The Magical Mystery Tour: Exploring the Five Arts of Chinese Metaphysics

There’s more to Dongguan than first meets the eye. Underneath the shiny surface, layers upon layers of ancient traditions are still, surprisingly, alive and well in this city. It’s not just a matter of a few old folks paying a visit to the city’s temples and shrines, or lighting joss sticks outside their doors to guard off evil spirits. Rites and rituals, some dating back to the beginning of Chinese civilization, seem to permeate the very core of Dongguan’s society. Somehow harmoniously blending in with its inhabitants’ modern lifestyles.

Before embarking on a new venture, a local businessman would carefully consider the most auspicious date and time to do it. Young couples would eagerly seek the advice of a Naming Master in order to find the most suitable name for their new-born baby. The red marks on your neighbor’s neck bear witness to the fact that she would willingly succumb to moxibustion. Choosing the right place to settle down would seldom happen without first consulting a Feng Shui Master… The list can go on and on.

You might think of it all as mere superstition, but for a lot of our fellow Dongguanese, the Five Arts of Chinese Metaphysics (中华五术) are just as well-respected and strictly adhered to as any branch of modern science.

  • Divination (卜) is all about getting answers from Heaven to your queries about the future. Techniques abound, from the prehistoric way of divining the future with the help of oracle bones to numeric exercises, often based on the famous Book of Changes, by Yi Jing.
  • Destiny (命) is the art of knowing your fate through your horoscope; Ba Zi and Purple Star Astrology are the most typical ways of analyzing and predicting your fate.
  • Physiognomy (相) refers to the study of forms or appearances. The famous practice of Feng Shui, as well as Palm and Face Reading all fall under this category.
  • Medicine (医) deals with healing. It includes all forms of traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and medical prescriptions.
  • Mountain (山) is known as the philosophical art. It is about elevating yourself above the mundane through asceticism, martial arts, meditation and self-healing. Qi Gong and Tai Chi (Tai Ji Quan) fall under this category.

All of these disciplines evolved from the ancient wisdom that everything around us is interconnected; it’s all simply the universal energy, Qi, manifesting itself in various forms. In its own way, each of these arts is there to help us let the Qi flow freely rather than blocking it and then go with that flow, rather than against it. It is about listening to the voice of nature and acknowledging that humans can genuinely thrive only when aligned and in harmony with the rhythms of the universe.

So, dear readers, for this issue of HERE!, I’ve decided to take the plunge, get right to the bottom of those five noble arts and experience their magic. Keep an open mind and join me on a journey of discovery. Let’s visit the mystical side of Dongguan!

For my first attempt at divining the future, I head to my favorite Daoist temple. I pass by this place often enough. On the way to my regular morning hike, I occasionally find myself tempted to make a slight detour and enter this secluded world of quiet meditation, steeped in incense. Sometimes I yield to the temptation, although I seldom venture beyond the beautiful outer courtyard with its majestic wishing trees.

Originally a Daoist place of worship, it looks like it is slowly being converted into a branch of the adjacent, much more prosperous, Buddhist temple. Brand-new gilded Buddha statues, some still in their plastic wrappings, are brazenly attempting to outshine the dusty old wooden gods of Daoism. Being a heathen myself, I’m here to soak in the atmosphere rather than to pray or offer gifts to any particular god. Yet, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the formerly, so mighty, Shang Di, Cheng Huang and all the other supreme deities, being so casually replaced by the more popular Indian sages.

Some Daoist traditions seem to persist though, divination being among them. Based on chance and willful surrender to fate, this particular type of fortune-telling relies on age-old rituals to open the doors to the future.

As I’m slowly ascending the sun-drenched stone stairs towards the dark inner chamber of the temple, I’m overcome by a somewhat unexpected trepidation. The rational and logical me succumbs to the magic of what I’m about to experience. I feel humbled as it occurs to me that for centuries troubled souls have been seeking advice by contacting the gods and goddesses in exactly the same way. Maybe my legs are shaking just because I’ve followed the instructions to “purify” myself before coming here. It is fascinating being part of it.

To my right, half-hidden behind a rickety table, the old man who’ll be assisting me in consulting with the spirit world is half-asleep, or maybe just utterly tranquil. I pay the prescribed sum and am handed a wooden container filled with bamboo sticks. Then, trying hard to quiet down all random thoughts in my head and concentrate on a single question. I humbly kneel in front of the plethora of gods. Alas, they are only vaguely familiar to me, and I start shaking the container until a single divination stick falls out.

The old man looks at the inscription on the stick, rummages briefly in one of the drawers and presents me with a piece of paper. It’s a poem, and the meaning can be applied to the problem at hand. This is how the gods are offering their guidance to me. The poem is in classical Chinese however, way above my knowledge of the language, so I ask again about some help with interpreting its message. “Just use your phone to translate it,” the guy tells me and dozes off.

An hour later, having perused all available resources on my smartphone, from Google and WeChat Translate to Pleco and Dian Hua, I’ve managed to interpret a surprisingly pertinent answer to the question at hand. Maybe being directly involved in finding out the meaning of my allotted poem is what makes it feel so special. For days the message of the gods and the odd feeling of clarity lingered on.

TR ANSLATE DAO STICKS
For my first attempt at divining the future, I head to my favorite Daoist temple. I pass by this place often enough. On the way to my regular morning hike, I occasionally find myself tempted to make a slight detour and enter this secluded world of quiet meditation, steeped in incense. Sometimes I yield to the temptation, although I seldom venture beyond the beautiful outer courtyard with its majestic wishing trees.

Originally a Daoist place of worship, it looks like it is slowly being converted into a branch of the adjacent, much more prosperous, Buddhist temple. Brand-new gilded Buddha statues, some still in their plastic wrappings, are brazenly attempting to outshine the dusty old wooden gods of Daoism. Being a heathen myself, I’m here to soak in the atmosphere rather than to pray or offer gifts to any particular god. Yet, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the formerly, so mighty, Shang Di, Cheng Huang and all the other supreme deities, being so casually replaced by the more popular Indian sages.

Some Daoist traditions seem to persist though, divination being among them. Based on chance and willful surrender to fate, this particular type of fortune-telling relies on age-old rituals to open the doors to the future.

For centuries, troubled souls have been seeking advice by contacting the gods and goddesses in exactly the same way.

As I’m slowly ascending the sun-drenched stone stairs towards the dark inner chamber of the temple, I’m overcome by a somewhat unexpected trepidation. The rational and logical me succumbs to the magic of what I’m about to experience. I feel humbled as it occurs to me that for centuries troubled souls have been seeking advice by contacting the gods and goddesses in exactly the same way. Maybe my legs are shaking just because I’ve followed the instructions to “purify” myself before coming here. It is fascinating being part of it.

To my right, half-hidden behind a rickety table, the old man who’ll be assisting me in consulting with the spirit world is half-asleep, or maybe just utterly tranquil. I pay the prescribed sum and am handed a wooden container filled with bamboo sticks. Then, trying hard to quiet down all random thoughts in my head and concentrate on a single question. I humbly kneel in front of the plethora of gods. Alas, they are only vaguely familiar to me, and I start shaking the container until a single divination stick falls out.

The old man looks at the inscription on the stick, rummages briefly in one of the drawers and presents me with a piece of paper. It’s a poem, and the meaning can be applied to the problem at hand. This is how the gods are offering their guidance to me. The poem is in classical Chinese however, way above my knowledge of the language, so I ask again about some help with interpreting its message. “Just use your phone to translate it,” the guy tells me and dozes off.

An hour later, having perused all available resources on my smartphone, from Google and WeChat Translate to Pleco and Dian Hua, I’ve managed to interpret a surprisingly pertinent answer to the question at hand. Maybe being directly involved in finding out the meaning of my allotted poem is what makes it feel so special. For days the message of the gods and the odd feeling of clarity lingered on.

For centuries, troubled souls have been seeking advice by contacting the gods and goddesses in exactly the same way.

KNOW YOUR DESTINY
Destiny Coffee seems like a fitting place to meet with the Grand Master who has agreed to help me figure out not only what’s in the stars for me, but also guide me through some of the fundamental principles of Chinese metaphysics in general. Quite frankly, I feel I might need a strong coffee to fortify myself ahead of the heavy topics that we’re about to discuss. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried too much. I’m greeted by the Master’s smiling disciple, his 10-year-old granddaughter, who’s there partly to learn and partly to help me translate some of his more intricate explanations and predictions. Moreover, the Master himself appears to share his young apprentice’s disarming way of smiling.

So, we commence our investigation into the world of Metaphysics. The whiteboard comes in handy as the Master strives to explain the five arts, four of which he has studied for decades, ever since his own grandfather initiated him. He was even younger at the time than our charming little interpreter is, he assures me. The only one of the five disciplines that he has not mastered is Chinese medicine, he admits. He is however qualified to practice the other four, with certificates to prove it.

Thus reassured, it’s time to do the analysis itself. I’m told that the eight characters, or Ba Zi, are all there to help establish the exact time of my birth. The way the planets and stars were aligned at that point of time is what sealed my fate, or maybe a few possible fates. My name is also important: its characters are each represented by one of the five basic elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Now that I’ve been madeaware of my destiny, is there anything I could do to change it?

Conveniently enough, all the necessary complicated calculations are swiftly handled by a computer program nowadays. An app in the Master’s smartphone completes the process, that would have previously taken him hours, in a matter of seconds. It’s interpreting the results that’s the art, he explains, not the calculation itself. He then proceeds to diligently fill in a pink slip of paper, pre-printed with the Ba Zi analysis framework. He’s talking about my ancestors, parents and siblings, about my husband and daughter. Apparently, there’s a slight imbalance in my elements’ chart. The coming decade holds wealth for me but also some health issues that I need to be careful about. It’s all so fascinating that I almost lost track of time.

My little helper is quite alert though. “The Master is tired now,” she says. I manage to squeeze in one more question before we part: Now that I’ve been made aware of my destiny, is there anything I could do to change it? Is that even possible? “You have to understand,” the Master explains patiently, “that it’s only one of many possible fates that I’ve told you about today. All this might or might not happen.” Then he adds with a smile, “You’re right to wear green though, it is quite in harmony with the Earth element that dominates your fate.”

OBSERVE APPEARANCES
I quickly opted out of paying for a complete Feng Shui analysis of my home. The quote that I got from the physiognomy expert contained simply too many zeroes. After all, it’s just a rental on a one-year contract and I doubt our landlady would be interested in making any major adjustments to the place just to improve the Qi flow for our family. A face reading seemed more reasonably priced though, so I arranged to meet an expert. He asked me for a photo of my face in order to prepare, and the moment he saw I’m a foreigner, the price more than doubles. Apparently, Caucasian faces are much more difficult to analyze than Chinese ones.

I find myself rather nervous on the day of the reading, as our encounter is to take place in my home. I can only compare the feeling of welcoming a Feng Shui Master to one’s home to the first time you invite your future mother-in-law for a visit, aware that they’ll be noticing every detail, especially the most embarrassing ones. So, after a swift decluttering, I open the door for the Master. He is a young man who somehow gives the impression of being quite confident and, simultaneously, rather shy. “You have such young hands,” he says directly upon greeting me. I try to turn it into a joke, but the Master is not so receptive to humor and instead starts showing me what he means pointing at the lines of my palm.

So, we move on, from palm reading to analyzing my name and calculating my birth date chart, Ba Zi (oh yes, this Master, too, is versatile in many of the metaphysical arts, not just one). He assures me that I’m very easy to read, being such a kind-hearted person. Moreover, I appear to be a lucky encounter for him, so before I know it the Master has offered to find a more suitable Chinese name for me than the unfortunate one that I was given earlier. This was for free, I should add, as normally a new name would set me back a few thousand yuan. Might be worth it though as my new name is also a better match to my husband’s and will keep us happily married.

Even a foreigner like yourself believes in it, let alone the Chinese. It’s part of our tradition,you know.

I manage to squeeze in a few questions not directly related to my own fate as well. I find out that he has studied the art of Feng Shui for 13 years, both in Hong Kong and in Beijing. It is a profitable calling, or business, once you have your credentials. The clients at the increasingly popular post-pregnancy confinement homes alone would be enough to keep him in style, he says. But do young Chinese people really believe in all this ancient stuff? I wondered. For the first time, the serious expert allowed himself a smile: “Even a foreigner like yourself believes in it, let alone the Chinese. It’s part of our tradition, you know.”

An hour had passed so it’s time for us to part. I’ve prepared in advance the right amount of cash, but I notice that, as I hand him the hongbao, the Master frowns a little. Now he’ll just have to give the money to his mother, he says, she is the only one in the family who uses cash nowadays. It’s only after I close the door, having thanked him profusely for all the insights, that I realize he never even mentioned my face…

VISIT YOUR LOCAL MEDICINE MAN
The moment I started complaining about a persistent new allergic rash, all my friends, local as well as foreign, immediately tell me I need to go and see a Chinese doctor. It seems like it is a truth universally acknowledged, that whenever you’re afflicted by an illness of somewhat more diffuse nature, the holistic approach of traditional Chinese medicine is quite appealing. So, I decided to pay a visit to a highly recommended local doctor.

You wouldn’t even know the tiny little clinic existed unless someone told you about it. It’s squeezed at the back of one of those traditional pharmacies that reek of unfamiliar pungent concoctions and are therefore habitually avoided by most foreigners. The place is beautiful though. The entrance, adorned by a multicolored gate, reminds me of an ancient temple. Well inside the shop, the numerous dark-mahogany cupboards and the strange forms of dried roots, mushrooms, insects, etc. in their glass cases transport me to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. All of a sudden, I’m quite excited to meet the wizard who will cure me of my allergy.

I must wait for my turn though. In the minuscule waiting room, a couple of other patients are ahead of me. I sit down and prepare to spend an hour or so in the enclosed space, all the while hoping that the malodorous vapors, emanating from the pharmacy, are all very beneficial to my health. As it turns out, the diagnostic procedure is brief. In only a few minutes I’m sitting across the small table from the good doctor. The space is crowded by a stack of wooden filing cabinets, each of them holding hand-written patients’ cards. The doctor enquires briefly about my name, age and health problems and then the examination starts. He takes my wrists in his warm hands and feels the pulse or, rather, all the different pulses flowing through my veins and arteries. He looks carefully at my tongue and eyes, asks a few more questions and then starts scribbling frantically at one of the cards while muttering something about blocked blood flow and, yes, Qi.

Whenever you’re afflicted by an illness of a somewhat more diffuse nature, the holistic approach of traditional Chinese medicine is quite appealing.

The card he gives me is a prescription. How convenient then that I can just go out of the clinic and right into the pharmacy. I hand over the illegible note to one of the pharmacists and, miraculously, he seems to understand what it says. I have a choice: Would I like to just buy the ingredients and cook the medicine myself or would I prefer to pay a little extra for them to fix it for me? I’m definitely not about to transfer the smell of the pharmacy back home. So, after paying a hefty sum to the cashier, I’m handed a wooden token and told to come back a few hours later to collect my medicine.

Twice a day for a whole week I force myself to drink a portion of the disgusting concoction without throwing it up (after all, it’s super expensive). My Chinese friends assure me that I’ll get used to it and even start craving for more, but I doubt it. As to whether it’s efficient, who knows, it’s a long-term treatment so only time will tell.

CLIMB THE MOUNTAIN
Mountain” has always felt like the most elusive of the five arts for me. Yet it is also the most fundamental one, I’ve heard. In the old days, earnest seekers of the Way, or Dao, would often seclude themselves up in the mountains, away from the distractions of the mundane. They might join a monastery, become hermits or wonder around as vagabonds. Adhering to an ascetic life of extreme self-discipline and purifying poverty, they would dedicate their whole existence to meditating, practicing to perfection a certain martial art or breathing technique and studying the works of the ancient philosophers.

However, alluring the idea of leaving this world behind might seem sometimes, it is not a very realistic one and even finding a sage of this sort in Dongguan seems quite far-fetched. Yet the example of these holy ascetics and the insights that they’ve reached have inspired millions and given rise to practices that are not at all impossible to incorporate in the daily life of a modern person.

A few times a week I make sure to visit the top of our holy mountain, Huangqi

Take the ancient art of Tai Ji Quan, or Tai Chi, for example. I simply love the way the local parks come alive every morning with diligent students of this traditional form of exercise. Some of them practice in groups, following an instructor, some of them do it on their own, seemingly fully unaware of the hustle and bustle around them. Some wear traditional attire, some seem to be dressed for work already. They practice with swords, or with fans, or simply using their own bodies as fine-tuned instruments. If you’ve ever happened to observe the gracious movements of an advanced practitioner, surely you share my fascination with the hypnotic performance of those martial dancers. One of these days, I tell myself, I might join them.

A few times a week I make sure to visit the top of our so conveniently accessible holy mountain, Huangqi (Qifeng Park). It’s a brief, yet rather steep climb so by the time I reach Dongguan’s symbolic red lantern, my clothes are clinging to my body with sweat and I can feel my pulse racing. I lean on the stone railing to catch my breath and admire the vistas of the sprawling modern metropolis below me. I must have done this a few hundred times by now. It took me a while to figure out that during my brief repose underneath the lantern, I’m standing in a Feng Shui inspired Ba Gua map, the symbolic representation of the universe, divided into eight areas. So, here’s a thought: next time you decide to make it to the top, take some time to study the ancient symbols carved in the stone platform or just enjoy the place’s inherent sense of balance and harmony.

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