The Strengthening of the Guanyin Cult through Divination in Hong Kong

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The Strengthening of the Guanyin Cult through Divination in Hong Kong

Tin Hau Temple, Yau Ma Tei


The Strengthening of the Guanyin Cult through Divination in Hong Kong

Ursula Young, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



This article looks at the Chinese goddess Guanyin in Hong Kong and how her cult is strengthened through the practice of divination. The ritual of divination has made the Kwun Yum temple in Hong Kong famous and the Guanyin Oracle can be seen as a way of bringing the goddess closer to people’s lives. The history of divination in China and the practice of the oracle help to understand how Guanyin is important in modern day society. The article also examines the influence that religious traditions such as the Guanyin Oracle can have on people. Divinatory practices have a deeper, psychological effect and can even be seen as a way of self-healing and reinforcing adaptive social behavior.

Keywords: deity, divination, Guanyin cult, modern society, religious tradition, ritual



P’u-t’o palace

Full mooned face of Kuan-Yin

Shan-tsai and Lung-nu stand on either side

White parrot

Pure vase

Water of sweet dew and willow

Universally saving mankind from suffering

(extracted from the Chinese opera, Heavenly Maiden Sprinkles Flowers T’ien-nu san-hua)


The goddess Guanyin, or Kuan-yin, (Kuan Shih Yin- The Bodhisattva of great compassion or the Goddess of Mercy)  is one of the most popular figures in Chinese folk belief and worshipped in Chinese communities throughout Asia and the rest of the world.


Guanyin’s origins

Guanyin is the Chinese version of the male god Avalokiteshvara. This god originated in India and was brought to China through Buddhism by the the Silk Road. Avalokiteshvara is also the most popular deity in Tibet, but while in most Buddhist communities he kept his masculine form, in China he changed into a goddess and by the ninth century the popularity of the Chinese version of the deity had prevailed over that of Avalokiteshvara’s.


The Goddess in Hong Kong

In China, there are many legends associated with the goddess Guanyin, and she is present in both Buddhist and Taoist temples. In Hong Kong, Guanyin is a very important deity and several temples are dedicated to her.


Kwun Yum Temple

The most famous among the great number of them is the Kwun Yum temple in Hung Hom. It was built in 1873 and is associated to miracles, since it remained intact and provided protection to those who took shelter in it during the heavy bombardments by the Japanese during World War II.  The Kwun Yum temple is known for several rituals, which have helped it gain popularity in the region.

On the 26th day of the first Lunar month, many people flock to this temple. They want to take a symbolic loan from the Goddess, through the practice of the ‘Loan Chest’, the ritual that the temple is famous for. It requires making a donation to the Goddess and taking a red piece of paper on which the amount of the loan is written (usually a large number). The higher the loan, the higher the profit one is believed to make during the year. Burning incense and donating food are other rituals performed at the temple.




Divination at the temple

This temple is powerful for various reasons, but one ritual in particular seems to draw people to Kwun Yum: the ritual of divination. The Guanyin oracle could be seen as one of the main reasons people visit the temple: They wish to know what their future will bring and get answers to their questions from the goddess. What exactly is divination and what does the Guanyin oracle involve? The medium of divination could be seen as a way to bring the goddess closer to people’s lives. The Guanyin oracle could strengthen her influence by connecting her to people, letting her directly influence the decisions they make. The practice of this particular ritual can raise several questions, such as the role of timeliness, the people answering and interpreting the oracle and the role of women in the divinatory practice.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the importance of the oracle in the Guanyin cult and to see how it strengthens the Goddess’s influence in Hong Kong and other communities. The essay begins with a discussion on the meaning of divination and its history in China. It then examines the oracle: Fortune Telling today and the people consulting the oracle, the oracle and its procedure, the timeliness of the oracle as well as the interpretation and reason for using poems as a soothsaying method. Finally this paper deals with the importance of the role women play in divination and lastly, to conclude, what the oracle represents in modern day society, why it is still popular, and how it strengthens the role of Guanyin, while at the same time keeping the ancient ritual alive. To understand the Guanyin oracle it is essential to first understand the meaning of divination and where divinatory practice comes from.


Divination and Its Importance in China

The definition of ‘divination’ according to the Webster dictionary is “the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers” (Divination, n.d.). According to C.K Yang’s definition, “Divination is a form of sympathetic magic used to induce supernatural forces to yield their secrets concerning the course of events in nature and men.” (1961, p. 261). It has for a long time been an important means by which men in crisis tried to gain confidence, guidance, and consolation when all rational means had failed to provide a solution. At such critical times, the voice of the gods, through forms of divination, tended to resolve an emotional conflict and produce confidence. This guidance could be based on common sense which happened to be ignored in a situation. Therefore the function of divination could be imparting confidence, offering consolation, and giving guidance. When an individual is beset with difficulties and his empirical means of resolving the situation are exhausted, the influence from religious tradition may guide him to consult supernatural forces for an answer to his anxieties.

The History of the divinatory practice in China could help to understand the importance the Guanyin oracle has gained over the years. Divination has a long history in China. Neolithic diviners as well as priests during the Shang dynasty used animal bones for divination. The Yijing (易經 Classic of Changes or the Book of Changes), which is possibly the best known of all oracular and divining techniques, began at the end of the Shang period. Therefore it has been in use for over three thousand years.  According to Richard J. Smith (2010), divination (占卜, 卜筮) in China was a highly developed science of psychotherapy. The most common (and often overlapping) mantic techniques of the Chinese and other East Asian peoples included not only the consultation of  Yijing, but also astrology(占星), fate-extrapolation (推命) numerology( 數術) physiognomy( 看相) geomancy (堪輿) , (‘Siting’), weather prediction (占候) spirit-writing (扶乩) dream divination (占夢) analysis of written characters( 拆字), the selection of auspicious days (擇日) and the drawing and interpreting of ‘spiritual sticks’(qian 籤). It is the latter that this essay will focus on, since the spiritual sticks or lot drawing are part of the Guanyin oracle.

Joseph A. Adler (2002) writes that the most frequent topics of divination questions included sacrifices, military campaigns, hunting expeditions, excursions, the weather, agriculture, sickness, childbirth, dreams and settlement building. This shows that at a very early stage in Chinese society divination touched all aspects of people’s lives and played an active part in their decision making process.





The Oracle

Call the name of Kuan-yin whenever you run into difficulties.

Kuan-yin will come to save you (popular saying)

Fortune telling today – Connecting people through divination

In this 21st century, we have many technological improvements, and one could think that with computers and science, rationality would prevail over superstition or belief. However, it seems that fortune telling, especially through the goddess Guanyin, is still very present in Asian society. A simple search online can find many different books, websites, iPhone applications and even a Facebook page dedicated to Guanyin and the oracle. This form of divination obviously still relates to our world today and the oracle can be seen as a way to connect with the Goddess.  The people worshipping her at the temple range from businessmen, traders, housewives and grandparents to students, and her different faces and representations show how she can speak to all groups of society. These people consulting the oracle are of importance, since they are the link to the Goddess in the divinatory practice. Sometimes it is the same person consulting the oracle that channels the advice of the poem, at other times it is interpreted by a specialist, in most cases a priest.


The oracle and its procedure

Though the oracle is ancient, its procedure is simple and easy to understand, adding to its attire. The origins of the Guanyin oracle verses are at least 1000 years old and traditionally are interpreted by monks in Guanyin temples across South East Asia. The 100 poems of the oracle are said to have been written by monks who received guidance from Guanyin during meditation.  Chun-Fang Yu (2001) explains that one of the divine monks was even an incarnation of Guanyin. The poems written by the monks form the basis of the oracle. Of the one hundred poems, or fortunes, thirty are designated superior (上), fifty-five middling (中) and fifteen inferior (下). In a bamboo cup, 100 numbered slivers of bamboo are shaken until one falls out. This number corresponds to one of the 100 poems of Guanyin, and reveals wise counsel and advice on the problem and the necessary action one should take. The person requesting divine guidance kneels in front of the image of the god where he/she performs this procedure. Some also chant or mumble while shaking the cup. This process can be repeated several times and different bamboo slivers can be drawn for different questions. Afterwards one is supposed to give the bamboo stick to a temple priest, who then pulls a slip out of the file according to the number, and reads and explains the verse. But it is also possible to interpret the verse on one’s own. The bamboo sortilege is one of the most common means of divination and most temples have among their furnishings bamboo tubes holding a set of lot sticks.

Expect breaks caused by unexpected events.  It is life’s obstacles that help you grow.

And, it is growth that helps you reach your goals. (Poem No. 19 in The Guanyin Oracle)

Timeliness of the oracle

The question of timeliness regarding the Guanyin oracle is important, since the oracle is not just consulted on special occasions or once a year, it is consulted regularly, thus integrating it into people’s everyday lives and making it more powerful. This form of regularity and integration could strengthen Guanyin’s overall influence, within the cult and outside it. Though people burn incense for the goddess and bring her offerings throughout the whole year, the Guanyin oracle, especially on the goddess’s birthday on February 19th, could be considered as an even more powerful way of connecting with her. The goddess’s birthday is obviously the most beneficial date to consult the oracle, but many visit the temple before important dates such as exams, job interviews and weddings, or to prevent illness as well as cure it. The oracle can be consulted several times a year in Asian cultures, for minor or major questions.


Interpretation of the poems and reasons for using them

At the Kwun Yum temple, though many choose a personal interpretation of the poems, there are others that choose a deeper explanation from one of the priests. But there are also many books on the oracle which make it possible to do the interpretation at home. The reason could be that people need practical guidance, instead of just praying for help they need to have real solutions. In Hong Kong, the Guanyin oracle is used for various questions regarding business, school, university, health, relationships etc. Since drawing a lot only costs 5 HK Dollars, it is affordable to anyone. Through the poems, people can consider having an almost immediate answer from Guanyin to their question. This is why they can be a way of bringing her closer to one’s own life. By consulting the oracle, we let Guanyin become involved in our problems and help us solve them.


Women in Divination and the power of Guanyin

Women and Divination in China

In the history of divination and soothsaying, women have always played an important role; this also applies to the Guanyin oracle.  Even though at the temple businessman in suits can be seen taking loans from the loan chest, as well as burning incense, there seems to be a dominant number of women performing the lot drawing ritual. Sometimes, when one member of the family cannot come to the temple or if they are of a different religion, the grandmother or mother in law will consult the oracle for them. Women seem to have taken on the role of divination in Hong Kong as well. There can be a historical reason for this. According to Patricia Eichenbaum-Karetztky (2004), Guanyin’s feminine and compassionate nature made her particularly appealing to female devotees. This, she explains, comes from the history of Chinese women. In addition to the physical suffering of childbearing, which was often a cause for premature death; the hardships of Chinese women of the past are well documented. Enjoying few benefits and almost no freedom, pre-teen girls were married and sent to live with their husbands, where they were often treated as servants of their mothers-in-law and prized only if they bore a male offspring. Therefore it is not surprising that a large population of women worshipped Guanyin, praying for deliverance from adversity and the easy birth of a male child. Though today women’s lives are easier, and society does not expect the same things of them, the Goddess of Compassion still enjoys a great following among women in China and throughout other Asian communities.


Reasons for the popularity of divinatory practices today

In Hong Kong, divination is still widely practiced and the Guanyin oracle enjoys popularity amongst young and old alike throughout the entire region. There are several possible reasons for divination still being alive.  Firstly, the experience of divination can be calming and reassuring. We are often confronted with pressure, and especially living in busy cities like Hong Kong can lead to stress. The Guanyin oracle, in addition to offering advice, can be a relaxing experience. After making obeisance and offerings, the worshippers will tilt the bamboo pot and shake it until the sticks begin to move. The art is to shake the pot in a special way that gradually a few sticks rise higher than the rest. This process could almost be seen as a form of meditation, since at that very moment one is only concentrated on the question and on Guanyin, and therefore able to forget everyday problems and trivialities.

Secondly, there are also several levels in reading the poems based on individual perspectives. This can then become a useful personal, introspective learning experience. By asking the oracle, the worshipper is abandoning all attempts to reason or rationalize, letting instead the flow of nature speak. However, whatever the answer, the person alone has the willpower to change the course of the future by altering what they do and to some extent who they are.

Therefore the third reason could be that it helps lead to self-improvement- if a person is willing to change. A Taipei doctor, Jin Hsu (1976), even conducted a psychological study of the practice of oracular divination. He did not hesitate to identify its ‘psychotherapeutic implications’: the giving of hope, the elimination of anxiety, the strengthening of self-esteem, and the ‘reinforcement of adaptive social behaviour.’ Writing in an American volume of ethno psychiatry and alternative therapies, he explains how the ‘placebo effect’ seems to be an important factor in divination. The randomness of the oracle, which consists in taking one fallen bamboo stick and the poem associated with it for a real answer, could be seen a personal ‘placebo’ therapy, since after reading and understanding the poem the person in question can feel reassured and feel less or no more fear regarding his problems and anxieties. This is probably one of the reasons why the oracle is still so popular.

A fourth reason could be the question-answer form, and the way there is no ambiguity over who has given the answer. According to Hsu, the Chinese expect authority figures to be authoritative. Temple oracles and their interpreters issue orders, which followers at the temple can abide to. The physician and anthropologist Arthur Kleinman (1980), explains that consultation of a temple oracle “is more like supportive psychotherapy than the other major indigenous treatment forms” (p.42). This proves that the Guanyin oracle can do much more than just give advice to worshippers.

Lastly, the fifth reason could be the long History and ancient tradition of oracular divination. Many modern oracles, including the one of Guanyin, depend on a historical vignette that serves as the title for each stanza. It can, for example, use the figure of a famous king and his life, which in turn can serve as an example for the person consulting it, making the solution easier to understand. Hong Kong is one of the rare places where both modernity and tradition are so present, which can also explain why practices such as Feng Shui (風水) or traditions such as the Guanyin oracle, still enjoy great popularity.


How the oracle strengthens the role of Guanyin

The Guanyin oracle seems to be a fascinating practice that draws more and more people to the temples and also creates a closer, more personal connection to the Goddess. When we visited the Guanyin temple in Hung Hum with our class I went with an open mind, curious to see how it would be different to the other temples I’d seen. Of course there was the burning of incense and there were the offerings of fruit and other sweets. This was very similar to other temples, but the oracle seemed to me to be the most interesting ritual. Understanding now the history of divination and the cult of Guanyin, it makes sense that, even in a world of technology and modernity, many still decide to consult the oracle for answers. In our lives so many things are uncertain, and we don’t have as much control over things as we’d like to. Sometimes we find ourselves confronted with situations that seem to have no solutions, or we need to know whether or not to proceed in one of the projects we have decided to undertake. It is hard sometimes to make the right decision. This is for me one of the main reasons why people in Hong Kong might choose to ‘leave it up to Guanyin’ and consult an oracle.

The Goddess is, after all, one of the most powerful deities in Chinese culture; therefore it makes sense that she can, in addition to hearing prayers, give wisdom and insight to all sorts of questions. When the path chosen by her is successful, then people will go back and thank her, which strengthens her power even more and gives her more recognition as the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.



To conclude, the Guanyin oracle can in many ways be seen as a means of strengthening the Goddess’s influence throughout Chinese communities. In the modern West, by contrast, divination and other so-called occult practices serve usually as “a muted protest against everyday social identity or generally accepted scientific values and cosmology”. According to Evan Zuesse, in an increasingly fluid, anonymous, and heterogeneous society, practices such as divination restore a sense of control to personal life “through the aesthetic and probabilistic terms in which predictions are couched” (as cited in Smith, 1992). Therefore, he says, astrology, another form of divination, appeals particularly to women because it “desubstantializes oppressive personal relationships, offering instead an exotic alternative identity in which faults are erased or elevated into association with a ‘star family’ embracing strangers” (as cited in Smith, 1992).  His basic point is that oppression and marginalization can invite esoteric as a means of escape.  Divination does not, however, as Richard J. Smith (1992) points out, invariably provide relief from social misery. Disadvantaged groups in China, including women, may well have in the past been particularly inclined to seek personal advice and assistance through mantic methods in order to enhance their sense of self-esteem and personal control; but they could and also still can be victimized by these methods.  Thus, despite the psychological value of divination as a means of making sense of the world, perhaps even manipulating certain aspects of it, the clients of diviners were and are still captives of the prevailing social order.

However, one can assume that the ancient history of divination makes it more credible and convincing in China, especially in Hong Kong today. The Guanyin oracle is a simple, inexpensive form of divination, accessible to all, and easy to practice at home or at a temple. It can be consulted for major or minor events and occasions, several times a year or even several times a month. This regularity, in turn, gives Guanyin a greater importance. It can be a form of meditation, a relaxing experience or even a personal, introspective healing therapy, during which people get to know themselves better and understand how to improve their current situation. The clear approach of the lot drawing process and the authority of Guanyin make it very easy to understand and follow. It also enhances her presence since it not only includes her in the decision making process of our daily lives, but it also lets her directly influence these decisions. Then, when they turn out to be beneficial, people go back to Guanyin to thank her. This not only increases the visits to the temple, it also gives the Goddess a more powerful and credible status. Since this tradition is still alive today and it still enjoys popularity, there is a great chance it will continue and perhaps generations from now people will still go to the temples to ask the Guanyin oracle for solutions and answers to their questions.



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This article was part of an assignment for a Chinese Customs and Rituals course.  As part of understanding how traditional rites and customs interact with cultural values and religious beliefs, class students visited Kwun Yum temple on the goddess Guanyin’s birthday. During this field trip students were supposed to observe customs and rituals in operation. The assignment was to analyse one part of the worship of Guanyin and write about it.



Ursula Young is a graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Studies and a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and Chinese Culture from Aix-Marseille University, France. During her undergraduate studies she went to Beijing, China, where she became interested in Chinese temples. Her second academic exchange in Hong Kong allowed her to pursue her interest in Chinese Culture and see which role it plays in modern society. Her Master thesis focused on the influence of culture in consumer behavior in Hong Kong. She is interested in the concepts of culture and religious traditions and how they still influence modern societies.