Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chiao pai divination

All public Chinese temples will have at least two or three of them. Private Chinese temples, for example, those belonging to the clan associations, will normally have at least one too. I'm referring to those wooden chiao pai pieces that are used to interpret what deities say.

The chiao pai pieces always come in pairs, and are usually painted red although through time and usage, the colour may have worn off to expose the wood beneath the paint. One side is flat and the other is rounded, and when you fit both pieces together on their flat side, you get an oval.

Using them is simplicity itself. After a worshipper makes a request from a deity and needs an answer, the chiao pai pieces are clasped together with both hands and then allowed to fall to the ground. How the pieces end up will determine the deity's decision.

If the flat surfaces turn up together, or if the rounded surfaces turn up together too, it means that the deity's answer is not favourable to you. The combination you want is to have one flat side and one rounded side turn up on the floor. That would mean that the deity has said "yes" to whatever you prayed for.

Of course, you may recognise this process as simply the outcome of probability, the same as when two coins are thrown together. Given that there are only two sides to a piece of the chiao pai, it is a 50 percent chance that a flat-rounded combination will happen or not happen. But let me tell you, this Chinese divination method has more to it than meets the eye.

Away from the temples, a similar method of determining decisions is also employed when we Chinese pray to our ancestors. Most times, it is at the graveyards or cemeteries but sometimes, it is at home too. But instead of the wooden chiao pai blocks, two coins are used. A head and a tail combination appearing would mean the ancestors acquiescing to your questions.

And here's the interesting part. About four or five days before the Chinese New Year, it is my family's tradition to remember my grandparents and parents by praying to them at home. We would set up a table in front of the main door, lay out the fruits and a temporary urn for the joss sticks, and in the morning invite the ancestors' spirits to partake in this vegetarian offering. In order to determine whether they had arrived or whether they had finished eating, we would throw the two coins into the air and see the outcome.

Where this year was concerned, the job fell onto me to ask my grandparents, parents and aunt whether they had arrived. I threw the coins. They fell down with both tails up. I waited a while and threw the coins again. This time, both heads fell up. Undaunted, I tried a third time. Two heads again.

Now, what are the chances of that happening? Three throws and no head-tail combination? So I told my wife to try. Perhaps the ancestors were waiting for her to ask. She threw the coins into the air and they came down .... two tails. Weird. Four times out of four with no luck.

Then I remembered. I asked her whether she had prayed to the Door Spirits earlier? I know that I did not. All I had prayed to was to the Earth God to say that I wished to invite my ancestors' spirits home. She quickly lit some joss sticks and told the Door Spirits that we needed the ancestors to come in. The moment she did just that, I threw the coins and they came down head and tail. Finally. Just like that!

Sometimes, even if you don't want to believe it, you have to. You may feel sceptical over the whole practice but there are still things that cannot be fingered properly.

Oh, by the way, when it came to asking the ancestors subsequently whether they had finished enjoying the fruits which we had placed before them, I didn't get any problem at all. Head-tail or tail-head, no problem at all.

No comments: