Sunday, January 16, 2011

Know your traditions: Divination in temples

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.

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