Gods of Taiwan

Moon Blocks (jiao bei, 筊杯) and Fortune Sticks (qiu qian, 求籤)

Qiu Qian sticks

Qiu Qian sticks

Prayer in Taiwanese Popular Religion is a quite specific and practical affair. It is often used to help the faithful make decisions, be they major or minor, as well as to ask for help from the gods. A prime motivation for a visit to the local temple is to find the answer to a particular question, and to find that answer, adherents will turn to the divination tools of their faith, jiao bei and kau cim.

Originally shells were used for this purpose, but nowadays jiao bei are made from wood, bamboo or plastic, although the shell-like crescent shape remains. The blocks have one flat side, and the other is curved. They are used in pairs and thrown onto the floor in order to determine the will of the gods. Generally painted red, the curved side represents the yin (陰) while the flat side represents the yang (陽). To find the answer to a question, the person praying must first offer their respects to the deity of the temple of shrine they are in, a practice called bai bai (拜拜) by bowing to them several times, often whilst holding incense sticks. They must then Wave the two jiao bei they intend to use over an incense burner in a circular motion three times. After this, they will hold the pair of jiao bei while providing the gods with very specific details, including such information as their name, address, date and time of birth, even government ID number. The question also must be phrased very clearly, and due to the binary nature of the jiao bei, must only be answerable with yes or no. The two blocks are then tossed onto the floor, and how they fall will reflect the answer.

There are four possible results:

Sheng Jiao (聖筊) is when one jiao bei has the flat side facing up, and the other has it facing down, showing both yin and yang. This means the gods approve of whatever you are considering with your question.

Ku Jiao (哭筊) often called bue bui (沒杯), meaning negative, in Taiwanese dialect, is when both blocks have their rounded side facing up. This signifies double yin, darker and more sinister than yang, and suggests that the gods are angry or upset with the plan or question you proposed.

Xiao Jiao (笑筊) is the name for when both blocks have their rounded sides facing downwards. This often leads to the blocks rocking side to side, symbolising laughter, and is interpreted as the gods laughing at the proposition, either because it is a particularly bad idea, because the enquirer has already decided, or the question lacks relevancy in some other way.

Li Jiao (立筊) is when one or both blocks land on their edge, and do not fall on either the flat or rounded sides. This suggests that the gods did not understand the question, and so it should be asked again, perhaps differently.

A Tang Ki casts jiao bei

A Tang Ki casts jiao bei

In addition to answering personal questions, jiao bei are also often used in ceremonies, to inform the organisers on how to proceed. For example, at the largest religious festival in Taiwan, the Mazu tour beginning in the town of DaJia, jiao bei are consulted to determine when Mazu is ready to leave the temple and begin the tour. When they are ready, the organisers will cast the jiao bei every few minutes until they receive a positive response, and can set off.

Jiao bei are only used to ask the gods themselves for direction, but many Taiwanese will also attempt to contact the spirit of their ancestors or loved ones who have passed away. To do this they will follow the same procedure, but using coins instead. This could be to ask for advice, but also, as with jiao bei for the gods, to ask if the relative or deity has finished consuming the food offering brought to them.

Qiu qian (求籤 or 求簽) are long, flat sticks, also used in temples and shrines to provide believers with answers from the gods. The qiu qian sticks sit in a bucket called qian tong (簽筒), and usually number one hundred. After performing bai bai, the sticks are mixed in the bucket by hand, and then, after asking the question clearly, one is taken from the bucket. Each qiu qian features a unique number, which corresponds to a written answer, also found in the temple. These answers provide various levels of blessing or rejection for the question asked, though will often require some interpretation, often representatives of the temple will be on hand to assist with this. After the stick is drawn, the adherent will often cast jiao bei to confirm the selection, and will chose the qiu qian again if the gods do not approve.

Previous: Blessing Lamps