Chinese Binary Divination

Chinese Binary Divination

Pairs at top and on left are wood, pair on the right is bamboo.

From David K. Jordan’s “Taiwanese Poe Divination:”

In temples and occasionally at home, Taiwanese routinely perform simple divination by means of two half-moon-shaped wooden or bamboo blocks, each of which is flat on one side and rounded on the other. Held with the flat sides together, the pair looks rather like a small banana cut in half lengthwise. They are inevitably painted red, and in Taiwanese Hokkien they are called poe (pronounced “bwey,” to rhyme with English “whey”).

In characters, poe is written differently depending partly upon whether the blocks are thought of as being made of wood or bamboo. In Northern Mandarin they are called jiào or jiǎo, and in Southern Mandarin bēi, all written with a variety of characters (筶, 筊; 盃; 杯).

The poe are used by throwing them on the floor to see whether they land rounded-side-up or flat-side-up. We may envision the process as comparable to throwing a pair of coins. The most usual procedure is for the petitioner to pose a question, and then phrase an answer. He then throws a pair of poe to receive confirmation or disconfirmation of the answer. If the two poe fall identically (both flat-side-up or both rounded-side-up), then the formulation of the answer is disconfirmed and a new answer must be proposed. If they fall differently (one flat-side-up, the other rounded-side-up), this represents a positive response. […]

The formulation normally requires a run of three positive responses in a row. Thus if a petitioner formulates his revelation, throws a pair of poe, and gets a negative response, he reformulates the revelation and tries again. If he gets a positive response, then he throws the poe a second time. If he gets a second positive response, he throws them a third time. The third positive response concludes the divination session on that question, since the formulation now gains the status of a confirmed revelation.

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5 responses to “Chinese Binary Divination

  • aediculaantinoi

    Another interesting use of a binary divination system…and the use of the word “revelation” here is also intriguing!

    What I’ve been seeing and experiencing lately is people not questioning the relevance of a divinatory result, or the accuracy and legitimacy of certain forms of divination, but instead asking things along the lines of “are you sure you did it right?” when they don’t like the answer (i.e. questions of relevance). Systems like this are pretty fool-proof, though; the ones I use don’t use the triple confirmation, granted, but that’s because even though they’re binary, there’s too many possibilities for a triple confirmation of every question to even be likely on a statistical basis. Here, there’s only three possibilities, two of which are equivalent, so 2/3 of the time on any given throw, the answer is going to be “no.”

    Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see the techniques involved, and to see new (at least to me!) tools for doing so!

    • Faoladh

      There are four possible results here, two for each result of “confirm” or “disconfirm”. Say that there are two poe, A and B. Each of A and B can land either round or flat. Here are the possibilities, giving them in AB order: rr, ff, rf, fr. The first two are “disconfirm”, the latter two are “confirm”. Therefore, statistically, there is a one in eight chance of “revelation” for any given answer.

      Lately, I’ve been thinking about just what “randomness” is, and how it connects to divination, mostly in response to a couple of months now of daily using the yarrow stalk method of generating Yijing hexagrams.

      • aediculaantinoi

        D’oh! My bad…so, it really is 50/50, then. Well, there we are…’nuff said! 😉

      • Heathen Chinese

        Since I’ve started using this method, I’ve noticed that since it is relatively hard to get a confirmed “yes,” it actually ends up being highly spirit-led, in that asking the right questions is extremely important. I’ve gotten a confirmation on the second try, and I’ve also had to go through dozens of possibilities before hitting on the right one.

        Faoladh, I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences with Yi Jing!

      • Faoladh

        I think that the low odds of a definite result screens out some of the “noise” that seems to occur, yes.

        So far, my experiences with the hexagrams have been pretty positive. I note that a lot of the advice given is very much along the lines of “cultivate virtuous nature, don’t do anything, trust the process”, so it gives a somewhat Daoist perspective. That said, I have gotten some fairly specific advice at times (for instance, shortly after getting in an argument, one of the changing lines I got gave the specific advice to patch up damaged relationships without delay).

        I’m also using ogham, and it is amusing to me that most of the time the two systems give me approximately the same result. The ogham seems to take a slightly more active view in terms of the advice it gives, though part of that is my interpretation, of course. The Yijing tends to more specific and precise results.

        Speaking of randomness, part of the reason that I prefer the yarrow stalks is that there is a difference between the odds there and the odds for the coins. Where the coins have a symmetrical set of odds (2 in 16 for either changing yang or changing yin, and 6 in 16 for unchanging yang or yin), the stalks give a much greater likelihood that yang lines are changing, while keeping the odds even for whether a given line is yang or yin (specifically, 1 in 16 for changing yin, 3 in 16 for changing yang, 5 in 16 for unchanging yang, 7 in 16 for unchanging yin; thus, 8 in 16 lines will be yang and a similar number yin, and 4 in 16 will be changing just as it is with coins – though the stalks concentrate changing lines to the yang lines). It makes sense to me that yin lines would change less often than yang lines. Some people argue that one shouldn’t consider odds when consulting an oracle, but my feeling is that it’s like tuning in and cutting down on the noise.

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