Throwback Thursday: Turtle Power

By That's GBA, January 15, 2015

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Throwback Thursday is when we dig through the That's archives for a work of extraordinary genius, or timely relevance, written at some point in our past. We then republish it - on a Thursday.

This week we turn back time, to February 2014, to discover the power of foresight locked within a turtle's shell. The following article, titled Turtle Power, was written by Lena Gidwani and originally published as part of a cover story on fortune-telling traditions in the Middle Kingdom.

With a New Year on the horizon, some people will be looking for divine guidance - That's is here to be your guide. 

In primitive times, when humanity was still groping toward an understanding of nature's myriad beasts, China was busy using them to predict the future. We felt sorry for these little guys who didn't make it to the top with those 12 might zodiac animals, so we ventured deeper to discover some of the more esoteric methods of Chinese fortune telling. 

The body of the turtle was frequently used in divining ceremonies, as it seemed to encapsulate the order of the universe. With its round shell over the ground, like heaven, and its flat bottom, like earth, they became a link between the two worlds.

Plastromancy, the manic art of cracking turtle plastrons (bottom shell) with fire, is one of the earliest documented forms of divination in Chinese history.

Originating in the Shang Dynasty around 1,500 BC, the basic process entailed taking a hot poker and applying it to the sanctified shell. The resulting cracks on the surface were then interpreted.

A similar process was also done using the shoulder blades of livestock, most commonly oxen.

Dating back to the Chow Dynasty, the practice of coin divination was made popular by Chow Man Wong, the author of I Ching.

Three old cash coins would be placed inside either the shell of a real turtle or a brass replica, which was then vigorously shaken. The contents were then spilled out on a flat surface to be studied, before being used to tap the shell.

The fortune teller would then use a complicated set of rules in the associated almanac and compare the position of the coins with the five elements, as well as the combinations of the characters of the coins at each successive shake, to form the data from which to read the future. 

// This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of That's PRD. For more Throwback Thursdays click here. 

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