One thing you find out pretty soon if you come into contact with Chinese society is that although most Chinese may not follow any organized religion, that does not mean they are immune from holding superstitious beliefs of all kinds. Superstitions relating to traditional Chinese medicine or to feng shui are of course widespread, although in some cases they arguably do contain a kernel of truth. What is more striking is the popularity which certain modern or imported superstitions seem to have, especially among young and urban sectors of the population.
One of the things which I find hardest to understand is the tendency of young, university-educated Chinese people (and especially women) to take astrology seriously. And I mean Western astrology, not the traditional Chinese variety. To be sure, the idea that our personality is somehow related to the time of year we were born (various scientific studies have found no support for this, in case you were wondering) is one which still has its popularity in lots of places. However, it seems to me that it is currently more widespread here in China than it is in the West.
I have sometimes confronted Chinese female acquaintances who believe in horoscopes, asking them how they justify it rationally. Some of them will claim, when pushed, that they don’t really believe in it, or “they’re not sure if it’s true or not”, but they think astrology is “fun”, so they follow it. Others will defend their beliefs, claiming that “not everything can be explained by science” and other stuff in a similar vein. One of them told me that science is “lagging behind”, and one day it may yet prove astrology to be right (sigh). Almost all of them claim that astrological predictions about personality seem to be correct most of the time for their friends, so they must have some validity (personally I would put this down to the extreme vagueness of such predictions).
Another superstitious belief which seems to be rather widespread among young Chinese (especially women, once again), is the idea that our ABO blood group is predictive of our personality. This belief (which is completely unsupported by science) is especially prevalent in Japan and Korea, but it has also made inroads in China. In Japan and Korea it reaches the point where matchmaking services will include their members’ blood type, because it is seen as important information. Infoboxes for celebrities will always include their blood type, and books explaining what jobs fit people with different blood types sell millions. Japanese and Koreans also may find it surprising to meet a foreigner who doesn’t know their own blood group. Perhaps because of the popularity of Korean pop culture among certain sectors of China’s youth, this superstition has made its way into China.
It is especially ironic that Chinese people should subscribe to this notion, when you consider how it originated. It is a fact that different ethnic groups tend to have different distributions of blood groups. In the late twenties, some Japanese researchers took an interest in the idea that blood type determines personality, partly motivated by racism. A researcher called Furukawa was particularly instrumental in popularizing the idea. After a rebellion against the Japanese occupiers in Taiwan, he conducted a study aiming to show that the “cruelty” of the Taiwanese was due to the large proportion of people with type O blood among them. His theories even interested the Japanese military regime of the time, but they lost popularity during the thirties, when their unscientific nature became clear. The belief that blood type and personality are related regained popularity with the Japanese public in the seventies. This was the result of a book written by Masahiko Nomi, a broadcaster who had no scientific background, presenting anecdotal and unsupported evidence. From Japan the theory spread to (South) Korea, and then on to China.
Should these kinds of superstition be confronted, or are they just harmless fun? As long as they don’t take on racial connotations, as the blood group belief originally did in the twenties, I suppose they don’t really harm people. Having said that, they are still symptoms of a readiness to accept beliefs which clash with common sense and lack any supporting evidence whatsoever.