In China, the professional soothsayer is held in great reverence. The
calling is a dignified one, and does not attract the sort of suspicion
that it does in the western world, where 'fortune-tellers' are regarded
at best with amusement, at worst hostility, and generally, with tolerant
Throughout the Far East, many of the major temples have their own
diviners attached, and the most celebrated of them support a
considerable staff of soothsayers to minister to the faithful each day
of the week. For millions of people divination is actually an integral
part of their worship.
Within the temples themselves, the oracles used are elementary enough.
The most basic is the Kao Pui: the enquirer takes two curved blocks,
which are thrown on the ground three times to elicit a straightforward 'yes'
or 'no'. (These are likely to be similar, if not identical, to the 'urim
and thummim' mentioned in the Bible.) The other well-known temple oracle
uses bamboo sticks, each bearing a number, which is then interpreted by
one of the resident priests or diviners in attendance.
But beyond the temple precincts, however, there are vast numbers of ways
by which the uncertain future may be revealed. Sometimes recourse is
made to a professional astrologer, but as this usually involves an
exorbitant fee it is a considerable asset if one of the eiders of the
family is adept at the Ya Pai Shen Po — literally, 'divination by ivory
blocks' - by which the Chinese understand dominoes, cards, or Mah Jongg
The modern game of Mah Jongg is actually a direct descendant of an
ancient oracle that was consulted by Chinese soothsayers thousands of
years ago. When Chinese astronomers first began to record the progress
of the Sun, Moon and planets they used a simple device — a divining
board — to calculate the expected positions of the heavenly bodies. Their
progress through the skies was recorded by moving counters round the
divisions of the board. In the course of time this primitive planisphere
was adapted into a board game which would be readily recognizable today
as ludo; later, the dice used in the game evolved into dominoes, and
then, when the Chinese invented printing, the domino patterns were
transferred to cards. So it was that an ancient oracle came to be the
ancestor of virtually all our present indoor games from poker to
In the west the mystical origins of cards, dominoes and dice have been
ail but forgotten, except by the Mah Jongg player who is constantly
reminded of the game's dignified ancestry in the ritual preparation for
play, the affectionate names for some of the pieces, and the technical
terms used for strategies and tactics of the game.
Walters, Derek, The Fortune Teller's Mah Jongg, Eddison Sadd Editions,
1988 ISBN 0-670-85640-1