BEIJING — Forget duck; Peking has been overrun by pigs.
As the Chinese New Year approaches, heralding the auspicious Year of the Pig, porkers are everywhere. Fifteen-foot-high inflatable pigs beckon shoppers into electronics stores; fluffy pink pig snouts enliven winter ear-muffs; corkscrew tails and round piggy faces decorate Ikea kitchen aprons.
Wherever you look, happy hogs are rearing up on their hind trotters advertising this or that, or simply waving banners emblazoned with the new Chinese credo, for which the coming year is believed to be especially favorable: "Get Rich."
Advertising and commercial pressures have swept superstitious consumers into a froth of excitement that reveals how much many Chinese today hope that traditional fortunetelling tools can enrich them as they pursue former Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping's famously un-Communist exhortation, "To get rich is glorious."
Fortune telling, an ancient Chinese art officially frowned upon by the country's Communist authorities, is a booming industry in modern China. People's belief in divination, life charts, geomancy, and simple lucky numbers is on the rise, say practitioners, followers, and sociologists.
The mania for making money that is sweeping the country offers lucrative opportunities for charlatans of all kinds.
Pigs are especially popular in the Chinese mind, summoning images of good-natured generosity and good fortune. So closely are the animals linked to human life here that the Chinese character for "home" includes the symbols for both roof and pig – all you need for a traditional Chinese household.
This year, moreover, is being proclaimed the Year of the Golden Pig, a doubly propitious period thanks to a combination of animals and elements in the Chinese zodiac that matches pigs and gold only once every 60 years.
It is said that 2007 is the year to have a baby; anyone born under the coming year's sign is bound to be lucky.
Except that even if you believe in China's mystical soothsayers, that is not true. You will not find a reputable Chinese astrologer who reads the charts that way. 2007 is actually the Year of the Earthen Pig. (Or possibly the Fire Pig, depending on your astrologer.)
But that doesn't sell baby clothes, does it?
Although no studies have been carried out, there is no doubt, says Zhou Xiaozheng an outspoken skeptic and sociology professor at Beijing's Renmin University that "more and more people are becoming interested in traditional Chinese fortunetelling culture."
That drives him mad.
"It is totally absurd, absolutely ludicrous, that buildings should not have a fourth floor," he fulminates, simply because the Mandarin word for "four" sounds like the word meaning "death."
Prof. Zhou attributes the trend to helplessness. "In a dictatorship ... people do not have the power to decide things for themselves, so they let fortune tellers forecast their destiny," he argues. "They turn to superstition for emotional consolation."
That explanation is not all that far removed from the way Bao Tong, a wispy-bearded Taoist sage who consults the Yi Ching, or "Book of Changes," sees things. As a fortuneteller himself, though, he regards modern science, not his knowledge, as "superstition."
"I realized that people's destinies, their failure or success, are not necessarily related to the effort they put into their work, nor to their intelligence," he says, recalling why he first became interested in the founding text of Chinese philosophy, the Yi Ching. "There is a lot of unfairness in people's lives, and I wanted to understand why."
In a restful room decorated in natural colors to resemble an old Chinese teahouse, Mr. Bao says his clients fall into three main categories. There are those who come to him for his knowledge of feng shui, the belief that the arrangement of rooms and furniture in a home or office that can be auspicious or inauspicious; those who want predictions about their future; and others seeking answers to specific questions they are facing in their lives.
"Friends can come round here for a chat, too," Bao says with a smile, pouring another tiny porcelain cup of fragrant tea.
Bao draws on 20 years of study of Chinese astrology and ancient methods of divination to offer his advice. Some of the charts he draws up are based on the markings found on the shell of a giant turtle taken from the Luo River more than 6,000 years ago, he says. "The knowledge I have is the foundation of Chinese culture. I am trying to promote my own faith," he explains.
He does so through lectures and the occasional article in magazines. His works dare to defy the government's general ban on media coverage of a practice fiercely repressed under Mao Zedong and still officially scorned as feudal superstition.
"My friends are afraid I will get into trouble" he laughs. "But I can predict when difficulties are likely to arise and avoid them. If I couldn't see trouble coming, I'd be in the wrong business."
Bao decries the wave of charlatans who he complains exploit ordinary people's belief in lucky numbers, or the widely held view that 2007 will be a good year for babies but a bad year in which to get married. "These ideas are baseless," he scoffs. "This is a chaotic time for ideas and opinions in China. The people's faith needs guidance."
Recent years have seen a boom in religious belief generally, according to a study by two Shanghai professors published recently that estimated 31.4 percent of Chinese, or 300 million people, are religious – three times the official estimates.
Two-thirds of believers put their faith in traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism or in folk gods such as the Dragon King and the God of Fortune, says the report.
Most ordinary Chinese go to storefront soothsayers for feng shui help, or advice on personal and business affairs. Wealthier citizens have the choice of visiting companies such as "Luckings," a corporate prognosticator on the 19th floor of an office tower in North Beijing.
There they can consult counselors like Feng Shengting, a smooth young man in a powder blue jacket with a nice line in patter and impressive calligraphy. In 15 minutes he can run you off a chart to help you make the right business decision for 1,500 RMB ($195), based solely on the time at which you walked through his door. He claims an 85 percent accuracy rate.
His boss Wang Fenglin, who drums up business on a smartly designed website, charges $30 per square foot for a feng shui consultation in homes or offices and regularly lands contracts worth more than a million RMB ($130,000), says Mr. Feng.
"Our clients are politicians, businessmen, actors, entertainment celebrities," Feng explains. They want to know about the same things as everybody else, though, he says – "marriage, career, health, wealth, and children."
Feng is blatant about the promises he holds out: The only ornament on his wide wooden desk is a golden sculpture of a bejeweled stallion rearing from a pile of golden coins.
And indeed, laments Kevin Li, a thoughtful follower of Bao Tong, if feng shui and related mysteries are becoming more popular in China, it is simply because "more and more people are eager to make money," and expect the fortunetellers to guide them.
Mr. Li, a leather-jacketed, thirty-something advertising man who consults Bao whenever he has a major decision to make, says that his Tao master's guidance "makes my life wiser and more predictable. It makes my heart calmer." But he acknowledges that he is a rare bird.
For the most part, he would reluctantly agree with Professor Zhou, who scoffs at his compatriots' credulity. "Today China lacks a belief, a certain faith," he says. "People believe only in money. If fortune telling is becoming so popular, it's more because they are fond of money than because they are fond of true faith."