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Taiwan still ruled by the occult
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Behind all but a few Taiwanese politicians, there's a fortune teller. Media reports involving the island's leaders assigning soothsayers have been popping up in such short intervals that the existence of the phenomenon can hardly be doubted. Yet intriguingly, the Taiwanese public aren't overly worried about being governed with a generous portion of hocus-pocus.
In the past three months alone, light was shed several times on the perturbing connection between political decision-making on the island and the supernatural. According to US diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks, the then-opposition, now-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) fought out its internal power struggle in the run up to the 2008 presidential elections not only with skillful political maneuvering and scholarly expertise but also with fortune tellers. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng allegedly consulted a seer who told Wang he would make a fine presidential candidate, a claim Wang denied.
Premier Wu Den-yih also recently made headlines with the alleged consultation of a fortune teller. After the meeting, in which Wu reportedly was told he had an "emperor's destiny", Wu was said to have grinned "from ear to ear".
Even President Ma Ying-jeou apparently puts more trust in occultism than in his army of supposedly superbly educated political advisers. Following local media reports, Ma's campaign office on August 19 was compelled to refute allegations that fortune tellers have been assigned to help Ma's re-election bid in the 2012 elections.
And there was yet another spooky incident that made it plain that the connection between politics and occultism in Taiwan is nothing out of the ordinary. After after night in June when persons unknown cut trees around former premier Su Tseng-chang's family grave, after Su just a day before had been appointed to lead the presidential and legislative campaigns of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the media was quick speculating that the trees were cut in order to hurt Su's feng shui and ruin the DPP's electoral chances.
Chen In-Chin, a professor at the National Central University's Graduate Institute of Law and Government, told Asia Times Online that fortune telling and feng shui have always played an important role in the decision-making processes of the island's political class.
"Every time Chiang Kai-shek promoted one of his subordinates, he would have made a fortune teller looking at that person's name and birth date as the Generalissimo believed that the data reveals an individual's destiny. It is also said that in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang sent agents to Mao Zedong' family grave to destroy it in order to mess up Mao's feng shui," Chen said.
The Japanese, as the colonial power from 1895 to 1945, also resorted to feng shui to meet their political means, Chen said. On Taipei's Yuanshan mountain, they erected a Shinto shrine, claiming the site was the location of a dragon's head, with the nearby Danshui River being the dragon's body.
"The Japanese believed, and even more importantly wanted to make their Taiwanese subjects believe, that the rule over the dragon legitimates an occupant's rule over Taiwan. After Japan's defeat in 1945, Chiang Kai-shek believed the same, and built the iconic Grand Hotel on the site", Chen said, adding that also Taiwan's subsequent rulers - Chiang's son Chiang Ching-kuo, as well as Lee Deng-hui - were into fortune telling.
Lee's successor, the now disgraced Chen Shui-bian made headlines in 2008 when after leaving office and suspected of corruption, consulted the infamous "Teenager Huang", a 17-year-old bogus tarot master.
According to Professor Chen, things are not as simple as they seem, and occultism doesn't necessarily play a role in Taiwan's politicians visits to fortune tellers. Crafty Taiwanese politicians, who would normally be expected to hide their frequent visits to fortune tellers, have perfectly learned how to turn the obscure consultations into public relations tools.
"It is not as if the politician simply wants to be told by a fortune teller what to do. In many instances, the genuine reason for the consultation is to deliberately leak the forecast to the media as a way to influence public opinion," Chen said.
An example would be visits to local temples by campaign staff and candidates during Taiwanese elections. There, patron gods are asked for prophesies.
"Of course, the political parties will then say that the gods predicted their respective candidate's election victory because this will then have two desirable effects: Firstly, their own supporters' morale will be lifted; secondly, it proves that the politician's claim to power is legitimate", Chen explained, adding that this was the very way it worked out for the Japanese with their Shinto shrine on Yuanshan mountain.
It has to be understood that the concepts of Western and Taiwanese fortune telling differ, said Chen. The separation between sacred and secular spheres isn't strict in Taiwan, while the same goes for the separation between gods and ordinary people, he said. "Unlike in the West, it is the common perception in Taiwan that fortune tellers can indeed strike deals between the two spheres.''
He pointed out that in terms of choosing a fortune teller, every pot has its lid. "Their personal backgrounds differ. There are normal fortune tellers for normal citizens just as there are illustrious fortune tellers for illustrious citizens, and even many university professors take on this role," Chen said.
Another political scholar agreed that being caught visiting a fortune teller will hardly court disaster for a politician in Taiwan.
"[Seen from a public relation perspective], it isn't risky behavior for officials to make decisions with help of fortune tellers. After all, soothsaying is a Taiwanese tradition", said Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University.
"But it is possible that Politician X bribes the fortune teller of Politician Y to give his client bad advice. That has happened in the past."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.