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.


  1. Pingback: New Chinese superstitions: horoscopes and blood groups ~ Lost Laowai China Blog | Green Bamboo

  2. I think it is valid to say that something is wrong and should be opposed just because it’s irrational. You don’t need to find the harm in it beyond that, although if you want to:

    The more we promote rationalism and confront superstition, the better. I’m not saying go all militant about it and start arguments with people (that’s just counter-productive), but I think it’s worthwhile to simply point out that you think something is superstition.

  3. Yes, and what’s more if someone really makes choices concerning other people (whether to date them or not, for instance) based on their blood group or their sign of the zodiac, then you could argue that they are harming both themselves and others by making decisions based on uninfluential factors.

  4. I never got into astrology in the Western or Eastern version. I think the most I got involved was when I was asked what year to determine the animal I belong to. Other than that, I pretty much relegate this to the belief system of the country. My wife has asked me about western astrology and what month I was born etc., but I think hers is more of a fascination than real belief into it. I tell her that there are people that still believe in it in California or the whole USA. However the blood group is something she and I do not really get involved. I remember when I was younger and went to Japan and it was big back then (1993-1994). I remember a friend telling me that there are actual dates being arranged by blood type. He was Japanese so he gave me a quick course as to what or who are considered good matches in blood types. I again said that it is interesting but never gave much thought.

    As long as people do not get conned by some unscrupilious people in losing their life’s saving, I considered it harmless fun.

    • Promoting magical thinking is NOT harmless. For instance, I would say that medical outcomes in China would improve if TCM theory were not mixed together with science-based practices, When both doctors and patients are trained that critical thinking is not necessarily required to make a good diagnosis and to plan a course of therapy, outcomes suffer.

      In much the same way (but less dramatically so) unchallenged belief in other types of pseudo-science and superstition can lead to a general intellectual laziness.

      Humans are at our best when we think things through and challenge the incredible. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  5. @David-there IS A BIG DIFFERENCE between trying to see what you a daily horoscope tells your daily advice;to diagnosing and prescribing medical advice and treatment. I would never advocate treating a serious medical condition with superstition.

    In the comment about intellectual laziness, I do not want this debate go into the old arguments of faith versus science.

    I will say that if one is an atheist, agnostic, or theist each can point out faults with each others beliefs. For example, the atheist can criticize that religion has killed more people in the name of a god than produce any good. The theist can counter argue and say weapons of mass destruction (atomic, biological and chemical) were created by men of science. The agnostic can be accused by both sides as being wishy-washy at best and plain afraid to make a solid commitment at worst.

    I myself think that not all superstitious beliefs can be dismissed easily. The Indians of the rainforest in the Amazon basin have “witch-doctors” that have knowledge of medicinal plants that help in most ailments. Granted they might not have the knowledge to translate it into terms that a scientist can understand. The witch-doctor might use words of evil spirits, bad blood, sacred air, etc. that to rationilist might considered absurd. At the same time I know that a witch-doctors knowledge might be not as advance to cure dreadful diseases as Lou Gerhig’s or Alzeihmers with some herbal plants.

    My personal belief is a true skeptic is open-minded to everything and follow scientific steps to prove or disprove any idea. However that does not mean immediately criticize and debunk what one person until all the facts are out.

    Where does this mean on astrology both West and East? If people derive some comfort to ease their anxiety, I see no harm. I believe it’s better than using alcohol or narcotics in doing. However there are people that drink moderately and smoke nothing worse than marijuana and are still able to live their lives in good manner. Everyone is different, to immediately say some one is intellectually lazy for believing something “supernatural” is disenginious since there are scientists that are theists too. I just say, look at the whole picture and see how this astrology belief is being used. If the person can no go out in the world without consulting his/her astrological advice of the day, that person has a problem that is using astrology as a crutch and not the astrological belief itself.

    • Yes, Amazonian witch doctors may know of medicinal plants which can cure ailments, but it is possible to test the effectiveness of such things scientifically. Scientific research has found no connection between personality and sign of the zodiac.

      By the way, the fact that some scientists are also theists doesn’t mean anything. Scientists may also be “intellectually lazy”, believing in things just because they were brought up to do so. When famous scientists comment on political or social issues, they don’t usually have anything of interest to say.

  6. I agree that there is no scientific basis for astrology. I never said there was. My point is that if someone sees it as a form of entertainment I see no harm in it. This arguement reminds me of how there was that Satanic Panic of the 1980’s where the role playing game Dungeon and Dragons were lumped in. The games was accused of being harmful because teenagers were suposedly being exposed to Satanism. There were few cases where people did get carried away with it but again, those people had already mental problems to begin with and they used the game as a way to deal and cope however harmful it turned out for them. This does not mean that all people that play the game REALLY believe in trolls, dragons, elves, etc. The majority of people see it as just a fun way of entertainment. The same can be said of comic books or graphic novels as they are called now. Are there people that have problems interacting with people? Sure but were comic books the cause, no its just that person has found a way to deal with their problems through comic books how ever wrongly it is. Do the majority of people reading comics REALLY believe getting bitten by a radioactive spider will give you powers? No so again, no harm in reading comic books. I will grant that certain comics may have an adult nature that the average 11 year might not understand so reading that mature comic will not be wise due to the immaturity of the child.

    I do not knwo too much of Amazon plant medication but I can comment a bit of Chinese medicine. There have been studies tha some of the ingrediants use do have a beneficial effect to the patient. At the sametime there are scientific studies that some of the claims are also false, i.e. when it comes the horn of the rhinocerous as a sexual aphordisiac. Just recently there was another study that some of the ingrediants used in chinese medicine can actually be harmful because of large amoungts of carcinigons found on the plants used. There have been studies doen on patients who have had accupunture done on them and has helped medically but the word is still out if it was the power of the mind that did it or there really are chi points on the body.

    About scientist can get lazy in their thinking, I agree. There is the current climate change debate, which a few years back was called global warming and even further another Ice Age was the big threat. I am not saying by the way, that our enviroment can not be cleaned up and taken better care of. Look at how many reports we read in China from toxins found in milk, found in rivers and lakes, people being carelessly exposed to heavy metal from old computer parts, etc.

    Overall I look at everything with a skeptical eye and try to do my own research and see where the elusive truth falls upon.

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