Chinese Traditions of Handreading

The roots of indigenous Chinese methods of divination and prognostication probably lie within the I Ching, which itself is at least 4,000 years old.  From descriptions made of the hands of some of the earliest Chinese Emperors in early written works, it can be inferred that the Chinese had some knowledge of chiromancy going back to at least circa 2350 BC.  However, the texts this information is found within date only from the Chou dynasty (c650-475 BC), so the certain written record can be dated no earlier than that.

The earliest known Chinese texts on handreading still extant were written by Shou Fu and Ku Pu Tzu Ching at different periods of the Chou dynasty. Other early handreaders include Kou Tse of the fourth century BC and Tang Chu who lived circa 240 BC. This early Chinese interest in chiromancy sees hand reading (Shou Hsiang) as an integral part of the study of physiognomy (Hsiang Jen).  The Hsiang Jen is a legendary text on divination of man from physiognomy and palmistry now lost, but listed in early catalogues dating from AD 50. The Ma-I Shen Hsiang was written by a certain Chen Tuan around the tenth century AD and the Shen Hsiang Chuan Pien, a twelve volume 'Complete guide to understanding human nature' is attributed to Tchrenn Pouo, diviner to the Emperor Trae Tsou who reigned from 960-976 AD. The Chen Hsiang Cho Tsing Tsi, 'The collection of the mirror of water for the understanding of human nature', was a work of four volumes by various authors written circa 1680. Many texts have been printed over the centuries and works are known from the Liang dynasty, the T'ang dynasty, the Ming dynasty, the Ching dynasty and the Sung dynasty, with certain periods, such as the C10th, C14th and C17th showing times of greatest interest. It is clear then that the study of chiromancy in China has a very long history indeed. (2)

Taoist Chiromancy

One of the principal methods of Chinese Taoist chiromancy involves the examination of the hands for trigram patterns formed by the lines themselves and then utilising the I Ching for their interpretation. In addition, since Chinese script is more pictographic than European languages, line formations that formed themselves into clear and distinct characters could easily be read off from the hand. The advantage of having an ideogrammatic language is that subsidiary line formations are much more likely to produce Chinese characters than they are English letters!

Later Taoist traditions of hand reading made correlations with acupuncture points and meridians and the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal were utilised to classify handshapes and other hand features. The trigrams of the I Ching were further incorporated into their system of hand analysis by allocating each of the eight primary trigrams to specific areas of the hand known as 'Palaces', much in the manner in which later European chiromancers allocated the astrological planets to the mounts of the hand. Each area of the palm was also accorded a correlation with each of the four seasons.

The fingers were a symbol of the dragon and the palm, a symbol of the tiger. To the Chinese mind, it was important that the dragon dominated over the tiger; having long fingers was therefore a sign of intelligence, wealth and good living. The physiognomy of the hand was therefore not unimportant to Taoist chiromancy. The size and shape of the hand, the colour and consistency of the palm, the condition of the fingers and the thumb were all considered in addition to the lines, marks and signs to be found in the palm itself. However, the emphasis was still primarily on the marks of fortune and fate, albeit within the context of a Chinese cosmology. The three major lines were referred to as the Line of Heaven (heart line), the Line of Man (head line) and the Line of Earth (life line), corresponding to employment and status, intellect and reason and vitality respectively. If all three lines were well formed and unbroken, it was a clear augury of happiness and wealth.

Whilst some writers looked at the right hand of a woman and the left hand for men, other Chinese traditions show that the left hand was considered for signs of luck and honours whilst the right hand was considered for signs of wealth. Indeed, in looking for such signs and marks in the hand, the general approach taken by Chinese Taoist chiromancers seems to be very similar to the Mediaeval European approach. For the interpretations that are given for various hand features and lineal patterns also reveal much the same preoccupations with success and failure, status in society, family and inheritance, length of life and death, children and marital relations etc, though here there is perhaps a greater emphasis on markings which reveal moral attributes and intellectual ability as can be seen in the hand as compared to later European chiromancy which was manifestly more interested in marks of lust and fecundity than it was in marks of virtue!

Chinese Fingerprints

One other respect in which Chinese chiromancy was many years ahead of its European counterpart is in the fact that fingerprints and dermatoglyphic patterns have long been recognised as an important feature of the hands. Whereas the importance of fingerprints did not impress upon European palmists or forensic scientists until the early twentieth century, the Chinese have used fingerprints, and sometimes whole handprints, in addition to signatures on title deeds and legal documents for many centuries. A twelfth century work recounts a tale from the eighth century in which fingerprints were used as a mark of a person's presence. In both Chinese and Japanese chiromantic texts, the presence of whorls are often noted and given interpretations. One Japanese text tell us that a whorl on the index finger is an indicator of skill in writing whereas a whorl on the middle finger shows someone who is wise but cross!

Japanese chiromancy generally acknowledges a derivation from Chinese sources, though there is no apparent use of the I Ching or the Taoist elements. The three major lines are still referred to as the lines of Heaven/Man/Earth and the fingers themselves are all related to different family members. The thumb is related to your parents, the index finger to your uncles, aunts and elder siblings, the ring finger to your younger siblings and the little finger to your children. The middle finger is the symbol of yourself. Such earthy concerns are reflected in the interests sought for in the line markings which, in addition to fortune, luck, wealth, intelligence and eloquence also show a concern for children and marriage, social status and power, skills in handicrafts and the possession of land. In Japan, palmistry (Te no su jimi, literally 'hand's line looking') was also considered a part of physiognomy (nin so) and fortune-tellers were called Urani-isha or Kangae-isha meaning 'divining doctors' or 'thinking/reflecting doctors'.

Today, it is clear that it is these folk traditions of handreading which have prevailed in Asian countries, for it is these traditions which survive today in the practices of handreaders on the streets of cities all over the Far East. Whilst in China many continue to practice the Taoist approach to chiromancy described above, it is also evident that much of palmistry in Asia and the Far East owes far more to English Victorian palmistry than it does to its own indigenous roots. This is most clearly seen in the legions of Indian palmistry books that abound today which often unashamedly plagiarise the writings of nineteenth century authors such as Cheiro and William Benham. Although the study of chiromancy may have originally begun in India, it seems that it is now nineteenth century European palmistry that dominates the approach taken to handreading by the palmists and fortune-tellers of the Far East.

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(2) The works by HA Giles, S Culin, Arlington and Soulie de Morant are the most reliable sources of information on the history and practice  of handreading within China and Japan.  For details, see the bibliography.