Down alleyway off the beaten path of the bohemian Old Town in Changsha, Hunan Province, between a vape and a skate shop, hangs a circular sign bearing the Chinese characters for Tarot (塔罗).
It points deeper into the alley. Inside the shop sits a youthful Hunan girl, long black hair, dark makeup, crystal rings and a moon necklace.
Perhaps to be expected of central-southern China, considering the area’s vegan-friendly, slow-living hippie ways. Yet it was not until this correspondent was strolling back from a visit to The Bund in Shanghai recently and happened upon yet another shop offering Tarot that got underway an investigation as to China’s true interest in the ancient Western technique of fortune telling.
Tarot reading, Reiki healing, Rune reading and so on are indeed more widespread in China than one would imagine. Not only are people across the country offering tarot services on public APPs, as well as their private WeChat accounts, but there so happens to be not one, but two, national tarot associations. China Tarot Association (CTA) Founder, Mo Ran, told The Nanjinger, “Most people find tarot mysterious and interesting. After all, it is a kind of culture. Like other modern disciplines such as the Internet, psychology and philosophy, tarot is constantly participating in our work, study and life. As a tool of self-recognition and psychological application, tarot is gradually becoming understood by many enterprises and schools. By understanding tarot, it increases staff efficiency and helps to release pressure”.
CTA began operating in 2005 and has as many as 270,000 registered members. The association is one of the four major professional tarot organisations worldwide (CTA China, ATA Unites States, TSPA United Kingdom and TGA Australia). Although CTA’s representative office is in Tianjin, its Global Liaison Centre is located in Hong Kong where CTA is registered, and is subject to the supervision of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China. Growing in popularity year-by-year, the CTA annually organises cultural exchange activities such as the China Tarot Competition. Mo says that by joining the professional tarot industry one receives the necessary training to, “Study and reveal human culture. By joining CTA, our ‘humanistic exploration’ is no longer lonely. I [now] see the real relationship between ‘ego’ and ‘human’”.
In ancient times, the telling of one’s fortune was termed “solving (examining) doubts” (샜虜). Considered by the mainstream as a quack profession and never to be taken seriously, it is generally assumed by non-believers that those who regularly seek the advice of astrologers, clairvoyants and or tarot readers are somewhat desperate, overly anxious about the future or control freaks.
In China however, the traditional role of a fortune teller was local psychotherapist or important life consultant. There was little to no disbelief in their powers to tap into the future and what they said was often taken as gospel.
“CTA data in recent years shows that the number of tarot fans, professional researchers and people who want to help themselves through tarot is of a large number and growing. The increasing trend is due to the growing recognition of tarot culture and the increasingly obvious value of tarot in human culture. More and more people are benefiting from tarot, and more and more people are identifying with this culture”, Mo told The Nanjinger.
Much akin to the Kings and Queens of Medieval Europe, Emperors of China’s past were known to consult astrologers and fortune tellers before making any important decisions. Although skepticism is much more prevalent in modern society, seeking the advice of fortune tellers and clairvoyants remains an important practice, and those in the industry are considered of high social status, relied upon heavily by those in business and of people with ill health.
Scammers, such as those loitering outside Nanjing’s Jiming Temple, are everywhere in China, however, those who build a reputation of trust are highly rewarded.
Fortune Telling, Suànmìng 炬츱
Since the age of 16, Cloris, a Nanjing, Xinjiekou-based Tarot reader, has been investing in the art and is now making quite the living from one of the world’s oldest trades. One golden hour with Cloris will set clients back ¥1,500 and for half an hour, ¥800, while for Cloris to answer just one question, she will charge ¥400, making the business of Tarot reading a lucrative one indeed. “Usually, the average number of clients who make an appointment for consultation is more than a dozen per day”, Cloris told The Nanjinger.
Although business for Cloris is steady, she admits that for the large majority of people, Tarot is still relatively new. “Tarot is still on the rise in China, not very popular, but gradually getting known. Usually, young people prefer the western philosophical tools, however, because the structure of Tarot is relatively complex (78 cards), we still need to educate the public in more industries in order to make it truly universal”.
“When I was around 14-years old, I came across a forum related to ‘mystery’ on the Internet. There was a section related to Tarot and so I have been interested in it ever since”, said Cloris. Is it any surprise then that with China’s strong fortune telling history, Tarot is experiencing somewhat of an Asian revival? The practice is considered a belief by the government and is therefore tolerated. Yet, Tarot is also different, exciting and somewhat magical; highly attractive to the nation’s progressively open youth.
Tarot expert Miss Jia, spoke with The Nanjinger from her shop in Jiangpu in Pukou District; “In my opinion, Tarot is very popular, especially with young people. Nowadays, more young people like a combination of Chinese and Western culture. The image of Tarot cards is artistic; they are very beautiful”. Jia, who has been practicing Tarot for over 5 years, also boasts about 10 clients per day and charges anywhere between ¥200-¥500 an hour.
Back at the CTA, Mo believes, “If one is a tarot master or professional practitioner, there is no doubt that there are benefits or material inflow. Any professional should be rewarded, but a tarot master’s cultural spirit is not measured by material gains. Looking from a profit point of view, the tarot consulting industry (like other industries) has both high and low income. One needs a lot of learning and experience to make themselves more professional. Tarot division practitioners also need to invest a lot of energy and time into improving themselves in the early stages. Therefore, tarot is not an industry where one can easily become rich; no pain, no gain”.
No matter the reason people across the world believe in the words of tarot readers, there is no denying that the practice remains a safe place for the expression of anxiety, depression and personal issues without suffering from the stigma of mental illness.
Stress and burnout in China has reached an all new high. Suicide rates are increasing as young people complain of highly stressful lives. The Telegraph reported on a study that revealed a third of Chinese primary school children suffer from stress, while the South China Morning Post reported that all work and no play makes Hongkongers the fifth most stressed population in the world. Unable to control stress that has arisen as a result of demanding pressure, people could be turning to Tarot as a much needed mental release to ever mounting uncertainty.