A Fortune Teller in a Modern Metropolis

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.

China Conversation

John Minford and the Dao De Jing

A sinologist and translator reveals his secrets to Jonathan Chatwin

John Minford is a Sinologist and literary translator, known particularly for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone, Strange Tales and The Art of War. John's recent work includes a translation of the famous Chinese divination text, the Yi Jing, and a new version of the Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Daoism, published in late 2018. Writer Jonathan Chatwin sat down with him to discuss his path into Chinese translation, the ineffability of the Tao, and the challenges of translating classical Chinese into modern English.

You studied Chinese at Oxford in the 1960s. How unusual a choice was undergraduate Chinese at that time, and what drew you to the subject?

When I began studying Chinese, in the summer of 1966, China was launching itself into the Cultural Revolution and was very isolated. There were few students doing Chinese at Oxford – I think there were about five who enrolled in my year. By then I had already been a student at Oxford for two years – I entered Balliol College from Winchester on a Brackenbury Scholarship in Classics in the autumn of 1964. What I really wanted to do all along was study the piano, and I had been offered a place at the Royal College of Music. But neither my parents nor my college approved of the idea. So I was obliged to continue studying something or other at Oxford, and somewhat reluctantly drifted into the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program.


How I “Grew” My Business

Numbers aren’t always what they seem, says Mou Zongyou – translated by Yakexi

Jack Ma, the richest man in China as of 2018, once asked: “Do accurate statistics even exist in China?” In 2007, Li Keqiang, then vice premier, said that China’s GDP numbers, as reported by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, are man-made and not trustworthy. In 2017 and 2018, the authorities in Liaoning, Inner Mongolia and Tianjin all acknowledged that they had made up their GDP data. As a small business owner, I’ve had personal experience with “Chinese numbers.”


Living MoreFree

China’s streetball hero plays his way – Eduardo Baptista

On a mid-September afternoon, Wu You (吴悠) a.k.a. MoreFree, one of China’s most notorious basketball icons, was getting beaten badly. Despite the giant posters foregrounding the court and cameras filming Wu’s every move, this was only an informal exhibition game; Wu’s teammates included his childhood friends and their relatives, many of whom hadn’t exercised in months, let alone play a competitive game. As his team, down 20 points against a well-drilled team from the PLA National Defense University, called yet another timeout,Wu sat down on the bench, staring into space as everyone else chattered over tactics. Next to him, two of his septuagenarian teammates lit cigarettes, leaning back languidly and taking long drags. His team short on manpower, Wu tried to put them on his back for the final quarter, but to no avail – they lose by 30.

In China, the name “Wu You” has long been synonymous with “streetball,” or jieqiu (街球). The naughty younger brother of association basketball, streetball originated in the outdoor courts of America’s inner cities. The objective is not so much to outscore your opponent but to out-humiliate him, whether “breaking their ankles,” where a change of direction sends a defender flying to the ground, or inflicting a brutal “posterizer,” a dunk that rams the defender’s body backwards. At NBA games, spectators for the most part cheer and clap for their teams; streetball crowds are much less civilized, screaming in excitement whenever a player is embarrassed, even running onto the court.

Hidden History

The Refugee Emperor

How the Yongli Emperor was strangled in Kunming by a turncoat general – Jeremiah Jenne

Even researching a column titled Hidden History, this was getting to be a bit much.

Our impromptu guide in Kunming, capital of China’s mountainous southwest province of Yunnan, led us past a police guard post, into an underground garage, up three flights of stairs, through a pediatric hospital, and then out the lobby of what looked like the emergency room. “Turn left; it’s right there.”

And there it was: A stone tablet set slightly back in a small urban park, complete with exercise equipment and a signboard reminding us to “Learn from Lei Feng.” Inscribed on the stone in slightly faded red letters: “The site where Emperor Yongli of the Ming (1623-1668) gave his life for his country.” It was on this spot in 1661 that the last claimant to the throne of the Ming Dynasty was strangled to death by his captor, Wu Sangui (1612-1678).