Artificial “fortune-telling” intelligence and how to never underestimate religious pragmatism
Our Editorial team went to Zhujiajiao 朱家角—the largest and most famous water town in Shanghai. Of course, we could not skip the 240-year-old City God Temple 城隍庙(Chenghuang Miao), one of the most touristic sites. Imagine how surprised we were when we found an amazing big circle with a hand-molded fake stone, full of Chinese characters and Yi Jing 易经 trigrams (a pre-imperial text used both as a divination text, and as a primarily source of philosophical theorization)!
It was an AI fortune-telling machine. After a short reading of the hand, it provides a small paper ticket. The paper ticket differentiates the fortunes between career, money, relationships, and health.
Mine is a good-looking future. I paid 16 yuan (by scanning a QR code on the machine itself, as expected, considering that cash has almost gone extinct) to access the ticket that confirmed it. The entire process required a further interpretation by a professional fortune-teller, which, unfortunately, was not available at that moment.
City God Temple
Before we came to the AI, we asked several people how the temple worked. We confirmed it was a Chinese folk religion temple (or popular religion, both the designations are standard in the literature) of the City God.
Folk religion, nevertheless, does not clarify much. In the Chinese context, the inner diversity of doctrines, scriptures, and praxis are tremendous.1
But it seems to be consensual that folk religion differentiates highly syncretic religious beliefs and practices from other more institutionalized and standardized religious praxis.2 These last ones include Buddhism and Christianism—even though Buddhist deities, for example, can be found in folk contexts.
These characteristics make folk religion amazingly pragmatic. For example, the City God in Zhujiajiao was a local governor that was deified. But now, the City God is a District God, considering that it is the deity to the entire Qingpu District 青浦区. It seems that not even the deities previously associated with cities can escape the never-ending expansion of Shanghai.
Keeping up with the trend
Even though folk religion is inherently associated with local history, it sure keeps up with the trend of the rest of China.
One of the people that talked with us was a migrant ayi from Hubei province. She was there privately selling red fortune ribbons, so commonly seen hanging on relics. Zhujiajiao City God Temple had as a relic ginkgo trees, and so the ribbons were suspended there.
These ribbons are chosen according to one’s wishes, having personalized ribbons for health, career, and relationships. The seller suggested me the ribbon that would push me to have children. No need for that, I said between a skeptical and timid laugh.
But my skeptical face vanished as she firmly ensured that one needs to believe in the whole process for the fortune to knock on one’s doors. Not really an issue, to be fair, considering that the number of believers is quite significant.
A 2005 state-led questionnaire (with a focus on the urban context) demonstrated that belief in “fortune” (运yun—amounting to 40% of the respondents) overshadows by far belief in formalized religious figures such as Buddha (8%) and Jesus Christ (6%).3
Tech-religious profit networks in the building of the sacred
Aware of the risk of importing primarily European sociological terminology to the Chinese folk context, I would say that the sacred depends as much on the profane as the profane relies on the existence of the sacred.
The fact that the “fortune-telling” machine was there for less than a year was a clear example of technological adaptation to the broader and profane capitalist Chinese tech reality, even if late by some years. The use of QR codes follows the same reasoning.
Similar to the seller of the red ribbons, the whole fortune-telling system in the temple was a foreign-lead enterprise. And so were the entire management and the right to interpretation.
The wheel was not under the rule of the temple itself. It was, instead, produced by the 中国易经风水博物馆 (Zhongguo Yijing Fensghui Bowuguan)—the ‘Chinese Yi Jing and Fengshui Museum.’ Based on our own research, it is an organization that, so far, is not recognized by any official Yi Jing-related organizations in mainland China.
This concludes that the totality of the temple is not a homogenous network. Obviously, it was a sacred place, but with several networks working with the sacredness that the space provided. The sacredness was co-constitutive of those different profit-led networks. But could one experience the sacredness without the selling of ribbons, candles, incense sticks, and fortune-telling tickets? Religious pragmatism is a force to reckon with, indeed.
References / To go further
Wai Yip Wong, “Defining Chinese Folk Religion: A Methodological Interpretation,” Asian Philosophy 21, no.2 (2011).
Wai Yip Wong, “Defining Chinese Folk Religion”.
Benoît Vermander, “Religious Revival and Exit from Religion in Contemporary China,” China Perspectives 4 (2009).