saju – popular fortune telling korea
Saju, or the Four Pillars of Destiny, is considered an archetypal way of fortunetelling in East Asia. Before we look into saju study, we need to understand other ways of reading one’s fortune, which are known as the five Oriental teachings.
1. Myeong (命) is the study of our innate destiny, given from birth, which cannot be altered. It is regarded as an order from Heaven and humans must submit to its will as our lives should be harmonized with the cosmic order of nature. Saju is one of the major studies of Myeong.
2. Bok (卜) has its origin in Zhou Yi, or I Ching, the Classic of Changes. It is known as an ancient text of divination. As the character Yi (易) implies, the changes of the Sun and the Moon, or lizard, whose colors and shapes are changing ― subject to time and situation, represent prognostication grounded in cleromancy. We can still find many people practicing it using yarrow sticks in some Asian countries nowadays. If you have visited shamans, you might have noticed them using coins or grains of rice to predict the future.
3. Sang (相) (face and palm readings, feng shui, names) uses observations of one’s face, body, attitude, way of speaking, even the palm and foot lines to understand one’s fate. It also scrutinizes the energy of the Earth, its shape, location and atmosphere by perceiving air currents to predict the destiny of its inhabitants. It is based on the premise that humans are closely influenced by the surrounding geographical environment.
4. Eui (醫) literally means medicine. You may find it difficult to grasp how and why ancient people associated divination with medicine. It has its grounds in the assertion that humans are a microcosm. As they tried to seek the truth of life by studying the universe, the Sun, the Moon, the stars and the change of time and seasons of the Earth, they studied the human body and the interactive functions of its organs to diagnose various transitions of physical and mental health. It is the basis of the meridian system of the human body along with herbal medicine.
5. Seon (仙) is the practice of inuring our minds and bodies by a regimen, meditation and training.
Owing to the success of feng shui in many Western countries, it is known as a representative keyword for all Oriental teachings as a whole. Strictly speaking, feng shui, saju, face reading and other types of fortunetelling have distinctive features among themselves. It is obvious that people hold Myeong highest among the five teachings, as they appreciate that humans were meant to live conforming to an inborn destiny.
People’s anxiety about the future is part of our intrinsic fear. On the one hand, they developed civilization by using fire, inventing tools, creating symbols and so on; on the other hand, they practiced divination. Accordingly, ways of fortunetelling, whatever types they are, have existed in most societies, whether they are East or West, past or present. In ancient times, shamans carried out astronomical observations and delivered divine readings to relay the gods’ messages. The Chinese character 巫, signifying shaman, portrays the image of a person connecting Heaven and Earth. The other character 筮, meaning divination has stalks (implements of divination) on top of 巫..
They have been practiced in numerous ways in Korean history. Their academic scheme started in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) although fortunetelling in general was officially prohibited as the era was influenced by neo-Confucianism, which did not formally embrace divination. While Zhou Yi, one of the most influential classics in Chinese history, is widely regarded as a ‘prognostication manual,’ most prominent divination scholars read it as a book of studying reasons, teaching the ways of Heaven and human affairs. So divination practices have rather been disparaged as just a technique rather than an academic study. It is said that the purpose of studying Zhou Yi is to surmount human fallibility, not to predict an individual’s fate. Xunzi (a Chinese realist Confucian philosopher, B.C 310 ― B.C 235) wrote that “those who know Yi well do not try divination.”
In the Joseon era they were studied at Gwansang-gam. Gwansang literally means the observation of shapes and gam is the government office where scholars studied astronomy, geography and almanacs. It was a research institute of meteorology and astronomy.
Although there was a restriction in the development of divination, it was still necessary to watch the celestial bodies and forecast the weather to the royal court so that they could be prepared for either drought or flood, and if necessary they could hold a ritual for rain.
They also selected auspicious sites or days and times for national fortune, such as setting up the capital or the marriage of a crown prince. Meanwhile, it is said that fortunetelling was prevalent among ordinary people, although their theoretical systems were not as academic as those used by the royal family and nobles