a friend telling me that she had spent 2,000 yuan (327 USD) for a reading that is selfclaimed “an accurate decipher of fate,” which is no more than traditional style of divination confining her ability to change. With great disappointments and even anger, she could do nothing but repeat her unfortunate encounters.