Finding my Way

Revelations from a Taoist mystic


The Taoist priest looked at me askance and guessed correctly that I was British.

I was in his temple three days before the Chinese new year, following an artist I was writing about who was there to light incense and drop money into the collection box for good luck in the year ahead. The red-faced deity guarding the box stroked his metre-long beard and accepted the bribe.

We were halfway up Wulong mountain outside Dandong in northeastern China, 16 kilometres from the North Korean border. A golden Buddhist temple higher up the hillside overshadowed its more humble Taoist brother, with low grey walls and a roofed red gate. Stencilled outside the entrance, two yin yangs for punctuation, was 人能弘道 非到弘人 – “Man can enlarge the Way; the Way cannot enlarge Man.”

Inside was a courtyard, a bronze censer for burning incense, a cramped shrine room, living quarters with kitchen, and a five foot nothing priest with a square chunk of jade tied to the front of his cap that looked heavier than him.

As soon as my nationality was uncovered, the priest ushered me into a back room and beckoned for me to sit on a stool, while he parked himself behind an oversized wooden desk and gathered scraps of blank paper around him. I had the creeping feeling that whatever Taoist magic I was going to witness was going to cost me something more material.

“What astrological year do you belong to?” the priest asked me in Chinese, picking up a byro pen and scribbling his prediction on a scrap.

“The ox,” I said.

The priest scrumpled up the paper he had written on, and threw it to one side.

“How many brothers or sisters do you have?” he asked, writing a number.

“I have one older brother.”

The priest hesitated for a long second. Then he showed me his scrap, the number 2 written on it.

“Including you, there are two brothers.”

Sorcery. There were truly more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in my philosophy.

“What floor of your building do you live on?” he asked, scribbling again, spurred on by his success.

“The third floor.”

He had written the number 3. Alright, that was kind of impressive.

“How old is your mother?”

I told him my mother’s age. He had gotten it wrong by three years, but sportingly showed me his scrap anyway with a shrug, as if to say: meh, two out of four.

Having established his credentials so convincingly, we got to the advice portion of the session. “When you choose a woman,” he began, “you must remember three things.”

Lady tips. Always useful.

“Number one: she should be Chinese.”

That’s curious, I thought, I had been told the same thing by my landlady not two weeks ago. In fact, there was someone I had my eye on, and she was Chinese-born. He had my ear.

“Number two: she should be born in the year of the rat or the dragon.”

I did a quick calculation from the birthday of my romantic interest. Dragon. Score.

“She should definitely not be born in the year of the tiger, sheep or horse.”

Mental note filed and stored.

“Number two: her nose should be like this” – he made an indecipherable swoop of his hand over his nose – and not like this” – another swoop in the opposite direction.

I asked for clarification. The tip of the nose, he explained patiently, should point up rather than curve down. Then he drew me a helpful diagram of correct and incorrect noses, with almond shaped eyes above them, presumably to reinforce the first point.

“Also, the eyebrows should be high, the cheeks should be low, and she should not have hair on her upper lip.”

I would have to check all this when I got back to Beijing (or against a picture on Facebook). But I was relieved that I was not destined to be with a mustachioed woman.

I looked to the priest, feeling that perhaps he had a final word of wisdom to impart. But the Way is mysterious, the priest was silent, and my last commune with the unfathomable enigmas of Tao was indeed related to female upper lip hair.

I gave him a hundred (£10). He was, all considered, a sweet man.