Divination has been an aspect of Chinese religious life since the beginning of the country’s long history, when tortoise shells were heated and the resulting cracks ‘read’ in a process called pyromancy.
In 21st century Taiwan, a popular method of divination is the drawing lots. The lots are numbered bamboo slats (often 60 in total) placed in a cylinder on or beside an altar. Supplicants pick up the cylinder, give it a good shake and then pull out the slat sticking out the furthest. They read the number and, after casting poe (moon boards) to confirm it’s correct, take a sheet of paper from a tiny numbered drawer or off a numbered hook (pictured top left). On the paper there’s a message that usually 30 to 60 Chinese characters in length. Because the language is often obscure and/or archaic, expert help may be needed to understand it. The volunteers who clean and watch over temples sometimes assist temple-goes to interpret these short texts.