Research Project


Continuities and Discontinuities in the Application of Chinese Character Divination from Imperial China until Today

Anne Schmiedl

This project traces Chinese character divination (cezi 測字/ chaizi 拆字) from its origins in imperial China to its contemporary application. In imperial China, character divination can be found in a variety of sources. Anecdotes from the genre commonly referred to as “brush records” (biji 筆記) describe short narratives connected to specific historical figures and circumstances. Late imperial works start to delineate techniques in more detail. Examples for such works include the Cezi midie 測字秘牒 (Secret Documents on Fathoming Chinese Characters), allegedly written by an author named Cheng Xing 程省 at the beginning of the Qing dynasty, and two texts preserved in the Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成 (Complete Collection of Old and Contemporary Diagrams and Writings), the “Chaizi shu 拆字數” (“Computation by the Dissection of Written Characters”) and the “Xinding zhi mingxin fa 新訂指明心法” (“Newly Arranged Method of Indicating the Clear Spirit”). The project juxtaposes the findings from these imperial sources with the reality of character divination today by examining popular publications from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well as a field study carried out in Taiwan in 2014 and 2015. This comparison proves that techniques used in imperial Chinese sources can be found in contemporary character divination as well. Apart from continuities, however, it also highlights disruptions. These discontinuities attest to the creativity of contemporary diviners and show that the method provides ample ground for flexibility in its application.

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