This Guardian article is very informative and educative on superstition. There is a reference about Sri Lanka’s MR, too. (The late and second executive president Premadasa tried to change the spelling of the country as Shri Lanka from Sri Lanka heeding the advice of a soothsayer).
Have you heard of currency notes being printed and circulated by any country in the denominations of 75, 45 and 90? Yes, it has happened in a certain Asian country like ours. TW has reproduced the images of these currency notes from internet. For details read this article from start to the end. – TW
At a time of political crisis in South Korea, spare a thought for all the upstanding shamans, sorcerers, soothsayers, diviners, astrologers, numerologists, necromancers and fortune-tellers around Asia who risk being tarred by events.
For years the president, Park Geun-hye, appears to have been in thrall to a family friend and informal adviser, Choi Soon-sil, in ways that have scandalised South Koreans and brought Ms Park’s presidency close to collapse. Ms Choi is said to have ruled on everything from Ms Park’s cabinet appointments, to policy towards North Korea, to the display of magic silk purses at her presidential inauguration. She is now under arrest on suspicion of influence-peddling and embezzlement. The South Korean press describes her as a shaman, a figure with Rasputin-like powers of control.
The seeds of Ms Choi’s influence go back to 1974, when a North Korean sympathiser murdered Ms Park’s mother while trying to assassinate her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee. Soon afterwards Ms Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, the founder of a cult called the Church of Eternal Life, convinced the young Ms Park that he could contact her dead mother. Later American diplomatic reports say the late Choi controlled Ms Park “body and soul” during her formative years. Some control seems to have passed to his daughter. Yet that is not what professional, modern shamanism is all about, insists the head of Shaman Korea, a trade body. “Calling Choi Soon-sil a shaman is a disgrace,” he thunders.
The existence of such an outfit is a reminder of how pervasive soothsayers and their like are in Asia. True, those close to Western leaders have at times also turned to fortune-tellers—think of Nancy Reagan’s astrologer or Cherie Blair’s New-Age guru, who set great store by the healing power of crystals. Yet even for the West, the fount of astrology lies in the East. And in Asia the occult is not just the preserve of an Indian minister learning that she will be president one day, or a crown prince in Thailand keen to know the most auspicious date to succeed his late father as king: it is baked into daily life.
On Seoul’s streets, soothsayers’ tents are everywhere, with fortunes told through face-reading, palm-reading, tarot cards and saju—predictions based on the “four pillars”: month, day, year and time of birth. Hyeon-seo Lee, a defector and author, describes how common fortune-tellers are in North Korea. Though the trade is supposedly illegal, and hiring a fortune-teller is punishable by three years’ re-education, senior officials send their Mercedes-Benzes to the back streets to pick favoured ones up for a consultation. Even while on the run in China, Ms Lee says, defectors consult fortune-tellers about when they should change their names to keep ahead of North Korean and Chinese goons.
In Thailand it is often hard to separate state Buddhism from soothsaying. Astrologers determine the timing of many official actions, such as the unveiling of a draft constitution earlier this year. And in Hong Kong, the fortune-tellers at the Temple Street night market throw in for free whether it’s a good day for a flutter on the horses. A feng shui master recently visited the Hong Kong offices of The Economist (our mission: to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”). He left behind, in one corner, old coins for prosperity, a hidden mirror to ward off evil spirits and a picture of a dragon to enjoy the view of the harbour and invite good fortune in.
There is as little harm in a flutter on the stars as there is on the horses. And, as the late Tiziano Terzani wrote in “A Fortune-Teller Told Me”, an account of a year spent with Asian clairvoyants: “Rain is a possibility, the umbrella a precaution. Why tempt fate if fate itself gives you a sign, a hint?” For many, prophecies are events in themselves, and shape subsequent developments.
But the problems multiply when prophecy meets power. Zhou Yongkang was China’s hardline head of state security until 2012. He then became the most powerful Communist ever to be convicted of corruption. He had chosen the wrong soothsayer: his qigong teacher, known as the “Sage of Xinjiang”, not only failed to predict his impending downfall but testified against him. China’s elites are partial to qigong masters, even though the Communist Party is ever on the lookout for cults, such as Falun Gong, that might threaten it. It takes a cult to know one.
In Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relationship with an astrologer soured when the astrologer failed to predict the strongman’s surprise defeat in a snap election last year—even Nostradamus made the odd error, he said later, in his defence. (The next president promised a much more reasoned rule than the grasping, capricious Rajapaksa years—and then promptly took his oath of office at the auspiciously ordained hour of 6.21pm.)
A crack in the mirror
No astrological obsession had a more baleful effect than that of Ne Win, the longtime dictator of Burma (now Myanmar). In 1985, on a numerological whim, he introduced 75-kyat notes, to mark his 75th birthday. Two years later he withdrew various high denomination notes and replaced them with 45- and 90-kyat ones. He chose those denominations because both numbers are divisible by nine, and their digits add up to nine—Ne Win’s lucky number. As his soothsayers should have told him, the huge currency confiscation impoverished millions, leading, in 1988, to an uprising against the brutal junta and his eventual ouster. When his soothsayer warned of an assassination attempt, he shot his image in the mirror. This, at least, seems to have worked: he eventually died in his sleep.
Note the downfall of all these leaders. Perhaps a Gresham’s law of divination is at work, whereby the bad advice of soothsayers always chases out sounder counsel from more rational advisers. Indeed, the poor advice of soothsayers may chase Ms Park out of office. But that’s only a prophecy.