On a shady street just inside the former city walls of old Beijing, Chen Yi predicts the destinies of conflicted souls.
He also welcomes visitors inside his one-room shop to gauge the auspiciousness of a day many in China have begun to dread: the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
The Chinese astrological calendar, which dispenses daily life guidance, warns against starting a business or launching a “maiden voyage” on this Jan. 20, when Trump embarks on his new job.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. The oath in Washington falls at 1 a.m. the following day in China, which has a much better outlook. So the superstitious — or highly curious — must turn to the experts, a row of bearded fortunetellers surrounding the multicolored gates of Lama Temple, Beijing’s most famous Buddhist relic. Their tiny shops — past the rotund Buddha knickknacks, egg pancake stalls, signs that warn of lying mystics — smell strongly of incense and require the warmth of a coat.
Several soothsayers waved my colleague and me away, calling our request for an inaugural forecast too political. But then we found Chen, a middle-aged man with glasses and a soft, peppered beard. His shop looked out at flag-waving guides and dutiful tourists marching toward the Imperial College, where top scholars studied for three dynasties. Cars inched past, honking as if noise would dissolve a perpetual traffic jam.
The veteran predictor plopped us on two stools. We asked about the success of the inauguration and what that meant for the new world leader. Chen suggested we draw a wood stick from a stuffed container. He interpreted the writing etched on its side using a thick reference book. We waited. Small glass balls shimmered in shelves on the wall. We waited some more.
“There’s danger in the beginning,” he said, his eyes scanning the guide. “But there will be luck later.”
Chinese take their superstitions seriously. This is the country that came up with feng shui. Buildings often face a certain direction to ensure the flow of positive energy. Elevator buttons sometimes skip a fourth floor because the word for four sounds like the one for death. Houses stay dirty on Lunar New Year as cleaning could sweep away good luck.
Such beliefs are wrapped in tradition passed down for centuries, a spiritual remnant of the past reworked for the present. They extend from palm reading to determining a person’s destiny based on components of time, including the hour of birth, and are most prevalent in smaller towns. Fortunetelling, or suan ming, translates to “fate calculating.”
These diviners serve as business consultants and therapists, though loudspeakers near Lama Temple blare weekend warnings about fraud. Chinese pay fortunetellers to pick lucky names for their babies or propitious dates for weddings and funerals. Some base relationships off the Chinese zodiac, a classification system also calculated according to the lunar calendar, which assigns each year one of 12 spirit animals. Trump, born in 1946, is a dog.
When it comes to the incoming president, China’s leaders could use the guidance. Trump has accused the nation of making up climate change, stealing U.S. jobs, manipulating its currency, “raping” America and becoming “our enemy.” He recently threatened to disregard the principle that Taiwan is part of one united China, the foundation of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing.
A Communist Party-run newspaper has warned of “more thorny issues” for China after Trump takes power; his new administration is stacked with China trade skeptics. His nominee for secretary of State just compared the country’s island building in the South China Sea to “Russia’s taking of Crimea” and warned that the U.S. would ban China from accessing them.
“Trump needs to watch out for the little man,” Chen said in a sober tone. “In this case, the little man is Obama.”
He said the incoming president might divorce and remarry — perhaps not the most audacious prediction for a man who is on his third marriage.
“People will talk about this presidency in the future,” Chen said — again, not exactly going out on a limb. What would they say? That would cost more than the 100 yuan, or $14, we had paid.
A fortuneteller across the street sat in a back room, framed by Buddha statues of various sizes. For twice as much, he scribbled a few characters and examined a tiny leather-bound book.
He stroked the hair on his chin. He stared at the paper. He shrugged.
“You’re not attending the inauguration, so leave the day alone,” he said. And with that, he dug into a lunch of steamed dumplings.
Meyers is a special correspondent. Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.