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Hidden Hong Kong: A look into Tai Sui, the ancient timekeeper and modern fortune-teller

By Tommy Yu 28 June 2022

Header image courtesy of RootOfAllLight (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you have visited a Chinese fortune-teller before, they may check your zodiac to see if it upsets the Tai Sui gods, and tells you whether the year will be auspicious. 

As a figure in religious rites, Tai Sui is often portrayed as powerful and “easily offended.” During Chinese New Year, some people make offerings to all 60 Tai Sui gods to seek blessings for the year ahead. But Tai Sui is not just about dispensing good or bad luck. Read on to discover the hidden stories behind the ancient Chinese belief known as Tai Sui, from its origin as a timekeeper to its transformation into a modern fortune-teller.

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Birth of Tai Sui

During the Warring States period (475–221 BC), the ancient Chinese observed that the planet Jupiter takes approximately 12 years to travel across the sky. Jupiter was thus named the “Year Star” (歲星; seoi3 sing1) and the sky was divided into 12 celestial signs called “星次” (sing1 ci3; “the star-track point”). People recorded the time according to Jupiter’s location, using phrases like “歲在鶉火” (seoi3 zoi6 seon4 fo2; “Jupiter at Leo”) to tell time.

However, Jupiter’s anticlockwise movement on the ecliptic was a major hassle to people who were used to the clockwise movement of the Sun. A hypothetical planet named Tai Sui (太歲) was designed to solve Jupiter’s problems. Not only travelling clockwise like the Sun, Tai Sui also matched the celestial system with 12 earthly stems (十二地支)—the same set of markings as appeared on a sundial. Instead of Jupiter, the year was expressed with respect to the location of Tai Sui and the tradition was called “Tai Sui timekeeping” (太歲紀年).

Moving on from planetary time-telling

Since the Tai Sui could only indicate up to 12 years, 10 celestial stems (十天干) were introduced to mix with the 12 earthly branches. A total of 60 time-measuring units were formed, each paired with one stem and branch, known as the Sexagonary Cycle (六十甲子).

Since the Eastern Han dynasty, the planet Jupiter and its hypothetical counterpart Tai Sui fell out of favour due to two fatal flaws: Jupiter finishes its orbit in only 11.86 years, and it will skip an entire celestial sign every 85.7 years. Also, the planet would appear to be in retrograde at times due to orbit differences. Since then, the Sexagenary Cycle became the norm, and people stopped telling the time by observing the planetary bodies.

Tai Sui becomes a fortune-teller

After Tai Sui lost its job as a timekeeper, it came to represent the sexagenary term of the year and later became the spokesperson for the good or bad fortune of a particular year.

According to the Yuanhai Ziping (淵海子平)—a reputable treatise on the esoteric technique of Ziping Bazi (子平八字)—each celestial stem and earthly branch have their own wu-xing elements and yin-yang nature, and a birth chart is drawn from the sexagenary terms associated with the birth year, month, day, and hour. What results is a combination of four stem-and-branch pairs, forming what is known as the Four Pillars of Destiny (四柱命理學).

In order to spell out one’s fortune, the celestial stem of the natal day is identified as “self” (日主), from which 10 types of elementary interactions can develop. If all the elements attain a harmonious equilibrium in a birth chart, it is thought to be particularly auspicious.

Having its own celestial stem and earthly branch, Tai Sui holds sway over a person’s fortune by reinforcing or weakening certain elements in their chart. Common terms associated with Tai Sui include fuyin (伏吟; when natal stems or branches are repeated), fanyin (反吟; when natal stems and branches are overcome), and “year-fortune-conjunction” (歲運並臨; when the 10-year-period is the exact same as the Tai Sui of the year.)

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Offending the Tai Sui gods

In a bid to seek good fortune, past generations deified all the Sexagonary Cycle units as Tai Sui gods, each bearing a unique persona as a military leader. People were cautious when they offended the Tai Sui god, also known as “committing Tai Sui” (犯太歲; faan6 taai3 seoi3).

If your zodiac animal equals or opposes the zodiac animal of that year, then you have offended the Tai Sui god. Additional rules also apply—Tiger, Snake, and Monkey form an aversive trio (寅巳申三刑) and so do Ox, Sheep, and Dog (丑未戌三刑). If both your Chinese zodiac and the year’s zodiac are in either trio, you have committed a “Tai Sui offence.” For 2022, the Year of Tiger, the Tai Sui offenders include Tiger, Monkey, and Snake. However, according to the Four Pillars of Destiny, a Tai Sui offender is not awarded absolute harm or punishment, and the quality of that year, for them, still depends on various factors.

Offerings to the Tai Sui gods

In folk religion, the Tai Sui gods are associated with mysterious, supernatural powers. Receiving their blessings is believed to ward off bad luck, especially when your Chinese zodiac is considered star-crossed. Some temples house all 60 deities in a grand hall. During Chinese New Year, people make offerings in a process called “pull Tai Sui” (攝太歲; sip3 taai3 seoi3) to receive divine protection. Local places where you can make offerings to the Tai Sui gods include the Wong Tai Sin Temple, Yuen Yuen Institute, and Man Mo Temple.

Although Tai Sui is mostly remembered as a superstitious belief, it is an ancient custom that preserves the art of timekeeping and time-honoured rites of Chinese fortune-telling. For 2,000 years, Tai Sui endured numerous epochal changes, transforming itself from a dutiful timekeeper to a mystical fortune-teller. Nowadays, Tai Sui arduously safeguards the ageless fabric of ancient wisdom. People still pray to the deities and light incense sticks at their altars, and the timeless traditions enable them to survive the ups and downs of life.

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Tommy Yu

Writer

​​A free, intuitive, and mischievous spirit, Tommy loves travelling, fortune-telling, any kind of arts, or paranormal stuff. You will find him binge-watching every episode of Kangsi Coming, improvising a few lines from Wong Kar-wai movies, or finally getting someone’s zodiac sign right after guessing it wrong for the eleventh time.

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